United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“Jesus and the Wild Beasts”

February 18, 2024

Dr. Daniel L. Migliore


       “And the spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan.  And he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)


      We meet this morning text on the first Sunday of Lent.  Lent is a solemn time.  A  time for personal meditation and prayer.  A time to ponder the state of our spiritual life and our life as a community of faith. A time to ask how it is going with our desire to be faithful followers of Jesus.  A  time to be with Jesus in the wilderness where he was tempted.  A time to acknowledge that our lives sometimes seem like being in a wilderness where we are sorely tempted to betray God’s will for our life--just as Jesus at the beginning of his ministry was in the wilderness where he experienced temptations to betray the will of God.


      Our Gospel text this morning is the story of Jesus’ temptation as told by the evangelist Mark.  The story is brief.  Very brief.  Only three simple sentences.  In the first sentence, Mark tells us: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  Imagine: Right after Jesus is baptized in the river Jordon.  Right after hearing the voice form heaven declaring, “You are my beloved Son.”  Right after that, Mark says, “The Spirit of the Lord immediately “drove” Jesus into the wilderness.  Did you hear the word Mark uses: “drove,” urged, compelled, thrust forward, drove, not “led” Jesus into the wilderness, as the other Gospel writers gently describe the Spirit’s action.  No, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness and did so immediately.

      Now, friends, If the Spirit of God “drove” Jesus right away into the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry, why should we ever think that following Jesus is going to be a cake walk?  No, when God prepares us for honest discipleship--a life of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God-- right away the Spirit drives us into a pack of trouble—"good trouble,” as John Lewis once called it-- but trouble nevertheless, like finding yourself in what seems like a dangerous wilderness where you are beset by temptations as you contend with evil powers.  Now there’s the start of a good sermon!  . . but it’s not the sermon I want to preach this morning.


      So let’s turn to the second sentence of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation:  “He was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan.”   Well, a virtuoso preacher could pull out all the stops with this one.  40 days in the wilderness; it’s the biblical way of describing a long time of hardship and hunger and insecurity, like what the people of Israel experienced when they wandered 40 years in the wilderness after being liberated from captivity.  Remember how they cried to God: Why do we have to go through these terrible ordeals?  Why is there seemingly no end to them?  Why does God seem so distant and so unconcerned about us?   Now the evangelist Mark only tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days.  That’s all.  He tells us nothing about the content of the temptations and Jesus’ response to them.  For that, we have to consult the other Gospel writers who tell us in their temptation stories that the hungry Jesus was tempted by the devil to use his divine power to turn stones into bread; he was tempted to become the most powerful person in the entire world if only he served the devil; and he was tempted to become a celebrity, to achieve the stardom of someone who can throw himself from the top of the temple, confident that God will send an angel to protect him from harm.


      Well, aren’t we also sometimes confronted with heavy temptations?  Aren’t we sometimes tempted to want a God who gives us whatever we want; or sometimes tempted to want the kind of power we think God has so that we can be number one in all our relationships, our job, our school, our church, our family; or sometimes  tempted to yearn for a God who makes sure we never get hurt or suffer, even if we do foolish things?  Wow.  There’s a really good Lenten sermon here . . .  But it’s not the sermon I am moved to preach this morning. 


          So, come with me to the third brief sentence of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation:  “And Jesus was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”  Period.  End of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation.  Now what are we to make of this strange statement that “Jesus was with the wild beasts and the ministering angels?”  The mystery is compounded by the fact that Mark doesn’t tell us what it means, and neither do the other gospel writers.  In fact, they say nothing at all about Jesus being with the wild beasts in their telling of the story of the Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  And so, we are left to use a little bit of our imagination in our interpretation.  What are the possibilities?   


     One interpretation might say that the wild beasts are a metaphor, code language, for agents of Satan.  They are symbols of evil spiritual forces that accosted Jesus in the wilderness and that also attack us in our times in the wilderness of discipleship.  Imagine the wilds beasts as like the wild creatures that artists for centuries have portrayed as ugly, malevolent, monstrous beings who serve Satan and want to do us harm.  According to this symbolic interpretation of the wild beasts in Mark’s temptation story, the wild beasts are all the evil powers and principalities of the world that wage war against Jesus and his followers by harassing and tempting us in a thousand ways.



      So the story of Jesus with the wild beasts aims at warning us to resist their seductive efforts, to conquer the wiles of the tempter and his minions, as Jesus did when he was tempted.  But we must ask, is this interpretation true to what is actually said in our text?   The text simply says that “Jesus was with the wild beasts.”  It doesn’t say Jesus was in a war with them.  It doesn’t say that they were monstrous gang members of Satan out to destroy Jesus.


    So, let’s leave aside this symbolic reading of the wild beasts, and consider another possible  interpretation.  It might say, look, the wild beasts that Jesus was with in the wilderness are just that: real wild animals of the natural world.  Now we all know that wild animals are capable of doing harm to us if we invade their territory.  Yes, the world of nature--especially on its wild side-- can be beautiful and awesome.  But the wild side of nature can be frighteningly different from us and frankly dangerous. So, according to this second interpretation, when Jesus entered the wilderness and was with the wild beasts, he was in the wilderness territory of the natural wild animals of Judea of his time--wild animals like wolves, lions, desert vipers, poisonous snakes, and scorpions.  In others, there is nothing metaphorical about these wild beasts, says this interpretation of our text.  They are flesh and blood wild animals, part of the wild side of the natural world.  These very real wild animals would likely have confronted Jesus with hostile intent, but they were restrained from doing so by the angels who were there to serve and protect Jesus. Now the problem with this interpretation is that, like the symbolic interpretation, it says far more than the text says.  The evangelist Mark tells us only that “Jesus was with the wild beasts.”  It doesn’t say he was at war with them, or they with him.



     But I find an even deeper problem with this interpretation.  It is so easy to move from this way of thinking of Jesus as in mortal combat with the wild animals  of our world and our sometimes-dangerous natural environment that we humans must domesticate, dominate, humanize the non-human world.  The wild beasts and the territory they inhabit must be tamed and used to serve human beings.  After all, If the world of nature and its wild animals lacks inherent value and can be used for our enhancement and pleasure,  we  human beings  have been given by God the right and the power to dominate the natural world for our own purposes, and in doing so, we are on the side of God and the angels.   


      You can tell I am not convinced by either of these interpretations.  So let’s consider a third interpretation. I said earlier that we will have to use a bit of our imagination in interpreting Mark’s brief and mysterious story of Jesus’ temptation.  But that does not mean that we are to let our imagination run amok.  No, we are to use our imagination within the framework of the whole Gospel story that Mark and the other evangelists tell.  If we let our interpretation be Spirit infused and Gospel guided, I think we may be able to hear in this strange reference to Jesus being with the wild beasts a Word of God to us today, at this  beginning of the season of Lent.  We may be able to find in this  arresting image of Jesus with the wild beasts an often-overlooked aspect of the good news of God’s coming to the world in Jesus for its renewal and transformation.  We may also be able to find in this surprising picture of Jesus being with the wild beasts a Word of God urging us to add something to our list of things to ponder and pray about in this season of Lent.  Jesus with the wild beasts:  that’s both good news and a call to change . . .  Now that’s the sermon I want to preach this morning.       


      Can there be both good news and a call to change our thinking and our acting in Jesus’ being with the wild beasts?  A good friend  once told me that as a teenager he was invited by his father and his friends to go hunting with them.  He was very excited by the invitation.  He had his own rifle and had done a lot of target practice.  As the group of hunters moved deeply into the woods, they gradually separated, and my friend eventually found himself alone, except for a deer no more than fifty feet away.  My friend froze as he marveled at the beauty of the animal which also remained perfectly still. Then my friend slowly raised his rifle, aimed, pulled the trigger, and the bullet bore into the heart of the deer.  My friend walked to the lifeless animal on the ground.  As he stood over its body, he was drawn to the open eyes of the creature that seemed to look directly into his eyes.  My friend told me he never shot his rifle again. 


     Well, can we really find in our strange text of Mark’s Gospel about Jesus being with the wild beasts, on the cusp of his ministry to the world, both good news and a call to change of life?  I think we can.  After all, the central point of the passage is that Jesus is with the wild beasts.  They are together.  He is “with them,” not against them.  Nor are they said to be against him, or threatening him. No, Jesus and the wild beasts are together, peacefully together.  That Jesus is peacefully with the wild beasts is, I think, the evangelist Mark’s way of giving us a signal of the incredible scope of the great renewing and reconciling work of God in Jesus from its very beginning. God’s work of renewal, of reconciliation, of new beginnings is not only about us.  It includes not only human beings, but all the living creatures of the world created and loved by God.  In Mark’s  brief but poignant picture of Jesus being with, being peacefully together with, the wild beasts at the very beginning of his ministry, we have an anticipatory image, call it a beautiful prologue of the unlimited scope of the liberating, reconciling, peace-making ministry of Jesus.



      Yes, the focus of that ministry will be on human beings, but it includes not only humans but also the wild beasts.  They too are included in the wideness of God’s love and mercy for the entire world that God has created, loves, and wills to reconcile and renew. 


      So understood, Jesus with the wild beasts is a stunning proclamation of the good news of God’s  renewing and reconciling work that is fully consistent with a central theme of the Bible.  Are we not told by Scripture that from the very beginning of time, God has created, called good, and loved the whole world? Are we not told that when God saved Noah and his family during the time of the great flood, that the animals were also included in the ark?  And that after the flood, God declared that the rainbow in the sky would be a sign, a perennial reminder of God’s steadfast love for every living creature?  Did the prophet Isaiah not dream of a time when the wolf shall live with the lamb and the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp?  Did Jesus not weep over Jerusalem because its inhabitants would not recognize the things that make for peace?  Peace I leave with you, Jesus said.  He meant peace with God.  He meant peace with our neighbor.  But as the picture of Jesus with the wild animals suggests, the peace Jesus brings includes our living peaceably also with the natural world and all its inhabitants, recognizing “their independent value for themselves and for God” (Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology).    




      My friends, In our time of ecological devastation, of polluted waters and air, of the extinction of many species of animals; in our time of sudden climate changes caused in large part by our unrepenting use of fossil fuels; in our time of rising coastal waters that endanger the lives of countless people, especially the poor;  in our time of wars of nation against nation and bitter divisions of people against people that result in the shattering and loss of lives of both human and non-human creatures made and loved by God; in our time, should we not rejoice to find in the story of Jesus and the wild beasts being peacefully together?  Should we not find in it the incentive in this season of Lent to be grateful to God for the wideness of God’s grace that includes not only human beings but all living creatures?  Should we not allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit of God to repent of how we continue to alienate ourselves from God’s good earth and its many strange but wondrous inhabitants?  Shouid we not in our prayers during this season of Lent pray for grace to make a fresh beginning in our attitudes toward and care of the earth and all its creatures?   The good news of the wideness of God’s love and the call to repentance—it’s all there in Mark’s stunning image of Jesus with, peacefully with, the wild beasts.  Amen