“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” – Luke 4:1
The Christian story is full of sharp edges, surprising turns, and jarring developments:
- God born to an unwed mother in a barn;
- The ranks of his followers, thinned to eleven through the betrayal of Judas, telling a story so compelling it’s still getting air time from us today;
- The long expected Messiah nailed up on a cross to die.
Yet over time we’ve managed to domesticate God’s own narrative. We’ve traded flying reindeer for the flight into Egypt, a bunny for the cross as the symbol of Easter and we’ve pacified the ranks of the church by dulling the edginess of the Gospel to the point that it offends no one.
The season of Lent, to the contrary, still resists our urge to domesticate it. As Bishop Mariann recently wrote: “Lent is the season of wilderness, of living on the edge. It’s patterned on Jesus’ wilderness time, when he felt led by the Holy Spirit out of life as he knew it. In one version of this story, we’re told that the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness. Jesus went to the edge—physically, mentally, spiritually—and stayed there long enough to learn what it had to teach him.”
The story of 40 days alone with the devil brings us full circle to the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Jesus’ cousin, John, who baptized him. There’s a wildness, an edginess, that’s essential to what we’re trying to remember—it’s charged with uncomfortable images of animal skin clothing, and bugs for lunch, and the devil himself lying in wait out just past the edge of town.
This first Sunday of our journey through Lent points us towards the horizon of Good Friday. It asks us to hold onto the discomfort of the looming Passion Narrative long enough that we can begin to see how the edginess of Jesus journey of 40-days in the wilderness with Satan is essential to the Good News for us. Lent implores us to travel to ‘the edge’ just as Jesus did, so that we, too, can know the taste of grace.
- The Good News isn’t that being a Christian will remove the seductive temptations from your life; the edginess of Satan’s challenges to Jesus are Good News because they tell of a God who’s been on this Lenten journey before us, who walked our walk as fully flesh – fully vulnerable – fully subject to the challenges of the desert experiences of living.
- His time in the desert – facing the temptations of entitlement and security, power and comfort – made it possible for Jesus to turn his sights deliberately to the road towards Jerusalem and whatever God had in mind for him there.
- Having survived the wilderness, the Good News is that he never looked back. Lent offers to help make us, too, as unwavering as Jesus on our own way to the cross. The Good News of Lent is that forgiveness and reconciliation will come, however dry and parched the desert where we begin.
The Good News of the temptation stories of Lent is that Jesus couldn’t have been truly tempted had he not been truly tempted, as we are. The Good News of the Lenten stories of temptation is that our humanity was shown to be capable of bearing the weight of temptation, but bearing the weight of infinite love, as well.
Because Jesus bore our human flesh, we know that God bears our joys and sorrows as closely as if we were two oxen yoked together, sharing the strain of life stride by stride. As a result, not only are we pleased to have God at our side when facing the struggles of life, but God is pleased to have us at God’s side. In Jesus’ temptation and triumph over Satan we’re reminded that our humanity can bear not just suffering but divine goodness into the midst of God’s creation.
This is very Good News. We — the church, the Body of Christ — are not just offered God’s help in bearing the weight of the world. We’re called to help God to bear goodness, grace, compassion, and all-or-nothing love and justice into the world.
The Good News is that God still bears our brokenness when we don’t know how. And God still needs us to carry love out into the world as the Church, which as Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw is “Christ existing as community.”
The miracle of Christ’s journey through temptation–in contrast to our own–is that the further Jesus went along the road to Golgotha, the less preoccupied he was with his own suffering, and the more his compassion turned to the suffering of the world, including even those who were inflicting suffering on him.
We can’t claim to be the church, Christ’s Body, and put the church’s self-interest above the needs of the world. Being the church means renouncing the temptation to divide the world into ‘us and them’ – for the church’s vocation is to help God to reconcile our fractured world. This is why it has been painful recently to see the Primates of the Anglican Communion decide once again to put the supposed unity of the church above our calling to stand up for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, bearing their pain as our own.
The greatest temptation for the church is to let our discomfort with God’s preferences for the poor, the suffering, the outcast, and the disenfranchised become more important than the suffering outcasts themselves. God so loved the world – no matter what, without conditions and exceptions –
that God was willing to risk everything for our sake. What makes us think we can represent Christ faithfully by doing less? The witness of our Episcopal Church, and the reason we have been excluded at least temporarily from full participation in the governance of the Anglican Communion, continues to be our refusal to trade institutional unity for the riskiness and edginess of the reconciling love of God that knows no bounds.
Our church, no less than our nation, needs to go to confession, to our corporate knees, to repent and seek again to be the church faithful, to be the community of the crucified & resurrected, not a community of vengeance and purity.
We’re the church not just when we hear and proclaim the Good News that God died for us, but when we’re willing to suffer, even die if necessary, for those who have no one else to stand up for them. Lent reminds us that our biggest temptation as the church is not just our inability to love our neighbors, much less our enemies, but our demonstrated lack of desire to do so. Confession requires of us the honesty to tell the truth about ourselves, that we’re a community all too willing to avoid suffering and conflict on the backs of others whom we’re all too willing to blame for their own suffering. Our own desert temptation is to lose sight of the fact that Christ is unbreakably yoked with us in our humanity, including our fears and shortcomings, as well as our longings for the fullness of life precisely for all those in our world who suffer both at the hands of vengeance, and from exercising the power of vengeance for themselves.
Lent is a season in the shadow of the cross; therefore we should not be surprised that true reconciliation comes at a cost. We must give up the temptation to trade the unity, or entitlement of the institutional church for the reconciliation of the cross of Christ. And we must give up the temptation to tend to the needs of any among the community of the Church if it means turning against the very stranger and outcast for whom Christ has lived and died. Reconciliation has no favorites. Love is not partial.
When St. Thomas’ Parish opens wide its doors — when we still dream of filling each seat at every service, and Bible-study, and confirmation and newcomers gathering – when we make sacrificial opportunities to serve the poor and house refugees, and to be a beacon of hope to a world that’s in despair, and a place of healing to one more person who is on a downward cycle of hopelessness – we allow ourselves to be taken up into the Jesus’ church of a whole world reconciled to God and one another.
The world knows of houses that make a hobby of hospitality that welcome in all those who will be like those who are already there. The Good News of Christ is the message of radical hospitality that knows no bounds—shows no partiality– that exists not for its own sake but for the sake of others – that expects to find God waiting at the door in the face of the stranger who has come knocking.
Lent calls us to read, study, pray, and meditate on what it means to continue today the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus began with his 40 days in the wilderness. The Jesus Movement, the Body of Christ, is on a Lenten journey always undertaken in the shadow of the cross. Yet we must be fearless in the face of the temptation to accept anything less than the Good News that God started this journey for us, and walks beside us now with a love that is sufficient in all things.