Old Testament Reading – Genesis 9:8-17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Gospel Reading – Mark 1:12-15
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God,[j] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[k] repent, and believe in the good news.”[l]
“Tempted by Satan”
The flood story that provides the background of our Old Testament reading today has always fascinated me. I’m sure you remember the story – from the time Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, people spread out and multiplied over all the earth. As they populated the earth, people became increasingly wicked, more evil, which basically means humankind increasingly chose AGAINST God’s desires. God – not unaware of what was happening – saw the wickedness of people and, according to Genesis 6:5-6, God saw “that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And [God] was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth.” Well, you know what happens next, right? God decided to give up on people and destroy them completely…UNTIL… one man, Noah, found favor in God’s sight. So God decided to kill everyone ELSE…everyone except Noah and his family. And God sent a great flood to the earth to do the job.
I said a minute ago that this story has always fascinated me, and here are some of the reasons why. The first reason the Noah story fascinates me is because it’s become one of the most well-known children’s stories of our faith. That’s right, a CHILDREN’S story. Folks, the Church has taken the story of the SINGLE most DESTRUCTIVE act – on God’s part anyway – in HISTORY and has turned it into a cutesy story with little stuffed arks and play sets with boats and little wooden animals. I’m not really sure what we were thinking. “Hey kids, I’ve got a story to tell you: God was sorry God created people, so God decided to kill everybody. Isn’t that a cute story?” If I had more time, I think I’d spend a whole Sunday morning preaching about the psychology of the Church’s attempt to “kidify” this story and bow that has watered down the message so that we don’t even GET what this story is about anymore. But I’ll save that for another day. The second reason this story has always fascinated me is because almost every ancient culture has a flood story, and in almost all of them the flood was sent by some deity or another that fits in with their religious understanding. I remember when I was a child my parents took me to the movie theater to see some kind of film or documentary about the search for Noah’s Ark, and I thought, “Wow, if someone could find the ark, that would PROVE something existed from the earliest parts of the Bible.” Folks, I don’t think we need to search for ANYTHING to get confirmation that there was some kind of flood…because cultures all over the world…including cultures that represent every continent except Antarctica…have stories of an ancient flood. From this reality, we KNOW there was a flood a long, long time ago. It HAPPENED; I don’t think there can be any doubt. The story fascinates me because so many people are looking for evidence in a boat…when the evidence is already there through the oral traditions of countless cultures. And the final reason this story fascinates me – well, the final reason I’ll share today – is because of something that is very relevant to our gospel reading for today. I’ve always thought it rather odd that God’s response to people choosing against God was to wipe everybody out. I mean, this is the SAME God who brought us grace – something freely given that we don’t deserve – right? This is the SAME God who we identify as love, right? And yet, in this story, we’re reminded that God almost ended humanity. More than that, God actually DECIDED to end humanity and would have done so, had one man not found favor in God’s sight. Every time I hear this story, I start to think that we Christians need to change our perceptions of God, just a bit. For those Christians who believe that God had a plan that included Jesus from the very beginning, I encourage them to read Genesis chapter 6 again. For those Christians who believe that God doesn’t change God’s mind, I encourage them to read Genesis chapter 6 (and really most of the bible) again. For those Christians who believe that God doesn’t grow in relationship with people, that there is no way in which God can change, I encourage them to read Genesis chapter 6 again and then keep reading all the way through today’s reading from Genesis chapter 9…because somehow God changes God’s mind from destroying everyone to making a covenant to not destroy humanity (through a food, anyway) EVER again. The flood story fascinates me in this way because it is at the same time probably the most well known Old Testament story and the Old Testament story that SHOULD more than any other have us Christians RE-thinking what we believe about God. But instead of thinking about God in biblical terms, we hold onto our notions about God that may or may not have much basis in scripture.
OKAY – well, enough of that, for now. Let’s move on to the gospel reading. It’s Mark’s incredibly brief telling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Somehow, Mark manages to encapsulate in 2 verses what it took Matthew 11 verses and Luke 13 verse to tell. So, the story might sound a little brief to you. But it really tells us everything we need to know. I’ll get to exactly what that “everything” is as I discuss the text.
As I pondered Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation this week, the first thing I tried to do was to determine exactly what’s going on with the phrase, “tempted by Satan.” Different translations portray it differently. Some translations, like our NRSV translation, give the sense that Jesus was actually TEMPTED, you know, that Jesus actually EXPERIENCED temptation. But other translations, like The Living Bible, make it sound like Satan was TRYING to tempt Jesus but was doing so without success.
And it turns out that this AMBIGUITY in English is also present in the original Greek. You might wonder why it matters. Well, either Jesus was capable of experiencing temptation…just like we are capable of experiencing temptation, OR, as so many Christians profess, Jesus was perfect and incapable of being tempted – or maybe I should say experiencing temptation. Satan could test and test and test, but it just wasn’t going to influence Jesus. (PAUSE) SO…how could we determine which was actually the case in the original text, the Greek text? It turns out there should be a simple way to tell; this is a simple matter of grammar. It comes down to this: in Greek, if the verb that translates as “tempted” was written in the form of the ACTIVE or MIDDLE voice, then Jesus was actually EXPERIENCING temptation. But if the verb was written in the form of the PASSIVE voice, it means all the action was on the part of Satan – Jesus wasn’t really affected. Anyone care to guess which way the Greek text reads? Well, before I give you the answer, I want to discuss what difference it makes if we learn that Jesus was capable of experiencing temptation or not.
And I would suggest it makes all the difference in the world. Because if Satan was trying to tempt Jesus but Jesus was unaffected by those temptations, then Jesus can’t really relate to us. Because, when we are tempted…we…are…affected…right? And sometimes when we talk about Jesus as being perfect, as being sinless, we think this means he was not tempt-able, that try as Satan might, Satan couldn’t really get to Jesus. And that creates a separation between us and Jesus…and really, between us and God. BUT, if Jesus COULD be tempted, then Jesus – and God – can relate to us in our temptation. Suddenly, God is more tangible, more RELATABLE, for us, maybe even more REAL. God would know what it’s like to BE HUMAN, not just in the good times of being human but in the moments when we’re weakest…which, at least in my opinion, makes God more approachable when we need God the most.
[And this is where the flood story from our Old Testament reading comes into play. It actually solves – in my opinion – an age old question within the Church: “why does God seem to act differently in the Old Testament than in the New Testament?” I think the answer has to do with Jesus. Before God came to the earth in the form of Jesus – as both God and human – God had some serious difficulties relating with people. No matter how much God tried, God just couldn’t GET us, God didn’t know what it was like to BE us. And before you start thinking that God knows everything, I just want to remind you that God CHOSE to give up perfect knowledge of people when God gave people free will. God chose to NOT be able to control us like puppets or to know exactly what we’re going to do. So when people didn’t do what God wanted in chapters 2-5 of Genesis, God responded in a way that, to me anyway, seems a little extreme: wipe us out. One of the things God did through Jesus is to get to know what it’s really LIKE to be one of us, to be human. And at least in my opinion, that changed God in a relational way; it changed God in a really good way. So that God could relate to us differently ever since.]
OK – so one benefit of Jesus being capable of experiencing temptation is that it helps God understand us better. And there’s another benefit to Jesus being capable of experiencing temptation. If Jesus was capable of experiencing temptation, then we can look at how JESUS resisted the allure of temptation…especially in this passage…and learn something about how WE can resist temptation, as well. Which would be a GREAT message for starting off a Lenten season in which our theme is exploring ways we are tempted and how God gets us through those temptations.
But, back to the question of how we KNOW. How do we know if Jesus actually EXPERIENCED temptation in that situation of our gospel reading?
The first thing we should check is the voice of the verb. But, it turns out, that’s not so helpful. I’m not a Greek scholar, but I CAN perform a word study. And, according to my word study, the way the Greek verb that gets translated as “tempted” was written, it could have been meant to be EITHER the middle or the passive voice. Like I said, that’s not so helpful.
Fortunately, there’s something else we can turn to, and that’s the CONTEXT in which the verb is used. Take a look at what happens in our gospel reading surrounding these words about Jesus being tempted. First, the Holy Spirit DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness. Am I the only one who reads this and gets the feeling Jesus didn’t really WANT to go out into the wilderness? The word translated as “drove out” really does mean all choice was taken away from Jesus. It’s the same word to describe Jesus driving unclean spirits and demons out of people. Folks, Jesus was compelled or forced, which suggests he either didn’t WANT to go or WOULDN’T want to go if given a choice. Why would that be? I would suggest the reason is that Jesus was capable of experiencing temptation. But there’s more. Once in the wilderness and tempted by Satan, Jesus is attended to – or more literally, MINISTERED TO, or SERVED, by angels. I don’t supposed I need to remind you of this again, but, folks, Jesus was GOD, almighty Creator of the universe, in the flesh. That’s what Immanuel means. WHY would God-in-the-flesh need ministering to by angels…unless that “in-the-flesh” part means that Jesus was subject to being tempted just as much as the rest of us who are “in-the-flesh”? In context, to me anyway, Jesus was capable of being tempted…BUT…Jesus resisted.
So, let’s assume for a second that the context is trying to tell us that Jesus DID experience temptation, what can we learn for US? What can we learn about how God can get us through temptation?
There are two things worth considering in this very short text.
The first is the presence of the wild animals. Did you notice them? “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts…” There’s been quite a bit of speculation about the presence of the wild beasts. Maybe they were part of the danger of Jesus’ wilderness experience, to highlight that the wilderness was a scary place. Maybe they were there to highlight that Jesus had no human company and was all alone in human relational terms. There weren’t people, but there WERE wild animals. From these perspectives, the wild animals serve to HIGHLIGHT just how dire Jesus’ predicament was. But there’s another way to view the wild animals. Do you remember the Old Testament prophecies about the day of the Messiah? There’s one in Hosea 2:18 that goes like this: “ I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” Some scholars propose that Mark is telling us that this prophecy was fulfilled in that wilderness, that through Jesus PEACE was made between people and animals, so that the wild beasts became a source of companionship and comfort to Jesus in the wilderness, which is why they were mentioned in Mark’s gospel right next to the angels who waited upon Jesus. If we read the passage THIS way, then God helped Jesus through his time of temptation from Satan by making a covenant with the animals so that Jesus would have some company, not people, but companionship.
The second thing to consider in tis text with regard to how God helps us get through temptation is the presence of the angels. “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
If you take a look at the other gospels, you get a sense of some of the ways Satan tempted Jesus. I said before that the Greek text reads as if the angels were ministering to Jesus, and I asked why Jesus would need the ministering of angels. To me, the answer is pretty simple: when Jesus was being tempted, God provided Jesus with angels to help Jesus resist that temptation. FromMmark’s text, we don’t know exactly what the temptation was, and it doesn’t matter…because the whole POINT is that God gave Jesus exactly what Jesus needed to resist temptation…so that the very next thing Jesus did was begin his ministry of proclaiming the nearness of, the in-breaking the kingdom of God.
Folks, it’s the season of Lent, and for the rest of this season, I’m going to be looking at various ways people in the Bible were tempted, and I’m sure we’ll discover together that the nature of temptation hasn’t changed much in the last two or three millennia. BUT, there’s something else that hasn’t changed…and it’s this. When we experience temptation, God is right there offering us a way to resist. God is right there offering us everything we NEED to resist. It might not be in the form of wild beasts or angels, but God is offering SOMETHING that will help us resist temptation.
Somehow, during the flood story, it appears that God figured out that God had over-reacted. How else do you explain the covenant described in our Old Testament reading for today, the covenant to NOT EVER do again what God had just done? (PAUSE) Fast forward to the present time, to YOUR life. When you are tempted, when you are abut to give into temptation and do something every bit as against God’s desires, every bit as evil or wicked as the people of the earth in Genesis 6, aren’t you happy that something has changed with God? Isn’t it great that God now KNOWS what it’s like to be experience temptation…that God wants so badly for us to not give IN to temptation but wants something BETTER for us…isn’t it wonderful that God now KNOWS even what we NEED to RESIST temptation because, thanks to Jesus, thanks to Emanuel, God in the flesh, has BEEN there. Folks, just like God desired more for humanity than for us to be wiped out completely so long ago, God NOW desires more for us than to allow us to give in to the temptations of society and culture. SO God offers us EXACTLY what we need.
Our job is simply to look for it. Our job is simply to accept God’s help. Our job is to use whatever tools God provides and with the sure knowledge and strength of God’s provision, to resist. Amen.