|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Today I would like to introduce you to an old friend. Do you like their orange flowery skin and scrunched up green and other patterned ears? I call them Angell – with a double ‘l’. They come from my first year at theological college, in some of the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher’s time as UK Prime Minister. For I brought Angell home from a church fête stall during a formation placement. This was in Brixton, the scene of two (in)famous ‘uprisings’, or riots – depending on your outlook – led by Black British people. The immediate cause of the first of these, in 1981, was a response to extraordinary ‘stop and search’ laws and police brutality. Tensions were particularly high after a suspicious fire in which 13 black teenagers and adults had died. The final straw was the so-called Operation Swamp 81, named after Mrs Thatcher’ speech in which she claimed the UK ‘might be swamped by people of a different culture.’ The 1981 Brixton Riots lasted for three days. They triggered similar ‘uprisings’ across Britain’s inner-cities, and led to the landmark Scarman Report, which began the long journey of addressing racial injustice and police reform in the UK. It was fuelled by a powerful cocktail of poverty and deprivations of many kinds, as well as race. In Brixton, the large African Caribbean population were at the centre. And it is out of this background that Angell comes, so called after Angell Town, a particularly challenged and challenging housing estate, after which the Church of England parish was named. So Angell reminds me always, both of the very real violence involved in today’s Gospel in the Temptations of Christ, and of the continuing struggles for what Martin Luther King called ‘the beloved community’…
Who likes tests? When I was at junior school I did – that was because I was a smarty pants and enjoyed getting all, or at least most, of the answers right. I even enjoyed testing myself. I was probably really annoying to some of my peers! Time goes by though and the tests get a little more exacting and sometimes even scary. Academic tests are one thing – or even exams in music or dance – but life throws tests at us that we had not expected and for which it is much harder to prepare – sickness, unemployment, the break -down of relationships. These test our character and the strength of our relationship with God.
One of the meanings of the word temptation which appears in our reading today is ‘testing’. But just what is being put to the test and why?
If you have ever been to St Luke’s church in Toowoomba, you will know it has wonderful stained glass windows. These include, above the high altar, a replica of the famous medieval ‘Blue Virgin’ window from Chartres cathedral. Another outstanding feature, at the west end, above the baptistery, is a beautiful modern Australian stained glass window; which, almost like an Aboriginal dot painting, plots and celebrates so many aspects of Creation. There are several other windows too which command attention, including one with St Peter and girls from The Glennie School; a rendering of the meeting of Mary Magdalene with Jesus at the Resurrection; and a moving portrait (in the Warriors Chapel) of a dying soldier reaching out and touching the crucified Christ. All speak powerfully of Christian faith, and are, as it were, the Gospel in glass.. Over the years I ministered there however, the window I was surprisingly increasingly drawn to was one of those which are easily passed over: namely a stained glass window representing the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. As time went on, I would indeed particularly point this out to those who came for baptisms. For the message of that window goes to the heart of the good news – the Gospel – we all need to hear today: the good news which lies behind Jesus’ responses to the great human temptations in our Gospel reading today. To flourish beyond such temptations, we, like Jesus at his baptism, need to hear, for ourselves, the words of God ‘You are my Beloved, in you I am well pleased’…
Well we have a real piece of theatre in our Gospel reading today, don't we? It's beautifully set up. We can picture it clearly. Jesus in shining robes or simple sackcloth. The devil, however we want to picture him - or her- horn and tails, or sharp cut suit and red high heels. Good on one side, evil on the other and after a bit of verbal swordplay good comes out victorious. It's how we'd all love it to be. It is the subtext of every superhero book or movie. Yet it is not real life is it? It is not the world in which we struggle to pay our bills, and sit up late to meet someone else's deadlines and get cranky with our kids and shout at the dog. In our real world good and evil are all mixed up. We know the good thing that we want to do for our own good and that of others and we do the opposite for no reason we can fathom, as Paul said. In this real world we are four days into Lent and many of our good intentions, I'll take a bet have already evaporated or never been begun. (Never mind pick yourself up and have another go!) But what use is this story to us, mere humans?...
Lent 1A, Sunday 9 March 2014 by Jonathan Inkpin
One of my favourite personal memories comes from a childhood Christmas. It relates to the Thunderbirds action-adventure series which was then screening on TV. Some of you may remember it. For me, as a little boy, it was a great thrill that Christmas morning to receive the gift of a Thunderbirds ‘International Rescue’ costume, complete with Thunderbirds hat, belt and sash. I recall putting the costume on in the early morning and wearing it all day, including walking in it the mile or so through our little town, all the way to church and back that morning. Such are the simple unembarrassed pleasures of childhood! Looking back however, what I most remember is the sense of freedom I felt: the freedom of being a really grown-up special agent, ready for anything. Which, in a way, is quite interesting, because, if anyone recalls much about Thunderbirds today, it is usually the astonishing woodenness of the production. How amateur it seems now, with all our modern TV and film production values. For all the Thunderbirds characters were marionettes, puppets, with very fixed expressions, and you could always see their strings. They weren’t at all free, in that sense. They were very one dimensional, and highly manipulated.
What is all that to do with the story of the temptations of Jesus in our Gospel reading, you may wonder? Well, exactly this: the story of the temptations of Jesus challenge us to freedom, the freedom of the children of God. It calls on us to be more than one dimensional people, who are highly manipulated. It requires of us to cut the strings from the things which are operating us. It asks us to become more than mere lifelike puppets, and more like the special agent of freedom I felt like as a little child: God’s special, free, agents...