First Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
It won’t come as a surprise to you that I am a cultural pessimist.
By being a cultural pessimist I mean that we live in a time of post-capitalism, post-modernism, post-Christendom. We live in a time in which democracy is put into question by social inequality and undermined by the filter bubbles of social media that remove challenges to our convictions and world-views. Political and military tensions remain high and there is no denying that climate change is upon us.
And the fact that everything is “post” something makes it clear that we really don’t know where we are headed. We know we no longer inhabit the world of modernity, or Christendom, or capitalism, but we don’t know what will take its place.
That’s our observation and experience, no matter whether we can call this by a fancy name or not.
There is a cultural historian whose blog I read and who gives talks here and there. A few years ago I almost drove to Seattle for an evening to hear him speak. Something came up and I didn’t go but I mentioned this to a good friend in Seattle. He replied that, yes, he appreciated this scholar as well but that he found him too depressing.
Yet for me being a cultural pessimist does not mean that I am depressed, though there may be times when I am discouraged. I see the change we are in the midst of also as bringing opportunity, among other things, for the church to find a new understanding of itself and of its mission. If Christianity no longer represents a cultural consensus, the dominant world view, we will no longer confuse citizenship with discipleship and can discover anew what it means to follow Jesus.
If capitalism is an expiring model, we can discover new ways of sharing God’s gifts that does not make us live beyond our means and the means of this planet.
If we no longer live in modernity, perhaps we will realize that we are not the measure of all things.
And yet, it would be easy to be pessimistic and perhaps you know people who are. And if you are pessimistic about the future, anything will confirm your pessimism. Whether that’s the change to ‘O Canada’ or sex education in schools, or whatever it is that we may hear on the news today.
The truth though is that the church’s role isn’t to stand at the sidelines criticizing everyone else but that we are to make a contribution by living the Good News of Jesus.
And that is why I am not depressed. At the baptism of Jesus the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
That the heavens were torn open takes up the prayer of Isaiah (64:1ff), when the prophet cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
In Jesus the heavens have been torn open and have remained open. God is not distant but near, and the church is Christ’s body, the church is Christ’s presence, transformed to become bread for the world as Christ is the bread of life.
For us who – when reading the passage of Jesus’ temptation may think of our own wilderness times, our own suffering and loss, perhaps the loss we experience as the world changes, this word about the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending are key not only to understanding the passage before us but our own lives.
That the heavens tore open and the Spirit descended on Jesus is important to understanding who Jesus is, but also for understanding how Jesus could be able to be in the wilderness and not only overcome the temptations before him there but also the temptation in the Garden Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus remained faithful, yet he was tempted in every way as we are. (Hebrews 4:15)
This is important for the church at any time but perhaps particularly in a time of change as we are experiencing it right now. We who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been given the Holy Spirit which equips us to live faithful lives, be faithful witnesses, withstand the temptation to be depressed, live in fear, or to boo the world from the sidelines. Instead, the Holy Spirit calls and equips us to serve God in the world as Jesus served.
And so the temptation of Jesus serves us as an encouragement as we enter into this season of Lent. And contrary to what we may think, Lent is a season of joy, not the exuberant joy of Easter but the deep joy of knowing that God is our salvation. This is yet another way in which Lent is not about less – even though the liturgy omits the Hymn of Praise and the singing of Alleluias – but about more, in the way that John the Baptist would speak about Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease” which paradoxically means that our life becomes not less but fuller and more complete, always though with the vision and ministry of Jesus, to serve God and the world in these demanding and changing times, because the heavens were torn open and the Spirit has descended upon the church.