Sermon, Year B, Lent 1, February 26, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Mark 1:9-15
Jesus’ wilderness time is a kind of initiation: a time to see if he can resist temptation to be something other than what he was baptized into. A time to test himself to see if he can stay true to the baptismal vows or who he is supposed to be. Which is in many ways what happens in an initiation or initiation-like period. Like bootcamp in the military is a time not only to learn how to be a soldier, but to learn how to resist the temptation to act in a non-soldierly way. Or any apprenticeship in a job; learning how to overcome the temptation to be other than that. College is like that. Fraternity initiations, Masonic initiation, a lot of groups that we may affiliate with have some kind of initiation time and part of that involves teaching those who are entering into it how to overcome the temptation to be something other than that. And that includes baptisms. Our baptismal vows. Our life is a kind of initiation living into those baptismal vows. Learning how to try to overcome the temptation to go against the vows we have made in baptism. Notice how Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness here takes place right after his baptism. Immediately after.
Its also kind of generic the way that the writer of Mark offers the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. He doesn’t say anything about what Jesus was tempted by. He just says Jesus went out for 40 days and was tempted. It’s not specific. It leaves it open for us to enter into our own temptations. To think of ourselves in that story. What might we be tempted by?
Matthew and Luke, when they talk about this temptation, they talk about what Jesus was tempted by. The have the same three things, although in different orders. By listing them they make it almost too easy for us. Jesus was tempted by bread and said, “We do not live by bread alone.” And we can go, well okay, it’s easy not to be tempted by bread, I can do that. Then he was tempted by the power to rule all the nations, and we can go, “we’re never gonna have that opporutnity, that’s easy to resist”. Then he was tempted to jump off a spire to test God. Probably none of us are willing to go up a spire and jump off, so that’s an easy temptation to resist. And so we have these three temptations and we can say, Well, I’m not going to do any of those, so I’m good to go. Whew! I don’t have to worry about temptation. Jesus didn’t succumb, I’m not gonna succumb, I’m okay. But Mark leaves us guessing: What was Jesus tempted by? Our prayer of confession today said that Jesus was tempted by everything, which seems a bit of a reach – he only had 40 days. But what might Jesus have been tempted by? Maybe the same things that would tempt us? Having an affair with the cute person in the office? Padding your hours on your timesheet? Some numerical trickery on the tax forms? Not spending time in prayer to watch another half hour of TV? Giving up your integrity for a good business deal or a quick financial gain? Not reading the Bible because you’re “too busy” posting cat photos on facebook? Or following some celebrity’s twitter feed? Some of these are things I get tempted by. Casting a vote that helps you more than the least of these? Or wallowing in self-pity, or using hopelessness as an excuse to not act all because you think it just doesn’t matter? There’s room in this story of Jesus’ temptation to find ourselves and to insert ourselves. Which temptation or temptations are saying to you, “Ignore God for the moment. Forget your faith walk with Jesus right now, and do this”? What is the this that might be tempting you. Now imagine that you are Jesus in the wilderness. Do you give in to that temptation? Jesus didn’t. But do we?
As we continue to read through Mark and approach Passion Sunday and Good Friday, we’ll hear the stories of some of those in Jesus’ life who fail some temptations. Judas who traded Jesus for a bag of silver. Peter who traded Jesus for safety by denying him three times in the garden. Or the disciples who traded Jesus for sleep instead of staying awake to pray with him on the side of the mountain.
Our Christian vocation comes with some demands. To resist these temptations. To resist the things that would lead us away from God. And our Christian vocation can be a dangerous endeavor. We’re not always asked to do rational things because of our faith. Loving our enemies makes no rational sense. Loving your neighbors may not even make any rational sense. or giving all of our stuff away so other people can enjoy it, or so other people can live, is not necessarily rational. It can be a difficult vocation to be a Christian. There are many temptations to take the easy path, the easy route. And there are those who offer an easy message of Jesus, who say “come to Jesus and your life will be perfect without any problems, nothing will go wrong, and you will have prosperity and fulness of life!” But Jesus never said that. At some level, there absolutely is fulness of life by following Jesus. But that doesn’t necessarily mean riches and prosperity, or an easy life. Just that it will be full of good and love. And there are those who offer platitudes that you just pray for whatever you want, whatever it is, and God will give it to you, like God is some kind of vending machine just waiting to do our will, to respond to what we demand. Some of the prosperity gospel folks who just say to pray and you will be rich, with rich meaning money, stuff, land, or a big house. A lot of people out there preaching a pretty easy message that says that the Christian vocation is about being wealthy, or gaining material blessings, or that we’re Christians simply so we can go to heaven, or to have perfect health, a beautiful family, or whatever we desire. And that can be a very tempting message because it’s an easy one and who doesn’t want easy? There are some times I’m tempted by it. I’d love if that’s the way it was, but it isn’t always that way, and often isn’t. Most of you know that, you’ve experienced it. You’ve been in church your whole lives or most of your lives, and you still get sick and have financial problems, have family members you don’t get along with, worries about your job or your income. And then come across people that offer this false alternative that, well, you’re just not praying enough or you’re not faithful enough.
My friend Patti, I’ve known her about twenty years, wonderful woman, and she has a daughter, Eden, seven or eight years old and Eden has Down Syndrome. A week or so ago, Patti posted on her facebook page that she had en encounter with Eden’s bus driver. Patti had gone out to picking her up from the school and the bus driver said to her, no doubt meaning well and she probably picked this up from her church or from a TV preacher, this bus driver said to Patti that if she—Patti—“put God’s word in her heart, accepted Jesus, prayed and had faith AND teach that to her children, that Eden could be cured from her affliction.” Unbelievable. Patti writes: “As though Down Syndrome is an affliction that needs to be cured,” and as though Patti who I’ve known for a long time and is faithful, and spent time in seminary, and spent time in the church... as though Patti just wasn’t doing the right kind of Christian magic. And there is also this awful implication in that bus driver’s words that are so harmful. This suggestion that God is so vindictive and so mean that because Patti’s wasn’t faithful enough God “afflicted” one of her babies with Down Syndrome.
That’s not the Christian message. That’s giving in to the temptation of doing what’s easy of just blaming people. Of saying, well, if something is bad in your life, then it’s because you’re not faithful enough, therefore I have no responsibility. Or the other side of that coin that if lots of good is happening in your life then it must be because you’re living such a righteous and faithful life that God is rewarding you and since it’s all a reward there’s no reason to share it or make your neighbor’s life any better. That’s an awful attitude, and that’s the attitude that Jesus preached against! Those healing stories we read in the last month are all against that idea that is someone is sick, poor, or miserable, it’s because they’re wrong. They did something bad in their lives, they brought it on themselves, they’re not faithful enough, they don’t pray enough, whatever it is. That attitude led and leads to people being pushed out of the community, ignored, left in poverty, treated as outcasts and it’s jsut not a good message. I get tired of it. There’s so much of it in our culture. And so often the form of Christianity we hear from public figures and people in the media. But it’s not the Gospel. Jesus said—and we will hear this next week—that if you want to follow me, take up your cross and follow me. He didn’t say sit back and watch the gold pour in. The Christian vocation can be dangerous and there is a cost to it, to take up your cross and follow. There’s a part of it that it takes part of who we are, some of what we have to make it work.
George, Kay, Darrick, and I are in a process of learning about the five signs of a fruitful congregation in church renewal and revitalization. The way these five signs are worded, there is an implied cost. Not just financial, but personal:
Risk-taking mission and service
Intentional faith development
Not just hospitality or generosity or faith development. They come with adjectives: radical, extravagant, intentional. These all come at a personal and community cost. They require personal involvement, relation building, giving up material resources and maybe some long-held beliefs that aren’t in accordance with God’s even as much as we maybe thought that they were. Jesus’ ministry was constantly overturning long-held beliefs and traditions that weren’t helpful or religiously sound.
Patti had her table turning moment on this judgment cast on her by saying that she does pray. She does pray. She prays every day in thanks that God gave her “a beautiful, healthy, loving, and joyful child who is a perfect gift from God just the way she is. She is NOT ‘afflicted.’” Then Patti went on to say, “I hate bad theology accompanied by ignorance!” Yeah, me, too, Patti. Me, too.
All these temptations that lead to an easier life or an easier faith are often the least faithful. Not the temptations to give in to, especially for we who have been baptized, who have made our baptismal vows. These are temptations to resist, whatever seems easy or convenient. That’s often a good way to tell if you are looking at the wrong thing or thinking of choosing the wrong thing: is it too easy, too convenient, too simple, too black and white. And there are many other kinds of temptations out there we are faced with: money, apathy, self-pity, hate, violence, anger, blame, revenge ... the list goes on and on. We are faced with temptations all the time. We are faced with our own satans, our own obstacles. Some we share as a community, some are individual. And so, if you were in the wilderness after your baptism (and we all are because we are not perfect and we’re not in the Promised Land yet, so at some level we are all in the wilderness) what are the things that tempt you to jettison your baptismal vows? That’s the $64,000 Lent question. But the million dollar Lent question is: What are you doing about it? How are you responding to those temptations?
And there’s a lot of good news here. The wilderness can be a scary place, and a place of temptation, but it also a place of growth. Every time we resist, every time we are faithful, is a step of faith that makes us stronger. We grow closer to God, and grow closer to who God wants us to be. In these 40 days of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, our mini-wilderness in the wilderness of our lives as we head to Easter, we can ask, Do you want to arrive at Easter morning as someone different than you are today? Someone more faithful, more disciple-like, more robust, more willing to take risks in this costly endeavor that is called “being a follower of Jesus Christ”? And since you are here I imagine your answer to that is “yes,” yes you do, and since we are all here we have also said “yes” to not doing this alone. We do it together. Jesus absolutely is with us, but also are all here helping one another through this journey of faith. We don’t have to do it alone. We here at Plymouth are very good at helping one another, I see that happen a lot. We are here lifting one another up, challenging one another, encouraging one another. Being the church. being the church. And so may we all during this Lent journey strive to live more fully into our baptismal vows, to resist evil, to be more faithful, to love God, and to love our neighbor.
Let’s pray: God of grace, you meet us in the wilderness of our individual lives and the wilderness of our shared lives. May we see you there and trust your presence as guide, teacher, healer, and challenger, to resist temptation for easy solutions and easy faith and be more willing to pay the price of faithful discipleship in your name. Bless us, bless these your people with your Spirit of desire, hope, and love. Amen.
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