Fr Hugh put together a Lenten Series this year: Friends and Companions - Books that have Shaped our Theology and asked four ordained and two lay leaders at St Peter's to preach each Sunday then lead a discussion group. This sermon I preached at High Mass on the First Sunday, 18th February.
Mark 1: 12-15
When I was a teenager I was part of a drama troupe, GSODA: The Geelong Society of Operatic and Dramatic Arts. We performed musicals like Hello Dolly and The Sound of Music - full of enthusiasm, but perhaps a little short of their original heyday. We were taught many old music hall and Vaudeville songs. One, you may know it, was written in 1917 and later performed by Judy Garland include these lines in the chorus: ‘I’m always chasing rainbows, watching clouds drifting by; my schemes are just like all my dreams ending in the sky,’ finishing with: ‘Believe me, I’m always chasing rainbows, waiting for the little blue bird in vain.’ It’s a sad song about the senselessness of life, there’s a mixture of resignation and self-pity as the singer contemplates a lifetime experience of failure - the blue bird of happiness is a wild goose chase. It certainly would have been a heartfelt song during the Great Depression.
Why did God shape God’s first covenant with human kind in the form of a rainbow, as we hear in the first lesson today? After all those nights of flooding rain, couped up with his family and that large menagerie of creatures what did Noah think and feel, when he first saw this rainbow? A few lines after this passage, Noah’s son Canaan shames him by speaking about seeing Noah naked having drunk too much wine; is this, a poignant reminder about our own wounded humanity? Was there ever a bluebird of happiness for Noah?
When I read books by Rowan Williams or listen to his addresses, even those I find most abstruse and impossible, I always sense his encouragement to keep asking questions, to reach for that place further into. Questions keep the Gospels and the stories in the books of the Bible alive; the time to start being concerned is when you are certain that you have the answers. For Williams there is also that sanctioning to be totally free and intelligent in your prayer life, open and honest in your relationship with God and an urgent request for us all to think and speak more subtly. Self-awareness is a life cultivated in the spirit. To become truthfully attuned of one another’s frailty and to begin to recognise those chains of fantasy we enmesh ourselves in, is to start to understand how deeply our personhood is grounded in God.
Rowan Williams is Orthodox; his Anglicanism is influenced the by the Russian Orthodox Church but more so by the Anglican tradition itself down the ages. We examine our history to examine our identity, he says. God is not at the mercy of historical chance or change but consistent; and relation to God in a community is not restricted by time and space, culture or language. Though careful grammar and logic are imperative in our discussions about God, Williams constantly directs our gaze away from his words, from ourselves, and towards our living relationship with God. His model of prayer is that ‘the Holy Spirit brings you to the place where Jesus stands and gives you the words to speak with the Father.’ For him, God, is not the giver of a bluebird of happiness. What is on offer is much more than this. God is the Giver of an invitation into relationship.
In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘driven’ into the desert by the Holy Spirit after he was baptised by John. Unlike the word ‘led’ used by Luke and Matthew, Mark chooses a NT Greek word that implies Jesus goes ‘under a force he cannot resist.’ Perhaps the later Gospel writers sought to make this movement more palatable by softening the word to ‘led’, but in doing so they lost that raw sense of something in Jesus busting to get him out there into the desert. He can’t resist this force. And this action happens right after his baptism by John, and a voice from Heaven affirms the vocation of both these men: ‘You are my son and with you I am well pleased…’ You’d think that Jesus would find it irresistible to get straight on with his mission in Galilee rather than go tearing off into the desert. Jesus certainly had nothing to prove to God by going out there. And it’s of note that the Gospel writer John doesn’t mention this episode.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not elaborate about what the temptations are. But he does make it clear that Jesus is not alone there: there are ministering angels and wild beasts. Something of heaven is breaking in, and something very primal is threatening to erupt: there’s a context of hope and fear being staged behind this strange interaction between Jesus and Satan, this sorting out. The Spirit too, having driven Jesus there, would not have deserted him. But there’s no map, there’s no self-help manual, no commentary; just live confrontation. It feels as if much hangs upon this encounter - even when it’s mentioned only briefly by Mark - but what is it that’s at stake?