Monday, February 19, 2018

Standing in the Wilderness with Christ

February 18, 2018 – Lent 1B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
You may have read back in December that Pope Francis had endorsed a new Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer. The French had adopted their own new translation, and he was encouraging the Italian dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church to follow suit. At issue is a phrase that is problematic in the English version as well: “Lead us not into temptation.” Of those confusing words, Francis said, “It’s not [God] pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”[1]

The problem, of course, is that the Bible wasn’t written in English or French or Italian. The New Testament was written in Greek, and sometimes the spirit of the text gets lost when we move from one language to another. In Matthew 6, where Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, the Greek text of the phrase in question[2] is a petition that means something like “do not bring us into a trial or test.” A change in the translation can shift the meaning considerably. “Lead us not into temptation.” Does that mean, “God, you be the one who leads us so that we don’t come into temptation?” Or does it mean “God, in case you haven’t made up your mind yet about where you’re going to lead us, we’d prefer the not-toward-temptation option?” It’s easy to agree with the Pope: surely God isn’t the one who leads us into the Tempter’s grasp. But, if that’s what we think, how do we make sense of today’s gospel lesson?

Just as Jesus was coming up from the waters of baptism, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Six weeks ago, when we baptized Teddy Olson, we heard those same words in the gospel lesson, but, on that Sunday, that’s where the lesson stopped. We were in church to celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord and to share that Baptism with the newest member of the Body of Christ, so it made sense to stop there with the portrayal of the Spirit’s dramatic descent and the Father’s joyful declaration. But today is different. Today, we come together to celebrate the struggle that belongs to those whom God calls his own children, so our reading goes on.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Jesus didn’t wander out into the wilderness. He didn’t take a wrong turn and find himself stranded in the desert. The Spirit of God drove him there. That sounds a lot like the Lord is the one doing the leading and that he’s leading Jesus right smack dab into the middle of temptation. It’s almost as if God met Jesus at the River Jordan and said, “You are my beloved. You belong to me. With you I am well pleased. Now, get up and go out into the desert where Satan is going to try his best to tempt you.” And, in a sense, that’s what he says to us as well.

In our church, we don’t really come up from the waters of Baptism. We’re Episcopalians. We don’t dunk; we sprinkle with the best of them. But, when we pour water on someone’s head and declare that he or she is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are saying those same words. In Baptism, we declare both to the candidate and to the whole world that that person—whether a little bitty baby or a fully grown adult—belongs to God. As soon as the Baptism is complete, we, the congregation, say to the newly baptized, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” In other words, we say to that person, “You now belong with us in God’s house, in God’s family. In this household, we confess the faith of Christ crucified and proclaim the power of his resurrection, and you will, too. That’s what it means to be a part of this family. That’s what it means to belong to God.”

In that way, our Baptism is not the end of our faith journey but the beginning. It is the moment when the transformation that God is undertaking in the world takes hold in our heart, and it is likewise the moment when God conscripts us as agents of that transforming work. In Baptism, we become citizens of God’s kingdom, and that means that we must let go of our allegiance to the powers of this world. If we are listening carefully when God says to us, “You belong to me,” we will also hear God say, “That means that you do not belong to this world.” In Baptism, we are filled with the Spirit, which breathes life and energy into our souls, changing us into God’s change agents. And that Spirit, as it leads us closer and closer to God, often leads us into desolate places, far away from the comforts and corridors of this world. Out there in the wilderness, the powers of this world can see that we do not belong to it, that we have severed our ties to it, and that is precisely where the temptation comes, luring us to abandon our Christ-like identity, to give up our heavenly citizenship, and to renounce our allegiance to God.

Have you ever felt the Spirit of God nudge you out in front of your peers? Have you ever felt the Spirit pulling you to take an unpopular stand? That’s your baptismal identity shining through. During Lent, we journey with Christ out into the wilderness, but we do so not to prove that we are strong enough and faithful enough to maintain our Lenten discipline for forty days. We go into the wilderness in order to take our stand with Christ. Following Christ, we take a decisive step away from the powers of this world, and sometimes that costs us dearly. It means exposing ourselves to ridicule and exclusion, but such is the cost of belonging to God. In God’s kingdom, there are no racist jokes. Can we say the same about our conversations? In God’s kingdom, there is no sexual harassment. Is that true in our workplace or in our e-mails? In God’s kingdom, there are no assault rifles. What about our gun cabinets and our political agendas? Those of us who follow Jesus follow him into God’s kingdom here and now—not tomorrow, not someday, but right now. The ways of the world are sin and evil and death. Those things cannot define a child of God. The children of God, therefore, must leave behind the ways of the world and the people who advocate for them.
Does God lead us into temptation? No, God doesn’t. But following Jesus and allowing the Spirit to guide us means going to places where we are uncomfortable, where we feel alone, and where the temptation to give up and turn back is the strongest. God declares to each one of us, “You are my beloved son or daughter.” But belonging to God means taking a stand with Jesus Christ. It means standing up against the forces of evil and the weapons that they wield. The world crucified Jesus for taking a stand, and the world may crucify us, too. But we belong to God. When the Spirit leads you off into the wilderness, apart from those who enjoy the comforts of this earthly life, out where the powers of this world have you in their crosshairs, will you stand with Christ or will you turn back? May God’s Spirit give us the courage to stand with Christ and resist the Tempter’s power. Only then will we behold the triumph of the resurrection in our lives and in this world.

[2] “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” (Matt. 6:13)

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