Sunday 22nd February 2015, Lent 1, morning

Mark 1:9-15

by Revd Chris Palmer

When I was on retreat a couple of years ago, before one of the Eucharists, the staff member on duty played a song called ‘All my favourite people are broken’. I’d never heard it before; it’s by a band I’d never heard of called ‘Over the Rhine’; and it wasn’t really my kind of music. But the title caught my attention – and that of several other retreatants.

‘All my favourite people are broken.’  We spend so much of life’s energy holding things together, making sure our life doesn’t derail, propping up our image, or even ourselves avoiding facing our deepest needs.  We think that thinking life’s fine and other people thinking our life’s fine is the best way through.

‘All my favourite people are broken.’ Just occasionally it gets so bad we have to admit defeat, admit we’re broken. And, of course, it’s at that point that we start to get healing – though not in the sense that school-gate gossip, polite dinner parties, or those reading your CV will credit. It’s at that point we even start getting likeable – in the eyes of those for whom likeability isn’t about competition, glamour, or celebrity.

‘All my favourite people are broken’.  I’d forgotten the line until earlier this week when I read this from a Spanish philosopher of 90 years ago. ‘this is the simple truth - that to live is to feel oneself lost - he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.’ [1]

‘These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked.’ In other words until your thinking’s been tested against the extremity, the crisis of life, it’s merely a pose.

It seems to me that Jesus in the wilderness is precisely facing this brokenness, the shipwreck. OK, the metaphor might be different – abandoned in the desert rather than lost at sea – but the point is essentially the same. Mark’s account of the temptation is really brief compared with Matthew and Luke. None of stories of the devil tempting Jesus to transforms stones, or claim authority over the whole world, or throw himself off the temple; just this: ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’

But I think doing without some of the mythological elements of the story helps us to relate to the story more. And we can demythologise one more word in the story, the words ‘tempted’. Temptation comes with such baggage – sin, the devil, falling from grace, and so on – but really the word just means, ‘tested’. His resilience is being tried. When we off load the moral overtones of the word ‘temptation’, we are able to embrace the success or failure of being tested more easily.

For Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, to admit our shipwreck is about facing reality. Life is problematic, chaotic, and about being lost. Any philosophy that hasn’t faced this, is simply putting up ‘scarecrows to frighten away reality’. Most of us avoid this reality until we have no other choice. But by going into the desert, Jesus deliberately embraces the wilderness of life. What more problematic, chaotic, lost place could there be. He is at the mercy of the weather, the cold of night, the beating sun of the day; he is at the mercy of the desert’s meagre supply of water and food; at the mercy of ‘wild beasts’ as Mark tells us; at the mercy of his own thoughts.

‘These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.’ Jesus' capacity to speak what people recognised as truth - ‘he spoke with authority, and not as the scribes’ say the Gospels - comes precisely from his embracing the brokenness of his own life and all life. Jesus' desert experience wasn’t the end of his living in this shipwrecked way: ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, he tells his followers; ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners, and killed…’ he says in another place – but he still carries on walking towards Jerusalem; ‘If it is possible let this cup of suffering pass from me…’; ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me…’. And others test him too: ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross…’

Sometimes for us the shipwreck of life involves acknowledging moral failure. It’s what we do each Sunday when we start the service by confessing our sins. But that ritual doesn’t necessarily – perhaps rarely – forces people actually to DO SOMETHING about this failure; it’s not always a very effective way of facing reality. Sacramental confession, when someone speaks their sins to a priest, or just searching out someone we really trust to tell our darkest secrets to, might go a stage further.  Though even then, effective repentance comes from having a plan for the future, rather than merely regretting the past.

Maybe we need the shipwreck of sin to help us face reality. If so, it is transformed into a gift, the place where we discover forgiveness, acceptance, and healing. But, as we see in Jesus, and as I said before, we can embrace our brokenness in many circumstances. I have witnessed the wilderness in loss of faith, temptation, addiction, relationship breakdown, abuse, illness, bankruptcy, unemployment, mental illness, and much more. And very often, if these things are faced with realism and humility, they become a point where God’s grace starts to enter in.

And even without some crisis, we can choose to enter into the desert, confront reality. When I was developing the sheet for Lent this year, I was wanting to preface it with questions that might help us face and embrace the desert. And was trying to think a bit beyond the stereotypical ‘Lenten discipline’ questions.

             How will you rediscover the ‘art of silence’ this Lent?

             How will you nurture friendship with others on the journey of faith?

             What is the one thing in your life you can’t talk about? This is the thing controlling you.  How can you plan to bring this into the open with someone you trust?

             What will you give of yourself – your energy, your belongings, your time – to and for others this Lent?

             If you could plan one adventure that would take you out of your comfort zone or would be a new and life-giving experience for you, what would it be?

These are all desert questions. Even the one about ‘nurturing friendship with others on the journey of faith’ is a desert question. It’s about getting beyond the polite conversations in which we are merely bolstering each other’s prejudices or making ourselves feel good by favourable comparison with others – and talking about what’s real!

I commend those questions to you. And I commend this season of Lent to you as desert time, as time to face your brokenness, to embrace your shipwreck – to get real!

[1] Jose Ortaga y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, ch 14. The quotation can be found on p113-14 of this edition