There’s a tongue-in-cheek joke doing the rounds in our St Martin’s community at the moment. Tongue-in-cheek jokes are the way something of the utmost seriousness is made bearable when veiled with humor. So, the joke goes this way: What’s the new name for Hallworth House – the skilled nursing facility situated on the Episcopal Cathedral precinct? It’s St Martin’s Annex.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of the joke, makes me only too aware of my own anxiety -an anxiety many of us also share. For cloaked behind the joke is the barely masked pain of our encounter with the human suffering of our friends with whom we share this community.
Of course, Hallworth House is not the only facility in which members of the parish are currently being cared for. Westgate, Bethany Home, and Tochwotten, are also on list of specialist nursing and assisted living facilities within our parish orbit. We are relieved to know that it’s Hallworth House, where a number of our friends currently reside. For we know that those we love are in a place with a trusted reputation for quality in medical, nursing, and rehabilitation care. We are further comforted by knowing that Dr. Denny Scott, henceforth officially designated parish doctor, is the one who is taking care of those we hold dear.
There are seasons in our ministries of pastoral care and support when he realities of illness, and death cruelly confront us. We are called upon not only to marshal our resources of compassion and empathy, but we are also challenged by the need to discipline our own fears. For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another. Visiting our parish friends currently in Hallworth House, each of us comes face to face with the frightening question: at what point in my future will illness strike, and what form will it take, and how will it leave me? I find myself uttering the age-old prayer: O God, take me swiftly; let me not linger long in illness’ wake!
And so, we enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to bring a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger, and a legion of envious resentments. The acknowledgment of sorrow in a spirit of repentance for the actions and omissions that have hurt others. Or we might required to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
Domesticated biblical texts are of little use, I think. We have trained them only to speak when spoken to. We have taught them to sit quietly until we call for them. We have developed tricks for them to do that we can predict.Richard Swanson.
Luke writes of the breath of God leading Jesus into the wilderness immediately following the baptismal declaration: this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Baptism is where Jesus ministry begins. So why does God show his pleasure in Jesus by sending him into the wilderness?
In Mark’s version he leaves what happens to Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness up to our imaginations because he tells us only that while there Jesus was both tempted and also ministered to by angels. Yet our imaginations are not blank canvases. They have been already colored by Matthew’s and Luke’s portraits of the three great temptations faced by Jesus at the hands of the Devil. And in this imagery, lies a problem.
Although translated as tempted, the real meaning of peirazo, the word Luke uses, is tested. The figure doing the testing is not our Medieval Devil, but the Hebrew Satan – the prosecutor general of the heavenly court; the same figure we find putting Job through his tortures. The Satan is not a personal name but the title of the one who acts as the prosecutor or accuser general in the heavenly court.
So, it seems that Jesus’ having been filled with the Spirit of God is by itself not enough. Like an American President, God it seems may nominate only. The wilderness is Jesus’ confirmation hearing before the heavenly court. Under the pressure of accusation and innuendo, the Satan, heaven’s prosecutor, perhaps aware that the proceeding is live on heavenly cable TV, is tasked with testing to confirm Jesus’ qualifications for the role of messiah.
Does Jesus pass his Messiah confirmation hearing? He does, but not in the sense that we often conclude.
Human beings are vulnerable creatures and so we mask our weakness by projecting invulnerability onto our God. We want a Jesus who resists all temptations, coming through with flying colors because he’s our superman messiah who could fly through the skies and jump off tall buildings in a single bound – if he had wanted to.
But these are not temptations which Jesus easily resists because of his secret divine powers. They are the tests that reveal a Jesus so qualified for messiahship because he shares the same limitations of being human as we do. We have no use for a superman messiah, the kind of messiah we need is one who can empathize with us through his own human vulnerability, having travelled this road ahead of us.
Faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not satiate the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice does not flow from omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus once again reaffirms the his human limitations. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his messiah confirmation hearing by acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.
In Luke’s story Jesus echoes Job’s refusal to doubt God’s love no matter how much The Satan ratcheted-up his suffering and pain. Jesus qualifies as messiah because echoing Isaiah’s suffering servant – he is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He qualifies as messiah because he’s just as human as we are. Immersed in our human experience of facing our fear and living through our vulnerability, it is only Jesus who is worthy of our trust.
In our search for a messiah on this first Sunday in Lent I am taken back to where I began –the joke about the St Martin’s Annex in Hallworth House. As we visit our friends, some of whom embody our worst specters of the illness that strikes us in the noonday – unexpectedly and forever changing the trajectory of our lives, we encounter the all too human figure of Jesus who because he has tested human fragility to its limits is able to walk with us through whatever suffering comes upon us. I wish there was a less costly answer – one more to our success oriented tastes. Trust in the absence of a more agreeable answer to the plight of human suffering, is our wilderness testing where we are being asked to trust God as we face the possibilities that lie ahead. This is a very hard testing to endure but try to hold onto this. It is only by God entrusting Jesus to a fully human experience that God was able to do the new thing – the new thing we know as Easter.