Holy Communion - Lent 1 18th February 2018
Signs of God's Covenant
Mark 1. 9 - 15
There are only a few contexts where you hear the word ‘covenant’. Some of you may be old enough to remember the days before Gift Aid, when, if you wanted to be tax efficient you had to sign a covenant with your church. You may have come across a covenant on a house or a piece of land, which is so powerful it requires something of you, or prevents you from doing something. A covenant has more weight and moral force than a contract. It has a reference point above and beyond us.
One of the texts for today is the promise of God to Noah that never again would a people be abandoned to destruction because of their behaviour. It’s a covenant. Whenever storm clouds gathered the rainbow would be a reminder that God’s promise was binding and for ever. There would always be the possibility of rescue. Even if it seemed like God had abandoned his people, he would always keep his side of the bargain.
The First Sunday of Lent may seem an odd Sunday to think about covenant, but, especially in Mark’s Gospel, it is perfect. Temptation is a dark time. The wilderness lays you bare. In the hardest of places Jesus is shown to be the answer, the rescue, the hope and the future. In himself he is both the rainbow – the sign of God’s presence with us – and the ark - the means of rescue.
The temptations of Jesus are not included in the Gospels to encourage us to have a detox. They have everything to say about what it is to have complete reliance on God, and about the deep motives of our lives. These deep drives in our psyche have little to do with cream cakes and everything to do with whether Jesus is Lord of everything that we are.
Jesus’s victory over temptation means that we have an example to follow and a friend to guide us. There was nowhere more abandoned than the wilderness. Jesus is shown to us here as Son of God and Son of Man. Jesus has been there, and God was with him. Because of Jesus God will not let us go. Having been revealed as the Son of God – the covenant made visible – Jesus finds that covenant made absolutely tangible. The covenant is stress tested and found to be secure. God will never let him go.
Mark’s Gospel is famously brief and to the point. Compare it to the more elaborate versions in Matthew and Luke and you find in Mark that it’s more like a series of bullet points in a powerpoint presentation.
• God announces that Jesus is his Son.
• Jesus is driven into the wilderness
• He is tempted.
• He is sustained.
• He comes out and preaches
Luke and Matthew tell us about the nature of the temptations and their subtlety. Mark simply says this: Jesus was anointed. He fasted and was tempted. Then he began to preach. It was in the wilderness that his calling was confirmed, after the voice from heaven had announced it. His message of repentance only works because it comes from a life completely dependent on God, not his own image buoyed up by the approval of the crowd. It is forged in the cauldron of the desert’s midday heat.
Jesus’s dependence on God is worked out here in the fullness of his being human. He doesn’t float above the ground. He lives this life, and it is painful. It is enough for Mark to say ‘he was tempted’. If we are human we know what this means. A long time ago the Major accused of cheating on Millionaire went to trial. The prosecution stated that ‘human nature being what it is, someone was going to try to get the million dishonestly’. Human nature being what it is. Som of the more reflective comment about the scandals in the aid sector this week have talked, without excusing anyone, of the extreme challenges in crisis situations. Human nature betrays us.
Yes, even us. There are temptations, and one of them will get to you. One of the tasks of Lent is to train ourselves not to be enslaved by whatever it is that we could be addicted to, or could lead us astray. There will be something, and creating a spiritual wilderness helps us find out what it is. Jesus in the wilderness is exposed to every possible distraction and temptation. He knows their full force. The fully human Christ is in the middle of the mess with us, and accompanies us to bring us to glory. That’s God’s side of the bargain. There is nowhere he is not. Covenanted to him, we know that he has lived every last moment of it, and we can trust him. He is ark and rainbow.
Peirasmos in Greek isn’t about negative temptation, but positive testing. It is about proving goodness, not uncovering evil. Jesus came out of this series of temptations more able to do the job he was called to do. Our calling to be disciples will be confirmed not in the oasis but in the desert. And as I say it I know I want to avoid it. But the good news here is that temptation has already been overcome in Jesus Christ. He is rainbow and ark, and invites us to join him.
Our Lent groups are exploring discipleship using Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples. At its heart being a disciple is about discovering God’s commitment to us, and acting with our will and mind and heart to place ourselves in relationship to God in such a way as to learn and love and worship – to keep our side of the covenant. God’s covenant with us is that we will never be let go by God. And knowing that human nature is what it is, and that we will fail in our side of the bargain, God shares the completeness of our human nature, conquers temptation within it, and covenants with us again.
The rainbow is the vision, the announcement. The presence of Christ is the confirmation, the ark. In Christ we have conquered. As you are called to prayer this Lent, discover that truth. Rejoice in God’s promise. And live the new life. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.