30 Aug First Sunday in Lent, February 21st, 2021
Holy Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Phil Schmidt
In the fourth century, Christians in Syria, Palestine and Egypt moved into the desert, living as hermits or in monastic communities. They were referred to in some places as the “Desert Fathers”. They did not marry, they lived in poverty, they fasted, prayed, studied and counseled.
In our day and age, a desert wilderness is a romantic place. It is a place you enjoy in Hollywood Westerns and nature films. It is a place you go to on a holiday vacation.
In order to understand what the desert meant to the first Christian monks, we have to forget our romantic ideas about the wilderness. In the Biblical world the desert is the realm of death, because it is a place where life cannot be sustained. The desert was considered to be the home of the devil, it was populated by demons. With its thorns and thistles, the desert represented the curse which Adam and Eve brought upon the earth when they were banished from the Garden of Eden.
When Christian monks and hermits moved into the wilderness, they were not going there in order to be close to God, but to be close to the devil. They did not go into the desert to find peace, but to fight a war. Their intention was to invade enemy-occupied territory and reclaim this territory for God, to transform a cursed place into a holy place. They were not going there in order to avoid the temptations of the cities, but to confront the temptations of demons.
There is a story which originated in Egypt in the 5th century, which illustrates how the Desert Fathers attacked evil. Two brothers lived together in the desert as hermits. The Devil sent a demon to alienate these brothers from one another. One evening the younger brother lit a lamp. The demon knocked the lamp over and the light went out. The older brother thought that the younger brother had been guilty of clumsiness. He was so irritated that he smacked him in the face. Normally, such an attack would escalate into an ugly fight. However, the younger brother apologized and said, “Please be patient with me, my brother; I will light the lamp again.” Although he had been unfairly accused and unjustly slapped in the face, he refused to see himself as a victim. He took charge of the situation by taking the blame upon himself and by not striking back – just as Jesus had done after he had been arrested. Peace was restored. The story ends with this commentary:
The entire power of the enemy is made ineffective by humility. The Devil said, “When I attempt to alienate the monks, one of them takes the guilt upon himself and destroys my power.”
Such stories are parables which illustrate what the desert monks were trying to accomplish. They went into desolate places in order to engage in power struggles with malignant forces.
The prototype for the Desert Fathers was Jesus. In the gospel reading from Mark we heard that after the baptism of Jesus
the Spirit immediately drove him 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.
Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark tells us that Jesus was “driven out” by the Spirit into the desert. Mark uses the same word which is used to describe an exorcism. Jesus “drove out” demons, which was a violent act of raw power. In the same way, Jesus was cast out into desolation.
Mark’s language is pointing us in a certain direction: namely, to the scapegoat ritual which was carried out on the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur the High Priest placed his hands on the head of a goat and confessed all of the “sins, iniquities and transgressions” of the people. In this way, all sins were transferred onto the goat, who was then driven into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people away from them. According to one interpretation, the scapegoat was destined to encounter a desert demon. Thus, Jesus was the new and final scapegoat, cast out into desolation, carrying the sins of the world to a place of death.
Another unique feature of Mark is his reference to Jesus being “with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him”. This reference to wild animals and angels points to Adam, who in the Garden of Eden lived in harmony with wild animals, and who, according to Jewish tradition, was ministered to by angels. Jesus is the new Adam, restoring paradise in a place of desolation.
Judaism expected from the Messiah that he would transform desert into paradise, where the lamb and the wolf would live together in harmony. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord. (51: 3)
It could be argued that we, as followers of Christ, are also called to transform desert into garden, to drive the devil out of the wilderness and reclaim it for God. All of us encounter conditions which seem to be absolutely devoid of life or hope – conditions which are as barren as a desert -, situations which seem to be meaningless and senseless. It could be a lethal sickness, or the loss of a loved one or joblessness or intolerable burdens or depression: everyone goes through a crisis which is like being in a desert.
In such a wilderness situation, Biblical faith issues a challenge: Never see yourself as the victim of a situation! Never indulge in self-pity! The situation in which we find ourselves is never the actual challenge. The key to everything is how we respond. Victor Frankl, who survived Nazi concentration camps, discovered that there is one freedom which no power on earth can take away from a person, namely, the freedom to decide how one responds to a given situation.
An elderly widow who lived in Oakland, California, was facing a circumstance which many elderly people know about: being more and more confined to the home because of failing health, increasing loneliness and the challenge of finding meaning in a life which seems to be empty. This is a desert wilderness situation. Like the Desert Fathers, this widow attacked the demons of despair with prayer. After praying she looked at her piano and came up with an idea. She placed an advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, which stated: “Pianist will play hymns by phone daily for those who are sick and despondent–the service is free.” Hundreds of people responded to her newspaper ad. When people called, she would ask, “What hymn would you like to hear?” During the next few months, she had cheered up hundreds of people by playing their favorite hymns. Many of them poured out their hearts to her, and she was able to encourage them, becoming a blessing for many.
When I was a child in Sunday School, our favorite hymn was “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before!
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see, his banners go.
This imagery of Christians as soldiers is derived from the New Testament. The civil rights movement embraced this hymn. But ever since the Vietnam War, which revealed on television how ugly and brutal soldiers can become in warfare, there has been a hesitancy to compare Christians to soldiers. When the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 was being produced, the editors wanted to leave out “Onward Christian Soldiers”, because the image of holy warfare had been contaminated. Faithful church people were outraged by this suggestion so that the editors backed down. Because of popular demand the hymn was included as # 652 in our hymn book.
I believe that the image of Christians engaged in warfare is valuable – as long as we do not see any human being as an enemy. In Christ there are no human enemies.
There is a tendency to see the church as weak, as being in a defensive stance, as being on the retreat. However, we should see ourselves as people who are strong in Christ, who are moving forward like an army and who are on the attack. The basis for this imagery is the resurrection of Christ. Death and evil lost the war against life on Easter morning. Since Easter, death and evil are doomed to extinction.
Martin Luther wrote a monumental Easter hymn: “Christ lag in Todesbanden”. Verse 4 is especially striking:
It was an astounding war, in which death and life battled each other.
Life was the victor and devoured death.
Such Easter imagery is essential for our faith. Do we see ourselves as victims or as victors? How we see ourselves will determine how we respond to adversity. Our role model is Jesus, who defeated the devil in the wilderness and on the cross. So, as the Apostle Paul said: “Fight the good fight of the faith.” May God help us to be strong in battle. Amen.
Holy Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”