Stanley Spencer was a twentieth-century English painter from Berkshire. Much of his work depicts scenes from Christ’s life. Spencer locates the scenes not in the Holy Land but in his small village of Cookham, which he called "a village in Heaven." Fellow-villagers frequently stand in for their Gospel counterparts, lending familiarity and immediacy to strange and distant stories. We have before us this morning one of Spencer’s paintings based, in part, on today’s Gospel reading (Luke 4. 1-13). Spencer originally intended to produce 40 paintings called ‘Christ in the Wilderness, for daily Lenten meditation, but he never completed the whole series. The scenes he did paint, however, relocate moments from the teaching ministry of Jesus back into the desert, as though they had all flowed out of that formative wilderness experience. Spencer called the painting before us ‘The Scorpion’ and shows a crouching Jesus holding a scorpion. On a simple level, it reminds us of the hardship and risk Jesus faced in the wilderness, embodied in the scorpion, a very real risk to well-being and life. On a more complex level, however, what does Spencer’s painting have to say to us about Lent and who might the two central figures – the man and the scorpion – actually be?
Let’s begin by expanding on the simple level of the painting. Jesus sits on the rocky ground, without shoes, and holds in cupped hands an angry scorpion. He gazes down at the scorpion with care and acceptance, knowing that its nature is to inflict deadly pain when it is threatened. The scorpion embodies the violence of the natural world and perhaps also our own destructiveness. Even a cursory glance at a newspaper on any given day shows the human race, scorpion-like, full of greed and self-obsession, trapped by a poisonous cycle of anger, ready, able, and willing to inflict hurt. But by cradling the scorpion with such tenderness, and in such a vulnerable place and way, Jesus suggests something else. Divine love holds all these raging forces, even though it may lead to pain, suffering, and death. Out of that bearing divine love will reveal the peace of the Kingdom of heaven that lies hidden within love’s mysterious ways.
I don’t think, though, that this quite exhausts what Spencer’s painting might say to us, as lovely as its simple message may be. I am struck by the possibility that the human figure may well be us on our Lenten journey. This means in turn that the scorpion, perhaps, is God. The human figure seems both comfortable and fragile at once: generously proportioned, shall we say, having led up to now a presumably comfortable life; and yet now in a hostile desert, no shoes, inadequate clothing, and surrounded by danger. So too do we here at Trinity on the whole enter Lent from incredibly privileged and comfortable lives, at least on a material level. But as we begin Lent, we enter into a stripping down, a stripping away, and open ourselves up to the uncomfortable and dangerous possibility that we may experience God in a new way. The really immediate danger of Lent is a scorpion-like God. This scorpion-like God calls us to follow Jesus, even to death. This scorpion-like God threatens to change us beyond what we can imagine: a new horizon of possibility which may nonetheless involve discomfort, challenge, suffering, and temptation to return to our old and destructive patterns of behaviour.
Our wilderness, this Lent, might not be a desert of physical hunger, danger, and diabolical temptation; it will most likely be daily life, full of its quotidian destructive patterns. Whether the scorpion of Spencer’s painting represents us or God, we are called to feel God’s transforming gaze and love as well as be that gaze to the world. As costly as this may be, we are promised that angels will wait upon us, as they did upon Christ. Amen.