Temptation and renewal

22 February 2015
First Sunday in Lent
Lent 1B (RCL)
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Most of us have heard ourselves say, “If I were king/queen (or boss, or mayor, or president) . . .” We would know how to fix the world, or the department, or the city. A friend will tell me of some intractable problem, and my response (at least in my head), is “If I had a magic wand . . .” I believe the ancients would have seen in this the sin of pride.

Our readings for this Sunday bring us face to face with this temptation. I think, in a sly way, the Old Testament reading shows that it is even a temptation for God. God had looked down on the earth and seen the wickedness of humankind and repented of creating them. Only Noah and his family were righteous, so God determined to start over from scratch. As any reader of the story will know, the gambit didn’t work. Even among Noah’s sons, wickedness made its return. I find a bit of humor in the story of the rainbow, but a bit of humor meant to disarm us, the readers. God sets God’s bow, God’s weapon of war, in the sky after the rain storm as a way of reminding Godself that never again will God use that weapon to obliterate all flesh from the earth. Of course, we react, “Surely God does not need the reminder!” But the narrator is clearly telling us that God believes God needs the reminder. We need to make the second step, and see that if God believes God needs the reminder, then surely we need the reminder: Never should we use our weapons to obliterate all flesh from the earth. Never are we going to be wiser than God about what humankind needs.

Our tendency, when we see situations that need corrected, is to want top down solution. God tried the top down solution with humankind, and the rainbow is the sign that it didn’t work, even for God. I think that the temptation Jesus faced was the temptation to try a top down solution. After his baptism, and hearing the voice that he is God’s beloved son, it would be tempting to try to bring about the kingdom by fiat. Instead, the spirit drives him immediately into the desert, to be tested by Satan. The word used is peirazo, which means something like “to put to the test, to try.” When Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he immediately begins to announce the kingdom. The test was perhaps what kind of kingdom he was going to announce.

The intriguing detail in Mark’s Gospel is the fact that Jesus is with the wild animals, and the angels wait on him. The word for wild animal means wild beast, and even beasts of prey. This calls my mind to Daniel in the lion’s den, who is there precisely for his refusal to worship the Babylonian gods. Jesus is being tested whether he wants a top down solution, or is willing to work where people are.

The situation also recalls the early Christians in the arena with the wild beasts, and that is clearly their test. Will they remain loyal to Christ, or worship Caesar? The desert fathers and mothers see in this vignette the struggle with the demons. The purpose of that struggle was never to exorcise one’s demons (which was impossible) but to make them one’s familiars. One’s demons were uniquely one’s own. We all struggle with pride, but each of us experience it in a different way. The trick was to learn pride’s seductive tricks, so that one could own that temptation and learn to work with and around it. So, wild beasts and angels perhaps represent the dual aspect of human nature — Jesus needs to internalize both, before he can announce the kingdom. And when he does announce the kingdom, it is not by advocated the overthrow of Rome or Jerusalem, but by healing the sick, restoring the crushed and raising the dead; a bottom up solution. It is hard to be patient with bottom up solutions. When want quick, the magic bullet, not the slow, painful work of meeting our own demons.

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