Sermon: Sunday, 9 March 2014

Last Tuesday we left behind the season of Epiphany.A season of light, a season celebrating God’s manifestation to the world in the person of Jesus, a season that shows him to us that he might show us to ourselves, our true nature, a season that calls us to mission, to wholeness, to fulfillment as children of God created in the image and likeness of God. These are the themes we emphasize during Epiphany; all of them telling the story of God’s Incarnation, God’s enfleshment, in Jesus and its meaning for our lives.

Today we enter another season, we hear another part of the story of God’s work in Jesus, and the emphasis changes.

Notice that we jump back almost to the beginning. The lectionary does not give us the story in a straight line but rather doles it out season by season, thematic cluster by thematic cluster. So after Epiphany we find ourselves in Lent. After manifestation and revelation and glory we find ourselves confronting doubt and hesitation and testing, even, finally, rejection and persecution and death. For the next six weeks these will be our themes. This time the seasonal story will end, not in a blaze of light on a mountaintop, but in the darkness of a total eclipse over a killing-field.

Whatever were they thinking, those ancient liturgists who shaped the seasons and the lectionary? What was in their minds that they chose to tell the story this way? Possibly, on the anthropological level, they thought ”Well, this is real. People will relate to this. There’s real story-telling power in this arrangement: from the heights to the depths, and with a surprise twist ending. Yeah, that’ll do.”

Or possibly, on the theological level, they thought “Epiphany is too abstruse an idea for most people. Jesus as God-on-the-mountaintop is too distant. We want to show God as involved in the messiness of human existence, as participating in our life and death struggle. After all, Jesus is wholly human as well as wholly divine. This will provide the right balance.” Personally, whatever their reasoning in setting things up this way, I think they were inspired to do so.

Because after Lent comes Easter. After the struggle with disillusionment and defeat and despair comes triumph and victory and joy. This is the great beauty of our tradition and its seasonal recitation of the story. What might sound piecemeal to the unobservant ear is instead a brilliant arrangement of themes that engages as it instructs. So after the great fifty days of Easter rejoicing comes the wind and fire of Pentecost, when we learn what it means to be followers of Jesus in the world, what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, what it means to be the Church. And after that, Advent, with its focus on preparation and renewal. And then Christmas, the holiest and most profound mystery of all, as God chooses to enter into human existence in a new way. And all along the way, over and over, no matter how many times we have heard the tale, if we are truly paying attention we are pulled in by some new telling, we gain some new insight of understanding, until we reach the place where we started and begin again. No single aspect of the story stands on its own, no one theme conveys all the meaning. And through it all, even in the darkest moments, there is the presence of God: compassionate, forgiving, faithful to the ancient promise to see us through no matter what.

Take this morning’s gospel story. Having passed through the sometimes harsh examination of Ash Wednesday— the echo of which we got in our opening song this morning, with its ancient text of lament before God for our many failings— I particularly appreciate that such breast-beating is not the last word— or even the predominant word—of the Church’s Lenten observance today. Quite the contrary, as the hymn that closes our service today will tell us, “To bow the head in sack-cloth and in ashes, to rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal….”

And so I am thankful that every year we begin Lent by reading one of the stories of Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Somehow, after 30 years of quietly keeping to himself in Nazareth, Jesus has decided that he has work to do and he sets to it. He is blessed by God in his endeavor and anointed by the Holy Spirit. And yet he still wrestles with the temptation to misuse his vocation! Now the Gospel writers present this as an external action, personified by the character of Satan, but I have come to understand it a little differently.

Of all the versions I like Mark’s telling of this story best. He tells it all in one verse, unlike Matthew and Luke, who must have thought the story needed more dramatic coloring. “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” I like this in large part because of the open meaning of this terse narration. As with lectio divina, it opens a space for me to bring my own interpretation to the scene. And what comes to mind whenever I contemplate this passage, is the Jungian concept of the shadow self, rather like the image on our bulletin cover, the idea that within each of us there is, if you will, a wild beast, and that in order to be whole we have to be with that beast. And here’s where that sense of identification with the wholly human Jesus comes in for me. Perhaps, throughout his period of testing Jesus was with the wild beasts of his doubts, his fears, his inadequacies, his temptation. And for that same period of time, while all this was going on, the angels waited. They didn’t break in, they didn’t interfere; they waited. As though everything in the cosmos held its breath to see what the outcome would be. And then, in the very next verse, once the baptism and the testing are all over and Jesus knows unequivocally who he is and what he is about, he sets about his work of proclaiming the good news of God.

But now skip ahead to the end of the story, to the last night of Jesus’ life. I’ll stick with the gospel of Mark here, because as that writer tells the story Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is filled with doubt and anguish and fear; at one point he tearfully begs God to intervene and let him sidestep the inevitable. At that moment he is surrounded once again by all the wild beasts and you can just hear the angels hovering breathlessly, waiting. There is no recorded voice from God here, no word of blessing, but there is no need for one. In the end, having wrestled with his demons, his shadow self, Jesus makes his choice firm in the knowledge of who he is, of who God is at work in him, and of the power of God always to bring new life out of disaster.

The sustenance I draw from this interpretation is that it frees me from the dominance of all of my own “wild beasts”: from the temptations and testing of my perfectionism, my people-pleasing, my performance-driven lifestyle. Even when I have made a decision, claimed my identity, and received both affirmation and strength for the task ahead, the shadow self remains with me. The test is to see whether I will expend my energy struggling against that shadow, that wild beast that is part of who I am, or whether, having identified it, I can accept it, be with it. The knowledge that this will set me free to really be who it is God calls me to be, that I am not alone in this task, that the angels wait with me for as long as it takes, and that Jesus has walked this path before me… this is indeed good news, in Lent or at any time.

So dear friends, whatever beasts you struggle with, may your hearts be merry this season of Lent, and may you find much to rejoice in. The gospel assures us that while the outward appearance of the season may be dark, at its center we find God’s love blazing brightly, a beacon calling us to celebrate. To cite our closing hymn again, Lent does indeed call to prayer, to trust and dedication, but we are at the same time to enter into our discipline without the burden of undue care and anxious fear and worry. Trusting that God will always bring new beauty nigh; may we reply with love to love most high.