Mark’s version of the temptations incident is very different to any other.

Both Matthew and Luke add significantly to the two verses in Mark.

‘And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days. Tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’

Mark doesn’t mention three temptations and he does not provide any details, so there are no stones into bread, being taken up high to see the nations of the world, potential demonstrations of God’s power with angels scooping him up before he hits the ground; just the bare minimum, a sparse story to whet the appetite.

Apart from being far briefer it also contains one highly significant difference and one detail not known or drawn upon by Matthew and Luke.

Firstly ‘the Spirit drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness.’ By the time Matthew and Luke came to be written the early Church view of Jesus had grown significantly and he was in control, so the Spirit was only able to lead Jesus into the wilderness; but Mark implies that Jesus was driven out, forced out, sent out, he was not so much in control.

The addition is the detail I wish to focus on, ‘he was with the wild beasts’.

Neither Matthew nor Luke include this.

‘He was with the wild beasts’.

The first hearers of this account would know their scriptures well. They would recall that the scattered people became food for the wild beasts because they had no shepherd to guide them (Ezekiel 34.5).

That is not to be the outcome for Jesus.

I find it fascinating that Jesus is with the wild beasts, they have not been vanquished or despatched, for he is with them.

Popular theology has Jesus defeating the devil, overcoming evil once and for all.

If that were true, surely we would have no evil left in the world; but we have. There is plenty of nasty things happening, even if we were to argue that the evils of poverty and inequality, conflict and warfare, abuse and discrimination are human constructs, then we are left struggling with inexplicable evils such as natural disasters and human illness.

These are the wild beasts we have sought to defeat over millennia; but we have failed, time and again the beast of evil has reared its ugly head threatening to devour us like the metaphysical beasts of the scattered people long ago.

The message of Mark is brief, simple and highly effective, Jesus neither vanquished them nor did he cast them from his presence, he was with them.

Over the years I have come to realise that I cannot undo what has been done. I have to live with my past, for good and for bad. I recall one book that I had read as a young Christian suggesting that confession is like throwing your sins into a deep pool which has a sign saying ‘No Fishing’; I even used it in a sermon to illustrate the efficacy of prayer. If only it were that simple, to throw the things that trouble us, make us feel ashamed or afraid, into a deep pool and forget about them. Forgiveness may be possible but forgetfulness may not.

We are often disturbed by the beasts of the past, those events and encounters that we wish could have turned out differently, but they didn’t and we are stuck with them. They can threaten to devour us, incapacitate us or make us less effective as human beings let alone as Christian human beings.

The clue is in Mark’s terse sentence ‘He was with the wild beasts’. We live with our past, we neither ignore it nor allow it to control us, we hold it in some form of tamed state; it cannot devour us like the wild beasts at the time of the scattered people of Judah.

Another wild beast is the beast of the present, the things of today that make us anxious; we cannot ignore them, they are there the moment we wake up and remain till the moment our eyes are closed again in sleep.

If we were to seek taking on board all the troubles of the world we would not get very far; we would be weighted down soon after we had got beyond our immediate environment. This is not to say we turn a blind eye to the evils of this world, the conflicts in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East, the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia across Europe but it is to recognize that we have sufficient tasks in our sphere of activity to deal with and once focussed can make a significant difference to our world.

And thirdly, the beast of the future. We put off any thought of our mortality until we can do so no longer. We are often tempted to think we will live forever. If only we kept knowledge of our mortality with us at all times, then we might appreciate more fully the day we have, love our neighbours more deeply than we have thus far and prioritise or actions more effectively.

We are creatures of time, the past, present and future affect our well-being, and we cannot escape time until we pass from this life. Time then is both beast and blessing, we live with it and all that is within it, we will not defeat it nor will it devour us.

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Last week Stephen Fry caused a Twitter storm as a consequence of his appearance on RTE’s programme ‘The Meaning of Life.’ The host Gabriel Byrne asked Fry,“Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God, what will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?”  Fry answered, “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say. ”

Some of us might be offended by Fry’s answer, it is said that the Byrne was shocked by it. Fry has since said that he didn’t intend to cause offence and that he was glad he had got people talking.  I am also glad that Fry has got us talking.

The presence of evil in our world has been a topic for debate over millennia. From philosophers in ancient Greece to the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe; from the Old Testament prophets to the apostle Paul; from the corridors of academia to the works canteen we have been asking the same questions posed by Stephen Fry.

What kind of God can allow cancer in children? What kind of God permits evil to stalk the planet? What kind of God seems silent to us at our moments of extreme need, including Jesus on the cross?

I am no great fan of Stephen Fry. Some claim to find him smug and arrogant, his views nasty and on occasions anti-Semitic. But I am glad he has opened up the conversation and getting beyond the comments that some might find offensive we can venture into those places of debate that we often leave alone until we are seated with the Doctor in the consultation room.

The straightforward answer to Fry’s question ‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’ Could be this: ‘Because it’s the same God that created you Stephen. The one who puts up with your self-opinionated arrogance. The one who gives you permission to castigate him without striking you down with a thunderbolt.’

Elie Wiesel, having survived the greatest crime in history, asked ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ And responded that God was in the boy hanging on the gallows. Others would ask not where God was in Auschwitz but ‘Where was man?’

The God who permitted the human race to wage war on itself, create concentration camps and gulags, plunder and poison our planet and behave as if there is no God, is the same God that inspired and enabled Michelangelo to carve his depiction of David from a lump of rock. It is the same God who inspired and enabled the great composers to lift our spirits into another realm. It is the same God who inspired and enabled the men and women that fought for freedom against tyranny.

We, as modern-day Christians, in this part of God’s world, may often find views such as those expressed by Stephen Fry uncomfortable, intolerable even, but his statements are probably little different to those made by Job’s comforters when his patience and faithfulness were sorely tested with a seemingly never-ending range of afflictions.

One of the reasons why we find the problem of evil so difficult to contend with is because we have been all too focused on the New Testament. Raymond Brown, New Testament scholar, has said that ‘The New Testament alone covers too short a period of time and is too filled with success to give Christians the lessons the OT gives.’ (Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, OSB 2008, p278).

So, let’s turn to today’s OT reading.  Isaiah 40.21-31 begins with a hymn to God.

The greatness and majesty of God are beyond compare.

Humanity may seek to invent idols but nothing can stand up to God.

Then the passage goes on to recognize that the people lament the fact that God does not seem to notice their suffering.

Isaiah is not writing at a time of peace and security. The first hearers of this passage were in exile, they were refugees, they were far from home; their nation had been overrun and destroyed. And yet there is hope; even in the midst of such sorrow and loss, even in the darkest moments of despair there is hope. God has not abandoned the people. Their suffering has been brought upon them by either their own errors or the errors of their leaders, but God will empower them and give them the strength to pursue a path that will take them home again.

The people have grown faint and weary, but God never flags, and as a consequence those who believe in God will renew their strength, they will rise as if they had eagle’s wings, they will be able to run and not grow weary, and even in the blazing sun they will walk without getting faint. And this is no mean task; in exile they were forbidden to wear head coverings. Slaves and the oppressed had to go about their daily grind with their heads exposed to the sun; which is why Jews to this day cover their heads, it is a symbol of their freedom.

We will at one time or another ask the same questions of God as Stephen Fry has asked. Why have my children turned out as they did? Why has the person whom I love abused my trust?  Why can I no longer do what I once did? Why is Ebola stalking West Africa? Why do Islamists want to destroy western civilization? Why did the Christian Church appear impotent in Nazi Germany?  Why might I suffer a prolonged, agonizing death when it comes?

There are no easy answers.

Christ on the cross cried out ‘Eli Eli lama sabacthani’. Which may not be as we have so often translated ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me?’ It could be more of a statement than a question: ‘My God, my God, you have abandoned me.’

We are not alone; there no easy answers, but there is a path along which we tread. God would not be God if we had all the answers for if we did have the answers we ourselves would have replaced God and become God ourselves and we have seen what happened in the 20th century when humankind replaced God. Never again.

We are not alone; there no easy answers, but there is a path along which we tread. God would not be God if we had all the answers for if we did have the answers we ourselves would have replaced God and become God ourselves and we have seen what happened in the 20th century when humankind replaced God. Never again.