The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s098g09 Lent 1 1/3/2009
'forty days tempted by Satan' Mark 1.13
Mark's account of the temptation is short, only two verses, so we have to repeat the account of Jesus' baptism, and his beginning of the ministry to make it a reasonable length of gospel to read. Again we see that things happened **immediately** one straight after another.
But this is actually helpful for it puts the temptation into context.
Jesus must have been encouraged by the words 'You are my son' directed, you may notice, to him alone. The words were not 'this is my son' directed towards others. Then he struggles with the devil in the wilderness alone. The outcome of his struggling was to enter into the community of all people.
We do not have details of Jesus' struggle with the devil in Mark's account, but both Matthew and Luke's account have the devil quoting parts of Psalm 91 to Jesus. But the devil didn't quote this verse: 'A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.' (verse 7) The temptation of Satan was to not care about the one thousand who perish, the ten thousand others.
This is particularly relevant in Australia at this time when over 200 have been killed in the fires in Victoria and thousands stranded in the floods in Queensland. One of our great Australian poets, Dorothea MacKellar wrote:
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!
It is wonderful to find ordinary Australians open their wallets to give to the relief of those who have lost everything. Indonesia, the country with the greatest Muslim population has given US $1 million. A small and impoverished community of Vanimo in Papua New Guinea has given $5500! (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/02/20/2497433.htm?site=local) How many good people there are in this world, and many of them do not profess Christianity at all! They care about the thousands and tens of thousands of others who are affected. This is the community of all that I am talking about.
The constant temptation is to be self-absorbed to not worry about those who are different. They can 'go to hell' as far as some even 'christians' - are concerned.
And self-absorption can disguise itself in many forms. The desire for others to believe like us, live like us, and worship like us can be provide us with a sense of security that **our** way is especially kosher and acceptable to the Lord and others aren't. We not only think, but we believe that this sense of security will protect us from disaster that may befall others. But where in the Bible do we read that God prefers uniformity? How many so-called 'christian' doctrines imply that adherents will be 'saved' and non-adherents will be damned? For all our describing ourselves as 'evangelical' by doing so we show ourselves essentially unconcerned that our teachings condemn all who are different. Really our whole raison d'etre is to be concerned with making others like us. Others can't be themselves like we can and get away with it!
For various reasons, unrelated to the preparation of this sermon, I have been sorting out the names and addresses of the local clergy and leaders of the Christian communities here in Orange. And above and beyond the multitude of Christian denominations are the number of pastors, priests, and lay church leaders involved. I suppose that they are of every hue of tradition as anywhere else. And it made me think how prevalent the desire to exercise one's own personal ministry, different from others, is. Again this makes me curious, not critical.
And of course it is not just leaders of congregations. There are enough people who are not ordained who 'rule' Anglican parishes, the self appointed patriarchs and matriarchs, and I suppose that this is fairly universal across the denominations as well.
As someone who comes from a tradition where there are fairly stringent requirements laid down for candidates for ordination and ministry academic, spiritual, maturity & etc, it might be easy to dismiss others who minister elsewhere. It might as much point to a too restrictive view of the workings of the Spirit on our part that others cannot find a ministry in 'my' tradition.
But as I pondered this I thought then about the multitude of those who attend bible studies, and I suppose this shows an implied desire to be an 'educated' Christian.
Somehow, for all we love those words of Jesus: 'blessed are the poor in spirit' we, as leaders and conscientious disciples are not content to be so blessed! We want to be leaders, to be rich in spirit.
I continue to enjoy Hans Küng's book 'On being a Christian'. In a pivotal chapter he asks: 'Are the sinful supposed to be nearer to God than those who remained righteous? .. What kind of lunatic justice is this which in fact abolishes all sacred standards and reverses all order of rank, making the first last and the last first? .. What kind of naďve and dangerous love is this, which does not know its limits: the frontiers between fellow countryman and foreigner, party members and non-members, between neighbours and distant people, between honourable and dishonourable callings, between moral and immoral, good and bad people? .. Yes, Jesus did go so far ..' (p 274)
We do what Jesus wants, not when we become a leader of a congregation, nor when we come to understand the bible, but when we open ourselves to others and the fact that God loves others as much as God loves us. I have spoken recently of those who have led blighted lives because they haven't been able to be a real 'christian' like Billy Graham, who haven't been able to convert their partners, who haven't been able to keep their children from straying? We not only condemn those outside our community of faith to eternal damnation, we put down others in our own community who can't match our level of devotion.
The temptation, so briefly described in Mark is that of all who count themselves as better, different, educated, separate from others. God accepts others as they are, as God accepts us as we are. They do not have to become better, different, educated, or separated like we are.
The church seems to be fighting irrelevancy. We too wrestle with the devil in the wilderness. We wrestle over the meaning of scripture, we wrestle over the nature and ministers of the sacraments, we wrestle over issues of sexuality all trying to make 'our' orthodoxy triumphant to remain essentially alone by only having like minded people around us and the rest will go to hell anyway. The answer for us was the same as it was for Jesus - to leave the wilderness and enter into the community of all people.
Of course many, many Christians do precisely this, and know the strength and encouragement that exists in the real world. It is just so sad that the church seems so often to imply that it is solely from their community, their sacraments, their interpretation of the bible alone that life in all its fullness comes. Jesus wrestled with the devil forty days but some devils are remarkably persistent. Jesus leaves the wilderness and joins the community of all people and invites us all to do like-wise. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." The good news is that God accepts all, we are called to accept all, and so make the kingdom come in the community in which God places us.
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