When in Lent...

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil [diabolos.] He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” 

5 Then he [NRSV: the devil] led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And he [NRSV: the devil] said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then he [NRSV: the devil] took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”,


“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When  in Lent...

If we take Luke at his word, Jesus knows what he is doing. Jesus is choosing the life-path which means he will be killed, and he knows this. (Luke 9:21-27) Jesus is going to this dying without proofs and guarantees,  but only in the trust that God will in some way preserve him despite death. There is no getting out of this life alive, and if Jesus does not suffer the agony of this contemplation with the same grief that it brings to us, then he is not fully human. It is during the temptations that Jesus first sets his face towards Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

Christ_in_the_Wilderness_-_Ivan_Kramskoy_-_Google_Cultural_InstitutecloseI place Ivan Kramoskoi's Christ in the Desert  alongside these words from Nora Gallagher:  "I once asked a friend of mine who is a therapist how to stop projecting onto others my own fears and weakness, that is, how to love, and she said: “You must enlarge your capacity to suffer.”"

Jesus, full of the spirit, deeply shaped and moved by his experience of God, is driven into the wilderness. He sits by the remains of the river downstream from Cloncurry: thirty-three of his 40 days exceed 40 degrees centigrade. Who will he be, and what will he say to us as he comes out of the desert, when the heat slowly eases sometime in March, and we begin to forget the simmering fear of this last summer? And who will we be? How will we follow him? Will we follow him?

Grief is all around. In this long summer, the heat has become undeniable. Reality is beginning to break in; climate change has become real. We understand that next summer will likely be hotter again, and we do not know where all this will end. The heat has finally overwhelmed our air conditioned pretence to own ourselves and the world. (Poor folks hang blankets across their room in an effort to keep at least one small space cool. Others, who have only a fan, spend the nights on the cement floor of the laundry in the hope of some sleep. People retreat to shopping centres and libraries because it is too hot to live at home. Along with our burned gardens, we are wilting with despair at failing institutions, corrupt politics, and national grief, as even those close to the pope fail us.

This summer has changed us.

It has ever been so. We have had moments, years, of relative peace where the surface of our existence was calm and life seemed "normal."  But always there was personal grief: the death of a father, the illness of a child, self-doubts, and lost jobs. And, more distant: wars and plagues. But now, in Rome, Caesar has been succeeded by Nero. At home, we have managed at last to face the sin of child abuse, and found it to be far more traumatic than we expected. Especially as we have begun to realise that we voted for it to begin again on Nauru! And the heat waves of this summer have rolled down upon us, the country has baked in the heat, and we are afraid. How will we survive?

Jesus' answer to this was the promise of the kingdom of God. There will a time, it is at hand, where justice will be done. Where life will be safe. Where the empires will be stripped of their power to abuse. Where even the land and the climate will be healed. (Luke 4:16-21)  "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it... Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house." (Dt 26:1-11) "The  year of the Lord's favour... has been proclaimed in your presence." (Luke 4:19,21)

This was an incredible claim even in Jesus' time, for Israel lived under the iron hand of Rome, and it is incredible now. I've put climate change in the list to make the point about the enormity of the claim that the "kingdom of God is at hand." For anyone with knowledge of ecology or climate, even only that gleaned from brief reading of a serious newspaper, knows that the reversal of the damage we have done is a centuries long project, if we survive that long, and that an unknown number species will be lost, and have already been lost, in the meantime.

Jewish thought often imagined that the whole creation, would be rebuilt. Whilst we can easily imagine the violence of the coming apocalypse which this understanding contained, the idea of a rebuilding seems to be a retreat into magical thinking, and a deflection of the seriousness and hopelessness of our situation.  

In the impossibility of Jesus' situation under unshakable Roman power— not to mention general human sinfulness— Luke and the Lectionary present him as living in the promise of the when  of the Promised Land, which is Moses' and the Deuteronomist's vision of the kingdom of God. Not if, but when.

Jesus is asked to dedicate his life to trusting God, to living God's way. Luke's story asks him,  "Are you worthy of the trust God has in you?".

Christ_in_the_Wilderness_-_Ivan_Kramskoy_-_Google_Cultural_Institute fullAnd we see a man who is trapped, like all of us, between the way of God and the way of Rome, Babylon, and Egypt. These empires are metaphors for the path taken by humans determined to sort out and manage their own salvation. Have they embarked on a deliberate and conscious defiance of God? I think they are more like us: living a half hidden lie to ourselves that we can manage this.  It's a pretence that somehow we can get out alive— we know we can't, but at least we can make our mark on the world. We fear that if we don’t  do this, we will be nothing. At least we can do some good, or enjoy ourselves for a little while, or take revenge on the whole miserable universe: "enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness." (Flannery O'Connor) So, not so much defiance as simply the discovery that to accept death is too hard, too painful. It is to suffer fear for a lifetime rather than find some shelter under pretence and deliberate forgetting.

If Jesus rejects Babylon, and rejects diabolos, his only other option is to suffer. This is because if we will not suffer, if we will not "enlarge our capacity to suffer" then we will inevitably project, and deflect, our suffering upon others. In the end, that's all Babylon and Rome are:  for all their grandeur and power they are, finally, a refusal to suffer. They try to avoid the suffering that is unavoidable if we are to live. They fail the call which Jesus accepted.

So the painting is true. Jesus is seeing that he cannot win. He cannot be the hero who rescues his people by military might or by popular adulation, for these things are all symptoms of the refusal to suffer. These things are the deflection of our own pain onto others. In the heat of the outback, where people are beginning to see that vast areas of the land may become uninhabitable, Jesus sees that in the face of climate change and everything else which is undoing our humanity, he has to go to Canberra and Jerusalem, preach the good news of God's love, and allow himself to be killed. And this is all he can do. Like Romero and Bonhoeffer, and like the unknowns such as Leonella Sgorbati, he sees he must live truly in trust of God's promise of when, live with a kind of indifference to life and survival, live with the grief which comes from abandoning the comfort of the false hope of our own self-manufactured safety.

When, understood in terms of the Lent 1C reading from Deuteronomy, is the trust that eventually creation will be complete; there will be a time when we will finally enter the Promised Land. There will be a time when all folk, and all creation, are valued just the same, so that the ordinary Israelites, the Levite leaders, and even the aliens— society's losers in the lottery of human life, live as one in abundance and bounty.

I have taken this symbol from a Lenten reflection by James Alison, who contrasts when with the if of the diabolos in Luke 4. Contrary to our first instincts

If is the entry to privation, not abundance. “If you are . . .” is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it.

Abundance built upon driving away pain and suffering proves to be empty for it does nothing about pain and suffering, except magnify it as it shifts it onto other people. Suffering pain feels like privation, but it means we do not multiply the pain and hand it on. Material abundance we gain by refusing to suffer proves to be the real privation. It becomes diabolical, a trap in which we find we have built something between God and us, a trap which has outwitted our desire for safety, for love, for justice, and for the presence of God.

Jesus refuses the diabolical if when it is presented to him. He understands that if  is not to doubt the when, or to wonder how the when could ever be possible; the fullness of when is incomprehensible to us; we cannot imagine how such a thing could be.  Rather, to live by if  is to reject the promise of when and to choose to manage things ourselves. If is the pretence that we somehow are in charge, and able to manage our own destiny, or is the hopelessness that we must take charge, for even though we long for the Promised Land to be a true promise, we believe (we trust!) there will be, and can be, no when. If  does not trust that when is real. This is where privation begins.

Human sinfulness means we are all ifs seeking to trust when, seeking to believe, but seduced by if. Who can blame us, poor little things in a terrible world, that we are always taking life into our own hands?

As much as Jesus surely understands this, and surely sympathises with this, he understands that to listen to if, to take matters into our own hands, is diabolical.

It is privation. It is bound to fail. The temptations story shows this when it says if... you are the son of God. Jesus implies this would be to set himself up as God, rather than worshiping the Lord our God, and serving only him.  But the diabolos clarifies for us what this true word means, for diabolos makes it clear that we will not even be our own little god, but will worship diabolos. We will submit to worship of the evil thing, and so make the centre of our being far apart from God.

Do you see that there is no dramatic bowing and scraping before diabolos here— as though Jesus would have been on his knees before diabolos? Instead, there is a barely noticeable transfer of the things to which we find it worth paying attention. What we worship is the thing to which we give attention and allegiance. Evil is, at base, the decision that when cannot happen. It may be a reluctant decision. It may be a decision made in grief. But it is the decision not to trust when, which means not to trust God, which means we separate ourselves from God. This is the diabolical trap, because here, already afraid, it is now even harder to trust ourselves to when.

Christ_in_the_Wilderness_-_Ivan_Kramskoy_-_Google_Cultural_InstituteinsertThe agony on Jesus' face is not the realisation that when is his only hope. He knew that without when, without the grace of God, without God's giving beyond all expectation and hope, there is nothing but futility and we are nothing but chemicals in the maw of diabolos, nothings and play pieces of fates and capricious gods. The agony, the great chastening, is that to embrace when, to trust when, means to let go of our illusions of safety. It is to say to the drowning person, "Let go of the thing keeping you afloat for, really, it is what is drowning you," and then to find that it is us who are drowning.

What I am trying to communicate is that the decision to trust when, and the decision not to deflect suffering, one day brings us to a place where the dying we always knew we would have to face... is "tomorrow." It's as though, although there are no x-rays or diagnoses, the worst possible diagnosis has just been announced to us. All the fear that comes with that, all that grief, is suddenly present in our now.  Trusting when seems to make the existential angst we mostly hold at bay much more present. This is the pain on Jesus' face as he sits in the heat of a Cloncurry creek. The realisation that now he must start on a path that could bring death and the loss of all that he loves tomorrow.

It is our great sin as a church to pretend that this is easy, and to preach a faith which is rather more "you can have your cake and eat it," than it is a theology of the cross. We want the heady joys of ecstasy that we see in the transfiguration, and hear in the witness of Paul, but refuse to see that they come with a cross, with the forty lashes minus one, beatings with rods, stoning, and shipwreck. We flee from the thought of being adrift at sea, and would prefer to avoid even the sleepless nights. (2 Corinthians 11:23-30) In the painting, Jesus is both adrift and sleepless as he sees the cost of the cross. His face is terrible, and the deep part of us knows that to follow him is to enter his suffering. So we too often settle for, and too often preach, sugar mixed in with water and a little cochineal, and pretend it is Grange, and salvation. And... we turn our backs upon those whom we sense see through our charade. We shame them with allegations of illness, or lack of faith, or apostasy.

Is there a place to stand whilst it seems that society is decaying and that the planet is dying? How do we live trusting when the kingdom comes?

I think that, like us, Jesus has no idea what climate change will do to us, or whether we will survive it. Just as he had no idea what would happen in the future with Rome and Israel. He may have had a vision, an imagination, an idea. But we know that what survives of such visions, and what comes to pass, is the truth of the underlying promise that God loves us and does not abandon us. The details are usually different.

So when the weather cools, and it is safe to begin the long walk to Canberra, Jesus will begin. He will continue living, he will trust the promise underlying his vision for a future, which means to live when rather than the apparent safety of if. And it will age him. In his secret moments away from the crowd, observant disciples will see his distress... and confess their own. The insightful ones will begin to understand that his endless compassion as people flock to him does not cause this distress. They will see that because he can suffer the distress of his own complete dependence upon God, he is capable of endless compassion.

Do not be afraid of the pain life brings. Do not be ashamed that you find it hard, or that you struggle to be bright and cheerful. To be honest about the pain and fear of life is to begin to embrace the kingdom.


Andrew Prior (Lent 2019)

The painting referred to in this post was by Ivan Kramskoi - Google Cultural Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38344996

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 4:1-13 - If only you will... (2010)
Luke 4:1-13 - No short cuts past the cross (2013)
Luke 4:1-13 - The unholy is the holy without vision  (2016)
Luke 4:1-13 - Fear and Temptation (2016)



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