Proving Ground

By Rev. Cynthia Leslie Simmons

Mark 1:9-15

Some of us are old enough to remember a television show from the 1950’s called Dragnet – in fact, some of you might even now be able to hum the ominous opening notes of the show’s theme song.  Dragnet purported to tell true stories of crimes solved by the Los Angeles Police Department, although the deep-voiced announcer always assured viewers “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

The main character in Dragnet was Sergeant Joe Friday, who is remembered all these years later for his iconic phrase “Just the facts, Ma’am.”  I thought of Sergeant Friday when I looked up the lectionary lessons for this Sunday and read the passage from Mark because this Gospel writer seems also to have a penchant for getting quickly to the heart of the matter without any extraneous details.  And this is particularly evident in Mark’s version of the story of the temptation of Jesus.

When Matthew and Luke tell this story, it is loaded with details.  Here, for example, is how the Gospel According to Matthew relates this event in Jesus’ life:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the       devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

The Gospel According to Luke tells the story of the temptation of Jesus in pretty much the same way as Matthew does; but here is how Mark tells the story: 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.

That’s it – only two sentences! Mark never says anything about Jesus fasting during his time in the wilderness, he doesn’t say how Jesus was tempted, nor does he say that the angels didn’t show up until the end of the forty days. (Mark almost makes it sound like the angels were there all the time.)  Fasting, the specific temptations, and the late-arriving angels are all details added by Matthew and Luke, who used Mark’s Gospel as a source for their own accounts.  But as spare as it is, Mark’s story still packs a punch.

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. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is led by the Spirit, which sounds almost like a parent taking a child by the hand.  But as Mark tells it, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness – this is no gentle hand-holding, but a much more forceful expulsion into the wilderness. It’s almost sounds like Jesus is being banished.

Why would the Spirit do this?  After all, God has just proclaimed Jesus to be his beloved Son, using the very same words that ancient kings used to designate their heirs, and so one would expect there to be some sort of celebration acknowledging Jesus’ unique status. But that’s not what happens, and it seems as odd as if some human parents were to celebrate their son’s or daughter’s college graduation by immediately dumping them in the Mojave Desert.  No loving parent would do that, so why does God claim Jesus as his son – a very big deal – but then drive him out into the wilderness?

Mark doesn’t answer this question directly, but he does give us some information to make sense of what the Spirit has done: He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Satan (or the Tempter) and the wild beasts certainly represent the dangers of the wilderness.  But the reference to 40 days and the presence of angels remind us that God is also present in the wilderness.

Forty was a sacred number to ancient Israel and to First Century Jews as well.  They would have remembered the ancient story of Noah, who waited on the ark through 40 days and 40 nights of rain.  They would have recalled how Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai as he wrote down God’s commandments, and how Elijah also fasted for 40 days and nights on his way to meet God on that same mountain.

And of course, no Jew could forget that their ancestors lived in the desert – the wilderness – for 40 years before entering Canaan.  In each of these cases, the time of waiting was a time of preparing for what was to come. And so it was with Jesus’ time in the desert. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness not as punishment but as preparation for what was to come. His time of temptation would also be his time of strengthening, and the wilderness would be his proving ground.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a proving ground is “a place for scientific experimentation or testing (as of vehicles or weapons); a place where something is developed or tried” and the wilderness is perfectly adapted for this exercise. This became clear to me through the experience of our nephew when he was a student at the United States Air Force Academy, preparing to become a fighter pilot.  Part of his training was to be dropped off alone in a wilderness area for a period of time.  The Air Force didn’t do this to punish Matt.  They did it because they trusted he was ready for the experience.

Matt had been taught survival skills and now he would have the chance to put them to use.  This was his opportunity to test himself and call upon every bit of his strength.  The wilderness was Matt’s personal proving ground, and the Air Force would not have sent him out there if they weren’t confident he was prepared for the test.

And so, in Mark’s Gospel, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested not because God wants to punish Jesus or lacks confidence in his Son, but precisely because God has confidence in his Son.  This time of testing will not break Jesus; it will instead make him stronger.

Now, we trust that God loves us and we hope that God has confidence in us, but I doubt that any one of us is eager to be thrust into the wilderness as a sign of that confidence.  Indeed, right in the Lord’s Prayer we say: “Lead us not into temptation…”  – or, in more contemporary language, “Do not bring us to a time of testing.” Jesus knew that people are always afraid that in the face of testing, we will come up short; and his words “Lead us not into temptation (testing)” are an honest expression of that fear.  But this past year, ready or not, we have all been tested by a crisis that was beyond our imagining when it began.

Now, let me hasten to say that I do not for one single moment believe that God sent us the coronavirus to test us – this terrible pandemic happened because of the confluence of a number of circumstances and actions, and it would be wrong to label it an Act of God. But I do believe that this experience has been a proving ground for humanity as it has severely tested us and exposed the best but also the worst of human behavior – including extremism fueled by conspiracy theories.

A recent article in the Washington Post pointed out that historically, pandemics have led to a rise in extremist behavior.  In his piece titled Eroding trust, spreading fear: The historical ties between pandemics and extremism journalist Marc Fisher writes:

Since ancient times, pandemics have spurred sharp turns in political beliefs, spawning extremist movements, waves of mistrust and wholesale rejection of authorities. Nearly a year into the coronavirus crisis, Americans are falling prey to the same phenomenon, historians, theologians and other experts say, exemplified by a recent NPR-Ipsos poll in which nearly 1 in 5 said they believe Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites seek to control the world.[Marc Fisher, Washington Post, February 15, 2021]

And much of this anti-social behavior is being linked to the social isolation imposed by the pandemic.  The leader of a movement in Nevada which opposes masking puts it this way: People are isolated, alone, and they need to express their true selves.  I don’t know why we’re surprised that there’s more extremism now.  People came to our rallies because they craved human interaction. (Ibid.)

We all crave human interaction, but while many of us have voluntarily surrendered the activities we enjoy in order to protect others as well as ourselves, we have seen too many examples of people who were focused only on their own needs and their own perceived rights: refusing to wear masks, cramming into bars or restaurants, ignoring pleas not to travel unnecessarily, hosting holiday parties, and vehemently protesting government directives aimed at preventing the spread of COVID.  Perhaps the best example of this unhealthy response to isolation is the protestor at an anti-masking rally whose sign read “Your health is not more important than my liberty.”

For Jesus, time alone in the wilderness was time to develop his strengths; however, for many in our nation and around the world, isolation has instead exposed our weaknesses: a suspicion of government, a rejection of science, and a lack of trust in our fellow Americans.

But if the proving ground of the pandemic has exposed the weakness in much of human society, the pandemic has also shown us just how strong, how patient, how generous, how creative, how compassionate, how selfless and how stubbornly hopeful humans can be when we are able to see beyond our own needs and desires. And this is where I believe today’s Gospel reading has a special meaning for us during this time of testing.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus did during his time in the wilderness, but surely he spent much of it in prayer – which reminds me of a hymn that is often sung during Lent.  The hymn begins with the words: “Lord, who throughout these forty days for us did fast and pray…”

Now, we might think it is a bit presumptuous to assume that Jesus was praying for us – humanity – during his forty days of isolation.  But if he was praying to be strengthened for the life he was about to begin – a life of selflessness and self-giving – then surely he prayed for the people among whom he would soon be ministering.

So while his time in the wilderness must have been trying, Jesus didn’t focus on his own experience, his own deprivations.  Instead, he focused on preparing himself to do God’s will and to share the good news of God’s love in word and in deed with all those whom he would encounter.

And for Christians, I think this is how we have been called to respond to the proving ground of the pandemic. – by focusing not only on our own deprivations, but by recognizing the suffering of others and doing whatever it is in our power to do to alleviate that suffering whether through direct volunteering, sharing our financial resources, making friendly phone calls, sending encouraging notes, consistently praying for those in need.

The effects of the pandemic in this nation began during Lent last year, and once again we are in Lent.  Indeed, it feels almost like we’ve been in Lent for a year, if we see Lent as a time of self-examination and reflection.  The pandemic has caused us to take stock of ourselves – to examine our strengths and our weaknesses – but it has also laid bare the inequalities that have long plagued our country.

And even while we grappled with the toxic legacy of racism, we have watched our economy falter and seen people take out their despair in acts of violence. And so I chose to close worship today with the hymn God of Grace, and God of Glory because this hymn, written 90 years ago, speaks to our time and our trials as well.

God of Grace and God of Glory was written in 1930 by Harry Emerson Fosdick for the dedication of the Riverside Church in New York City. As hymn writer Carlton Young has pointed out, there is a certain irony to Fosdick writing this hymn for this congregation: Fosdick’s stirring radio sermons, books, and public pronouncements established Riverside as a forum for the critique of the same wealth and privilege whose gifts had made possible the building of the church.

Under Fosdick’s leadership, Riverside Church became both interdenominational and interracial, with a strong emphasis upon social justice.  And this emphasis comes through in the text of God of Grace and God of Glory.  Written during the dark days of the Great Depression and at a time when fascism was on the rise not only in Europe but also in the U.S. where the Ku Klux Klan was thriving, Fosdick was addressing people who, like us, were in the mist of economic uncertainty and rising extremism.

And so Fosdick writes a hymn that is essentially a prayer – Grant us wisdom, grant us courage – even while challenging the singer to be strong in the midst of difficulty:  Lo! the hosts of evil round us scorn Thy Christ, assail Thy ways!  This certainly is reminiscent of the experience of Jesus in the wilderness, but also a description of the violent racism Fosdick was witnessing.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to Thy control.  Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich I things and poor in soul. As a chaplain during WWI, Fosdick witnessed first-hand the madness of war, and as a pastor in a city of great wealth and great poverty, Fosdick knew how easy it is for the haves to ignore the have-nots.

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. For me, this is one of the best lines in hymnody since it reminds us of how tempting it is to just give up in the face of seemingly overwhelming social ills.

Fosdick’s hymn is both a plea for help and an acknowledgement of those whom God calls us to serve.  And as Jesus used the proving ground of the wilderness to commune with God and prepare for his ministry, Fosdick’s hymn invites us into communion with God in order to encourage us in our ministry as disciples of Christ.

And so as we plod our way through these final days of winter, these final months of the pandemic, I hope we can see this trying time not simply as something we have to endure, but as a proving ground – an opportunity to draw upon our faith and upon our faith community to discover just how strong, how patient, how generous, how creative, how compassionate, how selfless and how stubbornly hopeful we can be.

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