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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

In the desert Jesus stands with and for sinners: Sunday Gospel Reflections with Dr. Harvey

Updated: Feb 16


2024 First Sunday of Lent’s Gospel: Mark 1:12-15 

(One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.) 

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." -Mark 1:12-15

Lent has begun! We are accustomed to Lent’s association with Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert. Mark’s account is simple and pointed. Mark offers four key facts about this event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth: (1) The Holy Spirit was involved, (2) tempted by Satan, (3) in the desert for 40 days, and (4) the presence of beasts and angels. Let us examine each of these to better understand Salvation History and the Christian life today.

The Holy Spirit: Prior to Jesus’ desert experience, he was baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan River. As Jesus emerged from those waters, waters he sanctified for sacramental baptism by his own immersion, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. As truly God, Jesus was never without the Holy Spirit. Yet, this is not always understood by those surrounding Jesus. The Holy Spirit’s descent revealed to those present, and those that would learn about it from eyewitnesses, that Jesus is the Anointed One. “Anointed One” is the English of the Greek “Christ” and Hebrew “Messiah.” The Anointed One is the one promised by the prophets of old. This union of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is not reduced to this moment; Mark wants us to see that all that would follow in Jesus’ life involved the Spirit too.

Tempted by Satan: All the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, especially Mark’s account, reveal Jesus’ entry into association and solidarity with sinners. Although Jesus never sinned, he stood with and for sinners. This association continues. Like us, Jesus will undergo temptation and suffering in the desert. His stand with and for us will extend all the way to the point of death. Jesus’ temptation was a widening and deepening of his own incarnational descent. God the Son enters into the struggle of temptation, and by entering into it he provides us a path to follow. We are not alone. Our God and Savior is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus is from the Father and for us.

The movement from Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ temptation, with the Holy Spirit involved in both, is a sequence of immense importance for the Christian today. Just as the start of Jesus’ public ministry was immediately followed by spiritual battle, we too will experience intense conflict when we follow the Father’s will. Perhaps I should specify here what Jesus did experience in his temptation and what this sinless lamb did not experience. Saint Gregory the Great describes three stages of temptation. First there is suggestion, then delight in the idea of the suggestion, and finally the consent or “yes” to the suggestion which is then a “no” to God. Jesus struggled with tempting suggestions but, as Saint Gregory comments, Jesus did not give in by delighting in sin nor consenting to it. This shows that while we should be afraid to sin, we should not be afraid of temptation. Jesus is with us and for us. Even if we do sin, we have a merciful Lord ready to lift us up when we fall, to resurrect the human heart.

Tempted in the Desert for 40 Days: The time and location of this spiritual battle is quite significant within the biblical tradition. Forty often signifies purifying preparation and testing. The nation of Israel was tested for forty years in the desert as they awaited entry into the Promised Land. Yet, they failed the test. They struggled to faithfully follow God. Jesus’ triumph in the desert for forty days is a completion of what Israel could not accomplish. He brings their journey to fulfillment by reliving Israel’s story.

Beasts and Angels: The presence of beasts and angels around Jesus is not an image of conflict, but an image of unity. It recalls for us, among other things, the unity of Adam and Eve in the world prior to their temptation and consent to sin. Not only is Jesus bringing Israel’s story to fulfillment, but the Adamic imagery means that it applies to all mankind as well. All of us find ourselves weak to the suggestions of temptation. Jesus is the New Adam and New Israel in his very person. He perseveres through the suggestion of temptation and still offers a complete “yes” of filial love to the Father.

The unity with beasts and angels not only points to the original Adamic unity but to the future. At the resurrection Jesus will initiate a New Creation three days following his suffering. Will we persevere in our penitential suffering this Lent? Will we rely upon God’s grace to not delight or consent to tempting suggestions? Will we enjoy the fruit of Easter as New Creation? To receive transformative Easter blessings, we must be willing to enter into conflict these forty days of Lent in imitation of One who stands with and for us. 

CLICK HERE for a list of our instruction team’s memorable Lenten disciplines.

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