Why does it have to be so violent?
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9-15 ESV)
The topic of religion and violence is a tricky one especially if you don’t like religion and you don’t like violence! There’s a double whammy to start with! Sadly violence is known pretty much in every aspect of living on Planet Earth so it is naïve to think it isn’t part of the religions of the world – especially if religions are extensions of us. Christianity makes the claim that it is not a human creation – God is not made in our image, we are made in his image – and so one might think that violence would not be associated with God, that he would be ‘above it’ somehow. And yet one of the biggest hurdles that people can find reading the Old Testament and the New Testament is regarding God and violence.
God walked in the Garden to search for the rebellious man and woman and he doesn’t smite them when the man accuses God of causing him to sin! There’s a judgement, a casting out, a promise of salvation and a rescue has begun, but then there is violence when God is violent towards his creation in making clothes for the woman and man. Sadly the human story gets increasingly violent with murder and then violent retribution – think of Lamech’s justice where the punishment for wounding is death and his revenge again those who attack him is not seven fold as for Cain but seventy-seven fold (Genesis 4:23,24).
Violence is here to stay and if God is interacting with the world then he is somehow interacting with violence. The question to ask, I think, is to what purpose or to what end is God interacting with the violence in the world? What is his goal and purpose? Welcome to interpretations and views such as about Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac. Welcome to the violence of today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark. Should I say ‘welcome’?
Did you sense the violence in the Gospel today?
Mark covers the baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in a few verses. They describe 6 weeks minimum because Mark seems to be in a hurry to tell his story. Jesus is at the Jordan River – a place associated with the Old Testament prophets and is baptised by John and the heavens are torn open, split open – and the same word is used later to describe the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ crucifixion. The mystery is who is doing the tearing? At Jesus’ baptism in the water he looks like a sinner, the heavens are torn open by the Spirit who descends on Jesus as the voice declares Jesus to be the ‘beloved Son’. This rescue is involving violence.
At Jesus’ crucifixion, he definitely looks a sinner, the worst, and now it is the temple curtain that is torn in two from top to bottom – God’s doing – and opening a way through Jesus’ suffering and death to him – yet consider the violence – and it is the centurion who will describe Jesus as the ‘Son of God’.
The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism but Jesus doesn’t descend (come down) from the cross – though the calls came – the temptations came and Jesus had the power to get down but he stays still skewered it appears by nails, by violence, but we know it is because of his love for us.
Back at the baptism, it is the Holy Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness and hunger and thirst and wild animals and we have the tension between seeing things as both Divine actions and also satanic actions. Temptations are hard – internally violent, disruptive, personal – and yet God never tempts us to sin and Jesus wrestled the temptations not with his divinity but with the Word of God – as all people have access to. Satan didn’t give up after 40 days but was trying all the time – and especially on the cross, ‘Come down!’ but Jesus thwarts the Devil in death – Jesus is innocent – and that means, as James puts it, that God allows temptations but doesn’t tempt us.
And when John is arrested – political violence used against him – Jesus begins his public ministry with his call to repent and believe the Gospel because the time is fulfilled – God has entered the world stage to fulfil what was begun with the killing of creation in the Garden to be killed as one of us – to take rebellion and violence on himself – and mysteriously to take it into the mystery of the Trinity and to defeat its power and the power of death.
To be involved in this world is to face and deal with violence – we all negotiate it – and that includes God if he wants to interact with his creation which is in rebellion, groaning, suffering, violent – the consequence of sin – but where our violence is for power and control, God’s closeness with violence – even use of it – has a different goal and purpose – that of help and rescue. The heavens are torn, the curtain is torn, the Son of Man is torn, sacrificed, mutilated, killed – all violent actions – by which God rescues us from conflict, jealousy, rage, the desire to control, pride, spite – the internal fuel of violent actions.
I have asked you before why does not God teleport us to heaven the moment we are saved? Why do we live here? Today we might ask, why didn’t God just wave his magic wand and fix everything? Why does his creation have to suffer? Why did he get his hands dirty? Why do we face our struggles and temptations and the rages or whatever within that can result in destructive words and deeds? Because this is the life we lead, we discover, in a world that we have a huge part in shaping and the power and corrosiveness and mystery or perversity of sin has meant that God does not remotely press the reset button but got involved with the world and its violence and finally paradoxically used our violence to break the control of sin, the world, and the Devil.
Yes, we can still be violent – even in our congregations sadly it can happen – but now we need not be violent, raging, aggressive, or whatever else our temptations lead us to do because Jesus has given us a new identity in our baptism, called us by our name, and said, ‘Follow me’. His Word can speak into each day and each situation. Yes, we still live in a violent world and there may be violence around us
and close to us but now we follow Jesus – listen to Jesus – in how we behave seeking to serve those around us – and where we get it wrong, he forgives and restores us for the next day.
Jesus understands temptation and violence and whatever you might be going through. His understanding offers you consolation and support; and his Word can lead you and help you with whatever you are facing.
- Mark 1:9 - 15