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Wild Beasts and Angels


Mark 1: 9-15
A Communion Meditation by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
First Sunday in Lent               March 5, 2017

            The wilderness training program we know as Outward Bound actually didn’t originate on land at all, but rather was founded in the turbulent waters of the North Sea during World War II, in order to provide young sailors with the experiences and skills necessary to survive at sea. Though it draws its name from the nautical term for a ship’s departure from the certainties of the harbor, over the last fifty years Outward Bound has morphed into a desert and wilderness learning experience aimed at building teamwork by testing individual limits.

Barbara Brown Taylor once described the season of Lent as “an Outward Bound for the soul” – these forty days when we try to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we supply for ourselves.

No one has to sign up for [Outward Bound], but if you do then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life. You place yourself in the hands of strangers who ask you to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a precipice with nothing but a rope around your waist or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. But none of these is the real test, because while you’re doing them you have plenty of people around and lunch in a cooler.

The real test comes when you go “solo.” The strangers put you out by yourself in the middle of nowhere and wish you luck for the next twenty-four hours [or more].  That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you really fear.  Some people dream about their favorite food.  Some long for a safe room with a door to lock, and others just wish they had a pillow, but they all find out what their pacifiers are – the habits, substances, or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human.

Without those things they are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out.  It is hard. It is awful. It is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God.[1]

It was that kind of experience that came to mind this week when I was poring over our passage from Mark’s Gospel, particularly Mark’s brief description of the temptation of Jesus.  There is such urgency in Mark’s choice of words.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, where Jesus is “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness, Mark says that the Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

He was in the wilderness forty days [says Mark], tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is no retreat.  It is a prize fight for Jesus’ heart and soul.  Jesus has just been baptized, where the Spirit has descended upon him and revealed his identity.  He is ready to begin his ministry. But first, that same Spirit drives him into the wilderness for a fight with demonic temptation, with wild beasts nipping at his heels and the vultures circling overhead,[2]  but also with angels like trainers in his corner to wipe his brow and tend to his wounds.[3]  Mark tells the story briefly, but vigorously, this collision between Jesus’ baptismal identity and the forces of evil.

I suspect many of us are more accustomed to Matthew’s story of these wilderness days – the hunger, the temptations, and afterwards the angels coming to minister to Jesus.  But in Mark [says Cynthia Campbell], this all seems to happen more or less at the same time.

Jesus is tempted by Satan – the adversary, the accuser, the voice that natters on and on in your head making you second-and-third-and-fourth guess every hard decision and every opportunity; and there are wild beasts; and there are angels. Far from being barren, this wilderness seems downright crowded!

If the story of Jesus is at all paradigmatic, if we are even in remote ways to find a pattern for understanding our stories through reflection on his story, then perhaps this moment can be meaningful for us.  The Christ-shaped life tells us that after baptism, we receive gifts from the Holy Spirit… gifts that become callings, invitations to live lives of creative discipleship, lives in service to God and others. One would think that being gifted leads directly to a life of clear sailing, but Jesus’ story prepares us for what may be far more realistic. Given the opportunity to do good work, we are more likely than not to be confronted with tests and trials.  Is this job opportunity [I’ve been offered] a calling or [merely] a way to satisfy the ego’s need for recognition, status, success?  What is the right thing to do with (relatively) abundant resources? What is the right thing to do with (suddenly) scarce resources?  These and scores of [other tests and trials] confront us as individuals and the congregations, communities and institutions we serve.  Every choice (it seems) can be justified and second-guessed. And rarely are the consequences of our choices discernable in advance.[4]

But each choice is important.  Each decision has consequences. And all the while, the wild beasts lurk all around us, nipping at our heels.

We all face temptations – real ones, not the ones we casually set up for ourselves in Lent. As Jon Walton notes, “Temptation in the wilderness, the kind that Jesus knew, is serious business, a quantum’s quantum different from our pitiful Lenten resolutions to lose five pounds by Easter or to limit our chocolate intake for forty days.  Temptation like that which Jesus encountered is having your life shift like sand through a screen.  It is having your soul shaped by the sculptor’s hand with the chisel against the marble.”[5]

What was Jesus’ temptation? When it came right down to it, it was to forget who and whose he was. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, and the voice of God said, “You are my son, my beloved.  You belong to me and to no other.  You are the one I have chosen to walk the long road to Jerusalem and to die on the cross.  You are the one I have chosen to drink the cup of suffering. You are my beloved son. Do not forget who you are.”

When you were baptized, the same voice spoke again.  “You are my daughter, my beloved.”  “You are my son, my chosen.”  And if you want to know when you are really being tempted, it’s not when you are looking covetously at that bar of chocolate you’ve forsworn for Lent; it’s when you feel the wild beasts nipping at your heels and the forces of evil calling you to deny that you are a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s when your faith is calling you one way and your economic well-being is beckoning you in a different direction; it is when your Christian identity is being compromised by the demands of your work, or by your place among those you call friends. Your identity is being challenged when you must decide whether to remain silent or raise your voice in the face of injustice. Decision by decision, each choice we make to be true to our baptismal identity counts.

In such choices, Jesus is our guide. When, in his baptism, the voice from heaven told him who he was, he attached to that announcement of divine favor no privilege.  When the Spirit drove him into the desert, he did not seek to escape. He accepted the company God gave him in the desert – Satan, wild beasts, ministering angels, with “no drama of preferring one to the other. Here is someone who wastes no time defending himself against what comes to him, knowing that everything comes from God. Here is someone who shows us what it means to please God” in one’s decisions.[6]  Says Jon Walton:

[Most of our] temptations in life are so subtle.  They are not of the magnitude that Jesus faced in the great decisions of his wilderness. But they are nonetheless the kind that sift our souls and shape our character, [not in forty days, but] so slowly, day by day, and week by week [decision by decision].

It is a wonder any of us are able to remember our baptisms, to be reminded of whose and who we are in our lives sorely tested.  We forget to call upon the angels, who are every bit as much beside us as are the [wild beasts] if we will only have the wit to pay attention. [There are angels, you know, and they are there to nurse our wounds: friends who’ll listen and lend their support… old and familiar stories that, when remembered, stir in us courage and hope and help us to know right from wrong.   Angels.  In anthems and pedal notes on the organ, in handwritten notes and Facebook tags, in sleep and waking, sunlight and rain and snow . . . there are angels – bearing gifts of sustenance and encouragement and hope.[7]]  The whole point of Jesus in the desert is to show that when we’re there in that desert also, we are not alone.  We are not alone.

A lot of you have probably sung that old [spiritual,] “Jesus walked this lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself.” And then there’s that verse about us, “You have to walk this lonesome valley; you have to walk it by yourself. O, nobody else can walk it for you; you have to walk it by yourself.”

But you don’t, you don’t. You don’t have to walk it by yourself at all.  [This isn’t Outward Bound. None of us have to go “solo.”] Because Jesus has walked precisely where we walk in the desert of decision and the wilderness of despair.  And because he did, none of us have to walk that valley of temptation by ourselves. Along with the wild beasts, there are also the angels, and where the angels are, Jesus is as well.

[Today we enter] into a wilderness that will take us through a Lenten valley of 40 days and 40 nights and the Sundays in-between.  And … we begin at this table where the bread of life and the cup of salvation [lend] us strength for the journey.  [A] bane to the wolves and a deterrent to the jackals. And it is also a resting place for the weary and a meeting place for the angels who want to help us on our journey and sustain us on our way.

It will not be enough in this one place and this one time to see us all the way home, but it is enough to refresh our spirits and restore our souls so that our steps may be steady in our time of need.  And it will see us through, as it did our savior.  For the feast of salvation begins, don’t you know, with a crumb and a swallow, [as we make our Lenten journey one step and] one decision at a time.[8]



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1999, 66-67.

[2] Jon Walton, in a sermon, “With the Wild Beasts and the Angels,” preached March 12, 2000 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, Delaware.

[3] Tom Long, comments to the January 2000 Moveable Feast in Stony Point, New York.

[4] Cynthia Campbell, in a paper on this text presented to the January 2009 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[5] Walton, “With the Wild Beasts and the Angels.”

[6] Taylor, in Bartlett and Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 47.

[7] Carla Pratt Keyes, in a sermon preached March 1, 2009 at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia.

[8] Walton.

Bob Dunham , Pastor


Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111


Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).