March 9, 2014
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
This is the first Sunday in Lent, a time during the Church Year that offers the opportunity for us to take some time out of our busy lives to evaluate where we are in our walk of faith. Are we living out the vows of our baptism? Or, have we strayed away and do we need to repent of our self-centeredness and ask for forgiveness and renewal. On Ash Wednesday we met here to reflect on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount when he encouraged his disciples in certain disciplines or habits of faith — praying, giving alms, and fasting. These are good things to do, he said, but by no means should they be done as the Pharisees were doing them, because unfortunately their primary motivation had become self-centered rather than God centered, and they enjoyed the attention and approval of the crowds before whom they performed their religious obligations. Their reward had thus become the approval of the crowd rather than a holy and living relationship with God. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons doesn’t fool God, not for a minute!
Today and in the weeks to follow we will be reflecting on God’s call to a life of devotion, a life that is a continual expression of our love for God and one another. That is, how to do the right things for the right reasons. it isn’t something frankly that comes easily or naturally. It requires help and encouragement, discipline and focus.
It’s funny how we know this fact about other things. We know that if we want to learn about a subject in school, we have to read the texts, attend the lectures, do our research, and think a lot about the topic, even when we’d rather be sleeping, or going to the movies, or hanging out with friends. We know there’s work to be done. And we can’t just put the text beside our bed or under our pillow at night and hope somehow the knowledge will be transferred. Same thing with our health. We can’t just wish for stronger, healthier bodies. It won’t happen by watching other people as they choose the right foods or exercise daily and become healthy. We have to do it ourselves without excuses, like “I don’t have the time,” or I don’t have any will power,” or, “I don’t like green vegetables.”
Faith somehow we like to think, is different! We like to believe that good intentions count. That God counts it as prayer when we mean to pray, but just don’t have the time. Or God counts it as searching the scriptures when we place a really nice bible in plain sight in our homes and dust it regularly. Or God understands it as generosity when we have a kind thought or a moment of pity as we shop at the mall and see someone less fortunate than ourselves. But faith doesn’t grow, mature, and get stronger, by wishing it so. It’s something that we have to work on too. And not just when we have the time or when we feel like it. I love what Eugene Peterson says about this, “If Christians only worshipped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on.”
John Wesley knew this to be true. That’s why he and his friends formed what they called the “holy club,” in order to hold one another accountable in the development of their faith. They read scripture together, prayed together; they fasted, participated in Holy Communion regularly, and encouraged one another to attend worship services every week. They knew the truth that “we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting.” These activities were all acts which helped them to develop feelings for God; not feelings for God that then were expressed in specific actions. That was why Wesley was able to take courage later in life when he was told, “Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it, you can preach faith.” He knew that in the performance of these actions, his relationship with God would be nurtured.
During Lent we are called strengthen our ability and desire to live a devotional life, and continually express our love for God and others in everything that we do. We have the opportunity to live every moment as a God-moment, if we are awake and aware to the possibility of encounter and involvement with God. But we can’t have this continuous devotional life if we do not set aside devotional time, if we do not find specific opportunities to nourish our souls. For John Wesley, the foundational devotional exercise was what he called “searching of scripture.” He wrote to a pastor, who was struggling with burn out, encouraging him to find time every day, no matter how busy he was, for this exercise. He was honest about it. He said at first it will be tedious, but later it will become pleasant. And then he warned, “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days.”
Searching scripture, as Wesley described it, is not like scholarly Bible study, as valuable and essential as such study is providing us with needed information about historical backgrounds, uses of languages, cultural habits, archeological discoveries, varieties of manuscripts, and multitudes of interpretation, which thereby increase the depth and breadth of our intellectual knowledge of biblical material. I’m all for that. I love to do that.
Although Wesley was an extremely well read and well educated person who believed in learning all he could about the Bible from all available sources, he was calling for a different kind of activity when he referred to searching the scriptures. Instead of an activity exclusively of the head, he was calling for an activity of the heart and spirit. He was calling for reading scripture as an act of worship. And in this activity, all those valuable intellectual skills of criticism and analysis are put aside for an attitude of expectancy and wonder. And the goal is not to discern a fact, but to encounter a truth, and to mull it over and meditate on it slowly and hopefully in peace.
But often this isn’t an entirely smooth process, as sometimes when we are meditating over scripture, trouble can enter in. Martin Luther wrote that in the midst of contemplation, while we are experiencing the truth, sweetness, and comfort of God’s word, “the devil will likewise appear, seeking to afflict us and dissuade us from responding to the revelation.” Luther believed that these trials were a part of the “formative process, enabling us to embrace the word of God because we experienced it to be stronger than the deceptive words of the evil one.” If we face the struggle honestly, we will come out stronger for it.
This possibility of challenge leads us to today’s gospel lesson, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which since about the year 500 has been told on the first Sunday of Lent. Jesus has been led into the desert after his baptism and there he has fasted for forty days and nights, considering and attempting to discern what his baptism means for his life and what God has called him to do. Toward the end of his solitary time, he is tempted three times by the devil, who even quotes scripture to him once, and Jesus responds every time with a verse from scripture. (By the way, I am not holding this story up to you with the idea that if you memorize enough bible verses, you too can avoid temptation.)
But look at what’s happening here. Jesus has been alone for forty days mulling over his future, no doubt recalling, remembering, meditating on what he knows and has learned about God through scripture. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was thoroughly familiar with scripture; Jesus quotes from the Torah often throughout Matthew’s gospel. But Matthew also wants us to know that Jesus is human – we tend to forget that – and probably in that harsh environment it would not be improbable that he began to have doubts about both his motive and method. Matthew depicts this dramatically, as we see Jesus at his weakest point, tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely, and vulnerable, called to do the right things – feed people, call people back to God, show the way to the kingdom of God – surely God had spoken to him through the words of the prophets during this time. Maybe he remembered God saying through the prophet Isaiah
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights: I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”
But now here at the last, he’s tempted to do these good things for the wrong reasons – for the sake of his own comfort, ego, an, desire for power. And he answers these temptations by quoting each time from Deuteronomy, to the temptation to turn stones to bread, he answers “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” To the temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to prove he is God’s son – what an ego trip that would be – he answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And finally, to the temptation to forget about all the justice and mercy stuff, and just go for the power of the world, he responses “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” At that point Jesus knows God well enough, even if he doesn’t know himself well enough yet, to realize that these temptations to act in certain ways are not of God.
Now, we know from reading the rest of Matthew’s gospel that Jesus did feed people, he performed wonders and healings among the people, and his ministry had and still has enormous political impact. He fed those who were hungry but meeting physical needs was not his ultimate goal for he also taught, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink” (Matt. 6:25). He healed people, not to call attention to himself and attract followers (in fact he often told people not to tell anyone what had happened), but because he saw healing as a part of God’s kingdom breaking in to those who were broken and helpless. And he used power, not to seek status for himself or to overpower others, but empower others, serve the ends of justice and affirm the dignity of all people.
Not coincidentally, I think, the temptations Jesus resisted were the ones the Pharisees succumbed to. The temptation of comfort, having nice clothes and plenty to eat, – the temptation of egotism, showing off, being popular and looked up to – and, of course, the temptation of power, becoming a force to be reckoned with, respected, obeyed, and feared. Both Jesus and the Pharisees sought to do good things, but for very different reasons and with diametrically opposed motivations. Jesus remembered what he’d learned from scripture; he’d taken it in and absorbed it. It had become a part of him, not just so that he could quote it back, but so that he could live continually within it, and use it as the lens through which he saw and evaluated everything. The Pharisees could quote scripture too, but they lived superficially on top of it, obeying all the laws, checking up on others to see if they were observant too, thanking God that they were better than most people. And sadly they missed the point entirely.
We don’t want to miss the point. But there’s only room for one at the center of our lives — us or God. Spiritual disciplines, holy habits, like searching the scripture, help us to pry open the door to our hearts to make room for God, so that with practice, we can be formed, shaped and nurtured, and can say with Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. But we have to practice. We have to do the work. Wishing won’t make it so. Amen.