Friday, February 20, 2015

February 22, Lent 1, The Walk to the Cross #1, Invitation

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

The church’s tradition drives you into the wilderness of Lent for forty days. You are on a mental pilgrimage, a six weeks’ journey to the cross. Along the way the scriptures will show you signs of the cross and hints and shadows of the cross — the shameful cross, the form of execution that the Romans designed to humiliate you with a shameful death. Why does Jesus walk into it so consciously, so open-eyed? Why would God want such a thing?

It was God’s idea that Jesus be tempted in the wilderness. It was at the motion of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came down upon him as a dove and then became a driving force in him. Listen again to verses 12 and 13 [my translation]: And straightway the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the satan, and he was among the wild animals, and the angels served him.

The temptation story is first reported by St. Matthew, but when St. Mark takes his turn to tell it he offers different details. Both of them say that it happened right after his baptism, both say it was forty days, both say that angels ministered to him, and both say it was the satan who tempted him. For both of them, this satan is not a demon from hell but the satan of the Book of Job, that is, a spirit of this world who is in your face with the hard and cold cruelty of existence, and your weakness, and God’s indifference. But while St. Matthew reports the conversation between them with the famous three temptations, in Mark the testing is more general, and without words, and thus more emotional, which would be typical of Mark.

St. Mark doesn’t say specifically that Jesus fasted. He says the angels served him. All throughout? Like God served the children of Israel with manna, the “bread of angels,” during their forty years in the desert? Like Elijah, who got fed by ravens when God had driven him into that same wilderness area, and then by an angel before his pilgrimage of forty days? It’s St. Mark who adds the detail that Jesus was among the wild animals. How much among them? Scared? Not scared? Like Daniel in the lion’s den? Like Noah in the ark, huddling with the animals for forty days and forty nights of rain, and dark, and fear? How lonely did he feel? How miserable?

What were the voices in his head? “What am I in for? How can I be certain what to do? Who will advise me? What if I slip? What if I make an innocent mistake? A rookie mistake? An error? When does an error become a sin? What if I sin? What if I’m not perfect? What if I become one more disappointment in the history of Israel? What if I lose my strength? What if I lose my way? What if my way’s not clear? Must I be alone or can I find allies? Who will support me? Should I get a part-time job? Can I have friends? What if I meet a woman and desire her? What if I meet a guy and I desire him? Do I really have to be so different from everybody else? What if I don’t have the stuff? What if it doesn’t work? What if my anger goes beyond righteous anger? What if I fail?”

I am sure he felt his anger. “How much am I supposed to accept the guilt of everybody else? Why do I have to take on the shame and grief of everybody else?” He had to have felt for himself the world’s frustration. He had to feel our doubt. “Why does God allow these things? Why does God allow us all to suffer? Maybe God will not remember me. Maybe God will not rescue me. What if God forsakes me? Maybe God is not so good. Maybe God is not so great. Maybe the satan is right. My vision is not realistic. I just have to accept that the world is hard and cruel, and we flutter if we can until we die. All we are is dust in the wind. I need to protect myself. Get a real job, find a lover, get a life!” I hope the angels held him up when he was down.

Can you identify with him? That’s what you’re supposed to do these forty days. Feel your self in him and all your doubt and pain and shame and guilt and fear. You get tried and tested and tempted by the world, and the Holy Spirit does not spare you from it. You will find that the more you try to live by your faith, the more the world will test you, and the further you follow Jesus, the more you will be tried. Why does God allow it so? Didn’t Jesus specifically tell us to pray that Our Father not lead us into temptation? He doesn’t have to. Your conscience tempts you enough.

Because, why are you suffering? You know that some of your suffering is just plain going to happen in a world where nature is indifferent to your feelings. You know that some of your suffering comes from doing what is right in a world that prefers what’s wrong. And you know that some of your suffering comes from the wrong that you have done. And how do you know which is which? Your conscience accuses you. That’s your trial, that’s your testing and temptation. Your self-awareness. When you’re alone with yourself, are you an angel or a beast? Or both? And how can you put your soul at rest?

Look up at the rainbow. That’s the first sign of the cross. It’s not about the colors. It’s about the shape. It’s archery. It’s a weapon, and it’s pointed back at God. When God sets the longbow in the clouds, that means its arrow is pointed back at God. It’s the expression of God’s own conscience, and the symbol of God’s suffering in the death and destruction in the flood of all those moms and dads and kids. It’s the sign of God’s own grief and sorrow and regret. It’s the sign of God’s aloneness and God’s trial, of God’s own wilderness, and no angel dared to pick God up.

The sign of the longbow in the clouds tells us that God thinks this: “I will not do that again. I will not destroy this human race again. When I get tempted by my righteous anger once again to free my lovely world from this one violent species, that shape in the clouds will remind me that I would rather kill myself. I would rather not be God than ever do that again. Better that God is dead than God do that again. Better I let the atheists be right. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’”

I have a close friend who says he can no longer believe in a God who would do those things. And God says, “Me neither.” God says, “I can imagine that I should not exist.” That’s partly why God never attempts to prove God’s own existence beyond a reasonable doubt. God never bothers to prove God’s goodness even with a preponderance of the evidence. Proving things is not God’s mojo. Not even about God’s self. God works by invitation. God invites you into the darkness where God is going. “Follow me into the darkness and the silence. I am going to die now.”

God dies. On the cross. God shoots the arrow at God’s self. The whole bad conscience thing is put to rest. That’s the strange design. The logic is difficult, the transaction is uneven. It seems to be based on God so totally having identified with us that in God’s self-sacrifice your guilt is all absorbed, like asteroids getting sucked into the Black Hole of God’s death. The cross of Christ is the paradoxical combination of the righteous anger of God with the regret and pain of God, the sorrow of God, the humiliation of God.

God’s identification is an invitation. God invites you in to God’s own self. The signs of the cross do their work upon your conscience to draw you in to explore God’s inner self. It is God’s spirit pushing you into that great wilderness who is God, drawing you into to the depths of God. “Probe me. Try me. Test me. I’m opening up my chest that you can probe your fingers in, and feel my heart. Put your hand into the wound within my side. Explore me, journey into me.”

That’s what Lent is really about. It’s about God and what God is like It’s not really about your sins, those are just the tickets in. You surrender your tickets to enter into God. And I am telling you, ahead of time, that at the end of your pilgrimage what you will find is Wondrous Love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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