This week's readings: 1st Sunday of Lent

02 November 2006


Genesis 9.8–17

1 Peter 3.18–end

Mark 1.9–15

JESUS is a driven man. The spirit "immediately" — again we must give the word its full weight — drives him into the wilderness. "Casts him out" is what Mark says. Some translators, following Matthew and Luke, settle for a feebler turn of phrase, draining the story of its drama.

There is a brutal contrast between the voice from heaven at his baptism and, now, the voice from hell. The temptation — it is to avoid the way of the cross — comes to Jesus as a whisper in his mind. We are not to envisage Satan as embodied, as some abomination squatting on a rock nearby, darting out its forked tongue. Yet Jesus is not alone. The desert is rarely that empty. Even if Mark had not told us so, we would have assumed that there were animals around.

Robert Graves suggests which beasts these might have been.

He held communion

With the she-pelican

Of lonely piety.

Basilisk, cockatrice,

Flocked to his homilies,

With mail of dread device,

With monstrous barbed slings,

With eager dragon-eyes;

Great rats on leather wings,

And poor blind broken things,

Foul in their miseries.


Why are these wild things drawn to him? Perhaps because they sense that the Lord of creation is their saviour too. Robert Graves — the poets are always the best commentators — identifies one of the beasts that keep him company in his trial. In so doing takes us to the heart of the story.

And ever with Him went,

Of all His wanderings

Comrade, with ragged coat,

Gaunt ribs — poor innocent —

Bleeding foot, burning throat,

The guileless old scape-goat;

For forty nights and days

Followed in Jesus’ ways,

Sure guard behind Him kept,

Tears like a lover wept.

In the times of the temple, as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would confess over "the scapegoat" the sins of the people. The goat would then be driven out into the desert. William Holman Hunt inscribed two texts on the frame of his famous painting of the scapegoat: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53.4), and "The goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited" (Leviticus16.22).

Christ’s trial in a land not inhabited, as in Gethsemane, is both the temptation to escape his passion and at the same time a foreshadowing of it. And, as in Gethsemane, the angels lend him strength (Luke 22.43).

The first public word by Jesus is about time. On the subject of time, as on everything else, Lewis Carroll is illuminating. We learn from him to distinguish between "White Rabbit time" and "Walrus time". The former is "clock time", time that ticks away. ("Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!" cries the White Rabbit.) The latter is the "right time". ("The time has come", the Walrus said, "to talk of many things.")

The right time, the kairos, which Jesus announces, is the decisive time. It is the deciding moment in the human story. ("Jesus comes" — so wrote Albert Schweitzer — "and, in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man, lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.") But it is also "decision time", the time to turn from wrong and to commit oneself in faith to the one who, supremely, is "good news".

This turning, this trusting, is in response to the advent of the kingdom of God. R. T. France, formerly principal of Wycliffe Hall, memorably said that the expression "kingdom of God" is "something of a rubber nose, capable of being twisted in any direction to suit the interests of the one who wears it" (Divine Government, SPCK, 1990). The endless debate is whether that kingdom is still to come ("Thy kingdom come") or already present ( "For thine is the kingdom"). The studied ambiguity of Mark’s language — still more all that affirms and all that denies the reign of God on our global doorstep — shows that the kingdom is both "now" and "not yet".

But for Mark, the point about the reign of God, come upon us in the person of Jesus, is that its coming is hidden, save to the eye of faith. The nature of his kingdom is more important for Mark than the timing of its arrival. For the contemporaries of Jesus talk of a coming kingdom can mean only the restoration of their nation and its power. Jesus embodies and teaches a different model of monarchy. Mark’s gospel — its tragic dimension runs deep — is the chronicle of his disciples’ rejection of that model.

To cling to power — the shreds of it left to us in an established church — is to renounce his reign.

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