Temptations and Angels (First Sunday in Lent)

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You gotta admit, it’s not a very exciting story!  It lacks excitement, and drama and even plot development.  In fact, if you blinked, you missed it – it’s only two verses long.

The entirety of Mark’s “temptation story” is simply this: “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  That’s it!

It would be much more interesting if Mark had told us what Satan tempted Jesus to do.  After all, Luke and Matthew tell us about temptations to turn stone into bread, or to gain fame or to take the quick route to power.  But Mark doesn’t tell us. 

It also would be a better story if there was some plot development and dramatic crescendo to the story.  In both Matthew and Luke’s versions, Jesus fasts for forty days, and at the end of that time – when he’s tired and hungry – the devil suddenly appears at Jesus’ weakest moment.  But Mark doesn’t set the story up like that.  It sounds like the temptations come and go throughout that forty day period.

In fact, the devil doesn’t even actually make a dramatic appearance.  He’s just sorta there in the background. I understand why Luke and Matthew thought the story needed some editing!

But maybe Mark tells the story this way for a reason.  Maybe we shouldn’t just pass over these brief two verses as though they were the shortened Reader’s Digest version of a longer and better story. 

Maybe Mark’s version is intentional.  And that’s because, at least for me and maybe for you, too, temptations in my life:

  • Are usually not big, dramatic events – that is, nobody has ever offered me millions of dollars to do something ethically questionable; instead, the kinds of temptations I often face, and maybe you, too, are the small, subtle things … (they’re often the temptations to think that I can’t rise to the challenge one more time; or the temptation to feel that I shouldn’t try to do something, because my efforts probably won’t make much of a difference anyway; or the temptation to wonder whether I’m good enough, smart enough or talented enough to take on some new challenge…)
  • Don’t just occur at one dramatic moment and then go away – I gotta admit that when I’m really tired and hungry, as Jesus was in Luke and Matthew, it’s easier to just want to give in and give up.  But actual temptations in my life, and maybe in yours, too, often have a way of just kind of being there in the background as I go about my daily life – much as Mark describes.  I can’t plan on when I’m going to think or feel a certain way so that I can be spiritually ginned up to resist them.  They’re just kinda there…
  • Are not limited to having one moment when a demonic being gets in my face – OK, I’ll admit that on a bad day, it can feel that way!  But sometimes, I don’t even know why I’ve felt a temptation to give up or walk away.  It wasn’t caused by any one thing.  And as Mark tells the story, not only doesn’t the devil show up and get in Jesus’ face, Mark also doesn’t say that the devil left him, as Luke and Matthew do.  Temptations – and surely for Jesus that included wondering whether he really wanted to do what God had sent him to do – are often just there in the background of life; they’re not just there when a particularly bad thing gets in your face…

And so while the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness may not be as exciting in Mark’s Gospel as it is in the others, I can actually relate to Jesus’ temptations in Mark more than in the others.  Maybe this is true for you, too. And moreover, this story reminds us that because Jesus also shared in the kinds of temptations we face, Jesus knows how to walk with us through our temptations as well.

But this story also mentions the angels.  And like the devil, they don’t really make an appearance either.  We have no idea what they do, other than they “waited on Jesus.”  What does that mean?  Often, we imagine (as our bulletin cover art does) that they brought Jesus food and water, as angels did when Elijah was at the end of his rope!  But Mark doesn’t actually say that.  Like the temptations, the angels are also in the background.  And they don’t just appear at the end of the story, as they do in Matthew and Luke. Instead, they’re constantly there.  And maybe it’s the constant presence of the angels in Jesus’ life – even if they aren’t brining him food and water – that helps to sustain Jesus in the midst of his temptations. 

And that also may be part of Mark’s intention.  It’s often the case for me, and maybe for you, too, that “angels” can simply be:

  • The presence of others in my life who remind me of God’s love and help, especially when I’m feeling tired and wondering whether I should give up trying; sometimes, it’s just the presence of others walking with me, even if they don’t say or do anything in particular, that gives me strength…
  • People whose presence in my life reminds me of why my efforts are important, even if I don’t physically see them at the moment; sometimes, it’s people I know who are far away, but who I know love and care for me; and sometimes, it can even be people I’ve never met who I know may count on my actions to make a difference in their lives; even their “virtual presence” can give me a reason not to give in…
  • Reminders from God of God’s goodness and presence, especially in moments of stress and hardship.  And those reminders don’t need to be angelic beings or even people – sometimes, they’re just the things the Spirit causes you to notice around you that give you hope and strength to go on…

And so as we begin Lent again, we start with the shortest and least dramatic of all the temptation stories!  But in some ways, that may be for the best. 

For this story reminds us that Jesus walks with us through the regular, everyday temptations we face, not just the big, flashy ones.  This story reminds us of our need to look to Jesus for help throughout our journeys, not just at specific difficult moments.  And this story promises that angels are all around us, too – and that sometimes, God makes us into angels – who can help one another resist the temptations and continue on with the journey God calls us to be about.