First printed in the Leader-Herald Newspaper, Gloversville, NY (the uploading program won't unbold some texts)
March 5, 2011
Had Jesus accepted any of the three temptations in the wilderness in Matthew 4, humanity would have lost the freedom to say yes or no to God’s love and grace. The proof of Christ’s divinity would have been indisputable.
This Gospel sends Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days, to prepare for the beginning of his ministry. The devil says, “turn these rocks into bread so you can feed the people, and they will all worship you.” Jesus replies that the people need God’s word – “people do not live by bread alone.” (But wouldn’t it have been nice to have no hunger in the world?This truly was a temptation for one who cared for us.) “Worship me, and I will give you the world.” “No way,” is the reply. “Prove that you are God by throwing yourself off the cliff – God’s angels will come and lift you up.” “Do NOT tempt the Lord, your God.” Essentially, Jesus tells the devil and his temptations, all things that would take away humanity freedom to believe in Jesus or not, to go back where he came from.
God’s dedication to giving us a choice is the reason why all logical proofs of the existence of God fall short. It is only our own experience of the power of God’s love and grace that “proves” the existence of God.
As an undergraduate English major , I did my senior seminar on Russian literature, specifically Tolstoy and Dosoyevsky. The one piece that has stuck in my mind for these over 30 years is a section from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamzov called the “Grand Inquisitor.” In it, the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for NOT accepting the temptations laid before him by the devil. He knows that Jesus is the Christ, as Jesus had spent the last few days healing those in need.
In the Grand Inquisitor’s world, the people are seen as sheep, fed and fat, ruled and not allowed to think on their own. In his vision, religion is a drug that removes our freedom, but gives us food and a rigid system of belief. Those who insist on a different vision of reality are burnt at the stake. Jesus is told to go away, the people are much better without freedom, they are in less pain; they have no reason to doubt. The love that the Grand Inquisitor has for the people demands this – he wants Jesus to leave everyone just as they are. Christ responds by kissing the Grand Inquisitor and going on his way.E ven the Grand Inquisitor is free to choose – the love that Christ has for HIM demands this.
As a result of our freedom, we are left with the problem of doubt. We find ourselves hungry; we do not have our needs met as soon as we are aware of them as in the world of the Grand Inquisitor. At times, our sense of God grows dim. The bright experience of God’s love and grace fades into the past, along with the sense of whatever darkness preceded that experience. Doubt is proof that we have faith – for if we had no expectation of God, we would never be disappointed. We have all been reminded more than once that God’s ways are not our ways.
Lent is the time that God asks us to travel into our own wilderness, to accept that we doubt, to examine how we have also chosen NOT to follow God’s way. To love as Christ loves is much harder than to love as did that Grand Inquisitor. What parent has not stood by and watched their child make the wrong choice? But that is how the child learns, and grows, and matures.
God, our parent, so watches us .Lent is the time we examine where we have gone in the past year and choose what path we follow for the coming year. We can never follow God’s path exactly, but with effort we DO get to our destination. Lent is the time in the church year when we are asked for focus on that effort.
As you travel through the wilderness of Lent, remember Christ died so that you could CHOOSE to experience the joy of the resurrection.
Holy Saturday is a strange time in the Christian liturgical calendar, as it sits between the most depressing day, Good Friday with its crucifixion of Christ, and the most exciting day, Easter Sunday with Christ’s resurrection. We who know how the story ends do not experience the same depths as did Christ’s disciples, but we still feel a sense of despair as we try to imagine what life would have been like if Christ had not risen.
What would it have been like? Death would be THE END, rather than just a door to the next and better life. We would have reason to fear it. We would not have been given the most tremendous gift of the resurrection, nor would we be experiencing that taste of joy that we do when God’s love bursts into our lives. That love transforms even the deepest, darkest times. The light of Christ overcomes darkness.
But we do fear death. Our medical system treats death as a bitter enemy; one that needs to be vanquished at any cost, yet one that every doctor and nurse knows will eventually win and claim their patient, someday, but not this day, or so they hope.
Have we, who are Christian, forgotten the story? Have we, who are Christian, forgotten the power of the story of the resurrection of Christ, that story that illustrates how God defeats death through the great love that God has for every human being? Even for those whom we do not like?
Any darkness can be defeated by God’s love, if we allow it.God does not force us to accept that love .We are free, free to say “NO”, but most remarkably, we are free to say, “YES.”
Last week, the Albany Presbytery unanimously approved adding the Confession of Belhar to the Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA. For this to happen, two thirds of the denomination’s presbyteries have to approve it.
This Confession was written by both the black and the white Reformed Churches in South Africa. It states, among other things, that, ”we believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ,” as well as “we believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ.”
Not that long ago, South Africa was a dark and violent place. We would see on our TV stories in which people were “necklaced”, have a tire thrown over their heads and then set on fire, thus being burnt to death.T he church of the victims and the church of the perpetrators committed to unity and reconciliation in that document, the Confession of Belhar, that was written in September of 1986.
The Rev. Harold Delhagen of the Reformed Church in America spoke to the Albany Presbytery of the struggle, discussion and commitment of his denomination as they adopted this Confession as their own. He said that he has been changed for the better in his own struggle to adopt this confession.Imagine the effort to admit that your “enemy” is one with whom you should experience Christian unity. Yet that is what this gift given to us by the churches of South America challenges us to do.
Those with whom we disagree are going to hell, and we aren’t. But isn’t this type of thinking just a symptom of the darkness in which we find ourselves? Isn’t this type of thinking just a symptom of the darkness that the resurrection of Christ defeats?
On Holy Saturday, we cannot imagine accepting this challenge. How could we love our enemies, those on the other side? The one we follow has been violently ripped away from us. We are alone in the darkness, we do not even find comfort from our fellow disciples. Death and darkness has defeated us and all that we hold dear.
But Easter Sunday comes. And the light of Christ’s love triumphs. The depths of Holy Saturday give way to the heights and joy of Easter.
CHRIST IS RISEN!
Last month, I found myself preaching on an Old Testament story that I did NOT like. Abraham had been told by the Lord to go up the mountain with his son Isaac and sacrifice Isaac, his first-born son, just as other ancient near-east cultures were demanded by THEIR gods to sacrifice their first born.
Abraham did not understand his God as he headed up the mountain. He had thought that he was to build a dynasty with Isaac as his ONLY son. He had thought that his God was different, that his God was a god who cared about humanity; he was confused. Thinking about what a god would be like who demanded that we kill people, that we kill our children, got ME confused.
What this story meant to the people of Israel almost 4,000 years go would definitely be different from what we hear today. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this story. I thought that this was the defining moment in the growing relationship between humanity and God in which we realize that God does care for humanity. The people of that time would not have been surprised that God had asked for the sacrifice, but rather that the angel had stopped it. I no longer found this interpretation satisfying.
I struggled all week with this. Yes, the angel stopped Abraham’s hand as the knife was poised to enter his son’s back. Yes, Abraham’s obedience was tested as he did as he had been told – and he passed – which was good.But this God in this story told a man to kill his son. What do we say to the man in the story printed in the Des Moines Register several years ago who told police that he drowned HIS son in the stream because God told him to do so? How can we lift up one story as heroic and yet condemn the man from Iowa as crazy?
I concluded that I did not understand this God – but that I really did not want a God that I, with my finite human mind, could understand. This would make God several sizes too small.I f this means that I be confused, then so be it.
The sermon I went to bed with on my computer was not the one that I preached. When I woke up Sunday morning, I saw the Abraham that existed the day before God asked him to sacrifice Isaac as a very ordinary person. This Abraham was someone who would have established a very ordinary family.I saw the Abraham who came down the mountain as a very extraordinary person. This Abraham understood with every cell of who he was that God really did love him.
What God wanted of Abraham was for him to undertake the journey, experience the love that stopped the knife as it was coming down, to become the person God needed him to be as the patriarch of the Bible.
Just as do seeds, we grow or we die.Just as do seeds, we need to struggle to break out of our old selves. Just as with seeds, God intends us all to grow into that which he beholds as beautiful. Abraham was beautiful as he came down that mountain. I am looking forward to struggling with this Lectionary passage when it comes up again three years from now.
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