Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on February 18, 2018.
(Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, I Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15)
I want to talk about three things today: baptism as opening ourselves to the Divine revelation that we are Beloved, how accepting our Belovedness gives birth to the vision of what we are called to be about and what we want to do with our lives, and then what it means to be tempted way from that call.
In Jesus’ Baptism the heavens are torn apart and Jesus hears the proclamation “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That tearing open of the heavens and Jesus ability to hear and accept his divine Belovedness—sets the rest of the gospel story in motion.
It means Jesus lives in a different universe then the one we live in so much of the time. Knowing he is Beloved, means Jesus is not subject to all the coercive pressures so many of us feel, including the shaming that make us try to be this, or do that, in order to fit in, in order to be acceptable in the eyes of others. Knowing the voice of the Spirit of God and knowing he is well pleasing to God gives Jesus the authority, the grounds on which to judge what is of God and what is not where ever he encounters it, in day to day life, in church, or even in the Bible. It means that though he is a poor man, probably not even literate, Jesus can stand toe to toe with the leading religious, political, and economic authorities of his time. Finally, I would suggest it is his experience of God’s love which empowers Jesus to love others in such a way that they too will know this divine love. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is a veritable whirlwind of engagement and action, like some kind of Samurai warrior, taking on one battle after another, working to free people from that which would keep them from knowing themselves as beloved.
Knowing his Belovedness is what enables Jesus to become God’s covenant to the world. We heard in our reading from Genesis today about the first covenant, the covenant between God and every living creature—God’s promise never to destroy the world. The rainbow is the sign of this covenant. But Jesus comes proclaiming and living out a new covenant. This new covenant is the covenant the prophets kept saying was coming—the day when God would come to liberate and heal the world, free the captives, bring the lost home, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, bring about the day of love and justice on earth, in part through taking people’s hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh. You can see how Jesus’s experience of himself as Beloved is directly related to his mission to see that all people see the salvation of God, know themselves as Beloved of God.
Jesus will do this through living out what it means to be Beloved and speaking and acting so that others know their Belovedness. The control of the powers who rule our world rests upon their ability to exploit others based on their ability to keep people from knowing the glory that is within them. Jesus knows they will not be able to tolerate his message and will likely kill him. But Jesus also seems to have had this amazing spiritual insight that he could use that very process as a way of exposing the true nature of their brutal heartless power and as a way of being able to help people see the true nature of the loving and liberating God.
Our story also tells us that as soon as Jesus was baptized, authorized and empowered, the Spirit led him alone into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. The Bible sometimes uses the number 40 to mean a long time. Mark doesn’t tell us the nature of the temptations, but in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we learn they were not your everyday kind of temptations—they were all voices of the devil trying to talk Jesus out of doing what he felt called to do. In Jesus’ teachings, the means and the ends are always directly connected. If you are seeking to bring about a new humanity, a humanity no longer enslaved or manipulated by others, you cannot do it by coercing people, forcing or tempting or punishing them to be how you want them to be. It has to be on the basis of helping them to recognize and claim the gift of their humanity. There are no shortcuts.
The devil comes along trying to tempt Jesus to buy into all the standard ways people try to bring about change—through exercising power over other as opposed to at a personal cost.
The Devil tempts Jesus to use economic power over others—”turn these stones into bread.” Lenin said if you give the poor bread you can lead them into the new society of communism. FDR said if we send everyone a Sears and Roebucks’ catalogue we can seduce them into capitalism. Jesus says—those who are human can’t live by bread alone.
The Devil tries to tempt Jesus to follow the way of political power over others—”worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” This is the way of Caesar, the way of military and political power over others that is ultimately rooted in the power to threaten people with death to get them to do what you want.
The Devil tries to tempt Jesu to follow in the way of psychological power over others—”throw yourself off the temple”—preform magic, promise magic. But Jesus holds firm to his understanding of what he can’t do, and what he must do, if people are to learn to discover their Belovedness and learn to live out of that place. Whether Jesus’ time alone in the wilderness was 40 days or many years—Jesus emerged out of the wilderness ready to resist the kinds of temptations that were going to come to him, even from the mouths of his closest friends, so that he could do what he felt he must do to help bring about the day of the Lord, the day of justice and love here on earth.
Now I’ve tried to point out about how Jesus being able to open himself and be transformed by the revelation of his Belovedness was directly connected to his understanding of what he felt called to do, to his being empowered to do it, and finally to his understanding of what he needed to struggle against if he was going to be successful in being God’s covenant to the world. But this story is not just about Jesus, it’s about us.
In our baptismal liturgy we hear proclaimed that we are marked as God’s Beloved forever. In our baptismal liturgy we agree to walk in the way of Jesus and be God’s covenant to the world by “proclaiming the goodness of God in Christ,” by “seeking and serving Christ in all people,” by “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” by “striving for justice and peace among all people,” by “respecting the dignity of every human being.” Baptism is, in part, a symbolic re-enactment of our death to the ways the world of domination as it has named some of us superior and other of us inferior, so that we can be reborn into our common humanity as children of God. Baptism is, in part, a symbolic proclamation that the threat of death will not keep us from the living the life of God’s Beloved; loving and being loved, knowing ourselves as beloved, committed to working for the day when all know their Belovedness.
Now our story today connects call and temptation. Our tradition says that, almost always, when we are inspired to do something, shortly thereafter a voice is going to come along and say—it can wait, it will be better if you start doing it after you take a nap, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year. In other words, there seems to voice within us that absolutely resists change. Our tradition says that if we don’t learn how to resist that voice we end up enslaved by it. Soon it’s not a matter of delaying change it’s a matter of not even believing change is even possible. This means temptation is something we really want to take seriously, if we want to live as free people, if we want to give our lives to love.
So today I’d like to pose the question, what is it that keeps us as individuals and collectively from living the life of the Beloved, the life of knowing ourselves as loved, the life of giving ourselves in love for others, the life of seeing that the reign of love happens on earth?
For Jesus it was about temptations to take the short cut of power over others—what is it for you? How are you tempted to go off the path you want your life to be about? Have you learned to resist temptation if so –how? What works to keep you responding to the voice of the Spirit as it keeps speaking to you? If you’ve not learned to resist temptation– why? What seems to get in the way? Finally, what have you learned about the price of going along with the voice of temptation—where has it led you—left you?
Here I guess I would like to end with a pretty sobering word. As I get older and get more opportunity to follow peoples’ journeys across time, it’s becoming more and more evident to me how much character, which seems to be a matter of the habits of the heart we develop over time, has to do with the nature of our lives and how they turn out. Sorrow and loss are part of all our lives simply by virtue of being human beings, but it’s also so evident that there is so much unnecessary suffering that is rooted in our unwillingness to resist temptation and to let ourselves be transformed. There are so many ways for us to destroy our relationships, friendships, partnerships, families, communities, nations, world. Things that might not have seems like a big issue at one point in our lives (pride, arrogance, stubbornness, unwillingness to listen, cowardice and conflict avoidance, lying or being unwilling to speak up, laziness, various ways we numb ourselves to our feelings) have ways of growing and hardening over time such that soon we find ourselves completely in bondage to them. When we just think something and don’t act on it, James said it’s like we’re like someone who looks in the mirror and then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. When we don’t act, we end up forgetting who we are and who it is we want to be and what kind of lives we hope to live. The consequences are that we lose the lives we want to live.
The Good News of the Jesus story is not just about a new world and a new creation, it is also about grace as the possibility of change, the possibility of our living lives no longer in bondage to ourselves, or the parts of ourselves that seek to control us, or in bondage to the expectations of others.
Even if we have broken our vows a thousand times, this Lent may we recommit ourselves to the way of the Beloved, the way of letting ourselves be fully loved for who we are in all our complex totality. This includes not only letting others love us, but also our willingness to show loving kindness to ourselves including those parts of ourselves we don’t like or fear. May we recommit ourselves to the way of the Beloved in terms of our loving this earth and all her children with all our heart, minds and soul, that in us and through us God’s new creation might blossom. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen