Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

An Opportune Time—Sermon Preached on the First Sunday of Lent

A few weeks ago I posted some notes I made in preparation for preaching on the First Sunday of Lent. My sermon is after the jump.

“An Opportune Time”

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1–11  •  Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16  •  Luke 4:1–13

Let us pray:

Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake, lay not our sins to our charge, but forgive that is past, and give us grace to amend our sinful lives: to decline from sin and incline to virtue, that we may walk in a perfect heart, before thee, now and ever more. Amen.[1]

What a privilege to stand before you this morning—charged with preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ on the First Sunday of Lent in the year 2013!

There’s so much to be excited about at Wesley these days. [Ed.: I’ve deleted a few insider paragraphs about goings-on at Wesley UMC in Eugene, Oregon.] And it’s right to be excited and filled with joy on the Lord’s Day for what God is doing among us at Wesley, even during the season of Lent! And yet, as our Gospel lesson reminds us this morning, the Way of Christ is not uni-directional—leading only up the mountainside to visions of glory and transfiguration. It also leads down into the wilderness, to the rough and barren places. It is not simply the way of easy fellowship and comfort; it is also the way of testing, of fasting and struggle, of self-denial and renunciation. For the Way of Jesus, the Way that leads to life, brings us home by way of the desert, on to and through Jerusalem, and finally to the cross outside the city gates.

Let us consider a bit more, then, the lectionary’s strange movement from the heights of Transfiguration Sunday to the depths of today, the First Sunday of Lent. As you’ll recall from Erin’s sermon last week, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray, and there appeared Elijah and Moses with a glorified Jesus, and then came a voice from an overshadowing cloud, declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And in this morning’s Gospel lesson, the same Chosen Son is sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where he goes without food for 40 days and is subjected to repeated testing by the Devil. Why is God’s beloved driven by God into such a desolate place? Didn’t Jesus himself teach us to pray for God to save us from the time of trial? What kind of love subjects the beloved to such difficulty?

Now the lectionary jumps forward and then backwards in Luke’s Gospel, moving from the Transfiguration in chapter 9 back to the Temptation in chapter 4. But in doing so the lectionary only reinforces Luke’s own narrative sequence. For just before the temptation scene in chapter 4, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, and there too, a voice from the heavens speaks, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” So pleased is God with his Son that he . . . subjects him to starvation and the repeated testing of the Devil? One can sympathize with the disciples’ confusion about why Jesus has to face these sorts of indignities.

Yet the voice from the mountaintop has already given us the clue to the story: “Listen to him!” God says. Pay attention to him. Keep your eyes on the Son. In other words, God is sending Jesus into the wilderness not for his sake, but for ours. The temptations that he faces are human temptations, and Jesus’ faithfulness in the face of them is a part of the salvation he brings to us. He shows us what it might mean to live an exalted human life before God.

And the uncomfortable truth is that we don’t really know what it means to be human. We’re like Truman Burbank, in the 1998 hit comedy-drama starring Jim Carrey and Ed Harris. Truman Burbank, played by Carrey, thinks he’s a happy-go-lucky citizen of a perfect little town called Seahaven. He has a wonderful family and has recently fallen in love, or so he thinks. In truth, he’s the unwitting star on a massively popular, global reality TV show called The Truman Show. His whole world, from birth, has been a theatrical fabrication orchestrated by unseen powers and intended for other people’s pleasure. Yet, despite the God-like powers of the show’s executive producer—Christof, played by Harris—things start to spin out of control. Truman eventually discovers the edge of the theatrical dome that has constituted his false world, and he is poised to step out into an unknown but truthful future. Christof, playing the role of an anti-Christ, tries to stop him, saying that there is no more truth in the real world than in his fabricated one. Truman, undeterred, exits the set and reunites with the actress in the show that he had fallen in love with.

The drama of the Bible—the drama of our creation, fall, and redemption—makes the false reality of The Truman Show look like child’s play. For the biblical narrative suggests that we too are trapped in a world of unreality, but far more devastatingly, it suggests that left to our own devices, we’ll never find the edge of our fabricated world. In real life, we’re all citizens of Seahaven; we’re all inside the theatrical dome. And so God sends his Son to us and among us to show us another way, indeed an exodus, a way out. I want to suggest that we see the Temptation story as Jesus beginning to break through the dome of our unreality.

Three times the devil tempts Jesus to play by the familiar rules of the fallen world. Simply put, Satan invites Jesus to exercise authority the old fashioned way. “Go big with your power,” the devil says in so many words. “Since you’re God’s Son, satisfy your hunger by turning stone to bread.” Now, after 40 days, Jesus is famished, as any human would be. But the devil is not simply enticing Jesus with personal nourishment. As will become clear as the Jesus story unfolds, everywhere he goes, crowds of the poor will gather around him. If he’s God’s Anointed King, if as Mary sang in Luke chapter 1, Jesus is God’s instrument to scatter the proud and fill the hungry with good things—then the devil is offering a tantalizing shortcut to a loyal following, a quick step to the mighty revolution God desires. “Feed the crowds and you shall be king.”[2] And yet Jesus rebuffs the devil by quoting Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” And just like that, Jesus dispatches with the fiction that real life can be reduced entirely to material goods.

The devil then gets explicitly political, now imitating the Holy Spirit by taking Jesus up to the heights and speaking from on high, saying that God has granted him authority over all the kingdoms of the world and that he will hand this authority over if Jesus will but worship him. Remarkably, Jesus does not contest the devil’s claim to such authority over the nations—a point I hope we’ll all remember next election season!—but rather again he rebuffs the devil by quoting from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And just like that, Jesus unmasks the fiction that the bearers of political power are worthy of our loyalty and devotion.

Finally, the devil, perhaps prompted by Jesus’ mention of worship, transports Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and suggests that he call God’s bluff. Jesus should throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and prove that God is at his service, and that God will—and here, the devil pushes his chutzpah to an extreme, himself quoting scripture, two verses from Psalm 91—that God will have to protect Jesus and send angels to bear him up. And a third and final time, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And just like that, Jesus puts paid to the fiction that we can turn the tables on God and use the Bible against him.

Three times Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy to pull back the curtain on the devil’s fabricated world. Alas, the devil’s world is all too familiar, is it not? A world in which we are tempted to worship material goods, political power, and even false religious security. Yet Jesus shows us a different world, a world of the freedom of those who don’t quote the 91st Psalm against God, but rather learn from it to, “live in the shelter of the Most High” and “abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Writing about The Truman Show, one theologian writes “Truman faced a situation similar to our own. He was faced with the challenge of looking past the conventional, the ‘givens’ of everyday life. He was confronted with the uncomfortable prospect that much, perhaps nearly all, that was familiar to him was distorted, false, and illusory. Christians have to be willing to examine what presentations of reality are offered to us by those powerful forces . . . that explain our world to us, our place in that world, and what way of life can help us best find order and security.”[3]

Which returns us to Lent, the season in which we are summoned to scrutinize the givens of everyday life, the narratives that constitute our world. For centuries, Christians have chosen to practice various forms of self-denial during the season of Lent, not because the things that are being given up are bad for us in of themselves. No, in fact, if you’re giving up something that’s bad for you for Lent, you’re doing it wrong. You should give up bad things because they’re bad for you! In Lent, we imitate Jesus’ time in the wilderness by giving up necessities, for we want to learn the freedom that comes from total devotion to God. Richard Foster writes of fasting in his book Celebration Of Discipline, “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that controls us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. . . . Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.”

At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Luke tells us that, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Much later in Luke’s Gospel, Satan, having been unable to enter into Jesus, enters into Judas and seeks again an opportune time to betray Jesus. The wonderful little secret of the gospel, known to us only on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, is that there never really is an opportune time for the devil to trick Jesus. For one such as Jesus, who kept the commandments, who refused every idol, who kept the faith of Deuteronomy and demonstrated in his own life the radical monotheism of Israel, who gave nothing less than his whole life as an offering to God and to neighbor—for one such as this, there is no time for the devil. The very time the devil thought he had found became the means of the devil’s undoing. The church’s first great theologian, Origen, thought that the trick was on the devil. Jesus on the cross was like divine bait on a hook for catching the devil out in his prideful overreaching.

But then the flipside of the fact that it’s never an opportune time to trap Jesus, is that it’s always an opportune time to listen to him. It’s always the right time for followers of Jesus to live into the world-changing truth that he brings. Indeed, this is the very meaning of our baptism into his death and resurrection, for which our candidates are now preparing. In our baptisms, we have come to the waters, and we have been carried through by Christ to a whole new world. We probably still feel a bit like Truman Burbank—unsure of what lies on the other side of the theatrical dome that has held us captive. Even those of us baptized as infants long ago know that God always has more light and truth in store for us, if we would but entrust ourselves more deeply to the shelter of the Most High.

In May of 1944, less than a year before his untimely death at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his godson on the occasion of his baptism. Bonhoeffer knew a thing or two about the freedom of a Christian, as he was one of a very few in his homeland empowered by his faith in God to see through the lies of materialism, power, and a false and racist religiosity that led so many German Christians into the arms of the Nazis. It was a freedom that, like Jesus’ before him, transformed Bonhoeffer’s entire life into first fruits that he offered up to God. He said this to his godson about baptism, “In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” Bonhoeffer knew that the life of the baptized is and always will be a life of adventure into a future not of our own making.

May we observe together a holy season of Lent, abiding with one another as we enter into the rough places of self-examination and self-denial. May we embrace this and every opportune time to follow Jesus into the revolutionary future of truth about ourselves as fallen yet beloved creatures of God. May we learn together what it means to be human beings—exalted because humbled, ever dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty. Amen.

[1] Prayer is taken from “Lord, for they tender mercy’s sake,” by Richard Tennant; the piece was sung by the choir as a musical offering prior to the reading of the scriptures.

[2] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 26.

[3] Jeph Holloway, The Poetics of Grace—Christian Ethics as Theodicy: Volume 1, The Hope of God’s Calling (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).


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