Sermon on 22nd February 2015
Many writers and film-makers have tried to imagine what went through the mind of Jesus during the forty days and forty nights that he spent in the wilderness. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of thing is The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (made into a film by Martin Scorsese in 1988). The French author of The Gospel According to Pilate spent forty days in the Jordanian wilderness in preparation for writing his version. Others who have made similar attempts include Anthony Burgess and José Saramago. But it is only the Birmingham-based author Jim Crace who has devoted a whole novel to Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. This is Quarantine, the Whitbread Novel of 1998, about a group of women and men, including Jesus, who go into the desert above Jericho to fast.
Crace depicts Jesus as slightly mad, as if his whole project is to discredit the Gospels’ claims about Jesus. While Crace allows Jesus to be a healer who exercises a mysterious spiritual influence over the other characters, he also kills Jesus off during the forty-day fast, so that the rest of Jesus’s earthly ministry never takes place.
Jim Crace reveals more about himself than he does about our Lord. And in particular his very sceptical vision of human nature. Forty days can feel like a long time, and Jim Crace makes it feel like an eternity!! In fact, this is helpful because it allows us to enter into the boredom and the harsh physical reality of a forty-day fast, in which Jesus symbolically relives the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness (see the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), or the forty-day fast of Elijah (1 Kings 19).
The wilderness is a real place, and there have always been ascetics and hermits who felt drawn to live there. It is also a place that can be visited, and so I am going to Jordan next month to see it for myself. But the wilderness can also be a spiritual place of struggle, pain, and desolation. As such, the forty day example of Jesus can inspire and sustain us in our own periods of darkness, when God seems far away and despair is close at hand. It can also be a comfort to those engaged in a political struggle, or in very real fear for their lives. When the Nazis began to introduce their anti-Jewish legislation in the occupied Netherlands, they began by banning Jews from public parks or from using trams or bicycles. To which the father of Etty Hillesum (a young Jewish philosopher and diarist) quipped that ‘we had no bicycles when we were wandering in the wilderness with Moses, either’.
But what the vision I have so far been explaining misses is that during his fast, Jesus had no idea exactly how long it was going to last. He was driven by the Spirit (Mk 1:12) and ministered to by angels, according to Mark’s version of events. It was not as if he would have been marking off the days until he got to the end, as Jim Crace imagines him doing.
The wilderness is an important part of every Christian’s adventure of faith. Very often it is a road we must travel alone, at least until we discover that God has been with us all the way — giving us the resources that we need, which is what I understand the ‘angels’ ministering to Jesus in our gospel reading to mean. Lent is one opportunity in the year for us to really experience the desolation of the wilderness, alongside Jesus who has been there before us.
But what is interesting in Mark’s version of the wilderness is just how short his account of it is! It only occupies two verses, and is compressed between two other short but theologically significant events:
In Mark 1:10-11 we have the baptism of Jesus, an event that is particularly significant today as we baptise Margaret Ellen into the family of God. And in Mark 1:14-15 we have Jesus beginning to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. The wilderness experience of Lent is not an end in itself, as Jim Crace seems to think. It takes place in the context of a bigger story about being beloved by God and of having a message of good news to proclaim.
The baptism of Jesus is the moment that God chooses for his declaration of love and acceptance: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (verse 11). It is this knowledge that strengthens Jesus during his time in the wilderness and informs his announcement: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (verse 15).
Our reading from 1 Peter also emphasises the proclamation of the good news in an episode sometimes referred to as the ‘descent into hell’ or the ‘harrowing of hell’. This shows the cosmic sweep of the good news: that it even affected people who were already long dead when Jesus came to earth — and that it also affects us today.
In the Eastern Orthodox view of baptism, Jesus raises up all of creation when he comes up out of the river Jordan. God’s design is to join each one of us to Christ in baptism, as we will shortly witness with Margaret Ellen. So baptism and Lent become part of God’s big story, in which he creates and loves, redeems and waits for each one of us to come into a restored relationship with himself.
One helpful alternative to the vision laid out by Jim Crace in Quarantine is the new film with Reece Witherspoon, ‘Wild’, in which she walks a thousand miles up the Pacific coast of the United States of America. Unlike Jim Crace’s Jesus, she does not count down the miles. In fact, she contemplates giving up her walk early on, and eventually decides to prolong her journey to a place called the ‘Bridge of the Gods’, where she has an epiphany of sorts. Hers is also a solitary journey, but not one begun in acceptance of herself. She barely knows that she is loved, and she feels that she has much to atone for in her life. But as her story progresses, she becomes more and more open to hope. It is as if the kingdom of God comes near to her through the people who she meets and the reflections and realisations that she has. And she has only to repent and believe the good news in order for it to have its effect on her.
May we, with Reece Witherspoon and with Jesus in his baptism and wilderness experience, also be driven by the Spirit to a new realisation of God’s love and desire for us.