With the Wild Beasts
“Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days; … and he was with the wild beasts.”
What's up with that? What’s up with the wild beasts?
As we work our way through the gospel of Mark, we’re discovering that Mark is a man of few words. The stories he tells are sparse, lacking in detail. On this the first Sunday of Lent, every year we read the account of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. When it’s a year that we hear Matthew or Luke tell the story, we get lots of detail, we get dialogue, we get the three temptations and Jesus’ response. Lots of material in those years for a preacher to work with.
But in Mark’s account, which lasts all of two verses, we get this:
Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days; … and he was with the wild beasts.
It’s a detail that doesn’t make it into the other versions of this story. And Mark is a man of few words. So why here?
What’s up with the wild beasts?
The brevity of Mark’s writing is an invitation to use our imagination. His lack of detail gives us free reign to fill in the blanks, to imagine some of the details. What was it like for Jesus to be driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit? Did he have a choice? Did he see it as a time of preparation for the mission that was to come? In what ways was he tested by Satan? What does it mean to be tested? The invitation is right there for us to imagine these details, to fill in the blanks, to draw on our own experience of time spent in the wilderness. We’ve all spent time in the wilderness. Some of us have experienced this past year as a time in the wilderness. What has it been like for you? Has it been a time of reflection? Of testing? Of renewal? Or has it just been hard?
And those wild beasts! Some have imagined the beasts as threatening, as striking an ominous note, accentuating the danger and the hardship of being in the wilderness. Others have imagined the wild beasts as providing Jesus with company, of being companions of Jesus, as an image of the peaceful kingdom imagined by the prophet Isaiah, a foreshadowing of the day of peace when the lion and the lamb would lie down together. Some have imagined that God spoke to Jesus through the wild beasts. Have you ever imagined or experienced God speaking to you through a bird or animal, or maybe even a fish? I have.
And maybe we need to open our imagination even wider. One of the things I like to do when reading scripture is to listen for the echoes. To listen, and this works better when you read scripture out loud, to listen for how a particular phrase echoes something came before, something that may be very ancient in the stories of scripture.
“For forty days he was with the wild beasts.”
Did you hear the echo?
Who else spent forty days with the wild beasts?
You heard about him in our first reading. Noah spent forty days on the ark with every living creature, all the wild beasts. Not in the wilderness of a desert, but a wilderness of a different sort, surrounded by the waters of the flood with no land in sight.
But then God caused a wind, or Spirit, ruach, same word in Hebrew, to blow over the face of the waters, and dry land emerged from the waters, and the humans and the wild animals went out onto the earth, and God blessed them and told them to be fruitful and multiply.
And as I’m telling you the story of Noah, are you hearing echoes of an even more ancient story?
Maybe you hear echoes of the first words of the Bible, the creation stories of the book of Genesis:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void … and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters … and God said let the waters be gathered into one place and let the dry land appear.”
So God created humankind in God’s image … God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply.
And God brought every living creature to the human, and whatever the man called each wild beast, that was its name.
Jesus was with the wild beasts.
Noah was with the wild beasts
Adam was with the wild beasts.
Echoes. Echoes of creation.
This is a creation story. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
Once you’ve heard the echoes, you can go back into today’s gospel and see all the clues that let us know that this is a re-telling of the creation story. It begins in the waters of the Jordan river. Then, Jesus emerges from the water and the Spirit of God sweeps over him. Life begins, the human is created. “You are my child, the beloved.” God sees what God has created, pronounces it good and blesses him, saying “with you I am well pleased.” Then there is a story of temptation. And then that weird detail that we started with, Mark tells us that Jesus was with the wild beasts.
Why does Mark tell this opening story of his gospel, this account of Jesus’ baptism and testing in the wilderness, as a creation story?
I suppose it is a way of emphasizing that God is doing something new here, a way of heightening the significance of what is occurring, a way of getting our attention.
But let’s take it a step farther. To answer the question “why does Mark tell this as a creation story?” we need to answer the bigger question.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why did God the Creator create this universe at all?
Those are big questions, but let me take a stab at some tentative answers:
God creates, because it is in God’s nature to create. God creates out of love, and what God creates is good, and God delights in creation. The light, the dark, the waters and the earth, the vegetation and every living creature, it’s all good. Including us, the humans.
God creates humanity in God’s image, worthy of love and dignity and respect, because God wants to be in relationship with us, and she wants us to be in relationship with each other. God wants our relationships to bear God’s image, to be relationships of peace and mercy and love. And God also gives us the task of caring for all living creatures and for the earth itself.
That is the why of creation. Those are God’s wonderful intentions. Of course it has all gone wrong in so many ways. As humans we have failed to reflect the image of God which lies within each one of us, and we have not done a very good job of caring for the earth and all its living creatures. We are living in the midst of what has been called the Sixth Extinction, time of massive elimination of living things such as our earth has never seen before. In our human relationships too, we struggle to live lives of peace, mercy and love, falling prey too often to conflict, violence and injustice.
How it must grieve God to see these things. And yet, God’s response is not to abandon us nor to punish us. God’s response is new creation. To create again. To take the initiative to re-establish, restore and set right our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the earth. By making them new. By taking on flesh and becoming a human being. By taking on the burden of our human sin and revealing God’s love for us. So that we might be reconciled with God, with each other and with the earth. That is the intent of creation.
And that is why Mark tells us a creation story. The story of a new creation. It is time.
“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
And that’s what’s up with the wild beasts.
Homily: Yr B Lent 1 Feb 21 2021, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Pet 3.18-22; Mk 1.9-15