Over the course of the past year, I’ve been delighted with a little hippopotamus named Fiona. You may know her story: Fiona arrived six weeks early at the Cincinnati Zoo weighing in at a slight 29 pounds — hippos normally weigh between 55-120 lbs at birth. She had to be bottle fed by a team of neo-natal caregivers, and for a long time things were touch and go. Slowly she began to grow, found her legs and took to swimming.
She received her name due to her ears which look just like Fiona’s from the “Shrek” films, and because it means “fair one.” She became an international social media phenom, and she recently celebrated her first birthday. I’d encourage you to check her out.
But even though she’s tremendously cute, Fiona’s a wild animal. In fact, the hippo is the deadliest land animal in Africa, more dangerous than the elephant, lion, or river crocodile. Hippos are territorial, and while they’re strict vegetarians, they will hurt humans with their immense jaws if you unintentionally get too close to their area.
Mark tells us this morning that following Jesus’s baptism by John, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. And while he is there forty days, he is tempted by Satan. And, Mark adds, he is with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. Jesus’ time in the wilderness includes interesting company— Satan, wild beasts and angels.
Sometimes in conversations with others about hiking out in the woods, I’ll get asked if I’m scared of running into a wild beast—especially a bear. Truth be told, rangers strongly encouraged us to carry bear spray in the Rockies, and we nearly encountered bears a few times. I say “nearly” because fellow hikers or campers asked if we had seen the bear that had romped by minutes before. Wild beasts of all stripes can be scary.
I wonder what Mark’s after in telling his readers—in telling us—that Jesus encountered Satan, beasts and angels in his forty day solo experience in the wilderness. It’s clear that Jesus follows the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness after receiving that declaration of divine favor bestowing on him his identity as God’s Beloved Son. During that time, he encounters these three different companions. We model our forty days of Lent on this wilderness journey and I wonder if we will encounter the same during our time. And if so, will we be as nonchalant as Jesus? Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The Beloved Son accepted the company God gave him in the desert—Satan, wild animals, ministering angels—with no drama of preferring one to the other. Here is someone who wastes no time defending himself against what comes to him.” So let’s look at these three dessert companions and see what we can make of them for our own wilderness journeys.
First, Satan. Let’s be honest, when we talk of Satan, or devils in general, we think either of Dana Carvey’s longtime SNL character “The Church Lady,” or the various sports teams who have devils as a mascot. We know from the other Gospels, that Jesus’ foray into the desert included three temptations offered by Satan. Turning a stone into bread, jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, and becoming an all powerful ruler. In each case, if he had accepted Satan’s temptation, Jesus would have had to deny the identity given to him just days before at his baptism, and give up his mission to bring about redemption. If he had listened to Satan, he would have become someone he is not.
Satan offers the same thing to us. Oh, it might not be turning rocks into baguettes, but it could be money, or fame, or simply stroking our pride. Anything that puts us at the center, and God and everyone else pushed to the outside. The wilderness experiences of our life—times when we slow down intentionally like Lent or when we are forced to step back—can expose these temptations clearly. Temptations are simply falsehoods intended to have us deny who God calls us to be. As God’s beloved children, we have been given the charge to spread the mercy and love of God using our unique gifts, personalities and temperaments to impact the world for good with God’s direction and help. It is not about us, no matter how frequently we’re tempted to think otherwise.
Wild beasts often show up in the wilderness and in our dreams. You may recall the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are. In it a young boy named Max gets into trouble with his mom and is sent to bed early without supper. That night Max’s room turns into a forest, and he travels to where the wild things live. He stares down those monsters and they make him their king, and he stays with them for a time. It is no wonder why children of all ages love this story. Max confronts the wild beasts—those things he fears most of all—and they become his friends.
We do not know what happened for Jesus with the beasts, but I can guarantee you that in Jesus’ day, just as in our own, there were fences, walls and doors both at homes and around the towns in order to keep the wild beasts out. A friend recounted this week their dog barking recently at the back door wanting desperately to go out, only to see a huge coyote in the yard. I think we tend to project our deepest fears on wild animals. We fear getting hurt by them or worse. We have anxiety around being chased and losing our way. Our hackles get raised when we encounter the unknown—like the rustling of the underbrush at night when inside a tent.
It is no mistake that the phrase uttered most frequently in Scripture is “don’t be afraid.” Yet Jesus’ own encounter with wild beasts doesn’t produce fear at all; Jesus just continues on his way. They do not stop him in his tracks, nor does he become paralyzed. Neither should we. Our fears too frequently keep us in check—no, kids, this doesn’t mean you should approach a coyote or a hippo in real life, sometimes there is healthy fear. However, we should question how our fears tend to hold us back. Like when we don’t do something we think we might like or fell prompted to do using the excuse that we are under qualified or not strong enough. When we chance upon the wild beast of our fears, we can might be better to ask, “Why am feeling this way? What might this be telling me about myself? How is God asking me to overcome my fears in order to be more faithful to God’s call on my life?” Striking up a friendship with someone who is different; giving more of our resources to those in need; raising a hand when help is needed, in spite of our own uncertainties in our skills. These can all be a way for us to respond when we encounter unfounded fears.
Finally, ministering angels. Jesus’ encounter with the angels reminds us that in the midst of our wilderness experiences, God will provide us with moments of comfort and sustenance. An unexpected card from a friend. A phone call telling you how much you mean to another person. The beauty of a sunset or the presence of a flower in the desert. The sound of water, or the embrace from a loved one. Reading words that bring healing. In each case, I think, they are like angels ministering to us when we do the hard work of withstanding temptations and facing our fears. In both of those cases, much emotional, physical and spiritual energy gets spent.
Even in the wilderness, we need moments of relief. Times when we are renewed. Places where we experience the overabundant goodness of God. Such times give us hope and comfort, trusting that as we go further into our relationship with God and the more we uncover about ourselves and our need to depend fully on God, we will be sustained. We will make it. God will lead us through the desert and to those places beyond when we can live as the Easter people God yearns for us to be.
So may these forty days allow you time to delve deeply into your spiritual lives. May your identity as a Beloved Child of God become clearer to you as you intentionally enter the wilderness. Whatever you encounter along the way, may you know that God goes with you to guide, shape, and transform you. And may these 40 days fully prepare you for the joys we will experience on that first Easter, for we are people of the resurrection. Amen.