THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT – 26th February, 2012
ST MATTHEW’S, GUILDFORD
During the week there was a small furore when “The West Australian”’s cartoonist, Alston, portrayed Kevin Rudd as Jesus on the cross. Some letters to the editor protested Alston’s blasphemy or, at least, irreverence, suggesting (probably correctly) that he wouldn’t dare use Mohammed in a similar vein. Another letter-writer, a self-declared Christian, offered forgiveness along with a plea for the cartoonist’s increased sensitivity. Personally, I found the cartoon relatively inoffensive and quite relevant.
Since that edition of the “West”, of course, much has changed. Now, it seems to me, both Kevin and Julia find themselves in the wilderness being tested. Tested and tempted by the demons of power and success and popularity, as – in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the Temptation – was Jesus. For both the Prime Minister and her predecessor and challenger, I am sure there is a genuine wish to lead this country so as to bring about the greater good. But I am equally sure that each, like every one of us, experiences less altruistic, self-denying temptations.
In Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ temptation, Satan and angels seem to play an equal part in attending to Jesus. “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It is almost like the old cartoons where we see someone being tempted – perhaps to eat chocolate – with a horned demon on one shoulder and a winged angel on the other, each whispering into his ear. Kevin and Julia have many people whispering – and some yelling! – into their ears, offering good and bad advice, good and bad motivation, good and bad dreams. And did I mention the “wild beasts”? And, of course, whoever loses the ballot on Monday will probably be in the wilderness for a lot longer than forty days!
Personally, as a regular conservative voter, I quite enjoy seeing the other side falling apart and heading for self-destruction. But I am praying – as, of course, must we all – for a good outcome for our nation, regardless of my/our personal political views.
But, for now, back to Jesus.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is so brief that we almost could blink and not notice it. On the first Sundays of Lent in years A & C, we read lengthy accounts of this event from Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels respectively. Each list three different challenges offered to Jesus in return for an easy ride to success in his declared mission. And to each challenge of Satan, Jesus responds with a carefully-chosen rebuttal from the Scriptures.
For Jesus, there is no easy way to bring in the Kingdom of God, no painless democratic process, no popularity contest. For Jesus, as for his disciples then and now, the way of the cross is the only way of success. It is costly and requires daily self-denial – a refusal to compromise on God’s standards and to contravene God’s call.
The brevity of Mark’s account as we read in this morning’s Gospel has much to say which we need to hear, regardless of the specific temptations put by Satan in the other Gospels.
Let’ look at those verses again:
“ In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God.”
I want to say three brief things about Jesus’ temptation, though probably not quite as briefly as St Mark does!
- Firstly, it is about the timing of the temptation: It comes immediately after Jesus baptism by his cousin, John. It is something of a “reality check” after the affirmation of the Voice which declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s similar to last week’s story of the Transfiguration, when the Voice declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.” In that account, Jesus and the disciples faced a tough “real-world” situation on coming down the mountain. Whatever experience we have of God’s affirmation will often be “crunched” shortly afterwards by the difficulties of life in a real and hostile world. There are always people and powers that will try to distract or deter us from following Jesus all the way. But in our baptism we are declared “members of the Body of Christ, children of the heavenly Father, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God”. And so we remain whatever is thrown against us.
- Secondly, we read, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It was not Satan who was in control. The fact that the Spirit “drove him out” tells us that the whole exercise was under the control and care of God. Jesus was never alone or abandoned by God (except at the last on the cross). Jesus’ testing/temptation was always within the limits set by his Father. And so is whatever tempting/testing we might face in our own lives as followers of Jesus. St Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews adds, “Because [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” In our testing, we are not alone. There is One who has been there, too. And God is in control.
- And, thirdly, there were not only Satan and the wild beasts there in the wilderness. We read, “and the angels waited on him.” Sure, Jesus was without food for a long time; and certainly he was under severe attack to cause him to doubt and to desert his calling. But God saw to it that there was a “support team” on site to encourage and affirm as and when needed. In Lent, and whenever we resolve to follow Jesus more closely, God provides “angels” for us – and they are mostly our fellow-Christians. We can – and should – be “angels” to one another. The hymn, “Brother, sister, let me serve you” puts it well:
“We are pilgrims on a journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.”
And another hymn has it: “But His angels here are human”. We can provide the support and encouragement each of us need. We can be open to bearing with those who face challenges. And we can be more understanding of others because times like Lent make us a little more aware of our own humanity and failings, as well as of the forgiveness and fresh starts that come to us through the love and grace of God.
The tempting and testing of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd will continue till a little after 10 o’clock on Monday morning. And any outcome will necessarily be less than satisfactory to most people. And such tests and challenges will continue to come to political leaders everywhere.
And tests and trials and challenges will come to each of us as followers of Jesus and children of God. But we are not alone in the trials. Jesus has been there and Jesus continues to walk with us all the way to the cross and beyond.
At the end of this morning’s Gospel, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God.” It is my hope that this season of Lent will prepare us to go likewise proclaiming the good news of God – as Bishop David Murray often used to say, we’ll be “keeping alive the rumour of God”.
The Lord be with you.