Monday, February 15, 2016

The First Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 14, 2016 (Luke 4:1-13)

(photo cred: USA Today)
Well, another Super Bowl is in the books; another winning team has been crowned. Another quarterback’s legacy has been validated, and…another coach has endured a Gatorade shower. Gary Kubiak, coach of the victorious Denver Broncos, was doused last Sunday evening with orange Gatorade as the final seconds of the game ticked down. Those who watch football may understand the significance of the Gatorade shower: it’s that moment when victory seems definite and the winning team “sneaks up” behind the coach to pour a whole cooler of Gatorade on him.

For many people, the Gatorade shower is the real end of the game, meaning more than the clock actually reaching zero  or more than the referees’ final whistle. At some point in history it was probably some team’s spontaneous reaction to a hard-fought win. Now it’s become a necessary ritual that signals the real end of the battle. In fact, the Gatorade shower is such a traditional part of American football that bookies now take bets on what color the Gatorade will beat each Super Bowl. I’ve never had anyone dump a cooler of Gatorade on me, but I imagine it’s quite a rush. All the bumps and bruises of the long season are in the past, all the self-doubts and second-guessing are washed away. You are named and claimed as the winner. Everyone gathers around you, supporting you, congratulating you, and you are free to do nothing but beginning to bask in the glory.

Jesus’ life is like a football game in reverse. His Gatorade shower comes at the very beginning of everything—when he is baptized in the Jordan River—and the struggle only intensifies from there. He is named and claimed as the winner—the Son of God—but there are no shouts of joy to accompany it, no basking in glory, no sudden end to the self-doubts and second-guessing. Immediately after his baptism, which all four gospel writers mention in some way as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit leads Jesus into solitude in the wilderness where he does battle with his enemy. The bumps and bruises are just beginning. He eats nothing and is weakened by hunger. He undergoes a series of temptations where the devil tries to lead him astray. His baptismal shower has freed him from nothing. Instead, it has initiated a life of challenges.

In Luke’s version of this story, those challenges begin with three tests which include just about every type of testing a person of faith can experience in life. One test tries to lure Jesus away through his body by offering to diminish his intense hunger. Another test attempts to strike through his heart and sense of ego by laying before him the kingdoms of the world. And a third test battles his intellect by using Scripture to argue against God’s power. Strength, soul and mind are all find themselves under siege in the wilderness.

Here’s the thing: these challenges make it very tempting to look at the account of Jesus’ temptation and think it primarily tells us about how human Jesus is. That’s a common reaction. We read it and think, “Look! This shows Jesus knows what it’s like to be human. The One we call Savior feels temptation. He struggles with hunger. He understands the lure of power and control.” And that reaction is not all wrong. Jesus’ undertook baptism, in part, to show solidarity with humankind, and the fact that he has to contend with temptation, with being hungry, for example, is part of that solidarity with us.

But the temptation of Jesus does not ultimately show us how human or ordinary Jesus is. It shows us how godly he is. It shows us he is not your ordinary human being. He is something extraordinary because he contends with evil and evil does not defeat him. The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky is credited as saying that if the whole Bible were somehow to be lost and only the account of Jesus’ temptation were to remain, it would be enough for us to have hope. A Savior has arrived. Someone has appeared on the scene who can contend with temptation, even in his weakened, isolated state, and stand down the dark forces that draw us from God.

That’s who, after all, this devil character is: the one who draws us from God. Those who constantly want to debate and wonder about what the devil looks like or whether the devil is a real physical being are missing the point. Scripture talks much more about things like voice and strategy when it talks about evil. There are voices and influences and ideas that try to lead us away from the good. There are influences that tell us lies about the strength of our own autonomy. And in the wilderness Jesus somehow manages to hear those voices and feel those influences and not believe them.

The account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness traditionally kicks off the Sundays in Lent, this time of the year when the Church pays special attention to Jesus’ sacrificial way of the cross. Modelled after Jesus’ own time of temptation and fasting, Lent is a season of forty days of special prayer and other spiritual disciplines. It has several purposes, but one of them is to have us pause and reflect more intentionally on what it means to turn to God. And this morning we remember that we are only able to turn to God because Jesus has contended against the forces of evil for us. He is the gift. He is the way. He stands up to the voices and influences that would separate us from God and, ultimately on the cross, puts them to death for us.

None of this is done for us because we deserve it, or because we are distinctly loveable, wonderful people. God rescues us in Christ Jesus out of God’s great love and desire to have us back, to grant us a future that of communion with him. Just like the ancient Israelites stand at their first harvest in the land God promised them and recount how God brought them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey—how God heard their cries of affliction and  saved them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, not by any power of their own—so do we stand in God’s promises of life because of what Jesus has done for us. The battle has already been won. The gift has already been given. Our life, our journey, is now one of repentance; that is, learning to receive and re-learn what this great gift means.

I don’t know if you heard the story this week out of California about the couple who were getting ready to buy the boat that they’d always dreamed of, that they’d saved up all their money for, but had a change of heart and ended up instead using the money to send an entire kindergarten class to college. Navy veteran Marty Burbank estimates that it will take about $1 million to accomplish this, so he’s set up a private foundation for Ms. Ashton’s class at Rio Vista Elementary School. All twenty-six kids speak Spanish at home and arrived this year not knowing much English or what college even was. Many of the families at Rio Vista would never even be able to afford college, and for many of them it may not be the right thing to go to college, but Burbank, after something he heard one Sunday at church, of all places, decided to take all the money he was going to spend on himself and instead offer it in some way to the school he had been volunteering at for several years. The gift is theirs.  All the kids have to do is draw a picture or write an essay every year about what going to college will mean for each of them and their families.[1] Now someone needs to buy Marty a boat.

It occurs to me that that’s an illustration of repentance: a conscious reflection on the fact that the gift has already been given what it means to you, and how you plan to receive it. Repentance, especially in the church, often gets reduced to just meaning your sorry or asking for forgiveness, but really it’s far more interesting—than just that. Repentance is a process, or a frame of mind, or a series of movements of the heart and mind that are far too complex to summarize in one image or action.

In fact, repentance is the way of Christian life. Martin Luther, in his first line of the 95 Theses, which is the document he posted to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg as he attempted to reform the church, says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Just as thankfulness, for example, may take look different depending on the situation and the thankful person’s specific circumstances…just as Valentine’s Day involves different gestures and celebrations—or lack thereof—depending on the beloved’s mood…so does repentance take on different aspects throughout the life of a believer.

Sometimes it does involve apologizing for and confessing sin, but sometimes it entails something different, like a dimension of realizing your potential for growth in ways you’ve never noticed before. Sometimes repentance may look like coming to terms again with your overall helplessness and weakness in this scary world. At other times it may look like the practice of learning to desire and treasure the right kinds of things in the right way, and seizing a chance to do so. Each of the gospel readings this Lent will focus on a different aspect of repentance, offering up two opposing examples of the choices we might make as we learn to receive the gift. Regardless of what the life of repentance looks like today and again tomorrow, it is always a reflection on what Christ has already done for us, a rejoicing in the triumph over death and sin that Jesus has already accomplished and handed to us.

No, I don’t know a thing personally about what a Gatorade dump feels like at the end of a game I’ve fought hard to win. Nor do I ever want to. But I do know what baptism feels like, and what it’s like to hear that the battle has already been won for me. O Lord, may I, like a fresh little kindergartner in Ms Ashton’s class, always be ready to sit down and at least draw a picture or say a prayer of what that means to me.




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment