Life through death
Week of Sunday Feb 26 - Lent 1
Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.’
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Sunday is the beginning of Lent. What are we seeing as we begin to prepare for Easter?
In Jesus, I see a man who tells us that the way to life is through death; through following him along the way of compassion, despite the cost. That is my basic faith.
I see a world living in complete contrast to this way; seeking to avoid death. We argue about the sin of taking life, fretting over euthanasia and assisted suicide, and keep people alive in an appalling state, when any merciful consideration would let them die. This is mostly not because of our esteem for the holiness of life; we are afraid of death, and cannot let it happen even when it would be a mercy.
We live lives accumulating material possessions aimed at making us safe and keeping us entertained and distracted. We do that while others suffer; while knowing our accumulation causes others to suffer. We can barely help ourselves in this compulsive need to avoid, and hide from, the inevitable.
In the end, however, it never works. Even the richest of us fortunate ones live with suffering and agony of mind. We are subject to the same arbitrary misfortunes as the poorest of people, and the same arbitrary misfortunes as the worst of people.
2:22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
3:19For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Ecclesiastes)
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes thought
24 There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God...
but we know that not even that is afforded to many of us; or even to most of us.
As we begin the period of reflection upon what life is really about, and where Jesus is leading us, the reading this week could be seen on two levels.
On the surface, Jesus is authorised and endorsed by God in this reading. You are my beloved son; with You I am well pleased.
Jesus is also shown to be worthy. He is tested in the wilderness; 40 days recalls the long journey of Israel in the wild places. Jesus comes to his ministry as one who has proven himself.
Then he announces the Kingdom of God has come near. At the least, the best world the Preacher could imagine is encapsulated in this. And there is more; the wild animals in the desert may not just be symbols of the danger of wild places, but also a deliberate allusion to Isaiah 11, where the wolf lives with the lamb... and a little child shall lead them.
‘The time is fulfilled,’ Jesus says. He will soon sit the people in groups on the green grass, (6:39) a foretaste, as he feeds them, of the heavenly banquet when all will be fulfilled. In a new Exodus, Jesus will lead the people to a better existence.
It is difficult to think that he, and Mark with his constant refrain of resurrection, were limited to the “making best of it” meaning of life that is implicit in some of the Preacher’s words. In the same way, although it is at one level eminently practical to say today, “Shit happens; get over it, and get on with life” Jesus is presenting something more transcendent.
Therefore, we can approach the reading as an endorsement of Jesus’ claim to have an answer to the misery of the world, and the inevitability of our dying. We could start here, and use Lent as a time to reflect on this answer of Jesus, by examining our lives in the light of the gospel of Mark; it’s really a very short book!
We could also re-read the text from a position where Jesus lives and acts as a model for us; where he is pioneering a way of living and being, for us. (Hebrews 2:10-12) He is not so much the hero who saves us as the exemplar who shows us how to do it!
In this reading, Jesus is chosen and blessed by God. In some wonderful words, Bill Loader says
Here is a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God. Jesus is the point of intersection. To turn the cosmology upside down, in him the depth surfaces.
Are we able, in this narrative, to see that we too are chosen? Can we believe this? In the movie of Mark, Bill says
Now the coming one has arrived and the camera shows the Spirit descending on him. The baptising in the Spirit can begin. One of us, who needs to wash as we do, literally and metaphorically, is where it will all happen. That is promising for us. There is no bypassing of humanity. (My emphasis)
As Paul (eg Romans 6:3 ff) would put it, although we die with him (and that, surely, is where Mark calls us – take up your cross 8:34) we will also be raised with him. God blesses us as he blessed Jesus.
After that blessing, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness. Blessing is followed by testing. Bill says, “It is almost stereotypical to begin the account of a great person’s life with a story of struggle. This is so doubtless because it so often reflects actual experience.” This is not restricted to great people; it is our common experience. We should not be surprised to find ourselves on this path!
We could say that it is only after resisting the temptations, that Jesus can come and preach the good news with any authenticity. This is also true of us. Untested, we remain weak, and naive about the suffering of others. He was the Wounded Healer, and it is only as the wounded that we can offer healing of any depth. (Nouwen) Temptations and testing are implied in the Greek. Testing includes all the suffering of life; this is not merely some test of our holiness, but a testing of our ability to persist in life.
What Jesus came preaching was that the kingdom of God had come near, and that we should repent and believe this Good News.
I find the order of the words important. It does not say believe and then repent. Belief is not accepting a proposition about the truth of the good news, and then deciding to change. Changing the way we live, which is repentance, enables us to believe. We believe by doing, by following, and as we shall see later in Mark, by being merciful and compassionate.
We only believe when we are living a life of repentance by living with compassion for others, instead of living for ourselves, trying to stave off our own dying.
This is what Jesus did. He embarked on a wasteful course of compassion that hastened his dying. I am barely able to contemplate this challenge enough to write it down, let alone live it! For live it, I must. Belief is not about believing he died for me. Belief is about following his path; putting myself in harm’s way. It is trusting that the Good News about what makes for a good life and a godly world is true, and trusting enough to die for it.
It all makes Lent rather serious.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.