The First Sunday in Lent

That there is violence in our world is incontestable – whether it is fang and claw, or a push and a punch in the playground, or a fist, knife or gun in the home or street, or countries at war. I know our words can be violent and social media seems to amplify the vitriol, vindictive, and violent but for this moment, I am thinking of physical violence and wondering why does it have to be so? I suppose the simple answer is that violence – or the threat of it – ‘works’ – for a while, the aggressor seems to win but it is not a foundation for social stability or a good life – whether in a home or a civilisation.

Relationships imbued with or enduring violence are not healthy. I was confronted by this perspective in the account of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) and in my mind I saw again Caravaggio’s ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ – a painting I find quite disturbing. Now I accept that religious violence in our world is incontestable. Most of the gods in the supermarket of religions have a violent streak so religious violence is a sad reality of Planet Earth but I return to my thought that relationships imbued with or enduring violence are not healthy.

And I’ve had many conversations over the years about ‘religions being the cause of all the wars’ through to ‘what sort of Deity needs to be violent?’ to know that people are unnerved by such thoughts – which are versions of not wanting to deal with God. This can be particularly acute in Christianity when there is an emphasis on a God of love and service and yet there are also accounts of God’s judgement upon people, his summary actions, and his call for his people to use violence against others. Jesus calls his people to service and not to a violent revolution. Abraham’s situation was something personal with God. What is going on?!

There are no easy answers in a world that is full of violence. What we need is a starting place or a pair of glasses to help us see and interpret and find meaning and therefore live. This is how we always justify our behaviour – even our violence – we can give reasons. Where should we look? Old Testament? Abraham? King David? Jesus? (He did make a scene in the temple courtyards.) Where? Each Lent – and indeed each Sunday – we are called to look at the cross. It is violent. People don’t like to contemplate it. People talk about the world’s violence and cruelty upon a victim with sadness (or relief that it is not them). People talk about God’s acceptance of a blood sacrifice with either mystery or scorn. And yet this single cross still stands – there have been so many crosses used to torture and execute people – but this cross is known the world over.

Why? Because on a planet known for its violence, God brought our rebellion, sin, violence, hatred mysteriously into himself to deal with it so that it no longer needs to tempt us as a way of behaving. It means that God being associated with violence is a mystery to be contemplated from the foot of the cross. And it means that a relationship imbued with or enduring violence when it is Jesus imbued with and enduring it for us is not to be feared. Rather Jesus is to be followed for he gives life – that can suffer violence – but which does not need violence to live well or to have meaning. GS