The moment of our greatest success and achievement, when we are riding the crest of the wave, is also the moment we are most likely to be subjected to the severest temptations, gnawed by our most debilitating insecurities, and seduced into believing the most grandiose visions of our own abilities.
In today's text, Mark 1:1-8, Jesus celebrates perhaps the most exhilarating and confirming episode of his entire ministry. Everything is going right. John baptizes Jesus, carrying out his appointed role in the drama of salvation. The experience is so moving and powerful that the Holy Spirit seems to envelope Jesus' whole being with a sense of love and acceptance. Jesus hears what we all long to hear in our own lives. He is loved; his actions have pleased; he is received without any hesitations or hold backs.
But what happens to Jesus following this "mountaintop" experience? In verse 12 we are told that he is immediately driven out into the wilderness, and there is tempted by Satan in what were perhaps some of the most vulnerable moments of his life. Riding the crest of the wave can often lead to tumbling troughs.
For most of us, then, wave-riding puts us into dangerous and tenuous positions. Riding the crest of a wave can be the moment when we are most likely to be swept into depression, denial, and self-deception. A medieval saying Martin Luther liked to quote reflects this two-sided sword of success: "When the Lord builds the church, the Devil builds the chapel." The tempter bides his time and often waits until we are riding the highest to strike.
Reaching a position of success and acceptance, whether professionally or personally, entails hard, slogging work. Long hours of study, unfulfilling chores, unimportant "entry" level jobs, carefully cultivated "right" relationships, go into helping us gradually ascend to a position of respect and responsibility. Naturally we want to maintain our position at the crest once we achieve it. We don't want to repeat all that "prep" work that led to riding the wave. Hence we do everything we can to preserve our advantage and accommodate the crest.
This tendency presents itself not only in individual struggles for continuing success and acceptance, but also in spiritual movements and institutions like the Church. Graham Shaw, formerly chaplain and Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, has written a devastating critique of Christianity and Judaism as "religions of power" entitled God in Our Hands (London: SCM Press, 1987). He says that "Superb arrogance is natural to youth, in middle age - aware of failing powers - we cultivate the kindliness we hope to meet. Much the same is true of Christianity. Its recent conversion to being nice, while in itself commendable, is also an aspect of its defensiveness, the anxious smile of insecurity. Ecumenical politeness and denominational weakness grow together" (p. 146). This is the old threat of the Constantinian Captivity of the Church replayed, paying for a position of power by selling out precious principles and playing it safe.
The temptation and threat is not only in the compromises we may make, the actions we may take (or avoid taking). It is also our attitudes that endanger us spiritually as we try to maintain our wave-crest stance. We may begin to believe what other wave-riders tell us as they try to make their own way up to the top; our egos may begin to swell dangerously. United Methodist historical theologian Albert Outler liked to tell the old story of the two sailors, back from shore leave, attending the base chapel, only to have a sermon on the Ten Commandments laid on them. Afterward, one half-repentant sailor said to his mate, "At least we didn't make any graven images." Outler points out that graven images rarely take the form of anything so blatant as a golden calf. Today, he notes, it is the manufacture of "brazen ego-images" that has become big business. Self has become one of the most popular of the modern gods.
What is the answer? How do we both deal with success and with the ensuing temptations and troughs it brings in its wake? Recall once again the text that immediately follows today's gospel lesson. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness and into the hands of Satan following his baptism. In our own lives we must recognize that our encounters with temptations, pettiness, critical people, and infuriating situations can be God's way of sending us "grace builders." These grace builders operate as a life-jacket during our wave-riding ecstasies, all around us but unnoticed during the soaring moments at the crest, awkward but buoying as we teeter and totter towards and through the trough. Grace builders do more to facilitate and fortify our rapid growth in grace than almost anything else imaginable.
Unlike the float to the wave crest, this type of growth is not always fun. But God gives us both enough cresting waves to keep us encouraged and enough "grace builders" to keep us humble and growing. Martin Luther said we need constantly to see ourselves as "weak in faith, cold in love, and faint in hope," which makes us hunger and thirst for God and prevents the self-righteousness that gets us in so much trouble (see Martin D. Dietrich, ea., Devotional Writings, Vol 43 of Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969, 172).
Reaching the crest of the wave and riding with the wind is an ecstatic experience. Remember the poster of the "Peanuts" beagle Snoopy, surfing at the tip of a perfectly curled wave, shouting his victory cry, "Cowabunga!" God gives us such moments for pure joy, for unabashed rejoicing. But they are only moments. It is how we follow up those sporadic successes that determines our ability to grow spiritually so that we may be prepared to struggle our way up the next oncoming breaker.
Collected Works, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 1991, 0-000-1415