Text Study for Mark 1:9-15 — 1 Lent B 2021 (part two)

Part Two: It’s Gets Harder from Here

“Therefore, you need to consider that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil,” writes Martin Luther in his preface to the Service of Holy Baptism, “and not only drive him away from the little child but also hang around its neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy” (Luther’s Small Catechism, page 72).

While Luther notes that the benefits of Holy Baptism are forgiveness, life, and salvation, he also reminds us that this baptism is entry into the battle for the life of the cosmos. When we are baptized, we have a big, old, bullseye attached to us and shoot expect sin, death, and the Devil, to take shots at us regularly and often.

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This runs counter to the longing among many who seek a deeper spiritual experience these days. We have a deep desire for spiritual safety and security or at least a modicum of tranquility. I think that neither Mark nor Luther offers or promises such escapist relief. Instead, Luther wrote, as Timothy Wengert notes, “Yet such is life that one stands today and falls tomorrow.” We are as, Luther describes us, simultaneously justified and sinners. Baptism does not free us from attacks by sin, death, and the Devil. If anything, those attacks are amplified when we wear the bullseye of baptism.

“This remarkably realistic view of human existence contrasted with the medieval anxiety over whether one was in a state of sin or grace (or perfection),” Wengert notes. Luther’s existential realism also “contrasts with modern American addiction to conversion experiences, decisions for Jesus, and the striving for holiness and perfection” (Martin Luther’s Catechisms, page 95). One of the marks of privilege is the belief that we deserve tranquility and are entitled to comfort. It seems to me that many these days pursue a variety of spiritual disciplines to escape from trials rather than to be better equipped to deal with such struggles.

In Mark, Jesus’ ministry is one of confronting the forces of sin, death, and evil. Jesus “has come to combat and perhaps defeat forces determined to counteract God’s intentions for human well-being,” Matt Skinner writes. “The antagonists in Mark are not human ignorance and religio-political authority; they are spiritual forces, things that oppress human bodies and minds and defy human attempts to subdue them. The world Jesus inhabits,” Skinner concludes, “is a dangerous place.”

Part of Mark’s purpose, it would seem, is to remind us that the world doesn’t get safer for us. That much should be obvious as we continue to live through The Pandemic, insurrection, political intrigue and drama, white supremacist plotting and pontificating, and all our individual and local challenges to live faithfully and well.

Some of us have been formed to see Lent as a time of extended sorrow for our sins (and it is that). But what if we see it more as a time for intense discipleship training and practice to equip us for faithful obedience and endurance in a threatening world? “Jesus went the way that all his people must go,” N. T. Wright concludes, “and he could do it because he had heard the words of love, the words of life.” (Kindle Location 325). In Lent we are invited to hear those words of love and life for us as well.

Luther described his own experience of the life of faith (and what he expected for others) as Anfechtungen, that is, “attacks.” These attacks can lead us to false belief and despair. The antidote to false belief and despair is trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to continually create in us the faith that justifies and transforms us in the midst of our struggles.

Christians have often wondered why we are not free from struggle and suffering now that we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and are walking in the newness of life (see Romans 6). That wondering goes back to the earliest Christian communities. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” we read in 1 Peter 4:12-13. “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Even early Christians were knocked off balance by suffering and struggle. We don’t need to go looking for trouble if we are faithful Jesus followers. Suffering and struggle are part of the journey. Challenges from sin, death, and the Devil will find us often enough and soon enough. We need not be surprised when that happens. Instead, we can take those times as opportunities to rely even more securely on the grace, mercy, and love of God in Christ by the Spirit’s power. As I noted above, Lent can be used as a time to practice that reliance, so we are better prepared when the real thing hits us.

In our system of privilege, we expect to be comforted and feel entitled to a path that gets easier as we go. In fact, Mark’s gospel portrays the opposite path for disciples. The path becomes more difficult as we go. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not make things easier but rather plunges us more deeply into God’s struggle against the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Luther’ spirituality is consistent with this view. Luther did not expect things to get easier when he got closer to Jesus. Instead, he expected things to get more difficult, the tests to come closer together, and the despairing times to be even deeper. Luther wrote numerous letters of comfort and encouragement to believers who struggled with anxiety, despondency, and despair in the face of such attacks. Luther knew what he was talking about since he dealt with such attacks throughout his life.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus responds to the Satan by engaging in a theological and political debate. We don’t get such a blow-by-blow description of Jesus’ struggles in Mark. I like to think that perhaps Jesus engaged in more “Luther-like” responses here. In his letter of spiritual council to Jerome Weller, Luther offered several strategies for responding to these demonic attacks of anxiety, despondency, and despair.

First, he notes that such attacks are not signs of a lack of faith or a failure in God’s grace, mercy, and love. Instead, he writes, such temptation from the devil “is a certain sign that God is propitious and merciful to you.” Weller’s resistance has been such that the devil is forced into a war of spiritual attrition. “If [the devil] cannot break a person with his first attack, he tries by persevering to wear him out and weaken him until the person falls,” Luther writes, “and confesses himself beaten” (Letters of Spiritual Council, page 85).

Instead of exercising spiritual brute force, Luther counsels, come at the attacks from a position of contempt for the devil. Despise those thoughts which convict and contort your spirit and regard them as false. Laugh at the devil. Luther urges Weller to make jokes and play games with Luther’s spouse and family (in whose home he was a guest). “In this way,” Luther assures Weller, “you will drive out your diabolical thoughts and take courage” (page 85).

It is a principle in the spiritual life, therefore, that there will be personal progress in the power of the Spirit. But there will also be demonic pushback. We should expect both realities to be at work in our lives. In the same way, we should expect such struggles in the world around us. Ibram X. Kendi describes this well in the area of anti-racism. He notes that we see and experience progress in anti-racist work, policies, and outcomes. But we see and experience “progress” in racist work, policies, and outcomes as well.

There is no safe harbor from the battle. Certainly, there are moments of rest and recovery, and spiritual disciplines can provide such respite. But if we wish to resign from the fight and occupy some perpetual quiet space of spiritual equanimity, we can only do that at the expense of others who will pay for our peace. That’s the nature of privilege, and it is not a description of the authentic Christian journey (at least not in historic Lutheran terms).

One last word from Luther in this regard. Our trials do not come from God, but they may be useful in driving us into God’s loving arms in the name of Christ and by the Spirit’s power. “God both loves and hates our afflictions,” Luther (that master of the coincidence of contradictions) said during one of his Table Talks. God “hates them when we are driven to despair by them. But when our afflictions move us to deeper trust in God’s grace, mercy, and love, God does indeed love them.”

Even our doubts and despair can be a sign of our secure place in God’s heart. Valentine Hausmann, the burgomaster of Freiberg, was often troubled by doubt and unbelief. His conscience was often terrorized as a result. “How many there are who have less faith than you have!” Luther wrote him in 1532. “Yet they are not aware of it and remain in their unbelief. The fact that God makes you sensible of this is a good sign that [God] wishes to help you out of your condition. The more you are aware of it,” Luther says, “the nearer you are to improvement. Cling calmly to God,” he advises, and God “will cause everything to turn out well” (Letters of Spiritual Counsel, page 119).

Resources and References

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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