Crows Nest Uniting Church
Lent 1 • 22 Feb 2015

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Rev. Chris Udy

We may not be using a census
to count heads and households
in Australia next year,
but by 2050, almost all projections agree
that the world will have at least 9 billion people
to provide with water and food
and a place to live.
When Jesus was born
the world’s population
was probably about 200 million.
That’s considerably less
than Indonesia’s population today -
so when Jesus was driven out into wilderness
there was quite a bit of it about.
For Jesus,
wilderness was a lonely place -
a place of isolation and solitude -
and those who first read Mark’s gospel
would probably have imagined him
in the hot, dry country
to the west of the Jordan river.
It was a place without people
or the signs that people leave
to guide those who come after them
to water or to refuge.
It was a harsh place; no-one lived there -
so it didn’t have the landmarks or pathways
we use to set a course or chart our progress.
What that suggests
is that Jesus was doing something new.
There was no track he could follow;
there was no pattern or template he could use -
he was working it out as he went along -
and the tempter - Satan -
was his difficult companion.
Mark also says “wild beasts” were there,
“and the angels waited on him” -
so for Jesus, it seems,
the questions of temptation were fundamental:
God might have said he loved him -
but, the Tempter asks him
What does it mean to be loved by God?
How does a child of God
satisfy the hungers of being human?
How do you deal with the ‘wild beasts’ -
the animal realities of existence?
And what’s the role of the angels?
What message or guidance or vision of God
will be helpful to someone
God has claimed as his own?
Wild beasts and angels,
tests and temptations in wilderness by Satan.
Mark says that after 40 days
Jesus emerged from the desert.
By that timeline,
John the Baptist had been arrested
not long after Jesus was baptised,
and now Jesus appeared in Galilee
with the message and meaning
he’d discovered in the desert:
“The time is fulfilled,” he said,
“and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent - change your life’s direction -
and believe in the good news”.
For Jesus, this time of temptation
was about doing something new.
Jesus had glimpsed the vision
of an entirely new world -
the kingdom of God -
a world where someone’s value
wasn’t limited and defined
by the wealth they had,
or the tribe that they were born to,
or the political power they could command.
In the world that Jesus had seen
human value was defined by God -
“You are my child” God had said,
and with you I am well pleased -
I am delighted.”
For Jesus, the world was no longer a place
where the ultimate powers
had to be placated and kept on side,
and any transgression or weakness
was savagely punished.
In the world that Jesus had seen
facts would turn out to be friendly;
gentleness and forgiveness would be treasured,
and good news was much, much more
than political spin.
For Jesus, the world that he had glimpsed
in his baptism
was strange and new -
and he had to make a choice:
either to stay in the world that he’d grown up in -
the world of brutal Roman power
and decaying Judean corruption -
or to live in that strange new world
as the first and only citizen
of that kingdom of God.
So, for Jesus,
the temptations are appropriately lonely,
and all he has to work out where he’s going
are the tempter, and the wild beasts and the angels.
But, for us, the place of temptations
can often seem very different.
For us, natural wilderness is becoming so rare
that we need to protect and preserve it.
Where, for those who lived with Jesus,
villages, towns and cities
were places of refuge in a hostile world,
now we’re more at risk of hostility
from those who share our homes,
or our streets, or our political process,
than we are from an increasingly fragile nature.
Our wilderness is more likely
to be populated by people
than by wild animals or angels -
and the questions of our temptation
aren’t so much about doing something new
as they are about finding - 
and holding onto - something good.
The wilderness Jesus faced
was trackless and empty;
now we’re overwhelmed with roads,
and signs and information -
and we’re constantly being shouted at
by lobbyists and advertisers and recruiters.
For Jesus, loneliness was the result of his isolation -
but for many of us,
loneliness is most difficult and painful
when we’re surrounded by other people,
none of whom seem able to tell us honestly
what they believe in,
or who they belong to,
or what they think or feel.
But at the same time,
they seem to be eager to reveal
the faults and flaws of anyone
we might have chosen to trust
and to undermine the ordinary goodwill
that every society needs to hold together.
We have wild beasts both outside and within us,
and like all predators
they are most dangerous
when we’ve been isolated -
when we’re vulnerably alone.
So our best defence against predators
isn’t increased anxiety or suspicion -
that can only fragment us more.
We face our wild beasts best
when we have company -
when we find and hold on to;
people that we trust;
people with whom we tell the truth
and share in honest intimacy.
We are also surrounded by angels -
not so much of the ethereal kind,
but messengers just the same -
people who can help us hear
the calling and guidance of God,
and support us as we make and keep
good connections and choices.
Our angels need to be discerned and cultivated.
They don’t reveal themselves immediately.
We have to get to know them
and learn to trust them -
and that involves a commitment
to community life
and the disciplines of friendship.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent,
and one of the best features of this season
in many Christian communities
is its invitation to join small groups
for study and reflection.
Our Lent Study groups start today
and their purpose is to give us an opportunity
for the kind of conversation
that moves deeper than the surface chat
we often find ourselves engaged in and limited to.
In Lent those small groups
are also intended to help us live
with the disciplines we’ve chosen
as part of our preparation for Easter,
and to remind us that we’re part
of a wider movement -
that new world, that kingdom of God
that began with Jesus,
as the first and only citizen
but has spread around the planet
and now numbers in the billions.

33% of world population -

Billions don’t really help though;
what we need to find guidance
is a group among whom
we can speak our truth,
and who will also keep us accountable.
The temptations Jesus faced
were temptations of definition.
He needed find and follow
a way that had not been walked
by anyone before.
He had seen that new world,
that kingdom where people are valued
as daughters and sons of God -
and his life’s purpose
was to mark a trail
through unmapped territory
for those who would follow.
What we have to face
are temptations of distraction.
We have so many options -
there are so many ways open -
that we find ourselves confused
by the variety of choice.
Some of us find ourselves
skipping between the options on offer,
picking up whatever looks attractive
and moving on to something new and different.
And the peril of a diet like that
is that we never choose those parts
that look more difficult
and less tasty.
We never get the balanced nourishment
that comes from staying at one table;
we over-indulge
on the spiritual and emotional equivalents
of sugar, salt and fat,
and we shy away from what we need
to make and keep us healthy.
When Jesus returned from the wilderness
with his new message and meaning,
he gathered around himself
a community among whom
he shared his vision of the kingdom
and his table in communion.
He also told them clearly
that the way he had found in the wilderness -
the way into the new world he had seen -
was a way of sacrifice -
the way of the cross.
He taught them the disciplines
of friendship and community -
the discipline of commitment:
making and maintaining relationships
even through times of challenge from beyond
and disagreement and betrayal from within;
the discipline of forgiveness:
naming and acknowledging
another person’s power to cause us pain,
and, even so, rebuilding relationship with them;
and the discipline of faithfulness:
choosing not to walk away
from friendship and community -
but returning - even after death -
in the hope of resurrection.
In a world of seven billion people,
where our natural wilderness is shrinking
and we will soon have no choice
but to find a way to live together
with harmony and at peace,
the way Jesus found and taught
to his disciples and his friends
will soon be critical to our existence.
As the wilderness we’re faced with
moves from outside us to within,
we’ll need to come to understand -
maybe even tame and befriend -
our wild beasts -
and we’ll also need to find
and listen carefully to our angels.
What we do each year
as we celebrate the season of Lent -
looking for ways to live more healthily and simply;
finding companions
with whom we can reflect
more honestly and more deeply;
practising peace -
the disciplines of community and friendship -
those are the things that will lead us -
even through the temptations that lie ahead -
into that new world
Jesus caught a glimpse of -
into the kingdom of God.