Mark’s Holy Spirit dove does not sit cooing on a nearby branch, placidly watching.
No, Mark’s version of the Holy Spirit was an angry bird long before the video game came on the scene. The descending dove tears apart heaven to get to earthly Jesus as he comes up out of the waters of baptism. The Holy Spirit drives out, forces Jesus to leave, expels him still dripping from the Jordan into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Somehow that image of a gentle bird, branch in its mouth, doesn’t do Mark’s Holy Spirit justice. The turkey vultures circling above the unfortunate opossum torn asunder on my country road seem a more apt metaphor here. I’d hate to see what would have happened to Jesus if God had not been well pleased with him. Perhaps God’s affirmation comes with a few strings to which one would rather not be attached.
So much packed in so few verses. Jesus’ baptism. Heaven torn apart. Holy Spirit breaking out from the heavenly confines and alighting on Jesus. The voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus’ identity, status and favor. A Spirit induced chase into the wilderness filled with wild beasts. Satan tempting Jesus for forty days. Angels waiting on Jesus for an unspecified duration. All before Jesus begins his ministry. I will take door number two, please. Give me the ministry prep of Hebrew, Greek and ordination exams any day over wilderness, wild beasts and Satan.
The question that begs asking is: Why? Why did Jesus’ mission require such an arduous season of preparation? Did he glean special knowledge? Is this wilderness season akin to spiritual boot camp? Or an initiation process? A rite of passage? He has no Yoda, master teacher or mentor to guide him — only beasts and angels as he stands down Satan. Unless, of course, the angry bird dove remains with him the whole time. I’d like to think that’s the case. A heaven-busting, Messiah-expelling Holy Spirit is exactly the member of the Trinity I’d like on my side in the wilderness with the wild beasts and Satan. There are times when a gentle cooing dove just doesn’t cut it and surely, this time of trial, temptation and testing is one of them.
Perhaps that’s the lesson Jesus – beloved, Son of God, though he was – most needed to learn. Perhaps that’s the lesson any one of we children of God need to know, not in theory, but through hard won experience. The power of the One who names us, claims us, calls us good and sends us remains with us always, tearing asunder the barriers between us and heaven, expelling us from safety, but upholding us through the wilderness, saving us from the wild beasts and sending angels along the way to nurture us while we wait for gentler seasons.
I am grateful for Mark’s angry bird. I need to know that God’s loving kindness comes coupled with unmistakable power: power to break down anything that keeps earth walled off from heaven, power that overpowers me and my desires, power that never turns back from truly scary places, like hospitals and prisons, battle fields and burial grounds, the deep recesses of my mind and the dark corners of my heart, power that doesn’t turn back from beasts or evil, deserts or storms, power that summons angels to come where humans fear to tread. I don’t think the Holy Spirit is so much like those turkey vultures as blackbirds and chickadees relentlessly chasing away any hawks that threaten to harm their young. That’s the divine interference we need if we are going to survive the inhospitable, frightening, evil seasons that come when we are sent to do the work of God in the world that does not recognize the very One who came to save it.
Did Jesus remember those 40 days as he went around Galilee preaching and healing, facing off with Pharisees, dealing with the rejection by the fine folks of his hometown, praying alone in the garden of Gethsemane, standing in front of Pilate and hanging on the cross? Those wilderness seasons marked by depravation, loneliness and beasts within and without strip us of all our illusions of control and self-sufficiency. They also reveal angels. We learn what (and who) sustains us, upholds us and keeps all that would threaten to utterly destroy us at bay. We recognize the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, that angry bird who will stop at nothing to protect us and tear apart heaven to reach us.
Lent began on Ash Wednesday with ashes, prayers of confession and declarations of penitence. While the Spirit may not have driven us into the wilderness, we are likely no strangers to times of deep fear and profound questioning. Lent reminds us that Jesus isn’t either. Thanks be to God for that truth. There is no temptation, no beast, no demonic encounter left God-forsaken. The Holy Spirit who took a nose dive from the heavens to alight on the baptized does not retreat to a divine observation deck, but instead stays with us wherever we go, from wilderness to mountain top, heading off hawks and vultures, sending angels all along the way.
While we fast and pray, give up some things and take on some others, Lent invites us to also mark the 40 days that mark Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness facing off Satan by remembering that our darkest seasons are not God-forsaken, they are Spirit-infused. This is no way lessens the reality of the suffering, doubt and even agony of wild beasts and seemingly inadequate angels. It does, however, remind us that we are not alone and proclaims that our state is not indicative of our status with God. We are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased, even when we find ourselves sorely tempted, afraid and uncertain about our future. The angry bird circling above isn’t out to get us, but instead relentlessly working to keep us safe until we get to Easter.
- How do you picture the Holy Spirit? There are various images in Scripture: wind, dove and flame. Do these images resonate with you? Why? Are there other images?
- What do you make of the almost violent words in this passage? Words like “expel” and “torn”? Are there other biblical stories that portray the Spirit as gentle? Is it important for the Holy Spirit to have both characteristics?
- How do you mark Lent? What Lenten practices do you find meaningful? Why?
- How does this story of Jesus’ temptation relate to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation”? What are our temptations?
- Compare Mark’s very short version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with the accounts in Luke and Matthew. Does it matter that Mark doesn’t list the temptations? Is it useful to NOT have them listed?
- During challenging seasons in your life, what has sustained you? What did you learn about yourself? God? Others?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!