Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in
the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us
grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as
you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"MY HEART leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky." So begins
the short poem that prefaces William Wordsworth's Intimations
Anyone who has ever seen a rainbow knows the spontaneous joy and
sense of arrested time which a glorious and fleeting display of
coloured light can bring. Wordsworth celebrates this, but goes
further, pointing out that the most immediate and powerfully felt
events are connected to our development as human beings. Many of
our important adult perceptions are tutored by the experience of
wonder in childhood.
God is emphatic in teaching Noah how to read the rainbow. It is
"a sign of the covenant between [God] and the earth" (Genesis
9.12). Its purpose seems less to remind the earth and its creatures
about God's promise, than to remind God of the same thing (Genesis
9.15-16). Lovely in its own right, the rainbow is always the symbol
of the solemn pledge to which it points. Yet one does not have to
be a biblical literalist to see painful contradiction in this
delightful divine-human dialogue (Genesis 9.9-17). A seemingly
endless cycle of both naturally occurring and humanly created
disasters, with devastating humanitarian and environmental
consequences, tests to the uttermost the resources of those
theologians who engage actively with scientific research, yet still
believe in a God who loves and saves, not by destroying the world,
but by acting in it.
It is not so strange that the medieval Church should have found
in the ark an image of the embattled Church, floating precariously
and yet bravely on a turbulent sea, the sole hope of salvation. The
1549 Prayer Book baptism service adopted from Luther's baptismal
liturgy the so-called "Flood Prayer", which makes the same
connection in asking "that they [the children to be baptised],
being delivered from [God's] wrath, may be received into the ark of
Christ's Church and so saved from perishing".
But this is to show a Church in retreat: a faithful witness
against a wicked world, navigating a watery wilderness. The
wilderness into which Jesus is driven out (Mark 1.12) by the Spirit
after his baptism is not a place from which to shrink, but a place
Luke and Matthew specify a time of forty days (Matthew 4.1-11,
Luke 4.1-13). Luke suggests that Jesus is possessed by the Spirit;
Matthew and Mark write that the Spirit "threw him out" into the
wilderness. Luke and Matthew introduce fasting. Mark has animals
and angels, though he doesn't indicate time, mention hunger, or
give details of demonic manifestations. But all three accounts
agree on two things: the wilderness itself, and what English
translations of their Greek describe as the "temptation"
experienced by Jesus.
The rather reductive and playful connotations of temptation in
modern usage make it an unhelpful concept. Matthew, Mark, and Luke
use a word that means "tested to the limit". It is the same word
used by Jesus in the prayer that he teaches the disciples (Matthew
6.13; Luke 11.4). They should pray not to be tested to the ultimate
point of endurance.
For Jesus, encountering Satan in a setting where there are no
hiding-places may have the look of preparation for all that lies
ahead, between his baptism and his crucifixion. Certainly, this
event is a critical reference point, when he is again alone and
being pushed to the limit in Gethsemane (Matthew 26.39-42; Mark
14.36; Luke 22.40-42). Here we see him living the complexity of the
Lord's Prayer, in asking simultaneously that God's will be done,
but also that, if God wills, the cup of suffering might be taken
away from him.
Just as we might ask how earthquakes and tsunamis can be
reconciled with the God who made a covenant with Noah, so we might
dare to ask how Jesus's suffering can be reconciled with the God
who, at Jesus's baptism, calls him his beloved Son (Mark 1.11).
The writer of the First Letter of Peter wrestles with this
question by looking at the covenant of baptism. With enough water,
baptism is a cleansing process, acting as "a removal of dirt from
the body"; but, much more importantly, it enrols the baptised in
the programme of salvation, setting them right with God through the
resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3.21).
This flood, which heals and drowns not sinners, but sin itself,
deserves the evocative description of the 1549 Prayer Book: the
"wholesome laver of regeneration".