The Desert as Place of Disillusionment
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?
Silence and Honey Cakes was originally a series of talks given by Rowan Williams at the John Main Seminar in Sydney in 2001. It’s based on his bringing together issues that we are grappling with at the beginning of the 21st century, with those stories and insights from the 4th and 5th century early Church Mothers and Fathers, those ‘monastic oddballs’ Laurence Freeman calls them in the introduction, who chose to live in the deserts of Egypt.
It is a book which, at heart, is about how to live with your neighbour. Williams says: ‘our life and our death is with the neighbour, the actual here and now context in which we live - including that unique neighbour who is my own embodied self and whom I must confront truthfully as I confront the rest truthfully.’ Wherever you are, whether you choose to stay or leave a community, a family, your life will be with your neighbour. Whatever the motives for those original mothers and fathers seeking the eremetical life in the desert, their stories come back again and again to this theme: how can I live with my neighbour? How can I live with own embodied self? How can I begin to see clearly each person I encounter this day? What are the illusions about myself that need to be cleared away?
For Rowan Williams what Satan offers Jesus in the desert is a false version of what’s real. He says: ‘all the temptations of Jesus seem to be about resorting to magic instead of working with the fabric of the real world…..Satan wants Jesus to join him in a world where cause and effect don’t matter; a world of magic; Jesus refuses, determined to stay in the desert with its hunger and boredom, to stay in the human world with its conflict and risk.’ Jesus pledges himself there. What Satan offers him is fantasy; an image of himself that is a denial of his bond with the material world and his own body. In this encounter, Jesus makes himself totally vulnerable. And though defenceless, he is fearless. Satan wants to tear Jesus apart from Love; break him from connection with his Father, and by that his link to us. Perhaps then the desert is given to us as the only place where Jesus, as Incarnation, can encounter within himself those very forces that try to block him from being human (and paradoxically make him very human in the temptation to be superhuman).
So then is it ‘relationship’ that’s in the balance? I wonder if Jesus’ time in the wilderness isn’t so much about Jesus and Satan, but about his relationship with us? By saying ‘no’ to a false version of what’s real in the material world, Jesus is in essence saying ‘yes’ to being a neighbour amongst us. For Mark, perhaps it is not necessary to elaborate the temptations - it’s enough to know they happened and they are less interesting than whom Jesus is afterwards.
The subsequent miracles of Jesus amongst the community, whatever we make of them are - as both Fr Philip and Fr Hugh have pointed out these last two Sundays - never acts of magic substituting the ‘bodily cost of love.’ They are manifestations of God’s self-emptying into the world, unique to Jesus. Jesus’ baptism by John in all four Gospels is pivotal in terms of terms of establishing his relationship in the Spirit and Father; but it’s in the desert experience where ‘all doors of perception’, as William Blake puts it, ‘have been cleansed.’ It’s this very action of seemingly being driven away from people into the desert, that Jesus then can subsequently begin his ministry and be so direct, so ‘fair dinkum’ with each person he encounters.
What desert am I called to sit in this Lent? What illusions about myself am I called to recognise and encounter these 40 days - well, Philip my husband will probably tell you quite a lot! It’s very rare that I manage one Lent totally wine free! But, it seems to me, Jesus didn’t leave the wilderness a little more resolute in promoting the cause for sobriety, or delighted to be trim around the waist or meaningfully well read.
At the end of 40 days we in the Church go into Passiontide. However, it’s after this period in the desert that Jesus began his public ministry: to teach about the kingdom of God, to give voice to the voiceless, to heal people, to bring in from the cold the outsider. He comes out of the wilderness to say ‘no’ to corruption and abuse of power, to exploitation. He withdraws often to commune inwardly with his Abba.
In his travels, with his troupe of disciples, his group of women and men, that beautiful rainbow-flag-in-the- sky covenant first heralded by Noah, only then really begins to glow with fresh colour still present for us today in the 21st century; this covenant of Jesus between God and God’s people. It’s this freshness that we appreciate anew after the Passion and Resurrection on Easter Day. So, for me, for you, on Easter Sunday 2018, how then will we each be with our neighbour - that stranger, friend, loved one, disliked one, we encounter every day without fail? And what chains of fantasy about ourselves shall we have begun to be loosened from, even just a little?