First Sunday in Lent, Year B, 2015 – Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Since it’s Lent, we should talk about being a Christian – deepening that somehow. So what do people say about Christianity anyway, so that it should be “deeper” at all? What is it? My guess is, if you ask someone, they’ll point to two things. First, they’ll point to the Church — buildings with stained glass, crosses; Sunday worship; maybe the Pope, or Ajit dressed up in funny clothes, hymns, and so on. There: that’s a bunch of Christians. That part of Christianity just “looks” different from other things. Then again, people when they think about Christianity might think about types of service: hospitals – the British still call their nurses “sisters”; soup kitchens, or the Salvation Army lady with the bell. My sister, I remember, in one debate we were having about poverty policy or something, said in passing, “oh, you would understand that – since you’re so interested doing good works and so on”.
In a way, you can see our Gospel reading today presenting these two aspects — the worshipping institution on the one hand, and righteous living. “It came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan” (Mk. 1:9). On a certain day, Jesus appears, and there, in front of everyone, he is baptized. That’s the church part, whether you are an Anglican or a Mennonite, Orthodox or Baptist. Then there’s the end of the Gospel passage today: “After John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, saying, “repent ye, and believe” (Mk. 1:14f.). That’s the “action” part — the call to righteousness, the lifting up the Kingdom of God in our midst, doing this and that.
And these two elements are precisely things that we and others can see about the Christian faith. We can point to them, and we should point to them, when we talk about Christianity. We get baptized, after all, so we have a good sense of what this looks like. And proclaiming the Kingdom – well, we have preachers, and we teach, and we call people to do this and do that. And it’s all pretty straight forward, whether it happens well or poorly. But there’s something else in this Gospel appointed for the First Sunday in Lent, that comes between these two poles of the Christian life, and that’s not so obvious. “And immediately, he was driven by the spirit into the wilderness; and he was there forty days, tempted by Satan; and was with the wild beats; and the angels ministered unto him” (Mk. 1`:12f.). But the middle thing – Jesus in the wilderness, Satan, angels all around – this is all invisible to us. Not like the baptism; not like the preaching of the Kingdom. We weren’t there with Jesus. And in any case, can we even understand what is supposed to have happened? Who is this Satan? What are these angels? What’s going on inside of Jesus with these struggles and strains within a desert of beasts and wild things?
Yet just here is the center of Lent. This invisible realm, the center of Lent; precisely because it is the center of our Christian lives.
Let me repeat this: there are the concrete aspects of the Christian life, that we can point to and touch and be touched by: we are baptized; we hear proclaimed and ourselves proclaim the Kingdom of God. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that – and that includes what we do here at St. Matthew’s, the church stuff, the public stuff, the worship, the refugee ministry God willing, and so on — in the middle of all this is an invisible realm of enormous struggle – the Son of God, confronting Satan in a predatory wilderness, and upheld by the angels of the Lord’s own household.
The amazing thing: this is happening to us, if only we could see it. But happening it is! Do you remember the story of Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha? The Syrians had surrounded the city, and were ready to descend upon the Israelites. Everyone looked at the army massed against them, and assumed that it was all over. “Look at all the Syrian armies, and horses and chariots!”, Elisha’s servant exclaims; “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15).
And Elisha simply prays, “Lord, open his eyes that he may see!” And his servant looks around and suddenly recognizes that the hills are filled with angelic hosts, “chariots of fire” – myriads of them, standing beside Israel and waiting to protect them (v. 17). That’s the point: all around us too, the hosts of heaven at work, and a great battle taking place.
Mark doesn’t go into the details of Jesus struggle in the wilderness, the way we hear in Matthew and Luke: the temptation he gets from Satan to turn stones into bread, or to jump off the Temple roof and be saved; or the offer of all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping and embracing that which is evil. Instead, Mark points simply to the struggle itself: the Son of God, confronting Satan, and upheld by the angels of the Lord’s own household. As if to say: here, between baptism and the preaching of Kingdom – here, this struggle is lodged in the midst of your public persona. And, implies the gospel, in the midst of ours too.
So, when I walk through the day, talk to or another person, burrow into my work, wonder about who I am, try to deal with my children’s problems, think of my purpose, walk alone or figure it out with others, etc.. – all this wilderness struggle this is happening to me, to my soul, my insides, my person. In the midst of my life, in the invisible part of it, Satan takes hold of my imagination, and I respond; I hunger and thirst after things, often tawdry things; I am torn by claims on my interest and heart – honor, self-worth, power, desire — all churning around, awaiting some outcome. If I were aware, I would realize that this is a huge and consuming struggle. As I walk around, appear in a classroom in front of students, or up here in front of you; have dinner with my wife, or with friends, greet people at the grocery store – this invisible struggle is what’s happening, this is what’s going on. And it is with you as well! The silent battle in our souls – confronting Satan, upheld by the angels of God. That’s the inside of our lives.
What does this mean? Why should we hear about this on the First Sunday in Lent? There are three reasons at least.
1) We are important enough, whoever we are. Most of us, if we’re thinking hard about ourselves, realize we are not that key to anything major in the world. In our work, we are cogs; in our life here in the midst of 4.5 million Torontonians, we are anonymous. Fair enough. Hardly anyone knows our name. Yet our souls are so important that the forces of heaven and hell are ranged against each other over our being. They talk about us in heaven, as it were: “have you considered my servant…James? Rachel? Susan? Ajit?” God asks Satan, as he asked about Job long ago (Job 1:8; 2:3). “Have you considered her or him? I have,” God says. And all the things we think are so depleting about ourselves – our struggles over our tempers and our attentions and our weight and our sense of self, so draining it seems at times – these things turn out to be the place of God’s “considering” of us. I have considered you, God says. And I will have you. No – you are indeed that important to be struggled over. Lent must tell you this much.
2) And Lent, with its spotlight on the invisible struggle over your soul, also tells you that you are deep enough. Deep enough for a battle that binds heaven and hell together in its grip and breadth. What is a life for, anyway? After a few decades, if you’re lucky, you put aside all the toil, and the family energies, and you seep away into your deaths, like everyone around you. What was that all about?, you might wonder in the face of a life lived. I will tell you what it was all about – Lent will tell you: your soul was being turned into something better, “tested” as they say, probed, transformed like alchemy, if possible, into gold. God had a hand in it, this life of yours. Angels came and ministered to you, day by day, hour by hour, in this great work that God considered as worth his creation of you and naming of you. This small life of yours, this heart of yours, was the great masterpiece of the Maker, where the deepest powers of his majesty and glory were deployed. Angels, angels ministering to you at every moment, if only you could see. That deep.
3) Finally, you are that important, that deeply embedded in God’s work, and – in the consideration of God – you, as a Christian, are bound to Christ Jesus, tied to God’s Son, a part of God’s own body by adoption in just this inner struggle. “Jesus was in the wilderness……”. He went into the silent places between baptism and proclamation, so that he could find you there, and make you his.
The real stuff of religion and of Christianity? We’d like to think it is doing good, bringing peace, feeding the hungry, preaching to the crowds, praying on Sundays, and so on. And this is real enough, and powerful enough. But it is but the expression of the more important, and deeper thing: this place in our hearts, that is being shaped into honor, and humility, into faithfulness and love, into forgiveness and joyfulness, into gentleness and hope – the things Satan says are not possible for you, but that the angels of God come to minister into being, so that, bound to Christ you might be “hid in him” (Col. 3:3); and then, “see him he is because you have become like him” (1 Jn.3:2) – this is the work, silent and invisible mostly, that really counts in our lives. So that God will say, “welcome into the joy of your Master!” (Mt. 25:21).
“He was there in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beats; and the angels ministered unto him” (Mk. 1:13). The issue here is this tremendous struggle we are engaged, just by living, by being born, by being “considered” by God, by having the privilege of being joined to Christ: the whole cosmos, within our heart and will. This is where the Kingdom happens: everyone can be a saint, as Therèse of Lisieux insisted, because God has made our souls the seat of his Son’s magnificent victory over evil and death. That is all that counts in life. And this Lent, let us at least pay attention to the infinite value of this truth.