Weekly Preaching: February 18, 2018

February 15th, 2018

For Lent 1, the Gospel curiously retreats to Mark 1:9-15, verses that were split just last month between the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany 3, two weeks later. I think the purpose is to fix on the little sliver that was skipped then, verses 12-13, Mark’s severely abbreviated narration of the temptation in the wilderness.

You have to love his version, though. Jesus didn’t just traipse out to that rocky, daunting zone of the Judean wilderness. The Spirit (capitalized in many translations — but Mark doesn’t quite have a well-developed third-person of the Trinity!) drove him out there: the verb ekballo is picturesque, meaning threw or hurled him out! And, as we’ve seen is so common for Mark, this happened “immediately.” Such urgency, even on the Spirit’s part. For forty days Jesus was tempted (“tested” is better) by Satan. Then, Mark adds what Matthew and Luke don’t: “and he was with the wild beasts.” There are predators, scorpions, all sorts of dangerous creatures out there; but the image is that of an untamed creation in need of its Lord. He’s not alone: “and the angels ministered to him.”

I totally get opening Lent with Jesus’ testing by Satan, but then I shrink back and wish for another text — primarily because I think we so easily misread what this text is about. As I share as often as I can (as in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word), preachers trivialize and misread so much of Scripture by making it all about us; sermons are about my faith, my doubt, my serving, my prayers, my goodness, my future. But the Bible is primarily about God, and then about God's Church. Shouldn't preaching speak of God, then the church, and only inferentially then about us?

With this pericope, the normal, predictable, and really wrong-headed sermon says Let’s learn from Jesus how to resist temptation. Mind you, Matthew and Luke provide more fodder for this. But the point of the story is that Jesus is amazing. Jesus achieves what you and I would fail at every time. Jesus resisted, and defeated the devil himself. This gives us hope — not to be great resisters of the devil, but that Jesus is able to save us. He is not our example (although to follow his example is always wise); he is our savior (precisely because we are incapable of following his example).

It’s hard to “illustrate” Jesus’ temptations. It’s not “like” anything else, really. I love the way this is depicted in Nikos Kazantzakis’s wonderful and bizarre novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Every time young Jesus reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples. He shrieked and fell down on his face.” His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help. The rabbi shook his head. “Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God — so what can I do?” “Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked. “It’s God, I tell you. No, there is no cure.” “Why does he torment him?” The old exorcist sighed but did not answer. “Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again. “Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied.

If you still want to attend to our resistance to temptation, then C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is always a handy, humorous, insightful guide. With irony, and keen psychological probing of the allure of what will undo us, Lewis is at his best, most readable and homiletically useful.

Lent shouldn’t be construed as a season of temptation unless we’re thinking of what we’ve given up and its enticements.

As a season of testing, we might be wise to encourage our folks (and you have to do this prior to Lent 1, which is already five days into Lent!) to pinpoint something that holds divine sway over the soul — is it technology? Could we dare ask our folks to fast from iPhones and iPads for a season? — and thereby discover the enslavement in which they hold us.

We are inviting our people to ponder alcohol (and broader substance abuse). With supportive programming and small groups looking at mental health and faith, we are encouraging our people to give up alcohol for Lent and then take the money they would have spent on alcohol and collect it for our “Spirit fund” (get it?), which will be directed toward recovery ministries. The beauty of this (which we did several years ago) is it sparks countless valuable conversations. Why do we drink? To celebrate a good day? To deal with a bad day? To insure we have fun when we’re together? Doesn’t alcohol take the place for most of us that the Holy Spirit ought to play? And then we have people who simply drink too much, acknowledged or, more likely, unacknowledged. Without shaming, we dream of looking closely through Gospel eyes at the role alcohol plays in our lives and society.

* * *

The Old Testament, Genesis 9:8-17, is more hopeful — God placing a bow in the sky as a pledge of the covenant with Noah after he, his family, and the creatures have survived the flood. I’m a huge fan of the Russell Crowe Noah film, with its gritty, primitive, legendary feel. Lent, instead of being a horrific time of struggle, could be a season of repentance in the sense of turning away from struggle and into the gracious, covenantal arms of the divine mercy.

* * *

Our Epistle, 1 Peter 3:18-22, is surely daunting. Christ died for our sins — reiterating what I said above about Jesus resisting the devil when we are unable, which is always, and thus being our savior more than our example. This business of Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison” is hard to exegete. Theories abound, but historically this has become the basis of Christ’s “descent into hell” between his burial on Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning, a doctrine that Karl Barth argued “need not be explicitly grounded upon specific biblical texts; rather, it must rely upon a reading of Scripture as a whole.”

J.R.R. Tolkien certainly had Christ’s descent into Hell and combat against evil in the back of his mind when he devised the scene of Gandalf plummeting into the abyss battling against the evil Balrog. This descent provides rich preaching fodder — as seen in this excerpt from my book on preaching the Apostles’ Creed, The Life We Claim:  

Hell, we know, is not a fiery cavern down in the earth patrolled by red men with pitchforks. Jesus’ journey there is symbolic, intimating that all people, in this life and even beyond this life, are offered the love of God. Even the grave does not silence God’s call. “What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who — perhaps through the fault of those very Christians who have been charged with its proclamation — have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these delivered to damnation? Do they remain forever shut out? The Christian faith can say ‘no’ to this urgentquestion. What took place for mankind in Jesus also applies to the people who either never came into contact with Jesus and his message, or who have never really caught sight of the truth of his person and story” (Wolfhart Pannenberg). God is relentless, unfazed by time, space, or death itself. Even the pit of Hell is owned by the unquenchable love of Christ; the abyss is not bottomless, but has an opening to heaven. Or so many thinkers have argued, unable to make sense of the idea that God could love everyone with infinite power and wind up losing even one. Perhaps Christ’s descent into hell opens a window for those who have never heard of Christ, or have heard it from terrible people.

“In view of what Jesus had seen the last few days of his life, maybe the transition to Hell wasn’t as hard as you might think" (Frederick Buechner). Many theologians have claimed that Christ descended into hell the moment he cried “My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross; “No more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God, and when you call upon him, not to be heard" (John Calvin). Jürgen Moltmann thought it really began in Gethsemane when Jesus’ request that the cup be removed was denied.

Whichever side of the grave your Hell may be on, “there is no depth, no darkness, no unraveling of reality, which God’s Son has not shared” (Nicholas Lash). No matter what Hell I go through, God is in the teeth of it with me, descending into whatever abyss I have fallen. And, if Jesus descended into Hell, then I as a follower of Christ, and we as the Church of Christ, must follow, and seek out those whose Hell is palpable and devastating, and we become the embodied love of Christ for those who think they are totally sealed off from God.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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