Each first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert after his baptism. Today we heard the shortest of the three Gospel accounts. Gone are the three temptations of Matthew and Luke, the travels and the dialogue with the devil.
Stark Mark gives us the simplest, bare bones account – one in which every word counts.
Mark tells us that the Spirit of God “drove” Jesus into the desert. This same Spirit who descended upon him at baptism, dwells in him, moves him and impels him.
The 40 days recall the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert, the 40 days Moses spent fasting and repenting for the sin of Israel and Elijah’s 40 day walk to Mt. Horeb where he would meet God in the gentle breeze.
The desert also connects Jesus to John the Baptist’s ministry. John was the voice crying in the desert. Jesus too spends time in the desert, but then went back into the towns and villages and eventually to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.
The desert is a place of testing where all the usual signs of God’s presence are absent. It is where a person must seek God in the midst of adversity rather than blessing. Let me repeat that: in the midst of adversity rather than blessing.
There are four “powers” present in this story of Jesus: the Spirit who drove him there, Satan who put Jesus to the test, the wild beasts who threatened him, and the angels who ministered to him. It is as if heaven and earth hung in the balance as the forces of evil and natural danger clashed with the Spirit and God’s comforting angels.
This testing sets Jesus on his path of being the living sign of God’s love even to the point of accepting his passion and death.
Mark won’t leave us sitting simply with the story of the desert. He demonstrates Jesus’ victory, his answer to the test – in the fact that he comes and immediately begins his public preaching.
Mark moves us into Jesus’ public ministry with the ominous introduction: “After John had been arrested.” A more precise translation of that last word, arrested, is “handed over.”
John was Jesus’ precursor, and his arrest and martyrdom recall Isaiah’s Servant of God whom we meet on Passion Sunday and throughout Holy Week. This is a sign of what Jesus can expect. Just when John’s ministry comes to its violent conclusion, Jesus begins his own work which will come to a similar climax.
Only now, for the first time in Mark’s gospel do we hear Jesus’ voice. He makes four brief statements, two descriptive and two imperative.
In this moment of terrible crisis, just as one whom he respected and who was close to him has been taken away by the Roman authorities and thrown into the “hell hole” of the Roman prison system, Jesus speaks his first words: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This “time” Jesus speaks of is not to a clock hour or a calendar day, but time as the convergence of grace and nature, heaven and earth when everything is prepared and ready for the fulfillment of the promises God has made since the time of creation, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the prophets.
Jesus’ shorthand description of everything he means by this “time of fulfillment” is the “Kingdom of God is at hand.” The rest of the gospel will fill out the meaning of that phrase.
In short, God’s reign becomes present in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. God is entering human history as never before.
Let me repeat that. God’s reign is become present in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. God is entering human history as never before.
Jesus is unique. Every other manifestation of God, every other religious tradition, every other religious figure – Buddha, Mohammed, the Hindu gods, Baal, Ramtha – are mere shadows and misrepresentations of the one true God incarnate among us, Jesus Christ. If we do not believe this, if this is not at the center of our faith, then we might as well go home and have breakfast, or better yet, a stiff drink.
This “time of fulfillment,” this in-breaking of the Kingdom of God demands a response. Jesus describes this response in two imperatives.
First, repent. This is not a call to merely have sorrow for sin but a joy of new life. “Repent,” metanoea, might be likened to an invitation to “come to our senses,” to recognize and appreciate what life is really, truly about. It is an invitation to perceive all of existence from a different perspective, a vantage point that notes God’s nearness, an imperative to “place God first in all things.”
The second imperative is “believe in the Gospel.” Believe that God is good, gracious, merciful and compassionate as our Responsorial Psalm proclaimed.
Believe that God has a plan; that God had chosen to be with all of humanity and with us in this time and this place; that this is good news and then to “proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ” as our parish mission states.
Jesus invites us to believe and then to live in that belief, that Good News of God’s love, mercy and compassion. This is the “new and everlasting covenant” that we celebrate and proclaim at every Mass.
The work of Lent is the last line of our parish mission: grow in holiness through prayer, sacraments and service. This unites us in the Lenten disciples of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
I wish to close with two invitations. First, come to Confession at least once this Lent. Experience the forgiveness, mercy and compassion of God’s love for you in this Sacrament.
Secondly, sign up for Adoration next weekend. Become a committed, weekly adorer and intercessor on behalf of the parish, the church, the world, your family and yourself. Your Lent and then your life will be changed. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”