Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lent 1 - Living in trust

Last year, at the end of August, I travelled with a few friends down to the Koora retreat centre, halfway between Southern Cross and Coolgardie.  Originally, 90 or so years ago, Koora was a homestead until it was abandoned because the country was too harsh, then for a few decades it was a travellers? pub until it burned down.  Then it was used for a while as a prospectors? camp and for 20 or 30 years after that it lay empty until Anglican priests Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison found it and fell in love with it. 

No doubt some of you have been on retreat from time to time ? you spend a few days following a strict timetable of prayer, you spend some time reading, sleeping, you immerse yourself in silence, perhaps you meet daily with a spiritual director or you make your confession.  Well, going on retreat in the middle of the bush out near Coolgardie even with all the mod cons like pit toilets and open-air showers does intensify the experience.  I did a lot of walking while I was down there ? fortunately the pipeline runs through the middle of the camp so it was difficult to actually get lost, but out there on the edge of the desert if you walk a couple of hundred metres out from the camp you?re absolutely alone, the bush is surprisingly green but spiky in that quintessentially Australian way, the sky immense and the silence almost scary.  I quickly discovered that the scrub was a lot more alive than it looked, for a start the bull-ants were that big, once when I sat under a bush to meditate I heard a funny sound and quickly opened my eyes to see a curious-looking emu staring at me ? various reptiles, massive kangaroos and everywhere the signs of the different stages of human habitation, bits of iron, broken pieces of china.

I?ve heard it said that we Australians are ambivalent about the bush.  On the one hand, for the early settlers it was a force to be defeated and a resource to be taken possession of.  If you read the journals of our great Anglican pioneer, John Wollaston, you soon pick up the sense of discomfort at what he experienced as the spookiness, the silence and the hostility of the bush.  On the other hand, Australians soon began to develop a romantic ideal of the bush, the swaggie, the resourceful bushman, and perhaps even to pick up from the original inhabitants a sense of the outback as a place of depth, silence and spirituality.

So maybe we Australians can understand something of what the desert meant to the people of Israel.  A place where the challenge was simply to survive, but also a place where you escaped in order to survive.  A place where you struggled with God, and with your own demons.  Jews understood themselves as the descendents of a wandering Aramean who made a covenant with God in the desert.  A people rescued by God from slavery in Egypt and made to wander 40 years in the desert, learning the hard way that the only thing they had to rely on was the faithfulness of God.  A people brought back from exile in Babylon across the desert highway, an occupied country that bred resistance fighters, terrorists and crazy religious fanatics all of whom found in the desert a place of hiding - a refuge from the Romans, a place to prepare and dream.  In Jesus? day we know the Essene community retreated to the desert, John the Baptist also lived out in the desert on a diet of wild locusts, and Jesus himself ? in Mark?s more terse version of the story ? driven by the Spirit out into the desert.  Paring away all that is superfluous, starving himself of everything except the intoxication of the Spirit, trying to work out what it means, this conviction, this experience at his baptism by John, what it means to be a Son of God.

In Mark?s version Jesus struggles with the devil for forty days, surrounded by angels and wild animals ? in Luke?s more structured account Jesus fasts for forty days and then the testing starts ? no matter, but the number 40 tips us off that this endurance test is meant to remind us of the 40 years that God?s people wandered in the desert after escaping from Egypt.  Except of course that Israel in the desert stuffed up at every turn, failed every test.  You?re thirsty?  Complain.  You?re hungry?  Grizzle, demand to go back to Egypt.  Point out that Moses isn?t the best man for the job.  God gives you bread and water in the desert?  Complain.  Demand meat.  God wants you to engage the Canaanites in battle?  Get terrified.  Refuse to trust God under any circumstance.  Arrive in the land of promise anyhow, get dragged there kicking and screaming.  The faithfulness of God that isn?t diminished by human faithlessness.  That?s more or less the book of Exodus in a nutshell.  And in our gospel story today, what we?re meant to hear is this ? Jesus is tested as the people of God are always tested.

Funny thing, whenever the devil gets a starring role in a story in the Bible, he always seems to be working for God.  Not too sure what we?re supposed to make of the devil ? the Hebrew Bible for example always depicts Satan ? the Accuser ? as one of the heavenly council ? a sort of divine churchwarden who gets the dirty jobs like tormenting Job to see how good he really is.  And the testing of Jesus ? the Greek word peirasmos like the Hebrew word nasaw in today?s reading from Deuteronomy both mean to assay or test the quality of a metal.  In ancient folk literature the hero always has to be properly tested before he takes off on his journey ? here Jesus is assayed to find out if he is strong enough, if he is malleable and ductile enough.

The three tests themselves form a sort of sequence ? first Jesus is offered control over his basic bodily needs ? comfortably-off city folk in the 21st century probably don?t quite get the sense of desperation but for 90% of the population of Jesus? time, living on the edge of starvation, this is a big thing that Jesus is being asked to consider.  Does being Son of God mean being Mr Handout, meeting his own basic needs and maybe the needs of others as well?  But Jesus tells the devil that what gives life is not just food but being in right relationship with the God who created us.  And then the second test ? political power, ambition, status ? now that?s more subtle, it starts to appeal to our sense of self-worth.  The temptation of having power over things that aren?t yours to control.  But Jesus has already told the devil his understanding of what gives him life ? the Word of God ? so it?s not surprising that he quotes a bit more Deuteronomy.  Our own plans are not as reliable as God?s plans, that?s a big part of it.  But I think the main point is this ? Jesus looks to the history of God?s faithfulness to God?s people in the past as a guide to what?s true and what?s not true in the present.  The desert was not just a place of testing for God?s people, it was also a place of covenant, a place of promises made on both sides, and Jesus is reminding the devil that God?s faithfulness is beyond question.  And then the third test ? the temptation of using our weakness to manipulate God ? just jump, man, God?s going to have to catch you.  This one appeals to the universal human desire to have a cast-iron insurance policy - but Jesus reminds the devil that you don?t put conditions on the God who over and over through the history of God?s people has shown himself to be faithful.

Of course, you know and I know what the devil doesn?t know ? that?s the irony - we know that the world itself is going to belong to the resurrected Christ ? we know that angels really will bear him up but we also know that before we get to that point death itself is going to be the cost of faithfulness. 

So, what does it all mean for us?  I think it?s that we do find ourselves in desert places, we do find ourselves in places where we struggle to understand where God is, where we seem to be tested beyond our endurance.  And we also find ourselves in places where we seem to be offered an easy way out, where we?re tempted to create our own future or rely on our own resources instead of relying on the faithfulness of God.  And when we?re in that place of testing ? whether we?re being tested by emptiness or by fullness, how do we respond?  How do we live in trust?  It?s the question for the first week of Lent, it?s the question we have to ask ourselves as a Diocese, approaching our 150th anniversary, it?s the question we have to ask ourselves as a parish as we move towards making some decisions about how we use our resources.  And Jesus provides the model for us, Jesus reminds us that the way we grow in trust is to have long memories.  What stories can we tell of God?s faithfulness in the past?  Because that?s the key to the future ? not in repeating the circumstances but in recognising the pattern of God?s faithfulness in the past.

Sitting in the desert, the ground starts to shimmer.  It?s hard to tell what?s real, and what?s a mirage.  What Jesus is saying to us today, is that the solid ground is the choice that makes you more dependent on God.


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