Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Hard Work of Being Christian

First Sunday in Lent – Year C
Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13
Sunday, February 14, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

As we begin our journey through Lent, it is only appropriate that our Gospel lesson for this first Sunday in Lent is a story about a beginning. And about a journey. The Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent is always an account of the temptation of Christ. Immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days. While there, he undergoes a series of temptations by the devil.

This is a beginning, as it occurs immediately after Jesus’ baptism. He has been consecrated as God’s Son, and as such, given a specific mission and ministry. But before he even has a chance to begin that work, he first undergoes this journey. One of self-discovery that serves to clarify his purpose and strengthen him for the hard work that is to follow. Particularly the hard work that will occur at the end of his earthly ministry, the end of his earthly life.

The fact that Jesus undergoes these temptation shows that this is a struggle that he shares with us. That he is in solidarity will all humanity. For we too undergo various temptations throughout our lives. Perhaps even more so for those of us who attempt to follow Christ. In this, the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness tell us something important about the Christian life. To be honest, until now I had not particularly thought about it in this way. I had always thought of the temptations purely in terms of what the experience says about Jesus himself. That is, until I listened to Presiding Bishop Curry’s Lenten message earlier this week. Regarding the Jesus Movement – “the movement of God’s love in this world following in the footsteps of Jesus” – what we would call Christian life and mission, Bishop Curry notes:

“the fact that Jesus was baptized and began that movement in the world and immediately found himself tempted by the devil is an ever-present reminder that this movement is not without struggle. It is not easy. The truth is, this movement is difficult. It’s hard work. It’s work of following Jesus to the cross. And it’s work of following Jesus through the cross to the Resurrection. To new life. And new possibility.”

So what do the temptations Jesus endures tell us about our own life of faith? After all, that is what this season of Lent is about. Intentionally focusing on what it means to be followers of Jesus, to be part of the Jesus Movement.

Jesus was tempted with food to ease his hunger. For us, particularly those of us who do not have to be concerned with where our next meal is coming from, this is a reminder of the temptation of the material – the concern and care of which can become more important than the care for our fellow human beings. It is a reminder about how easy it is for us, particularly those of us who have plenty, to become more concerned with our own wants and neglect the needs of those in our society who truly hunger – for food, for shelter, for justice, for respect, for love.

Jesus was tempted with power and authority. For some, there may be a temptation for these same things. In a more general sense, this is the temptation for recognition, even for prestige and fame rather than humble obedience and service to our God. It is concern with our perceived sense of entitlement rather than concern for social justice, for God’s justice.

And Jesus was tempted with safety and security. For us, this is pretty much the same – concern for being safe and comfortable. Not so much safety and comfort in our living conditions, although you could argue that is part of it. But even more so, concern that we not have to risk putting ourselves out there in the name of the Gospel. It is about the human tendency to trust ourselves rather than risking absolute trust in our God. About risking being called into new possibilities. About risking the hard work to make those possibilities a reality.

But even more than what these temptations say about us, about the things that we must be on guard against in our own lives of faith, is what is revealed in the way Jesus handles these temptations. Jesus turns the temptations around, refuting the desirability of what the devil offers him. And in so doing, Jesus refutes the power of the devil. In so doing, Jesus disarms the devil and his ability to do harm to the life of the one who is faithful.

When tempted with food to ease his hunger, Jesus does not feed himself. But in the ministry that follows, we see that he does go on to feed others. The most notable example being the feeding of the 5,000, which happens not too long after the temptations. And throughout his ministry, Jesus not only feeds others with physical food. He feeds them physically in other ways, through healings which prove to be sustaining and life-giving. And he feeds them spiritually through his teachings and by his very presence in their lives.

When tempted with power and authority over the nations of the world, Jesus does not give in and worship the devil. Instead, throughout his ministry we see that Jesus shows that the central tenet of his mission and ministry is not power and authority, but peace and compassion. And while refusing temptations to power and authority, we ultimately see a great reversal. The price that Jesus ultimately pays for his message of peace and compassion is his life. Jesus gives up his life on the cross for the sake of the world, resulting in him being revered as King of Kings, with ultimate power and authority.

When tempted to leap from the top of the temple to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to him, Jesus refuses to test God. Instead, throughout his ministry Jesus continually proves his faithfulness to God and to the mission he has been given. This is ultimately evidenced by his willingness to die on the cross. As he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22.42b). And in the act of dying for us, this act of faithfulness, Jesus insures that God’s faithfulness is forever extended to all of us.

Even in the midst of these temptations, all of which are designed to test his faithfulness to God, to get him to deny his faithfulness, Jesus does remain faithful to God. He meets every temptation with a defiant adherence to Scripture. Jesus relies on the fundamental truths of the Law to support him. These are not mere arguments that he throws out in an attempt to counter the devil’s offers. These words of Scripture, taken from the Law as originally conveyed by Moses, the Law that is foundational to our life of faith, provides the foundation on which Jesus’ life and beliefs are built. These words of Scripture provide him with the strength of conviction and of character to be able to resist even the most tempting of the devil’s offers.

Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus provides yet one more clue as to how he was able to endure. How we are able to endure in our own struggles, in our own faith journey. That is the role of the Holy Spirit. Each Gospel account of Jesus’ temptation experience talks about the role of the Spirit in slightly different ways. According to Matthew, after his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4.1). And Mark tells us that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1.12). But Luke, the version we hear today, tells us that Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Lk 4.1). Not that the Spirit led him to the wilderness with the express purpose of being tempted. Not that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. But that while he was already in the wilderness, the Spirit led Jesus. This is a very subtle difference from Matthew’s and Mark’s versions. But it is significant in its implication. It tells us that Jesus was not alone during his time in the wilderness, during his time of temptation. He was led by the Spirit, who guided and supported him during his journey. It was the Spirit who helped him through.

The story of the temptations, placed in context of Jesus’ whole life, and particularly the reversals that appear throughout his life and ministry, reveals a life that is empowered by the Spirit – the power of a life when lived in concert with the Spirit. So it is with us in our lives of faith. In those times when we feel as if we are lost in the wilderness, in those times when we feel tempted, we are not alone. We are led, guided, and supported by the Spirit. The Spirit is continually with us, insuring that we will make it through.

As with Jesus’ journey in the wilderness, these 40 days, this Lent season, is our journey. A journey of self-discovery. One in which we are tested to determine just who we are as the people of God. One in which we seek to clarify our role as members of the Body of Christ. One in which we discover the gifts and strengths we have to be who God has called us to be. One in which we are given the chance to turn those things that tempt us upside down, turning them into opportunities for new life, new growth. And as with Jesus, this is just the beginning. A beginning that continues well beyond this season, on to the glories of Easter and to new life. Led by the Spirit, we will continue the Jesus movement, which leads us to all sorts of new possibilities. And all the hard work will be worth it.

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