Wild Animal Encounter–Mark 1:13

and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. –Mark 1:13

The idea of Jesus hanging out in the wilderness for forty days evokes images for anybody who has spent time in Sunday School. Painters love to create images of a rather sad and pensive Jesus kneeling on the barren ground, usually in the vicinity of a large stone, presumably the one that Satan offered to turn into bread. Another popular image is Jesus standing with Satan atop a mountain surveying the kingdoms of the world. For the third temptation, of course, Satan pulled Jesus out of the wilderness and to the “pinnacle of the temple.” None of that gets presented in Mark’s fast-paced account. Instead we simply learn that there was temptation by Satan at some point over that forty-day span.

What I’d like to focus on today is not the temptation but the wild animals. Why does Mark mention the presence of the wild animals? Mentioning the presence of the tempter and the ministering angels makes a great deal of sense, as those are not what you experience daily. But wild animals? My guess is that there wasn’t much else to mention.

Having recently concluded deer season, I spent a good bit of time out in my own private wilderness. Let me just say that passing two hours sitting in wait for the approach of a  whitetail seems like forty days. In the process of waiting, you look around. You pray, since that seems like a good time for the activity. But the prayer seems to lose focus for me. I’ll stay on task for a couple of minutes and then I’m thinking, literally, of a squirrel.

When you’re in the wilderness, there’s not much else to focus on than the wild animals. You can worry about the predators or you can be startled by the small game. Since Jesus did not have a deer rifle, I’m fairly sure that he didn’t take any whitetails during his forty days.

Being tempted does not require forty days. I can be thoroughly tempted on a range of matters inside of forty minutes. Surely Jesus could have gotten through his three big temptations in a day, but instead he passed forty days in the wilderness hanging out with whatever birds and rodents populate the Judean desert.

Why? Why would the greatest teacher ever to walk the earth squander nearly six weeks of his three-year ministry–that’s about 4% if you do the math–hanging out with Thumper and Bambi? The answer to that question is simple but not completely satisfying to the inquiring mind.

The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. In obedience Jesus went. Although we’re not told, it’s reasonable to presume that in obedience Jesus stayed for those forty days. To what end? That’s something God would know and didn’t feel compelled to tell us.

If you want, head out for your own forty days in the woods and see if God provides you with an answer.


Finding Himself?–Mark 1:12

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness. –Mark 1:12

Once upon a time, college graduates exited their education, most of them finding gainful, relevant employment within a few months of taking their diplomas in hand. The few of them who opted not to take up their positions within corporate America or working in some long-sought profession were seen as bizarre outliers. The idea of Jimmy spending a year “finding himself” or Tina traveling Europe to “figure out who she is” struck most people as self-indulgent nonsense. After all, once all of that tuition had been paid, after the credits had been earned, it made no sense not to begin cashing in on the fruits immediately.

Has there ever been a person more completely prepared for his “professional” life than was Jesus of Nazareth? By passing through the waters of baptism with John the Baptist, Jesus effectively graduated at the top of his class of one from the University of Judea with a degree in Messiahness. Hadn’t God the Father just said, “I’m well pleased with him”?

Why then did Jesus head off into the wilderness for what would prove to be a forty-day visit? As if to demonstrate that Jesus did not simply decide to take some time off to work on his tan, Mark explains in today’s verse that “the Spirit sent him.”

Had it been some type-A graduate of one of America’s business or law schools, we would have probably seen something different on the banks of the Jordan. Those stellar graduates often have jobs lined up before graduation–or at least they did back when college graduates could get jobs. These people might take a couple of weeks off to clear out their college apartments and perhaps enjoy a bit of down time. Then they start work on June 1, impatient to get started making a difference in the world, overeager to begin seeing that education pay dividends.

Again, has anyone ever completed an education more ready to get to work than was Jesus? I hardly think so, yet the Spirit saw fit to send Jesus into the wilderness. He didn’t say, “Jesus, one of these days, you ought to spend a little time out in the wilderness.” He sent Jesus “at once.”

And what possible good could come from a forty-day stay in the wilderness. To the best of our records, Jesus didn’t carry a rucksack full of scrolls. He didn’t have wifi access. He didn’t meet with anyone out there. All he had was himself and the other two persons of the Godhead.

If Jesus–fully God and fully man–needed to spend time alone with God before getting to work, how much more do you and I need to do that? We don’t need to “find ourselves,” but we do need to find God and locate ourselves in relation to him.

Push the Button (Hebrews 5:7)

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Hebrews 5:7)

Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those “Easy” buttons? Perhaps we already have one.

In my Composition II class at the seminary, we read a book by James Sire, Habits of the Mind. In this book, Sire relates a vexing truth about prayer for most of us. He describes an activity that involves asking participants to list all of the things they believe about prayer. What would you write? I might jot down such things as this:

  • Prayer is effective.
  • God hears our prayers directly.
  • Prayer can help me in difficult times.
  • I can bless others by praying for them.
  • Prayer often leads to healing.

If I were involved in this activity, I’d then turn the paper over and write down how much I actually pray. Think about that. If you knew that you had a direct and effective line to God, wouldn’t you use it all the time? So if we don’t use that line all the time, it suggests that either we don’t really believe that prayer is a useful thing or that we’re really stupid.

When Jesus prayed, he didn’t do it for show. This wasn’t a get-up-in-church-and-use-your-$5-words kind of prayer. We’re talking “fervent cries and tears.” Let’s think about that. If God in human form felt it worthwhile to pray earnestly and often, how much more should you and I be hitting our knees?

It’s like hitting the “Easy Button” in those Staples ads. If you had one, wouldn’t you use it? In prayer, we have an even more effective easy button, one that even Jesus himself used. Push the button.

Come with Confidence (Hebrews 4:16)

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Several years back, we had a changing of the guard in my department at school. John, our dean for some 10 years, retired, making way for Andy, who had been a professor since before I arrived on the scene. Although I always got along wonderfully with John, others had a hard time with the man. They found him difficult to deal with. Pretty much everyone agrees that Andy is terrific in the role.

Recently, I had to beg off of attending graduation since I had managed to book myself doing something else that evening. Penny worried about this, assuming that I’d be in deep difficulty as a result. I knew better. I walked in to Andy’s office and, confident of his response, said, “I’m going to need to skip graduation tonight. I’ll go twice next year if you like.” He smiled and nodded, reminding me to return my rented regalia so the school would receive credit.

It’s nice to be able to approach the permission-giver with confidence. It’s nice to be able to ask, even when you know the response is in question, and still be certain that you won’t come out both with a “no” and feeling a fool. It’s especially nice to be able to approach, knowing that you’ve earned the right to be given strong consideration for whatever you ask.

That’s never how it will be with God. I will never have earned any rights from God. Like Isaiah, I should be terrified at prospect of standing before my God, knowing that I’m a man of sinful lips (and hands, mind, and feet). That’s what is so great about Jesus.

Confidently, I can approach the throne of grace in the name of Jesus. That’s it. In the name of Jesus, I have standing. Without it, I’m reduced to a cinder in no time.

How often do we remind ourselves as we come to pray just how amazing it is that we can bring that petition in the name of Jesus? I’ll confess that I don’t keep that idea in the front of my consciousness. What about you?


Up in the Air

I have no problem with heights, despite those who would accuse me of being afraid of them. Quite the contrary, I would fully love heights if they weren’t always so far from the ground.

Yesterday, I pulled out an extension ladder and propped some eighteen feet of it against a horizontal branch of a large walnut tree, there to attach a couple of chains for a swing.

Yes, I know that swing-hanging is not exactly heavy-duty agrarian fare, but it might have been some other airborne pursuit that took me up that ladder hanging out over nothing. Indulge me here and I’ll try to make the trip worthwhile.

I assembled my supplies in advance. I had two lengths of chain, complete with quick links to close the circle, ready for the ascent. I’d also cut two strips of carpet to protect the tree’s bark. With these things in tow, I made my way up the ladder in a gusty wind. Roughly halfway up the ladder I paused, felt the wind pulsing against me, and headed down. I could do this thing later.

A few hours later, I decided to head up the ladder again. Again, I found myself halfway up and stalling out. I’ve really gotten better about my fear of heights (but only the ones that are far from the ground). I used to struggle with stepladders. Now, I can get onto roofs, hang over edges, and perform many other feats of derring do. But when the climbing has me hanging out over nothing–as opposed to leaning up against a wall, for example–my mind convinces me that I’m undoubtedly doomed to plunge to the ground.

As I stood there on that rung, I realized that I didn’t didn’t like the way I was carrying the chain and carpet up. I descended the ladder, tied the ladder’s rope into clove hitches around the two carpet pieces, and then tied the rope to the chains. This way I could ascend most of the way and then pull the supplies up to me.

Before my foot hit that first rung, I mouthed a quick prayer, asking for safety and nerve. I’d love to tell you that, post-prayer, I sprinted up the ladder, sat on the tree branch, kicked the ladder away, connected the chains, and then shinnied down to the ground. That’s not how it happened. Past that dreaded halfway point, each rung presented me with agony. Still, rung by rung, I made my way up to the height necessary to attach the chains. It took a long time to get the deed done. I dropped a quick link, but Penny managed to send it up to me. Eventually, though, both carpet pieces wrapped around the branch and both chains dangled to the ground.

Prayer did not push all fear of that precarious ladder from my mind. It won’t, I’m fairly sure, lead to me bungee-jumping or skydiving  anytime soon. But prayer did allow me enough composure to do what needed to be done. That’s enough.

Urban/suburban society tends to want a sure thing. There’s a financial ad running at present where people are carrying around “their number,” the amount of money they’ll need to retire comfortably. Wouldn’t you love to have sufficient money in your coffers to ensure that you’ll never lack anything? That sounds great, but is there really any such amount of money? A lawsuit here or a spate of inflation there can make that magic number seem pretty meaningless.

Similarly, society wants education that guarantees kids a happy, healthy, prosperous life. It wants health care that performs quick and certain tests before prescribing a magic pill that fixes problems in a few hours. It wants cars that never experience problems and houses that perfectly fit our “lifestyle.” In short, urban/suburban society wants perfection, a guarantee. And to be realistic, many rural folk want the same thing.

Hanging onto that ladder, the wind gusts pushing against me, I recognized that I didn’t need perfection. I didn’t need magic prayers that completely banished my fears. I just need to get up the ladder and attach the chains. I can live with–I can get excited by prayers that get me there. I don’t need a sure thing in retirement or a health-care guarantee. I have prayers in those regards that I’ll trust to see me safely through my needs.

On this Easter Sunday, I celebrate the only sure thing that I can truly have and that I truly need. Despite my fears, weaknesses, and shortcomings, I know that God–through Christ–will not leave me up in the air. Anything beyond that is just a bonus.

Cornerstone Quest–1 John 5:14

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.–1 John 5:14

Ten years ago, when Emily stood some fourteen years into this life, I did one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. She came to me one day and asked if I would take her and Andy, her boyfriend, to a four-day music festival, Cornerstone, held in the great metropolis of Bushnell, Illinois. Every year, Cornerstone packs in 15,000 to 20,000 mostly Christian music lovers and fellow sufferers to hear all manner of bands perform. No, you won’t find the Gaithers performing at Cornerstone. Most of the acts that civilized people enjoy wouldn’t be found on the bill.

Had you asked me on that day in 1998 to name the ten things I might do that summer, sweating for ten days in rural Illinois in the midst of a collection of weird-looking, exceptionally noisy, and sometimes unpleasant young people would not have made the list. It wouldn’t have made the top twenty, fifty or one hundred. Why then, the week of July 4, did I find myself driving into the grounds with not only Emily and Andy but two other boys and Alyson? Why indeed.

Had Emily asked me to drive her downtown to buy crack cocaine, a briefer and cheaper task, I would have said no. Similarly, I would not have agreed to a trip to the tattoo parlor or a marathon session on the Magic Teacups at Disneyland. I am perfectly capable of saying “no,” as my children can attest, but Cornerstone fit into my desires for my daughter. I hoped to grow her into a Christian adult with a personality. Happily, I think, I succeeded.

Scoffers look at John 5:14 and say, “Yeah, God will do whatever you want as long as it’s what he wants, too!” While this verse can be read in that manner, I like to think of it as the Cornerstone verse. God won’t give us what does not fit into his will, but he’s not necessarily rigid about what his will is. He might take us to Cornerstone or a mission trip. He might bless us as employees or business owners. As it turns out, Emily met Christian, her husband, at Cornerstone, the year after I stopped going.

This summer, I’m going back to the festival, accompanying Emily and Christian as well as my two younger kids, Thomas and Olivia. Who knows what wonders he has in store for us this time