“Out of the Water, into the Wilderness” (Mark 1:9-15)
Today is the First Sunday in Lent, which means that the Holy Gospel is an account of the temptation of our Lord. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this episode that took place right after Jesus’ baptism. This year we hear from Mark, who tells it the most briefly. Just two verses, as follows: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
Mark gets us right into the action, very direct, straight to it. Jesus is plunged right into the conflict and opposition that will mark his ministry and lead to his death. The word “immediately” stands out in Mark. When Jesus was baptized, “immediately” he saw the heavens opening. Then the Spirit “immediately” drove him out into the wilderness. Wham! Bam! Straight to it! “Immediately”!
Jesus goes “immediately” from his baptism in the Jordan to his temptation in the wilderness. And what I want you to see today, friends, is that this is how it is for us, too. We have been joined to Jesus in baptism, and so we also will be tempted. There is no escaping it. Like our Lord, we go immediately “Out of the Water, into the Wilderness.”
But before we go, it is Jesus who goes there first, out of the water, into the wilderness. He starts at the water, being baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus sees the heavens opening–literally, “being torn open”–but instead of fiery judgment coming down, the Spirit descends on him like a dove, coming in peace to empower the Messiah for his mission. There comes also a voice from heaven, the Father’s voice, declaring, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Now we know who it is who is being baptized. This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the promised deliverer sent from God. More than that, this Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds.” Christ Jesus is the eternal divine Son, come in human flesh, loved by the Father, and well-pleasing to him for taking on this saving mission. This is the one being baptized in the water.
But immediately Jesus is sent out into the wilderness. Notice the way Mark puts it: The Spirit “drove” him out into the wilderness. It’s the same word that’s used when Jesus drives out demons! That’s what the Spirit does to Jesus: He “drives” him out, into the dark and foreboding wilderness. The language used here is stark and jarring, almost violent. Jesus is not going out for a walk in the park.
It’s a wilderness out there, where Jesus is going. A wild, savage, bleak place. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of danger. Desolate, remote, a lonely place, a place of isolation. A place where a man will be exposed to danger. But also a place where God will test his people, in this case, even his beloved Son. So Jesus will go through this ordeal.
“And he was with the wild animals.” Mark is the only one to mention this detail. The wilderness may be uninhabited by humans, but it is a place for wild animals to prowl around. The haunt of jackals, the home of wild beasts. The lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent. This is their turf, and you go there at your own risk. But Jesus goes, obedient to his Father’s will and the Spirit’s driving. He’s got work to do out there.
Jesus must endure, and overcome, the temptations of the devil. “And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Somebody had to do the job and get it right. Some representative of the human race had to face down Satan and win. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, had blown it in the garden. Jesus prevails in the wilderness. Israel was in the wilderness, and for forty years, but they blew it when they were tempted into sin and unbelief and compromising their identity as God’s people. Jesus does not blow it. He withstands the tempting and carries on with his mission. All this lies in the mystery of Christ’s unique person. He is God in the flesh, true God and true man in one person, really tempted, yet without sin. There had to be a man, a second Adam, a faithful Israel, who would stand the test and prevail against Satan. Jesus is it. And he does it in our place, staying faithful where we so often fail.
So Jesus is tempted by Satan. “Satan” is another name for the devil, the evil one, the tempter. And Satan will go after this new Adam, this new Israel, just like he went after the old ones. “The Satan” is the adversary, the enemy, the accuser of the brethren. But this time around, he has met his match, and then some. For Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. Those works include temptations to sin and unbelief and other great shame and vice. Temptations to pride and hypocrisy and refined godlessness. Temptations to tune out God and his word. The temptations that we so often fall prey to and give in to. But Christ would have none of it. He stays on course, locked in and focused throughout the ordeal.
And then Jesus comes out of the wilderness, proclaiming the message he came to fulfill: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Out of the water, into the wilderness, and then out into ministry. Jesus stays true and faithful, staring down the danger, overcoming Satan and his temptations. And then he is bold to preach the same message that got John the Baptist arrested and killed and will do the same to him.
Make no mistake, this temptation in the wilderness is but a warm-up for the way of the cross. Jesus’ faithfulness was tested in the wilderness. His faithfulness will continue all the way to the agony in Gethsemane and at Golgotha. Jesus has work to do there, to pay the price for our unfaithfulness, the sin that brings death with it. That is what he takes on himself at the cross.
And that is how Jesus finally defeats Satan in the process. He will trample Satan underfoot, even as that serpent strikes out at his heel. Sin, Satan, death, hell–all defeated and destroyed by the one who remains faithful, from the water to the wilderness to the wood of the cross. Christ came to destroy the works of the devil and to replace them with his own heavenly works: forgiveness, righteousness, resurrection, life everlasting. Here is your divine Champion, my friends! This Jesus is the man you need with you to make it through the wilderness.
And make no mistake about this, either: You are in the wilderness. Immediately, as soon as you were baptized, you were set in the midst of a wilderness. This world is a wilderness, and Satan is on the prowl here. He goes about like a roaring lion, looking for whom he can devour. The devil is like a deadly serpent ready to strike. Out of the water, into the wilderness: That’s how it goes for us too, baptized into Christ.
And you would fall prey to the devil, if you were going it on your own. “The old evil foe now means deadly woe,” we sang in the hymn, and “with might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.” You know, it’s appropriate that Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” is the Hymn of the Day for the First Sunday in Lent, when the Holy Gospel is always Christ being tempted by the devil but winning the victory for us. And it just so happens that this year, the First Sunday in Lent happens to fall on February 18, the day Luther died in 1546 and thus the day in the church year for commemorating Martin Luther. A fitting coincidence for the First Sunday in Lent, since Luther taught and preached so much on how the devil attacks us.
Luther once said that when we baptize an infant, this is serious business that will place the child in danger. He writes: “Remember, therefore, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from this little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy.” You see, Satan hates us Christians. He is our lifelong enemy, the adversary, and he is aiming for you. You have a target on your back. It was placed there when the sign of the cross was placed on your forehead and upon your heart at your baptism. Satan will tempt you in whatever way he can, to try to get you away from Jesus. The devil knows he cannot beat Jesus, but if he can just get you away from Jesus. . . . Satan will tempt you to let God’s word go in one ear and out the other. Satan will tempt you to think you have better things to do than to go to church or do daily devotions. Anything to get you away from Jesus. Because when you’re on your own, you are vulnerable.
In his book, “The Screwtape Letters,” author C. S. Lewis imagines a senior devil named Screwtape writing to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape gives advice to Wormwood on how best to tempt and destroy the faith of the Christian he’s assigned to work on. And he makes the point that anything that pulls the Christian away from God–whom Screwtape refers to as “the Enemy”–anything that pulls the Christian away from God will work. It doesn’t have to be big sins; little ones will do. So Screwtape writes: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards, if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
My dear Christian, how is it with you? Are you aware of the devil’s little ways to pull you away from Christ? What form does that take in your life? Be on your guard for such things.
And not only do we have Satan to contend with, we are living in the wilderness of this world. This world is a lonely and desolate place, a hostile environment for Christians. We are surrounded by nothing that will reinforce our faith, only by wild beasts that threaten to rip our faith to shreds. Christians are made to feel isolated, alone, out of place.
Therefore we need one another. The church is the great caravan, the company of travelers walking together along the way, caring for one another, supporting one another. And most of all, we need to stick close to Jesus. The devil cannot touch us with Jesus by our side. Christ supplies us with all that we need to remain strong in him. We are fortified by the Word and the Holy Sacraments. These means of grace are food and nourishment for the journey.
Dear friends, as soon as we were baptized, immediately we went from the water into the wilderness. We have Satan tempting us. We have the world against us. You and I walk in danger all the way. “But for us fights the valiant One,” our divine Champion. “Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is.” “He’s by our side upon the plain with his good gifts and Spirit.” Therefore: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.” Why? Because we’ve come out of the water and into the wilderness, walking with Jesus all the way.