Tuesday, 17 February 2015

“... Wild beasts and angels ...”: a sermon for the first Sunday of Lent (Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15)

"And the Spirit immediately drove ... [Jesus] ... out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
The story of the temptation of Jesus as we find it in Mark’s gospel is very brief. Luke and Matthew add a bit more dramatic detail. They develop a conversation between Jesus and his temptations. Mark, however, doesn’t go in for embellishment here. He tells the story briefly and straightforwardly:
"And the Spirit immediately drove ... [Jesus] ... out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
And that was it:  
  • no dialogue about stones turning into bread; 
  • no reckless dare of “Are you chicken to jump?”; 
  • no invitation to changes sides; 
  • no detail at all; 
  • just the cold, hard reality of temptation.
Let’s look more closely at our passage. 
“And the Spirit immediately drove ... [Jesus] ... out into the wilderness. …”
Mark tells us that it was the Spirit of God that led, in fact, that “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, to the place of temptation. This is very disturbing. On the one hand, we’ve all been taught - as least I hope we’ve been taught - that we can’t blame God for human misfortune.  

  • We’ve been taught, or at least we should have been, that illness is not God’s will.  
  • Mainstream Christian churches teach that God does not will natural disasters, even if insurance companies try to blame God for disasters by blasphemously referring to these events as “acts of god”.
  • And the Christian faith teaches us that God does not lead us into sin or into the temptation to sin. (We pray “Lead us not into temptation”, as a joyful affirmation that this is something God will never do.)
So where does Mark get off by saying that the Spirit “drove” Jesus to the place of temptation? I guess the traditional theological answer for this is found in the understanding that Jesus was radically different from you and I. Jesus, as God linked to humanity, needed to encounter and defeat temptation, just as he needed to encounter and defeat death. We, then, live in the light of Jesus’ victory. Many contemporary Christians still struggle with this answer, but I need to say that this is what the Christian church has said over the years.

Another point, just briefly, we need to remember that the word “wilderness” means something different in the Bible than it does for us in this part of the world today. We think of wilderness as something beautiful and inviting, a place of diverse life and lush growth, a place worth exploring, and a place worth protecting: such as large areas of Tasmania, and large areas of New Zealand. For many of us, the wilderness is a place where people experience their spirituality in a heightened sense.

However, the “wilderness” that the biblical writers refer to was a desert, the deepest part of the desert. It was a place that was popularly regarded as almost lifeless. It was seen by many as a place where God was profoundly absent. So, for Jesus to go into the wilderness, it wasn’t for an enjoyable - if challenging - bushwalk. It was much more.

"And the Spirit immediately drove ... [Jesus] ... out into the wilderness. ... He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; ...”

About the “forty days”, the people who wrote the Bible liked to play with numbers. Forty always means a time of testing. For example, the Jews wandered around in the desert for forty years after they left Egypt. Whether Jesus was in the wilderness literally for forty days or not, the important thing was that his time in the wilderness was a time of testing.

Another problem is in the identification of “Satan” as the source of temptation. While many Christians believe in the literal existence of a “Satan”. I personally believe that “Satan” is a symbol of our own human tendency to say “No” to God’s call. In my experience, my own tendency to say “No” to God’s call is devil enough for me.

But whether the temptations came from an external source or not, Jesus was in the wilderness experiencing temptation - and the temptations were real.

“... He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; ... and he was with the wild beasts; ...”

Now this has a strange sound. “... He was with the wild beasts ...”. It almost sounds as if this was part of the hardship of the temptation, doesn’t it. At least that’s what I thought. But I was wrong. I checked this out in a couple of commentaries. It seems as if the wild beasts were a sign of hope: Jesus being present in the wilderness with all the animals. It’s evidently a reference to Isaiah’s image of peace reigning among the animals as a result of the reign of the Messiah. 

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand
on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge
of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The classic illustration of this passage was in a series of paintings by Edward Hicks, an American Quaker artist of the early 19th century, showing a variety of animals, both the hunters and the hunted, resting contentedly in each others’ presence.

The wild beasts are a sign of the greater unity that Christ was bringing about, a unity that can even incorporate the world of non-human nature. This is a promise that the Christian church has been slow to grasp over the centuries, but it is part of the faith we have inherited.

We hear a glimpse of this in the old Jewish Dreaming story of the Great Flood, about God’s rainbow covenant with humanity and with creation. God promised protection both to humanity and to the non-human creation. The rainbow was the sign of God’s promise to “every living creature of all flesh”.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament point us in the direction of God calling us to see our life in closer relation to the world around us.

"... and he was with the wild beasts; ... and the angels waited on him....”

This again, is an interesting image. Previously, when reading this passage, I had the impression that the reference to the angels waiting on Jesus spoke of something that happened after the temptation. Jesus endured his temptation and, thus, - as a reward for his endurance - the angels came and waited on him.

But the lesson doesn’t say this. The three things that happened to Jesus in the wilderness; the temptation, being with the wild beasts, and the angels waiting on him: there is no indication that they happened in any particular order.

I believe that the three things happened at the same time.  
  • While Jesus was being tempted, he was in the presence of the wild beasts.
  • While Jesus was in the presence of the wild beasts, angels were waiting on him. (and, most importantly)
  • While Jesus was being tempted, angels were waiting on him.
Perhaps - just perhaps - this may be why the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the place of temptation:
  • so that Jesus could experience the five-star service of the waiting angels that accompanied his temptation;
  • so that we also can know that, even in the midst of the deepest temptations, the hospitality of God’s angels (both mortal and otherwise) will sustain us.
“... and the angels waited on him....”

Jesus endured his temptation and set out on the road that eventually led to Calvary. During this season of Lent, may we follow where Christ leads, so that we may pass through the pain of the cross to the celebration of Easter morning.

"And the Spirit immediately drove ... [Jesus] ... out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."

Friday, 6 February 2015

"Are we 'done' yet?"

A few months ago, I read an article by a writer named Thom Schultz on "The Rise of the Dones".    A number of my colleagues have also read this article, shared it, and commented upon it on social media.

The basic premise of Schultz's article is that there is a group of people leaving active involvement in their congregations (and active involvement in the Christian church generally) who haven't lost their faith, who haven't changed either their religion or their denomination, who are not actively alienated from their congregation or their denomination, and who are not leaving their church as a result of a dispute of any sort.

They have a great deal of continuing good will for their churches, but they're merely moving on.  They are "done" with the church, as in the phrase "Been there, done that."  They are not alienated, really, from their churches but they are "done" with their churches.

I have many friends and acquaintances who are "dones".
  • Most are Christians.  Some are members of other faiths.
  • The Christians come from a wide variety of denominations, but the ones I know are more likely to be from middle-of-the-road "Protestant" denominations than other backgrounds.  
  • They were active in their churches (both locally and sometimes denominationally and ecumenically), serving on committees, singing in choirs, leading youth groups, and all that.
But now they're done.

I believe that a big part of the issue, here, is the fact that so many churches, particularly among the middle-of-the-road "Protestant" denominations (i.e., Uniting Church in Australia, United Church of Canada, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches in other countries ....), so many churches operate from a strongly "teaching-learning" model for the times the congregation gathers for worship. 

In today's world, if a person wishes to attend a worship service in a church (or other faith community), it's not because she/he wishes to learn things about religion.  People attend worship because they wish to experience the Sacred, because they wish to encounter the God worshipped by the faith community.  In my experience, the churches which are declining the fastest are also the churches that are the most wedded to the teaching-learning model for church life, and this applies to congregations of a variety of theologies and worship styles.

A congregation can be so conservative in its faith as to be almost "fundamentalist", so "progressive" in its faith as to be almost agnostic in any practical terms, or (preferably) somewhere in the middle.  If there is nothing more in its Sunday morning gathering than a teaching-learning event under the guise of worship, that church is probably producing more than its share of "Dones".  This applies whether the teaching-learning gathering takes the form of a 1950s "preaching service", a 1970s "all-age family service", or a 1990s "fresh expression".

Part of the issue is that, even though our learning never ends, our schooling does end.  People transition from Kindergarten to Primary School, from their Secondary Education to University.  But whether you're a high school drop-out or a PhD, we all conclude our formal schooling at some time in our lives.  Churches with a strong teaching-learning model for what happens on Sunday morning will produce plenty of "church drop-outs" and "church graduates".  Many of these will continue to view their former church with great affection, returning for major celebrations in the same way that they would attend a high school or college reunion.

I believe that the way to prevent good church members from becoming "Dones" is to ensure that there is far more in their Sunday service than merely teaching and learning, and a greater opportunity to actually encounter God.   For some denominations such as the Uniting Church (for example), this could mean that some of their congregations "feel" Russian Orthodox while neighbouring congregations may "feel" Quaker or Pentecostal.  If that's the case, I think this may be a good thing.