February 26, 2012
Three of our gospels tell us that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he spent forty days in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that during that time in the wilderness he was tempted by the devil. Although three gospels report this event, there are interesting differences in the way that they present the story. Matthew and Mark both tell us that angels ministered to Jesus in the desert. But, they disagree about when the angels come. In Matthew’s account Jesus goes into the desert, fasts for forty days, is hungry, Satan comes, they debate with one another, Jesus tells Satan to leave, and then the angels come and minister to him. But, in Mark’s account, we are simply told that Jesus was in the desert with the devil and angels ministered to him. In Matthew’s account, the angels come after Satan leaves. In Mark’s account the angels are with Jesus all during the temptation.
So, which account is right? I would suggest to you that both are, but in different ways. Each of these gospels captures a specific aspect of our relationship to Christ. Angels, of course, are God’s presence and comfort to us. These two gospels tell us that God is certainly present to us after the temptation ends, but they also assure us that God is with us even as the testing unfolds.
Whenever we experience some difficulty in our life, whenever there is a trial that we have to face, it makes perfect sense for us to look forward to that day when the trial is over. When the forty days are done, we can celebrate our survival and give glory to God. These are the angels to which Matthew points, the angels that come to us after a successful trial has been completed. When these angels arrive, we are able to claim God’s love and presence with us in thankfulness. Mark points to different angels. His angels are with us in the very midst of trial. Mark’s gospel tells us that God does not wait to come to us until Satan leaves, but is with us as we face the difficulties of life. Now, of course, Mark’s angels are more difficult to recognize. It is easy to recognize God’s presence with us once the trial is over, once we end a period of pain. But, it takes real faith for us to see the angels who are with us even as we suffer, even as we struggle.
When we have to face a difficult task, studying for exams in school, or working on some big project at work, it makes perfect sense to look forward to that time when that work has been successfully completed and we can kick back and resume life as usual. When we reach that point, it is easy to thank God for being with us. But, it is also important for us to remember that God is with us as we study for those exams, as we do the work that is necessary, as we struggle through the research that is required to pull our project together. God is with us even as we go through that difficult effort.
When we have to face a difficult medical treatment, it makes perfect sense to look forward to that time when that treatment has been successfully completed. Then we can declare that we are cancer free and give praise to God. But it is even more important that we recognize that God is with us in the midst of the treatment, in the support and care of family and friends, in the courage that allows us to face each day and to take another step forward.
When we have to face difficulty or turmoil in our family or important relationships, we obviously look forward to that day when those relationships will be clarified, when things will be set straight, when our relationship with the people we love will be placed on a new and better footing. But it is crucial for us to remember that God is also with us in the midst of the turmoil and doubt, giving us the patience and wisdom to keep moving forward until our relationships are healed.
No one likes to face the devil. So it makes perfect sense that we look forward to that day when we can leave the desert, when our trial will be over. But today’s gospel tells us that God does not wait to come to us until the devil leaves. From the minute we enter into the desert trials of our lives, God sends angels to walk the sands with us.