I’ll use this opportunity to confess something right here, on this the first Sunday in Lent: I absolutely hate the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Along with some other less annoying movies and shows, it seemed to be on a constant loop in my sister’s house when her kids where young, and there wasn’t anything about it I found less than grating. No less grating was my two best friends in seminary who had a habit of skipping down the hallway, arm in arm, singing “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” at all hours of the day and night. More than once I came out of my room like a lion; how cowardly I was I can’t remember.
I don’t think there were any cowardly lions in the wilderness of Judea in the first century. If there were, they would have been easy prey for the wolves and leopards and serpents, oh my.
It was into this wilderness that Jesus was driven. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus from the Jordan River, the spot of His baptism, out into no-man’s-land; the Greek word we translate as driven is the same word Mark uses when he writes about Jesus casting out, driving out demons – it’s not a subtle thing the Holy Spirit did there.1
But my favorite part of this passage is Mark’s throw-away line about the wild animals. Or is it a throw-away line (you knew that was coming, right)? A writer named Tim Mackie (using Baucher’s Jesus and the Wild Animals) “traces the background of this image in Jewish tradition, which is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish thought.
“For an ancient agrarian culture, with farms, domesticated animals, etc. “wild animals” represented first and foremost a threat. Ancient Palestine hosted a number of (now extinct) species like lions, bears, leopards, poisonous snakes that persistently threatened to encroach upon human territory. Areas that humans had cultivated (towns, farmland, river banks, water springs, etc) were seen in opposition to the ‘wild places’ where threatening animals lived. They were not cute, and (they were not in zoos).
“However, in Jewish tradition, there was a sense that this enmity between humans and wild animals was not how things were supposed to be.”2
The prophets, especially Isaiah, prophesied that when God decided to redeem the world, the rift between animals and humans would be mended. You remember the words: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together…And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”3
When was the first time that ever happened? You guess it, when Jesus was in the wilderness. Mark doesn’t tell us that, of course, like he bothers to tell us much of anything; but he implied it, more than implied, he assumed it – with all the freight that comes with that assumption.
For us, though, we’re not so much worried about the lions and tigers and bears, oh my(!) as much as we are awed and joyed and compelled by who Jesus is, who He is in relation not only to the wildlife but to the cosmos, and of course, who He is to us. As this Lent comes swooping in, as the ashes have come off our foreheads and we begin to prepare to meet our Lord once again outside of His empty tomb, now is the time to set that straight once again, to follow Him into the wilderness knowing that without Him we have nothing, but with Him, we have nothing to fear. Welcome, my friends, to the wilderness of Lent; let us meet once again our Savior in that wilderness.
1Robinson’s Word Pictures.
2Tim Mackie, musing: https://tmackie.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/jesus-and-wild-animals/