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Jesus Gets Us

St. John’s Lutheran Church
18 February 2024 + Lent 1b
Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Josh Evans


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In the beginning was the wilderness.

Every First Sunday in Lent, we hear this story. Three out of four gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – what biblical scholars call the “synoptic gospels,” for the way they “see together” the story of Jesus through a similar lens – tell this story, each with their own unique details.

Matthew gives us the story in eleven verses. Luke, ever thorough, expands the story to thirteen.

But Mark? Just two verses.

The first and oldest gospel, characterized by its brevity and immediacy, moves quickly from one story to the next, in a span of just sixteen chapters – compare that to Luke’s twenty-four and Matthew’s twenty-eight. Mark offers us precious few details, compared to his synoptic counterparts. What were Jesus’s temptations? How did he respond? Mark doesn’t say.

Even so, Mark does offer some details, in his own way.

First, Jesus is “driven out” into the wilderness. Thrown or hurled, more accurately. It’s the same word Mark will use later to describe the action of Jesus casting out demons and driving the corrupt money changers from the temple.

Jesus doesn’t choose the wilderness. He is thrown into it. And he consents to stay there – for forty days, which is the bible’s way of saying a very long time.

Jesus doesn’t choose the wilderness. Truthfully, it’s probably the last place he wants to be, fresh off of his baptism and the life- and mission-affirming moment of having God’s Spirit alight on him and call him “Beloved.” But Jesus doesn’t fight it. He doesn’t try to escape or run away. He stays put – in the wilderness – for forty days – a very long time.

Second detail: Jesus is with the “wild beasts.” Not the “friendly beasts” of the popular Christmas carol. Wild. Untamed. Beasts. No “donkey, shaggy and brown” here. But vipers, scorpions, and jackals.

“Wild beasts” can show up in other forms, too. For many of us who grew up in the church, taking for granted the doctrines and dogmas, the practices and traditions, the certainty and predictability, the “wild beasts” come to us by way of questions and doubts. They threaten to undermine the stability we’ve come to count on, to rob us of our faith. We try to quell them, to make them disappear – but they just won’t go away.

In the wilderness, Jesus learns to be with the wild beasts. He doesn’t build a fortress of self-protection around himself to keep them at bay. He stays with them. He learns to live with them – and emerging from the wilderness, he in fact grows into something of a “wild beast” himself, challenging the comfortable status quo of the religious conventions into which he was born.

***

In one particularly difficult period in the life of her family, writer and theologian Debie Thomas recounts how she once wound up at a Catholic bookshop she’d never been to before, in a part of town she wasn’t familiar with. As she sobbed and gasped helplessly in her grief, one of the Catholic sisters who worked at the shop brought her a small silver crucifix on a chain. As she placed the crucifix into her hand, the sister said, “Keep this. Hang on to it. Only a suffering God can help.

As Thomas would later learn, this sister had actually been quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and eventually executed: “Only a suffering God can help,” Bonhoeffer writes.

A God who accompanies. A God who bears our pain because God has experienced that pain. A God who knows what it is to be human because God became human.

I’ve always appreciated the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness because it helps to remind us that Jesus was fully human. Sometimes, I think we forget that part, and we lose sight of what exactly that means because we know the bigger picture and the rest of the story. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as our creeds profess, Jesus was 100% fully human.

Here, in the wilderness, in the prelude to his public ministry, Jesus’s journey was just beginning – and I have to wonder if he thought it was also going to end, right then and there. Hungry. Alone. Scared. Questioning his purpose.

Jesus’s journey was one of struggle and suffering.

There’s great comfort in that for me. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that we are not alone when our own journeys take unpredictable detours, when we start to question and doubt all that we once held so sure, or when we wind up aimlessly lost in the wilderness. Because Jesus has been there, too.

In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted. In the wilderness, Jesus’s humanity is on full display. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted as we are tempted.

***

In the wilderness, you could even say that Jesus gets us.

Maybe you’ve seen those ads too – in between Usher’s halftime show, cutaways to Taylor Swift, and a little football game. The commercial seems innocent enough – provocative, even compelling – appearing to push back against images of Christianity as judgmental and exclusive.

Simply titled “Foot Washing,” the commercial depicts a variety of contemporary contexts, with pairings of people from seemingly opposite backgrounds and identities coming together across difference. “Jesus didn’t teach hate,” the words splash on the screen at the end. “He washed feet.”

It’s the second year in a row the “He Gets Us” campaign has run ads during the Super Bowl. In their own words, the campaign asks, “How did the story of a man who taught and practiced unconditional love, peace, and kindness; who spent his life defending the poor and the marginalized; a man who even forgave his killers while they executed him unjustly – whose life inspired a radical movement that is still impacting the world thousands of years later – how did this man’s story become associated with hatred and oppression for so many people?”

For two years in a row, the campaign has gained vast appeal – and also its share of criticism. “Yes, Evangelicals, Jesus gets us,” one popular image pushing back against the campaign reads. “The problem is, you don’t get him.”

Dig a little deeper into the organization behind “He Gets Us,” and you’ll find the answer to the very same question the campaign itself poses: “How did the story of a man who taught and practiced unconditional love become associated with hatred and oppression for so many people?”

Because of the ways that that man’s story have been co-opted and warped by an incredibly vocal segment of Christians who have, among other things, funded anti-trans and anti-gay legislation across the country for decades – including the group behind these very ads. That’s how.

The truth is, as clever and well-produced as these commercials might be, as appealing as their message is on its own, they are deceptive and dangerousNot because Jesus doesn’t “get us,” not because Jesus isn’t as inclusive as the ads portray him to be – but because the people behind those ads don’t really believe that. “Bait and switch,” as critics have called it.

But the ads are right: Jesus does get us. All of us.

And more than that: Jesus knows what it’s like to be one of us. Fully human – and facing the messiness of everything that entails.

***

In the beginning is the wilderness.

In the beginning, Jesus is thrown into the wilderness – and he stays there, with wild beasts and all.

In the beginning is a human God who suffers – and who deeply knows what it means to be where we have been and where we are.

In the beginning, and now, ours is a God who gets us, truly.

A God who sees us, who loves us, and who holds us in an unconditional embrace.

No strings attached.

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