Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness— words deeply embedded into our Australian ethos which is also embedded into the North American ethos. Maybe we Australians are emulating the North Americans when we follow this ethos. Yet, like them we hold doggedly to the notion that we have certain inalienable rights endowed by God (although we don’t want any mention of God, a higher power or being), including freedom and the opportunity to pursue prosperity.
Some believe these ideals have been adopted as Christian values. If so, then today’s passages may threaten our culture-laden view of Christianity. In Mark 1, Jesus submits to baptism by John the Baptiser. This was a baptism of repentance. Jesus, being sinless by followers of Christ, had no need to repent, but he submitted as an act of obedience that demonstrated the path humanity needed to take. After Jesus came up from the water, the same Spirit that descended upon him drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested.
What? That’s not what we would expect to happen. God’s Spirit sent Jesus to be tested by Evil? And to many that seems so unfair. Does the fact that God set up this severe time of testing stand at odds with our pursuit of happiness? If, in the quest for success, God’s Spirit sent you into a difficult place that prevented you from obtaining “achievable prosperity,” would you resist the Spirit’s leading?
Ancient Jewish belief held that a righteous person prospered, and a sinful person suffered— it was simple cause-and-effect thinking. Do we presume the same? In 1 Peter, Christ volunteers to suffer unjustly for sinful humanity. Again, this seems contrary to the agenda of Western ideals. Which of us, in pursuing happiness, would voluntarily abandon that quest to endure suffering to benefit others, who may despise us? How many would question God for expecting selflessness?
The message of the two passages from this week’s readings disturbs the peace: God’s Spirit may drive us into difficult situations to test our character, and imitating Jesus may require voluntary suffering. What holds more sway over your life, the quest for personal achievement or imitation of Christ? So, what did Jesus find out on his walkabout in the desert?
I know how my mind works when I am away from home and disconnected:
• I wonder what they’re doing right now.
• I wonder what the weather is like.
• I wonder what they’re having for dinner. (Maybe this one especially.)
The questions get more serious when we use the time away to contemplate the future, as Jesus must have done on his rather extreme retreat. Driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, Jesus stayed until the time was right to come out and begin declaring the kingdom of God to be at hand. To get from baptism to revolution— what desert path did he walk? Hungry, thirsty, thrown back on whatever he could remember.
Perhaps he whispered this week’s psalm 25:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Well for me after Jesus’ walkabout ended; he emerged, declaring God’s kingdom at hand. The big question is, are we ready for that? Or do you still crave what our society sees as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?