The Agony and the Ecstasy


The Agony and the Ecstasy can refer to a 1961 novel or a 1965 film about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel or a 1975 Smokey Robinson love song. That's probably more apropos of our text. "Love like ours is never ever free. You got to pay some agony for the ecstasy."

Well, that isn't quite right, now is it? The "you" in our case isn't plural. Jesus pays the agony for God so loving the world. Yes, "love hurts" but in the case of Jesus and me, Jesus does the hurting. We see this hurting right from the start. The insert translates too mildly. "At once the Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert." "At once" refers to Jesus' Baptism. Right after that the Holy Spirit of love, joy, and peace doesn't just send Jesus into the desert as you send someone to the store. No, He cast Him out. He threw Him out. And I would translate "wilderness" rather than "desert." Think rugged mountain terrain, not sand.

This throwing out of Jesus into the wilderness by the Spirit who descended on Him as a dove has the aspect of a horror movie. Cue the delightful, happy, celebratory music one minute, the sinister, foreboding, pensive music the next. Then crescendo in jarring, harsh, horrifying music. The Man Jesus goes from receiving the fulness of the Spirit one minute to being cast out heartlessly, lovelessly, judgmentally by that same Spirit.

And Jesus wasn't our there a day or two but 40. As unbelieving Israel was made to wander 40 years in the wilderness same word so the always believing Jesus was made to wander 40 days. You think Jesus gets off easy? Jesus is God in flesh and blood. The harshness, the bitterness, the trial of God for a minute equals that of a mere man for eternity.

Just being cast out by the Spirit is a trial, just being in a wilderness is a struggle, and just being there for a day much less 40 would be unjust to God in flesh and blood. But He was "being tempted by Satan." Again, it's intenser and harsher than that. "He was in the wilderness 40 days constantly being tempted under Satan." And while Sympathy for the Devil doesn't come to mind, another Rolling Stones' song Under My Thumb does.

You know what it means to be under someone's thumb. You're at their mercy. They can do with you what they will. In Matthew's and Luke's account you see this. Under Satan's thumb Jesus is taken to the top of the Temple and the top of a mountain. And each place the devil led Jesus a special temptation awaited. Satan tempts Jesus using the very human desires for God to prove His love for you and for ecstasy without agony.

The only good news is the continual tempting under Satan is passive. That means the temptations didn't come from within Jesus; they all came from outside of Him. From within us lust edgy and dull can cut a six-inch valley through the middle of our skull, but in Jesus' case it came from without. And this makes the agony all the worse. Think of the princess or the rich man pampered in life being hauled off to a concentration camp. It's all the fouler, all the harsher, all the worse for them than it would be for the poor or the homeless.

And now we're to the part of the agony that only Mark records. "He was with the wild animals." In recent years, some wish to make this a positive thing. See, Jesus had company in the wilderness. Or, they wish to make this Messianic. See, this fulfills Isaiah 11 saying a Little Child, the Christ, shall lead the wild animals who neither harm nor destroy. Or see, this is Yahweh making His way in the wilderness in accordance with Isaiah 43 (Gieschen, "Why Was Jesus with the Wild Beasts (Mark 1:13)?, CTQ 73 (2009), pp. 77-80).

I don't think so. This is in fulfillment of Scripture: In the Introit we chanted "You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent." How? That's answered in the next line: "Because He loves Me, says the Lord, I will rescue Him." And rescue Him Jesus' Father did by sending angels to minister to Him after He had successfully withstood the temptations of the Evil One. How did He do that? By continuing to love His Father through the temptation to doubt His providing for Him, His love for Him, and His plans for Him.

Being with the wild animals is part of the 24/7 agony of temptation Jesus endures for us. I've been at night in the swamp and heard bull alligators growling. I wasn't alone, but I was scared. I've heard a panther scream and it does sound like that of a woman. For that matter so do peacocks. Even if you know it's just a bird, you get goosebumps. Jesus in the wilderness with the wild animals is what you kids going camping should think of at night when you hear rustling outside your tent or a twig snap. Even though you know it's probably just a raccoon, it creeps you out. It was agony for Jesus.

How so? Because Jesus endures all the temptation under Satan's thumb while bearing our sins that were publicly poured on Him at Baptism. He is cast out into the wilderness by the Spirit even as the scapegoat bearing the sins of Israel was. And so, Jesus goes through the long nights where animals growl and shriek and "the wicked wind whistles and moans" with a guilty conscience, with the sinking feeling that the animals are there to get Him.

But they didn't, and Jesus remained faithful, trusting in the love of His heavenly Father all through those dark, lonely nights. He bore all the agony that our sins deserve, and afterward "angels attended Him." Matthew 4 makes it clear that they came only after Satan had left off tempting Him, only after the wild animals backed away, only after He had done as a Man what we could never do: bear the agony of temptation without falling.

Jesus gets the agony; we get the ecstasy. And I get to tell you it. Jesus sent me to do what He did. The text says, "Jesus wentproclaiming the good news of God." God has lots of good news. He will never again destroy the world by a flood. In Jesus, He will never leave you or forsake you. For Jesus' sake, He gives His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways. All of this is good news, but that's not what Jesus is proclaiming here.

The KJV, NASB, ESV, and most others correctly translate Jesus went forth proclaiming the Gospel. And the word Gospel isn't just good news; it's specifically good news of a victory. Remember what we sing in A Mighty Fortress of the devil? We sing, "On earth is not his equal." There is no way we could win over Satan. With every move we make, every breath we take we brake yet another Law of God. Satan uses that Law to accuse us night and day, proving we are guilty of death and damnation. And we are. But Jesus was not. He as a Man kept all God's Laws perfectly throughout an eternity of temptation. This takes the sword of the Law out of Satan's hand. And then this perfect Man suffered the agony of damnation and death. This takes our bill for sin out of Satan's hand. What Law can Satan demand you keep that Jesus didn't? What suffering, damning, or dying can Satan say you must go through to pay for your sins, that Jesus didn't already endure for you?

Satan has been defeated for you by Jesus, and so I can ecstatically proclaim what Jesus did. "Forever has been fulfilled the season for the kingdom of God to be here forever." I know, I know, it won't be all, alright until the river Death is passed over, the graves give up our bodies, and body and soul are reunited once more. But Jesus says from then on, the season of God's kingdom has forever come. Once Jesus arrives and defeats Satan all time from then to eternity is transparent. You can see all the way through to forever. There's nothing between here and the kingdom, between here and forever. If Sin, Death, and Devil don't and can't stand in our way, what can? Yes, it's the time of the season for love. God's love for you.

However, there is not much ecstasy for you if you hear the last words of Jesus as "you had better repent and you had better believe the Gospel." It's true they are commands, but they are not two more things you must do or more accurately two more things you must wonder if you do enough. Hear them the same way the widow of Nain heard Jesus' command to stop crying as she was taking her boy to burial. Hear the command to repent of your sins and to believe the Gospel the way the disciples in the storm heard Jesus command to stop being afraid.

Hear these two commands enthusiastically, endearingly, ecstatically. You get to repent; you get to believe. In the same way the widow got to stop crying in the face of a dead son and the disciples got to stop fearing in the face of a storm, you can stop thinking your sins are on you. Jesus' commands break through all your thoughts and doubts, all the devil's whispers that the Gospel isn't for you. Not all the way, anyway. You're on the road to repentance, but confessing you're a poor, miserable sinner is just a start. You're on the right track when you say you believe Jesus suffered and died for your sins, but you're not all the way there. O yes you are in both cases. Jesus commands you repent and believe so you might know you have them as sure as the widow had no more tears and the disciples no more fears.

Jesus is real clear here; the insert is not. Jesus doesn't just say, "Repent and believe the Gospel." He says, "Repent believe inside the Gospel." What you and I do is try to repent and believe outside of the Gospel where Sin, Death, and Devil prowl about like lions, and tigers, and bears seeking to cause us to doubt and so devour us in despair. Inside the Gospel, God Himself knows of no guilt you are guilty of, no sin you are shamed by, no law you must keep. Inside the Gospel, I get to constantly repent and constantly believe.

Ebony and Ivory is a 1982 song where Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sing about how the black and white piano keys live together in perfect harmony. Implicit is the thought that both are needed to make music. Likewise, Christ's agony of temptation and your ecstasy over Satan totally overcome combine to make the music of faith. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

First Sunday in Lent (20180218); Mark 1: 12-15