Out Into the Wilderness

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.  Mark 1:9-13.

This portion of the reading from this week’s Lectionary  illustrates two important ideas relevant to our Lenten discussions.  The first is the principle of resistance.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from heaven announces that he is the beloved son of God.  There’s a Greek phrase that Mark uses throughout his Gospel, kai euthos.  It’s most often translated as “immediately” or “just then.”  Mark reports that immediately after this wonderful moment, right after this transcendent announcement, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

It seems an odd thing:  Jesus has just been consecrated to his vocation as the Messiah, the savior, and immediately He’s sent to the desert to face temptation.  We get a sense of the loneliness of Jesus’ situation, an isolation illustrated by the notion of “the wilderness.”  (In this sense, Jesus will share the Genesis experience of being “cast out” with us, will share in the Exodus experience of wandering in the wilderness.)  The phrase “the wilderness” connotes chaos, fear and a landscape where death and sin become a real possibility.

I think many of us have shared that experience:  just when we think things are going well, when we’ve decided to turn a corner on our relationship with God, we are thrust into that wilderness.  As Michael Corleone famously observed, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

As we work through our Lenten disciplines, attempting to find our way through the wilderness, we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter this “resistance” to change.  Sometimes, we may find that our Ancient Enemy views this as an opportune time drag us down again.  Sometimes, we may provide our own resistance, or even find resistance from our friends or our families.  And then, we may confront one of the greatest lies Satan tells us:  “Things are never going to change.  This is just too hard.  Life wasn’t so bad before.”

Even while he was in the wilderness with the “wild beasts”, Mark reports that the angels waited on Jesus.  Now, the angels acted as the messengers of God.  I think Mark is trying to tell us that even in that wilderness of spiritual desolation, God will not leave us alone.  Somehow, someway, God will speak words of comfort, courage and peace.  Learning to listen for them when we are ravaged by our terrors, that’s the tricky part.

Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as having been “tempted by Satan”.  As usual, Mark doesn’t provide many of the particulars here.  Both Matthew and Luke offer more detail about the specific temptations Christ suffered.  We do know one thing about Satan, however.  Jesus said that Satan “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  John 8:44.  In this teaching, Jesus illustrates for us something important about the very nature of sin.

I believe that most sin, if not all sin, originates with a lie.  The German people could not have burned 6 million Jews without first deceiving themselves into the belief that the Jews were less than human.  We Americans could not have participated in the brutality of slave labor and the  slave trade without first believing that the Africans were “chattel”, that they were animals.  Or maybe we persuade ourselves that we haven’t had that much to drink, and we’ll have just one more glass of wine before driving home.  Sin generally originates in a lie, because deception is the currency of sin.

In my law practice, I’ve handled a number of cases of embezzlement.  In almost every case, the employee has convinced themselves that their employer has taken advantage of them somehow, and they’re merely recovering what the employer should have given them. I think I understand these folks because if I have a superpower, it’s my ability to deceive myself and rationalize.  And when I stray “out into the wilderness”, I find that deception is the native language of sin.

If we begin to view sin as separation from God, rather than simply doing something naughty, we start to see the subtle danger here.  Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life.  Of course, the Father of Lies must separate us from the Truth. Using this Lent as an opportunity for genuine reconciliation, therefore, requires that our self-examination must be firmly rooted in the unyielding truth.  As we approach Jesus, the closer we come, the further we move away from Our Ancient Enemy.

C.S. Lewis once observed “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” God always seeks our union with Him; Satan always seeks to divide us from God and his children.  I pray we use this season of Lent to reflect on those things which operate to come between us from the Almighty, and to take a few steps back towards our real home.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

29 responses to “Out Into the Wilderness

  1. Thanks for the great article. It is a wonderful point that Jesus was helped by angels in the wilderness. I have been in that wilderness, and I certainly was never left alone or forsaken. God Bless.

  2. Noel Williams (prhayz) www.prhayz.com

    I like your post very much, Especially this statement, “I find that deception is the native language of sin.” I would go further and say deception is the native language of the devil. That’s his trade mark, and that’s what he does.

    Thanks you very much for sharing. God bless you.

    • Noel,

      I’m awfully glad you liked it. And yes, evil always deceives, but deceives with the purpose of separating.

      God bless you as well,

      Br. James

  3. We were just talking about deceit and sin on the way home from church: and then I read your “Sin generally originates in a lie, because deception is the currency of sin.”
    Lord, save me from self-deceit!

    • Charity,

      As you know, I don’t really believe in coincidences, so I’m glad you were struck by it. God save us both from deception, and give us the courage of honesty.


      Br. James

  4. Brother James correct me if I’m wrong. but wasn’t this the first place he Jesus is called “Son?”… which would indicate the important of baptism for us as a being “baptised into Christ,” and so in so doing become sons of God also….(Romans 6:4,5)
    How do you see this?
    Thanks… and I enjoyed the post

    • Paul,

      It is certainly the first place he’s called the Son of God in Mark’s gospel, and Mark’s was almost certainly the first. I think your baptismal theology is exactly correct: we are baptized into the life of Christ, the death of Christ, and the resurrection.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

      • Amen brother James, thanks for confirming this. Its appreciated…and provokes me to contemplate baptism in the fear of the Lord..

  5. excuse my grammar, I should have checked it before I posted…

  6. As you know, Brother James, I’m especially passionate about how God works through us as we engage in our daily employment. I’m always very interested whenever you talk about your work as an attorney, although you rarely say much about it. I would love to learn more about how you view that part of your work within your overall vocation. Someday I hope you and I can have that conversation.


    • Ron,

      I’d be happy to have that discussion sometime. I’m terribly interested in your work on seeing the vocation within our vocations, and in the general concept of bringing our spirituality into the workplace. It’s a matter of considerable importance, I think, for the continued health of the Church.

      Pax Christi, my friend,

      Br. James

  7. I love your “superpower,” but I hate the break the news to you that . . . many of us share that very same power!

  8. I was filled with gratitude for the reminder that angels are with us even in our time of wilderness. That is such a very alone-feeling time. I need that reminder often when I must trudge through it. Additionally, the reminder that the “wilderness experience” is not anyone’s sole (or dare I say soul?) property, I wonder why it is so hard to share that struggle when we are in the midst of it. We share other troubles that are not nearly as hard. Thank you again for your reminders, my friend.

    • My dear Barbara,

      You are most welcome. And you’re right; not of us can claim the wilderness as our own. I’m afraid we’ve both spent some time there, and we never know when we’ll be “invited” back.

      Peace on you this week,

      Br. James

  9. Brother James,

    Awesome… and thank you!

    And I would add the following video to illustrate the lies of the holocaust. It’s worth 8 minutes of our lives: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/ssalbum/video/

    H/T: http://www.conversiondiary.com/

    • Jeffery,

      Thanks so much for that. I had seen a longer version of this, but we cannot be reminded of this often enough. I think the most chilling notion of the holocaust is that these people do not look at all monstrous. They look like me.

      God watch over us, and save us from ourselves,

      Br. James

  10. Needed this today… thank you for playing angel in my wilderness. Peace to you, Brother.

    • My brother,

      I’m glad it resonated with you. Thank you for the support, and for reposting it.

      Pax Christi, my friend,

      Br. James

  11. Br. James,

    In this post, I shared 3 of my favorite books of faith:

    You are one of the three bloggers whom I would like to know three of your favorites. Feel free to participate and ask three others to share theirs. I enjoy learning the books that impact people and I think you would have interesting ones to share.

  12. What great thoughts to think about. How powerful Truth is…

  13. Sometimes we can be so naive as to think that our enemy will just let us lazily drift into his territory and conquer everything. It is ludicrous when you think about it. The wilderness of temptation should be predictable to God’s people.

    Thanks for all of your thoughtful teachings.

    • Brother James

      You are most welcome, Olive. You’re right; temptation and even failure will come to us all eventually, and we simply don’t have the resouces alone to fight that fight. Our hope lies in the angels who whisper to us in that wilderness.

      Pax Christi

  14. Thank you for a powerful meditation on sin. I found your column in search for images for a Lenten Quiet morning I am offering. I am hoping that you can identify the image at the top of your blog. As an artist and a teacher of art history, I am always grateful when the image is accompanied by a title, artist (if known), location, and medium. This image looks as though it is from a medieval illuminated manuscript, but I would love to know which one.
    Thanks – in advance – and all blessings for Lent
    Peggy (Margaret Adams) Parker
    Virginia Theological Seminary

    • Brother James

      Good morning, Margaret,

      With regard to the image, the only information I have is as follows: La Première Tentation du Christ, psautier enluminé, vers 1222 Copenhague, Det kongelige Bibliotek. I hope that helps.

      I’m glad you liked the reflection. Hope all is well at Virginia.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s