“Testing”

As is characteristic in Mark’s Gospel, we have only this brief and mysterious account of the time Jesus spent in the desert wilderness: “And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Note: I’ve changed one word from the version we’re used to hearing. Apparently, “tested” is a better translation than “tempted.”[1] And because our observance of the Lenten season mirrors Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, perhaps we, too will find it meaningful to frame Lent as a time of “testing.”

I’ve been reading the Narnia series aloud to our daughter Alice. Of course, re-visiting these books as an adult, I notice many problematic cultural assumptions and theological ideas. And, all the same, I find beauty, inspiration and wisdom in these stories. The character of Edmund, or as Alice calls him, “the betrayer,” comes to mind for me as we consider this Lenten time of testing. Edmund is the second youngest of four siblings whose father is at war. Amid air raids in London, their mother sends them away to the home of a professor friend in the country. Edmund resents the attempts of his older brother and sister to parent him. And he delights in torturing his sweet, kind younger sister. One day, Edmund stumbles into Narnia through the wardrobe, and there he meets the White Witch. She claims to be the queen of Narnia, but is in fact the land’s oppressor. Under her rule, there is an eternal winter, and Christmas never comes. The courtyard of her castle is filled with stone statues of all the creatures who have dared to oppose her. A prophecy states that four human children will someday come to Narnia to be the country’s true rulers. They will defeat the White Witch and winter will lose its hold. Spring will blossom again and the trees and animals will live in freedom. So, when the Witch meets Edmund in the snowy woods, she turns on the charm in order to win him over. The witch treats Edmund to his favorite candy, “Turkish Delight,” while plying him with questions about his siblings. C.S. Lewis writes:

At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably she knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. But she did not offer him any more. Instead, she said to him, “Son of Adam, I should so much like to see your brother and your two sisters. Will you bring them to see me?”

“I’ll try,” said Edmund, still looking at the empty box.

The witch promises Edmund that if he delivers his siblings to her house, she would provide rooms full of Turkish Delight for him to enjoy. And she would make him Prince of Narnia, and someday King. And his siblings would be under his command.

The White Witch immediately perceives and exploits Edmund’s vulnerabilities—his fear and loneliness, his self-doubt, his jealousy and hunger for recognition. Eventually, after a terrible time of testing in this cold and icy version of wilderness Edmund finds grace and redemption. With the help of Aslan, Narnia’s Creator, he grows up and grows into his better self. He gains courage. He learns to love himself and in so doing gains the power to love others. He clarifies his values and his commitments. He turns away from the seductive lies of the witch and combats the evils that threaten his own well-being and the health of his world.

“And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” In Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit entered him and named him beloved. It was this same Spirit of God, not any evil influence, that compelled Jesus to face a time of testing. Satan is the personification of all that harms us, all that works against the abundant life God desires for us. The details about how Satan tested Jesus are not important; what matters is that in this struggle, Jesus was formed and prepared for a ministry that would be confrontational. He would combat, and defeat, the forces that threatened creation’s well-being.

40 days evokes the 40 years the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness. Shedding the ways of slavery and gaining true freedom took a very long time. Decolonizing minds and hearts was work for multiple generations. Similarly, Jesus initiated a process of liberation that would continue to test and try his followers, and that would come to fruition only through their commitment to an ongoing struggle.

Over this season of Lent, we are listening in a prayerful way to the words of the prophet Isaiah from Chapter 58. This passage frames the time of testing that is Lent as a season for repair. Today’s portion of the passage makes it clear that the repair work needed is the restoration of a just and compassionate human community. Our inward and personal spiritual practices, like fasting, lead to public actions that make a material, concrete difference in society. “Breaking every yoke”, in our time, means coming to terms with the white supremacy and Christian nationalism that is the foundation of our nation and the invisible fabric of our daily lives. It means reimaging public safety, dismantling the prison industrial complex, investing in healthcare and paid family leave, honoring indigenous sovereignty, and ending our financial and spiritual investment in extractive economies. It means sharing bread with the hungry and housing the unsheltered in a way that is not mere charity, in a way that shows respect for our human kinship, and in a way that moves us toward a sustainable, dignified life for everyone.

“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus burst forth from the wilderness preaching. This fulfilled time Mark references is not the kind of time kept by a clock. It is kairos, God’s time, the opportune moment when God acts. And the kingdom of God that draws is the embodiment of God’s kairos moment. Professor Matt Skinner writes:

With the expression kingdom of God Jesus does not speak of taking people away to a new place in a far-off land. He tells those who listen that God is bringing new realities into existence; Jesus himself demonstrates what these realities look like through his actions and words. This “reign” is about more than people’s spiritual existence. Jesus will call people to new understandings about what all of life is like. Family, society, political allegiances, economics, wellness, purity and acceptability — no facet of life remains unaddressed.[2]

We been living with COVID-19 for just about a year. This morning’s paper declared that we’ve reached the somber threshold of 500,000 deaths. How is this time testing you? In what ways have your demons shown up, your vulnerabilities come to the fore? Amid these trials, where do you see growth? What courage have you gained? How are you choosing to love yourself, care for yourself? How is your love for others also deepening and widening? In what ways does this wilderness time, this time of testing call you to be clear about what you value? In what ways is it compelling you to confront, resist and repair harm?

Friends, what a year it has been! It feels like 40 years some days. It seems like one long Lent, like an unending trek through a dry, dangerous desert. And yet, the beloved one, our Spirit-filled guide, is here too. Grace is with us, and redemption and hope. Along with the wild beasts we get Jesus and the angels. The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-3

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-3