Lectionary Sermon for February 18 2018 on Mark 1: 9-15

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that the same Jesus, who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations. In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems in his own life – and for that matter, our attendance in worship wont count for much unless it has something to do with the way we face up to our real life problems and opportunities.

The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticised that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus facing the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer. In passing we note that some of Mark’s account of Jesus needing to spend time overcoming his temptations fit rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of the human.

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.

I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isnt just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations. The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge. In those early days violence would have removed the competition. We don’t have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition.

Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isn’t. As Auckland is starting to be organized in “ethno-burbs” where new immigrants cluster in their ethnic groups are our Churches congregations really responding to make their lives easier? Isn’t it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different? Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we don’t like seem to be gaining power or status.

At present there are serious hotspots in the Yemen, in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and many more besides. Now think why some are driven to join ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Muslims and the Jews or think how many in the community are resistant to the thought of offering hospitality to refugees and new immigrants. Not everyone, even in a Methodist congregation, would offer hospitality to a stranger.

Remember there is a catch to hard wired responses. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are not only ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. It may be biology, but when a pupil from a well known high school lashes out and king-hits a bus driver (the Herald said his eye socket was fractured) you can see why it doesn’t always do to follow instinct.

Yet many do. At this time of the year next month we are about to read about out of control drunken students behaving badly in our University cities. We see blind rage unleashed in football and race riots.

In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences. I also understand that in the USA social scientists have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds. Humans are a violent species.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers. Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldn’t tell you what temptations impact on your lives. That’s the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves. I would simply suggest as a species many simply don’t bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”.

When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers – and public beheaders, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course considered to be righteous!! Could you imagine a situation whereby a town is shelled and bombed to kill off a few terrorists – victory is declared and the families destroyed in the cross fire are denied help when they seek shelter in nearby countries.

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians who had been caught up in the war and whose suffering was infinitely worse.

Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour in ourselves. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.

One very common temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.

In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.

Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that “Oh so basic” hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. By way of example the current public disgust directed to the deputy Prime minister of Australia and his current fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)

Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment, to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr…… He said and I quote:

There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but because Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.

This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor is reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.

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