Interesting juxtaposition of dates and occasions today.
Ash Wednesday was last Wednesday. Christians pause to reflect on their own mortality. Not something we are encouraged or even willing to do very often in our society. Maybe considered by some a bit morbid. Referring to the Creation story in Genesis we make the sign of the cross on each other and intone the words, from dust you have come and to dust you shall return”. A universal truth that none can challenge. Is it morbid? Why do Christians do this – what I mean is acknowledge their own mortality?
Caitlin Doughty’s memoir called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory Doughty wants to “look mortality straight in the eye.” In her view, “death should be known. Known as a difficult mental, physical, and emotional process, respected and feared for what it is.”
“Knowing” death carries an entirely positive purpose: “When you know that death is coming for you, the thought inspires you to be ambitious, to apologize to old enemies, call your grandparents, work less, travel more, learn Russian, take up knitting. Fall in love.” Doughty is irreligious, but she sounds very Lenten.
Surely that we may draw closer to God, travel more intimately with Christ and drink more fully from the well of living water. And know the joy of our lives being found in Jesus who has experienced the throes of death but has won the victory of resurrection which is now our birthright – for all whose lives are found in him.
Feb 14? Ring a bell for some? On the 14th of February 1966? Yes it is 50 years today since decimal currency was introduced into Australia. And it is also Valentines’s Day and Lent 1.
Valentines Day – I am a bit cynical like 40% of Australians who suspect it is a commercial import from the USA; Anyway it is a nice thing to be in Love. There is a bit of eros in the bible, a sprinkling of erotic poetry like Song of Solomon for instance, but mostly the bible is about not eros so much as but agape – self giving love. So while Jesus sweating it out famished and tested in the wilderness does not seem like a love story maybe it is.
Note: Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will. Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit. He is forging some major decisions about what course his life and ministry will take. What does it mean to be declared the beloved Son? What is the nature of the life of one so called and named? What of power and glory and identity and suffering? What sort of Messiah could he not be if he was to remain true to God and himself and his calling?
And so because Jesus needs to work out all this stuff he is cast into a cauldron of temptation – and the Christian church had never thought being tempted in itself is a sin – presumably we who I expect are not going to claim such a sinless state can expect this struggle will be an ongoing state of our being human.
As of course it was for Jesus. What I mean is it was not as if Jesus got up and strode out of the wilderness, brushing the sands of the desert off his hands and muttering, Thank God, I have not got that testing business all over with”. Think, the cry of his good mate Peter, “God forbid should ever these bad things happen to you Jesus” and his reply, a chilling,– “Get behind me Satan”. And he throws himself face down and sweats as if great drops of blood and pleads with God that he may avoid the brutal death by crucifixion.
So… the ongoing struggle of temptation/testing is an issue for all and every one of us here today. And the Bible alerts us that it can come in the plentiful garden or it may come in the barren wilderness. What I mean is quite often temptation comes to us not just in our weakness or shortcomings but comes upon us in the form of our strengths and capacities.
How often is it that our greatest vulnerability is precisely at our point of greatest capacity and where we feel strongest. After all we are only tempted to do that which lies within our attraction and capacity. The greater one’s capacities, the greater one’s temptations. The fierceness of Jesus’ desert struggle is testimony to his power.
What starts as simply using our God-given capabilities to the maximum effect, to do the greatest good, achieve the best outcomes, and maybe then we start to think I am entitled to enjoy a share in the fruits of my labour and the rewards that are rightfully mine. It does not feel bad or evil, but it is also starting to feel like I am not so open and honest with other people, those closest to me in fact, about what I am doing, and what is motivating me. Maybe I find myself no longer as honest with myself. A corner cut here, a decision there that I knew was sloppy, a failure to examine my conscience fully in that matter. A need to cover my tracks just a bit on that process. An incapacity to see and acknowldedge and apologise for my part in that stand-off or conflict. And i am starting to feel just that bit more isolated from people nowadays.
For some of us that may be how it works. Usually it starts with not a clear cut choice between something clearly good and right and something else patently wrong and evil.
This is why we gather together frequently and pray every Sunday together: Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation (save us in the time of trial) Deliver us from the evil one.
But of course simply quoting scripture, saying prayers is not end in itself.
In isolation it proves nothing, after all Satan quoted from a Psalm when tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Clearly there is nothing magical or automatic about using scripture.
But we are giving you a verse of scripture from the tempation/testing story we have read today. The value to you is how you use this verse in the coming week. Can you create a world, a reality, by living with this verse in all you do. In a moment those who wish to can receive a verse and there will be shortly an invitation to also come forward to spend a quite moment in reflection by the prayer station we have created, and place a stone in the stand. By placing this verse in your bag, on your kitchen bench , and placing the stone in the sand, may it remind you of both the hard and harsh things that happen in this world of ours and to you, but more importantly how Jesus went into the wilderness of hardness and harshness, was there tested, and emerged to bring that strength to us. May this awareness seep into your mind and spirit as live out this week. May you enter into this world and it becomes your refuge. Refuge not in the sense of escaping from what you have the responsibility to face, but refuge in the sense that this becomes who you are, your identity, so whatever befalls you this is your truth.