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Finding hope for today in the desert

18 February 2009

Jesus in the wilderness speaks directly to current Christian questions, argues David L. Edwards

Where Jesus decided on his message: the Judaean wilderness JUPITER IMAGES

Where Jesus decided on his message: the Judaean wilderness JUPITER IMAGES

CAN Europe’s churchgoers find in the Gospels a message for life, despite being part of a minority weakened both by the uncertainty of the silent and by the loud controversies be­tween the certain?

We are told that Jesus could find himself in a minority of one. When he has given us the beauty and glory of the nativity, and the welcome into the Temple, Luke recounts the very different story of the first time Jesus preached in Nazareth’s little hall, which served as synagogue, village-centre, and school, in which he had been taught to read the Hebrew Bible and no other literature — taught by an unknown rabbi. And it is said that the congregation united in wanting to kill him.

Both Luke and Matthew tell us that later his mother and brothers united in an attempt to bring him back to the carpenter’s shop. The message came that Jesus would not speak to them, but had found a new family through his mission. Still later, Mary was at the cross, as it says in John’s Gospel, and, along with the brothers, was in “the room upstairs” with the apostles, as it says in Acts; but evidently there was a tradition that even she had not always under­stood her first-born.

It seems that, until he was about 30, Jesus received what he was to teach not from the community around him, but from walks and prayers in the countryside, observing the methods of agriculture, and using them to develop his understanding of the work and will of the one Father.

What brought him out of this lonely obscurity was the revivalist mission of his cousin John, which persuaded him to join the crowd of sinners hoping for a rebirth through baptism.

This suggests that, in our own time, even cautious Anglicans should respect the enthusiasm of Christians who can put dates to their conver­sions and Charismatic gifts. But also it says that believing Christians can be reminded that there can be a time for the immersion of enthusiasm in what is, as a matter of fact, cold water. John predicted the end of the world in the near future, which did not happen.

Luke and Matthew say that, when Jesus stepped out of the Jordan, he was sure that he was in a unique sense the Son of God, the new and decisive embodiment of divine love. But he was still unsure what this must mean in practice.

HE WOULD not have been at home in the philosophical Christology that was to be debated in Christen­dom, dividing it disastrously. What now interested him, in every fibre of his being, was the need to decide what he was to teach to the poor, and, in particular, to people who knew their need of God, who were sorrow­ful and hungry for justice, and who with pure hearts were gentle and merciful peacemakers, even while they were persecuted.

He made up his mind only when the divine Spirit had driven him into the Judaean desert. There he was fam­ished, and the stones around him reminded him of the thin, crisp cakes that were the loaves of his time.

Per­haps, in a dream, he imagined their being changed by magic into bread.

But he decided that his central message was to be food for heart and mind, with prayer to the Father that the mother of a family might be able to bake enough over the evening’s fire to feed the family every day — which implied hard work in a chain from the field to the kitchen.

Despite his intense sympathy with the poverty around him in Galilee, Jesus did not produce a plan in economics: he gave the priority to changing people in heart and mind, from which a just society could follow. Although he was a Jew, speak­ing almost exclusively to Jews, he refused to be a Messiah who would lead a rebellion against Rome and reign over a prosperous Israel, as King David had done.

Instead, he predicted the immense disasters that came within a century of his crucifixion by the Romans. Religious minorities have often be­come majorities by marrying nation­al­ism or imperialism, but that was not the imitation of Christ.

WHAT he wanted, because it was what the Father willed, was to serve and see a peaceful presidency over the whole world. This was not to be the triumph of the Church. He never wrote down, because he never drew up, detailed instructions about an organisation that would survive his death. This policy would have been madness, had he not believed that it was God who would bring in the “Kingdom of God”, and that the most sensible course was to pray for this as a future far more important than prosperity for the Church.

He was a faith-healer because he rightly believed that individuals can improve in health through minds strengthened by faith and hope, but he never sought publicity for his healings, which were inspired by his compassion. He consistently refused to test his Father by demanding an easy time for himself or for anyone else. Up to the end, he, too, had to wrestle with the mystery of the God who can seem absent.

HE MADE these decisions about his message by seeing the alternatives clearly, by balancing one passage in the Hebrew Bible with another, and then by asking what scripture reveals about the character and will of God when the scriptures are taken as a whole.

When Christians who feel threat­ened by the culture around them retreat into the fundament­alism that proclaims every passage as the Word of the Lord, they succumb to a temptation that, Christ thought, came from the Devil.

If this was roughly how he decided what he was to be and to teach, is there not a command for any Chris­tian who hates being in a minority; or who demands maturity without waiting; or who fails to respect both enthusiasm and thoughtfulness; or who thinks that what Christ is can be said in a few words, old or new; or who reduces the Christian mission to a programme in economics or poli­tics; or who believes that the Church is the Kingdom of God; or who thinks that it is right to test the power of God; or who denies that, because the Bible is so bulky and was written more than 1000 years ago, it needs to be thought about?

The time has come for us all to open our Bibles, and ask afresh how Jesus entered a time that has had effects that can change us, the Church, and the world.

The Very Revd Dr Edwards is a former Provost of Southwark.

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