The Word This Weekend – March 10, 2019
“The ‘T’ Word”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
12And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels served him. (Mark 1:12-13)
Lent has begun. This past Wednesday we traced the ashen cross upon our foreheads, and spoke these words of mortality and redemption over more than 500 fellow penitents starting off on the journey of these forty sacred days:
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
You are marked with the cross of Christ,
and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.
This annual six week pilgrimage of repentance and discipline is marked by the call to fasting, prayer, works of compassion and tending to the soul through worship and servanthood. While some Christian traditions have traditionally marked these disciplines as somehow gaining greater access to God’s favor and acceptance, the Lutheran tradition centers these actions in the fulfilled work of God’s redemption through baptism, and our dedication to these actions as grateful responses to the already completed rescue won for us and for all through the death and resurrection of the Nazarene. More than anything, the discipline of Lent calls us away from preoccupation with self, and dedication to the service and love of our neighbor, through acts of generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation and servanthood.
And on the First Sunday in Lent, the common ecclesiastical tradition bids us consider the wilderness experience of Jesus immediately following his baptism. This forty day desert sojourn, echoing the journey of Lent itself, is recorded in three of the four Gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke.
Mark’s telling of Jesus’ wilderness testing, told in the two brief verses above, follows strong on the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan. Emerging from the water, beloved and affirmed by the heaven-sent Voice, he is now driven by the Spirit to a month and a half in the dry and forbidding Judean desert, there to be endangered by wild beasts, and to be challenged and assaulted by evil all around. The newly Baptized Christ, according to Mark, is likewise sustained and served by God’s angelic servants.
And here is where it gets thorny for any of us who study the original languages of the biblical text. In Mark, and similarly in the other gospels that record this event, a particular word is used to denote what Jesus faces in the wild. In English we translate this word as “tempted,” “tried,” or “tested.” So, for any who would wish to be as accurate as possible in rendering this story accurately and helpfully, we must take a moment to consider which “T” word best expresses the gospel writers’ intent.
The Greek word here is peirazo, and an interesting word it is. It can certainly mean “to tempt,” and this is the most common rendering. After all, 2000 years of iconography and art have presented Jesus as assaulted and challenged by the “Tempter,” named in the texts as the Devil or Satan. And this is the usual image for this dialogue around stones to bread, worship and power, and acting to force God’s hand. Mark gives us none of the content of this dialogue, though Matthew and Luke provide rich and deep detail to these three diabolical challenges.
But peirazo has various meanings, and it would be good for us to consider these as we seek to understand the Lenten journey of Christ, as well as our own.
Temptation is a primary meaning of periazo, the favored one as we noted above. With this “T Word” in our ears, we hear the Evil One seeking to send Jesus off the rails – either to work a miracle to break his fast and feed his gnawing hunger, or to call out to God to rescue him in the time of trial, or to trade worship of Evil for all the world’s promised power and lordship.
Testing is another option, and by this measure we might see an element of discipline here. Perhaps the wilderness sojourn is, for Jesus and for us, a time to develop more deeply the disciplines of steadfastness, patience, humility and faith in the face of lures to seek service of self instead of submission to the word and will of the divine.
Trial by Examination is another primary meaning of peirazo, and it bears noting as we engage this story. One gets the picture of a proctored exam, with the professor (or prosecutor) challenging the student to answer the examiner’s questions with wisdom and understanding.
So, which “T Word” should we use? I’d recommend that we hold them all in tension, because they all describe dimensions of the event that the Christ undergoes, and that we as his followers are faced with as well. We all face temptations, as he did. We all encounter times of testing and examination as well. The template for all these challenges can be found in the wilderness in which he both abided and overcame, and have much to teach us as we begin the long walk to Cross and Resurrection that Lent both promises and delivers.
Jesus is tempted, tried, tested and examined, here in the wilderness, and throughout his march to Calvary for the sake of the world. How like us, marked with his cross and sealed with the Spirit. The tests will surely come, and the disciplines of this season serve to remind us of the frailty of all humankind, beset and besieged by the Evil One, of the lures of the fallen world around us, and of our own sinful and self-serving human nature as children of Adam. With Christ we apply ourselves to the great testing of the faithful, and strain to remain faithful to the call to daily repentance and renewal in the promises and peace of the Water of Life.
For it is in Jesus’s wilderness experience that we catch a glimpse of our own, and discover a helpful and inspired pattern for our own resistance to evil, for the renunciation of momentary successes at the expense of eternal life, for the rejection of short term gain at the cost of our souls.
I hope to join with you at worship this weekend and throughout Lent, as we follow the Christ, and especially as we enter the oh-so-shrouded season of Lent begun on Ash Wednesday. May the power of God’s Holy Spirit, freshly inscribed on our heads and our hearts, inspire and lead us to draw strength for the work of the kingdom in our own day, resting in the gifts of Water, Word and Table, that we might boldly overcome and obey in his service.
With You in God’s Good Work,