As we’ve previously seen in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ coming marks the beginning of a reign. The names and lingo surrounding Jesus are regal and politically charged (“gospel,” “Anointed One,” “Son of God”). And we all know that the whole point of having a king is to concentrate authority in one place. In short, Jesus comes onto the scene and anyone (or thing) who has had dominion is threatened to have that power toppled.
In a world with violent political unrest in the headlines on a daily basis (Egypt, could be Haiti next…), we assume what it means for Jesus to do this. When the “heavens are torn open” we might imagine some sort of theme music being cued, fanfare, etc. But then, almost inexplicably, the Spirit leads Jesus into the dessert.
The writer of Mark’s gospel briefly alludes to this, but leaves the details out. However, we can supplement our understanding with Luke’s account. In chapter 4 in Luke, he narrates the three temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness. These temptations and how Jesus meets them show what his kingdom and Kingship are going to be about: not just the ends but also the means. In doing so they assault the ways we might be accustomed to think. They show us a clear picture of who’s the real King and who’s not.
The hungry Jesus is challenged to make bread from stones. Something he no doubt could have easily done. He resists this temptation, because, while his kingship will meet needs in the most complete and sweeping way possible, drawing from a bottomless supply of resources, he will not turn the stuff of creation into a commodity. Eugene Peterson mentions in his brilliant book The Jesus Way: “ The devil wants us to [give into this temptation]: follow Jesus but then use Jesus to fulfill needs, first our own and then the needs of all the hungry people around us.” King Jesus won’t do it. Instead he’ll go hungry. He’ll suffer in order to bring his kingdom into being.
The second temptation is to throw Himself off the highest point so that a band of angels may catch him. The devil challenges Jesus to dazzle. To show off a bit. To compensate for the, up until this point, anti-heroic shape his kingship is taking. Jesus resists. He will not be used as a “hedge against boredom.” He will not be just another thrill to be sought, or cause to be rallied for. Jesus’ kingdom campaign doesn’t need pyrotechnics or viral advertising.
The final temptation leveled against Jesus is to be co-opted. The devil offers Jesus something he already has: authority. Jesus resists. He knows what he has and who he is. He knows he doesn’t have to “sell-out” in order to “make it.” He trusts his Father to accomplish his mission. Perhaps “the devil wants us to use Jesus in the same way. Use Jesus to run our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our governments as efficiently and properly as we can, but with no love or forgiveness.”
Jesus, by establishing his Kingship in the wilderness, a Kingship that withstands these worldly, by-the-book measures, really exposes other kings (lowercase “k”); exposes them in the sense that they can’t rule like he can, nor are they willing to. The very trials the devil put to Jesus, which he withstood, are the very trials we pray against in the Lord’s Prayer. Because we know they’re tempting, but we also know who the Real King is.
I can’t help it, I’m a Disney-phile, but perhaps if coming out of the baptismal waters and heading towards the wilderness Jesus had a theme-song, it might have sounded a bit like one from the 1973 animated Robin Hood.
Living in an England ruled by Phony King John in a phony way, Robin Hood exposes him for who he is, a fake unfit to wear the crown or receive the people’s trust and obeisance. Jesus not only announces this, but is the alternative: the real King pronouncing a “pox on the phony kings” who do things in phony ways.