Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the Ashy Wilderness

So that’s Ash Wednesday done for another year, and by now you will have washed your Ash Cross from your forehead. Is it also entirely possible that the heart of what we said and heard and prayed and sung that day has also been wiped away from our lives and memories?

The heart of the message of Ash Wednesday is to answer the church’s call to a Holy Lent. Not holiness in terms of otherness, of separateness, of distance from others within our communities, but actually actually the opposite - to see the forgiveness and mercy of God, spill out of our lives and transform our neighbourhoods and communities.

Jesus struggles with a number of things in the wilderness - hunger and thirst but also questions of personal gain, how will the saving work of God through Him be worked out and, how should He use the power and authority that he wields most effectively? Most of all Jesus struggles with His own humanity as it is not just the nature of the temptations that Jesus faces that are important, it is the fact that He is tempted at all, for in so doing, Jesus identifies completely with us and demonstrates how challenging it will be for each of us to answer Ash Wednesday’s call.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit is led out into the wilderness by the Spirit. He hasn’t uttered a word of teaching or performed any miracle and yet one so full of the things of God is confronted by the Devil. Whatever name you give him, and Scripture gives him many, there is a strong personal, cultural, and institutional opposition to the way of love, health, wholeness and peace that God proclaims again and again and especially through His Christ. As we struggle with ill-health, mental anguish, doubt or anxiety and supremely in an inability to love and be loved, we too grapple with this demonic power still alive and well in our world.

Temptation is not a sign of weakness.  Lead us not into temptation, or put another way - lead us not into the time of trial, we pray, not because we cannot handle it but because it’s not wrong to ask God to keep us from times of trial like that - no one wants to willingly endure it.  Temptation is perhaps actually a sign of strength as we are not be tempted to to do things we are not able to do, but rather only that which is already within our power or within our grasp. And it is that that makes giving in to it so insidious, especially when our culture glories in gratifying our desires.

Why should we resist temptation? It’s about knowing when we have enough. It’s about relying on God. It’s knowing our place within the grand scheme of things.

Jesus is tempted to turn a stone into bread. We’re told that Jesus was famished in that wilderness time.  We live in an age where food is a huge issue - millions have more than they need and many millions more have nowhere near what they require. Looking for food was not the purpose of Jesus’ wilderness experience - we need to to be conscious ourselves of when and how much we consume whether it’s food or other resources.

Jesus was tempted to worship the Devil and receive the glory of the nations.  We live in an age ever more concerned with the exercising of power - whether it’s human rights or the tabloid press hacking phones or bribing police. At His baptism and on the mount of Transfiguration we are reminded that Jesus is God’s Son on whom His favour rests, who is much loved by Him, who is worth listening to and who exercises the power and authority of God.  Seeking power to control His own destiny was not part of Jesus wilderness experience - we need to be conscious ourselves of when and how we exercise authority over others whether directly or indirectly.

Jesus was tempted to win Jerusalem and the world with a show of supernatural power. We live in an age where image is key and style rules over substance - where how you dress or where you shop or how you vote or even the colour of your skin or who you love labels you. Outward shows of spiritual might were not the purpose of Jesus wilderness experience - we need to be conscious ourselves of when and how we judge others or how we might be judged on outward appearances alone, rather than on the quality of love in action and how our lives cash up in enriching and resourcing others.

Jesus resisted these temptations not because He was the Son of God, but because He knew the bigger story of God at work in the world as revealed to us in the Scriptures. Jesus quoting scripture at the Devil remind us of the power of that story which God has wooed humanity with over millennia - I love you, I want to be with you, will you be with Me which culminates in the triumph of Divine Love over the power of despair and evil.  We cannot see these temptations outside of the context of the Devil ‘returning at an opportune time’ and testing Jesus not verbally but physically in His Crucifixion and Resurrection - the high point of that story - where those Devilish Powers at work in our world are ultimately defeated along with death itself.

The wilderness time for Jesus was surely in part about Him beginning to discern His priorities, and ultimately concluding that to rely exclusively and utterly on the will and purposes of God was the only way to proceed.  Even One so filled with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit had to make that choice and was not exempt from times of trial.

As people filled with the Holy Spirit by virtue of our sharing in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist - we too will not be exempt from times of great testing and tria - but in those times and always - are we willing to be people of the Ash cross not just on Wednesday but on Thursday, Friday, Saturday indeed every day allowing the forgiveness we receive to shape our life but also that of our community, are we ready to open ourselves as Christ did to the will and purposes of God and rely exclusively on Him in and for all things, and are we ready allow His cross and resurrection to rewrite not just the future but the present part of the story God is writing in and through our lives?

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