It's more a story of Jesus’ baptism than temptation. That suits Mark’s purpose just fine; and it certainly suits mine. Mark, you see, in contrast to the three other evangelists, wants to portray Jesus as a sort of everyman — everyONE — so Mark simply tells us that Jesus was baptized by John and then immediately wades through the waters to enter the wilderness and begin dealing with the forces of evil. Immediately, much like everyone. Immediately, just like you and me.

Unlike John’s Gospel, in which there is no temptation narrative, because Jesus is the Word that was God and the Word that is God and therefore is “un-temptable”; and unlike Matthew and Luke with their Bible Jeopardy questions, Google Earth view of all the kingdoms of earth, and magical mystery tour of the heights of Jerusalem; Mark simply tells us that Jesus was baptized and immediately starts to deal with forces of evil. Just like us.

Mark doesn’t even give Jesus the reprieve from dealing with evil that Luke does — after forty days In Luke’s story, the devil leaves Jesus “until an opportune time.” Not so Mark. Immediately, Mark tells us, Jesus began dealing with evil. No break. No reprieve. Just like you and me.
Mark wants us to get the point that Jesus’ life is no different and no easier than ours. Or, better, than our lives are no different than Jesus’. Mark wants to impress on us that, for those who are “in Jesus,” there is no “us” or “them;” that, with Jesus, there is only “us.” Jew? Gentile? Slave? Free? Male, female or anything in between? Roman centurion? One whom they oppress? Jesus is all. Jesus is us. Baptized and immediately dealing with the forces of evil.

If Mark’s point — Mark’s critique of “us/them” thinking — isn’t clear yet, the church has paired Mark’s story with today’s first reading, the Genesis story of God’s covenant with Noah. But to understand that pairing and the way this affects our 2015 lives, we need to do a little Bible study first about the meaning a progression of this thing we call God’s covenant.

God makes five important covenants In the Hebrew Scriptures; in the 39 books some still erroneously call “the Old Testament.” It’s important to note here that, in the Bible, all of God’s covenants are eternal covenants and all of God’s covenant promises are unbreakable. We heard the story of God’s first covenant — with Noah “and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” — today. Notice the
scope: with Noah “and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.” No distinctions. No limits. No “us or them;” no “ins or outs.” This is an all-inclusive covenant.

For the record, God makes four more covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures. The next three begin to narrow. God’s next covenant is with “Abraham and his descendants forever,” and includes Semitic people only. The third, with Moses at Mount Sinai, is with free Hebrew slave and their descendants only. The fourth, with David and David’s descendants only.

It’s only in the fifth and final covenant, God’s “new covenant, written on every heart,” that the breadth and scope of God’s covenant with Noah is restored to all. It’s that all-inclusive covenant “with every living creature for all future generations,” without distinctions; without limits; without “us and them” or “ins and outs,” that Jesus embodies and Mark proclaims to us today. Jesus is us. Baptized and immediately dealing with the forces of evil.

Baptized and immediately dealing with the forces of evil.

One thing the 21st Century has brought back to
us is that we are indeed dealing with “forces of evil.” Not only with “the struggle between good and evil that rages within us,” which has been a very personal and introspective component of Lent for decades, but all that same struggle that rages “around us,” and — let’s be honest here — rages against us. Every new ISIL-released video has made two things clear: the forces of evil are real and a small, violent, virulent group is, in fact, against us. In point of fact, that small, violent, virulent group has indeed divided the world into “us” and “them;” with “them” being “a small, violent, virulent group” and “us” identified as every race, creed, color, language, gender and religion that is not them.

And this is the temptation that now assaults us and to which today’s Gospel offers vitality, direction and cure. The temptation is for us to tap into the forces of evil within us to combat the forces of evil that are against us: To divide and label the entire world and, in this case, over a billion people in one diverse religion, into “us” and “them.” Both history and long personal experience tell me that once we begin down that road, our “us” becomes smaller and “them” becomes greater and the “forces of evil” with which we struggle increases exponentially in power.
Released 70 years ago from Dachau concentration camp, Pastor Martin Niemoeller described that demonic “us and them” process precisely:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
— because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
— because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
— because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yesterday in Oslo, Norway, over 1,000 Muslim youths formed a “human ring of peace” around that city’s major synagogue to show solitary with that city’s Jewish community after growing anti-Semitic attacks, particularly in nearby Copenhagen, and through Europe. An excellent example of how we are called to be as we deal with the forces of evil in our church and our city and our world.

The Jesus into whom we are baptized, the Jesus who is us — baptized and immediately dealing
with the forces of evil; the Jesus who refuses to divide oppressor from oppressed, Jew from Gentile, slave from free, male from female or from any other gender in between; the Jesus who gathers us around this table and feeds us with himself as heavenly food — that Jesus calls, gathers and nourishes us to reject all forms of “us/them” thinking and to be a “human ring of peace.” Our times demand it and for such a time as this, our God has placed us here, exactly the way God placed his “bow in the heavens” so that we may be “a sign of the covenant that God has established between God and all flesh that is on the earth.” A covenant that is never “us and them,” but in Christ is always one and all.

Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter’s Church in the City of New York