The Cosmic War

By Jim Vitale

Nothing grows that sin has not withered.

Nothing lives that sin has not killed.

Nothing gleams that sin has not tarnished.

God looked upon creation and saw a blight stretching its diseased hand over all things. Sin, like a cancer, growing so deep into the world no scalpel could cut it out without severing the arteries of creation. The mothers who once stood over their children’s cribs, now stand over their graves. The once-wise minds of the elders are now addled by time and decay. The great tables upon which lay feasts for any who had want now lay empty and bring only hunger. The deep wells from which one could take a long draft now fill throats only with thirst. The brothers who once played together now seek to kill each other. The communities that once lived in mutual love now seek mutual enslavement. The bounty of creation that once offered itself to all is now hoarded by a few.

God looked upon creation and wondered if God should simply scrap the whole thing—start over or maybe never create again. But God couldn’t. God’s compassion for this handmade world ran deep, deep as the disease, and deeper still. This cancerous death must die—but how?

Mark 1:9-15 sends us out in the wilderness with Jesus. Here in chapter one, Mark throws us right into the middle of a cosmic battle between God and Satan. Mark wants us to know exactly what his Gospel will be all about, exactly what he thinks Jesus was all about: and so he introduces us to this cosmic war early on.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t give Jesus a gentle push out into the wilderness. The word translated so nicely as “drive” is actually the same word that describes what Jesus does to demons. Jesus is “cast out”. No sooner does the Holy Spirit descend into Jesus in his baptism than she kicks him square in the behind, rocketing him out into the wilderness.

The Old Testament authors believed chaos to be the symbol of evil, and order to be the symbol of good. God is good because God creates order out of chaos. In the Old Testament, the wilderness is considered the stronghold of chaos, of danger, of lawless evil. Cities were places of order, “civilized” by the laws of people. The wilderness, on the other hand, was devoid of human society and therefore lawless, chaotic. So why would the Holy Spirit cast Jesus out into such treacherous territory? Because Satan is there, and God has a bone to pick with him.

Notice that Mark makes no mention of fasting in his account. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is no moment of personal piety or placid meditation. It is war—not the end of the war, but first contact. Jesus is sent out into the wilderness to size up his foe, to see what Satan is all about, maybe even to give Satan one last chance to drop his weapons and walk away.

Mark mentions few details in his gospel, so when one shows up, we best pay attention to it. Whereas Matthew and Luke spend a dozen verses describing Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Mark knocks it out in just one. In verse 13, Mark says that Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels served him.” How strange it is, then, that Mark uses his precious space to mention wild beasts. Why?

If the wilderness was the stronghold of chaotic evil, then the wild animals were its citizens. These inhabitants of the chaotic wilderness often symbolized the opposite of God’s good order. And here, in the first chapter, Mark tells us that Jesus is out in the wilderness with the chaotic creatures.

It’s hard to know what that word “with” really implies. Is this a Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den situation? Is Jesus surrounded by creatures threatening to rip him limb from limb with tooth and talon? I rather think not, actually. We hear that Jesus is with the wild beasts and the angels serve him. The image these two things create is something far more peaceful to me.

We don’t hear specifically if Jesus is victorious in his first battle against Satan, but I think this verse gives us a hint. It’s hard to imagine angels serving Jesus if he’s spending all his time fighting off Satan and running away from man-eating lions. So Jesus must have been triumphant is his battle. The fight is over—for now. Satan has gone to regroup and now Jesus enjoys the service of the angels and, it seems, the peaceful presence of the wild beasts.

The Holy Spirit may have booted Jesus out into the wilderness, the stronghold of chaos and evil, but pretty quickly we find Jesus petting the lions, feeding the tigers, and playing with the bears. This is a foreshadowing of things to come. Jesus will not only seek to save humans from the chaos of sin, he will redeem the whole creation from it. In the new creation, even the wild animals will be tamed.

At the beginning of this post I said that Mark gives us this wilderness scene in the first chapter of his gospel because he wants us to know, right off the bat, exactly what his Gospel will be all about. We read this passage at the beginning of the season of Lent for the same reason, to remind us what Lent is all about. The stories throughout the rest of Lent draw us into deeper awareness of the cosmic battle that touches all of us.

So, here at the beginning of Lent, we must remind ourselves that the stakes could not be higher. All of creation is caught in the middle of a cosmic battle. Sin and Satan have brought death, despair, and desecration to all that God has proclaimed good and holy. Without God’s interference, everything God has created, including us, is doomed to destruction.

For many, Lent is a season to adopt a new spiritual practice, to fast from a particular food or activity, or to add a prayer practice into one’s daily routine. We do this because it is very important for us to think critically about our actions. And it is even more important for us to consider God’s actions. However valuable our spiritual practices, they are useless if God has not acted on our behalf to save us from the forces of sin and death. Here, at the beginning of Lent, we see the beginning of God’s merciful action, the first step in drawing all people to Jesus. Jesus has tamed the chaos of a small patch of wilderness, and now he has set his sights on the rest of the creation, to draw it in, to lift it up, to make it new.

Amen.