February 26, 2012
The First Sunday in Lent, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on Him.”
Let’s pause for a moment for a moment for a lesson on Biblical criticism. It is Lent, after all. Does anyone here know what Q is? Just raise your hand. If you are seminary trained, lower your hand. OK. I heard a story on Krista Tippet’s radio show, it used to be called “Speaking of Faith” not it is called “On Being.” A Bible scholar was lecturing about Q at a church and at one point asked for questions. A woman raised her hand and was called on. She stood up, and turned around towards her pastor and asked, “Did you know about this, this Q?
“Of course,” he stammered, “it’s New Testament 101.”
With tears in her eyes, she replied, “Why didn’t you tell us about it?”
Selfishly, I don’t ever want to be that pastor. More importantly, I don’t want you all to feel in that position; the position that you do not understand some basic tenants of our faith and theological inheritance, basic understanding of the history and traditions of our church, and basic understanding of the history, form and content of our Holy Scriptures. Knowing with our heads, intellectual understanding I believe is important to a full knowledge of God. It is far less important that feeling, it pales in comparison to our ability to relate to others, and in the end, it is actually irrelevant when compared to how important being kind is, but knowledge helps us get to those places, knowledge helps us plan routes to those places, helps us recognize that we are on the right path or have even arrived. Knowledge is a means, not an ends; but it is a potent means.
So, Q. What is Q? Q is shorthand for Quelle, which is the German word for Source. It is a theory that explains in part how the Synoptic Gospels came to be written. (Which ones are Synoptic?) A German scholar back in 1838 noticed and described a series of passages found in Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. The theory goes that both Matthew and Luke (whoever it was that wrote those two books, and chances are they were not named Matthew or Luke, or that it was even a single person but any way), both had a copy of Mark, and both had another source, some manuscript, a collection of stories and sayings that has never been located; this manuscript has been called Q. Think the Gospel of Thomas, Q may have been something like that. So things that are in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark are Q. This includes the Golden Rule, the parable of the talents, the lilies of the fields, and little things like the Lord’s Prayer. Important stuff. Of course there are things in Matthew that are not in Mark or Luke. These things are called Special Matthew. So it would stand to reason that things found in Luke but not in Matthew or Mark would be called??? Special Luke. Very good. Q.
I bring up Q because today’s gospel is a great example of Q. Mark, who we are sharing much of Lent with, Mark tells us of Jesus and his baptism, then the Spirit immediately driving him out into the wilderness where he was tempted or maybe a better translation is tested by the devil, and surrounded by wild beasts and waited upon or ministered to by angels. In those short few verses, in the sparse language of Mark, a lot is going on.
So think about Matthew and Luke’s telling of this same story. Think about what is lacking in Mark that Matthew and Luke go into great detail about? The Temptation of Jesus… In Matthew and Luke Satan has a speaking role. There is significant detail about the temptation or test. “If you are hungry, turn these stones into bread. But Jesus said, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.” The devil says “Worship me and you’ll have everything.” And Jesus replies “It is written: you shall love the Lord your God and serve only him.” Then they are whisked to Jerusalem, and the devil tells him that he could fling himself from the pinnacle of the Temple and would be bourne to earth on wings of angels but Jesus resists, “It is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Q. Sort of fleshes out the story; gives potent imagery to a crucial moment in Our Lord’s life and formation for ministry.
All the bible scholarship, all the delving into ancient texts with contemporary tools and understandings, all that is good for is deepening our ability to understand, relate to the texts, how to take them deeper into our hearts, how to go from reading scripture to meditating, even feasting on the Word of God.
The Temptation of Jesus as related by Matthew and Luke is a powerful story. While there is a lot of detail compared to the Markan version, questions still draw us in. Does this story tell us that literally, physically Satan tempted Jesus? Did Satan maybe visit Jesus in his dreams? A good question is whether Q is carrying the story of a conscious Evil One tempting our Lord or the story of a vision brought on by extreme ascetic practice? Would that make the story any less “real”? 40 days of meditation let alone 40 days of meditation while fasting significantly changes our understanding of and ability to perceive reality. There are multiple realities. Think of St. Jerome, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Francis, the Buddha.
Mark’s version, though, leaves a lot more room for our imaginations. Forty days in the wilderness Satan tempted, tested him. How? It may have been like Q narrates, it may have been sleepiness. It may have been depression or the vacuous boredom and despair that often comes with extreme isolation. That is certainly one way of understanding Satan, demons, evil, the ways our consciousness and subconsciousness works or doesn’t work. And surrounded by wild beasts, that is probably a reference to evil spirits. Bumps in the night sound a lot different when we are alone, a lot different sitting on the side of a mountain in a desert wilderness, a lot different after not eating for a couple of weeks. And being waited on, ministered to by Angels, little tiny things can become blessings upon blessings. Gifts from Angels for sure. I remember freezing cold nights on my tank in the high deserts of Southern California. We wouldn’t sleep for a few days, and you’d sit there in the turret in the darkness on watch waiting, waiting, like in the psalm, the watchman waits for the morning, waiting for the new day which always seemed forever from then. Then, then there would be that first glimmer of the dawn, Begin Morning Nautical Twilight is the meteorological term, a gift of the Angles is another way to describe it. Those were some of the happiest moments of my life, sitting on top of the tank, watching the sun creep out of the dark horizon, feeling the warmth drive the chill out of my body as little stoves would alight in the cover of sunlight and coffee would begin to find its way to us. It felt like another lease on life. It is too bad that we then used that lease on life to train with our tanks, blowing up plywood silhouettes in the desert, learning to kill more efficiently. In any case, we can be ministered to by Angels in many ways.
It is Lent. One thing I am noticing about us, this community of Resurrection, is that we are not a very Biblical people. I get the feeling that a lot of us struggle with our relationship to the Bible, I get the feeling that most of us do not spend a lot of time involved in Scripture, thinking about scripture, even casually reading scripture. I can understand. Our scriptural inheritance is exceedingly complicated. There are parts of it that we don’t want our kids to be exposed to. There are contradictory parts, confusing parts, parts we just don’t believe or don’t want to believe. There is a lot of violence and a lot of scoundrels. And there is overwhelming life, and beauty, and loyalty and sacrifice and mystery enough to make you tingle. The archtypes of Abraham and Issac, Moses, “let my people go.” Job in his suffering. David and Goliath and on and on and on. And add to that the whole record of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. I often look at scripture as a record of the human experience encapsulated in the story and stories and poetry and mythology of a people, and is transmitted to us in our language and as a sacred, a holy thing that we need to approach with gravity, with reverence. Most importantly, we need to approach it.
This is Lent. As we walk together these next 36 days towards the Cross and Passion, I encourage you to dig out your Bible. Put it on your bed stand. Before you fall asleep, read a chapter, just one they are short. Maybe start with the first chapter of Mark. Or maybe begin at the beginning and open up Genesis. Or Exodus – it had 40 chapters, one for each day of Lent. Read the text. Ask questions of it. Notice where details are missing and imagine what filled them in. Maybe that was what whomever wrote Q did. And we are the better for it. AMEN