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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

exit, trial and return

Genesis 9.8-17
 Psalm 25.1-10
 1 Peter 3.18-22
 Mark 1.9-15

 Mark spends very little time telling us details of the phase in Jesus’ life that we have come to know as ‘the temptations’. Consistent with his characteristic urgency, he sends Jesus into the wilderness, has him in some way ‘tempted’ (I prefer the word ‘tried’) and then returns him to us and to our world. We must not read Mark through the subsequent eyes of Matthew and Luke: this brief exit, trial and return is all we need to know. Other characters in the two sentence drama are Satan, wild animals, and angels. Luke and Matthew’s profound and symbolic expansions we will explore in future years. For now we have Jesus, a trial in harsh straits, success, and return.

In ancient stories the hero is often tested. To say this is not to say that Mark was making up a story, as some biblical theologians tend to imply. Rather it is to say that as they told the Jesus story the evangelists utilised the most powerful images available to them. If Jesus is to be understood as the hero of all heroes, the man who is beyond humanity yet utterly immersed in humanity, then hero narratives of trial and triumph are a fairly useful means to get a point across. Was Jesus tempted, tried, trialled? Undoubtedly. To undertake the public ministry he undertook, even without its dark implications of forth¬coming agony and death, must have been a constant trial and temptation to give up, to return to the quiet solitude of the carpenter’s shop. ‘Can we start again, please’, sings the lovelost Mary in Superstar, but it may well have been Jesus who again and again wrestled with those words: can I start over? I was quite good at woodwork – can I go back to the workshop?

Indeed most heroes of humanity must have wrestled with demons of temptation. A Martin Luther King, in all that I have read of him, was constantly tormented by demons inviting him to return to the quiet life. So too a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Nelson Mandela, no doubt a Rowan Williams (who I am quite happy to name in the same sentence): in fact, on a smaller scale I am certain many of us can think of better things to do on a Sunday morning than to drag ourselves along to worship a God who surely can be worshipped just as well at home. In fact why do we – why don’t we stay home? Oh for a dollar or ten for every person who assures me you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Never mind that that is a whole other, fatuous argument! To know Christ is, in most circumstances, to want to worship him within that flawed body of his, the community of faith. But that to some extent is another story.

Or is it? I may not, as a follower of Christ, find myself wrestling with the big decisions faced by a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or a Nelson Mandela, and I very much doubt that my Christlight would shine brightly enough to withstand the trials that they faced. Paul assured the Philippians they would not face trials too great for them to endure (with God’s help), and in a passage a little before our Petrine passage today the author of Peter urges his audience to ‘rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials’. Over and again, some 30 times, Paul or his descendants in faith urge their audiences to undergo inevitable trials as corollary of faith, so that the New Zealand Prayer Book is absolutely correct when in one of its Great Prayers of Thanksgiving, the one we borrowed on Ash Wednesday, it reminds us that we are ‘called to suffer’.

Which is why, if our faith is lolling around in a comfort zone, it may well mean that we are not where we should be on the Way of the Cross. Admittedly as a western Christian community, collectively, our trials are less likely to be trials of victimization and persecution: ours are, and have been for a decade and a half now, more likely to be trials of marginalization and ‘pillorization’, if I may coin a word. We are more likely, so far, to be mocked out of the corridors of power in our society than to be executed. We are, nevertheless, beginning to join Jesus in a journey into a wilderness, with wild animals, with Satan, and yet with angels.

Our response as the body of Christ seems to be a floppy vacillation between the temptation to turn Christianity into a Hollywood spectacle, singing flaccid love songs to Jesus and asking him to ensure our personal prosperity and well-being, on the one hand, or on the other to relativize Jesus to such an extent that he appears no different to Gautama Buddha, Kevin Rudd, or the fairy under the prickly pear. Either way – and there are many variations of a theme of flaccidity – we are not withstanding the temptations or trials (the Greek word is the same) – into which the Spirit is leading us in the twenty-first century. We prefer, it seems, our pancakes to our ashes.

Lent is an opportunity to look deeply and critically within. If we are to take seriously our vocation to be Christ-bearers in the twenty-first century then we need to check whether our place of encounter with Jesus is the armchair of faith or the brutal, discomforting scandal of a crucified God. Almost every New Testament writer told their audience that the journey with Christ would be one of trials and temptations: it may be that our greatest temptation is to relativize our Saviour to such an extent that he’s no longer worth getting out of bed to worship. It may be that our greatest temptation is to turn our faith into a cosy club of like-minded people. There are countless ways, some dramatic, and some prosaic, that we will encounter Satan in our wilderness, but it is only when we cry out to the Christ who has been there that we will find him leading us out of darkness into Easter light.

First, though, we must enter our Lenten journey. To that end I repeat the invitation I made on Ash Wednesday:

Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting. 

At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the Church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time the Church came to recognize that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord. 

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.
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