11 February 2008

Almost Persuaded Sermon for 10.February.2008

Almost Persuaded
First Sunday in Lent
2 Corinthians 4:1-12 & Matthew 3:1-17

Here is the audio link.

I wonder if Jesus ever had doubts? I wonder if Jesus ever had second thoughts? I wonder what his temptations were? I wonder how strong the temptations were not to live out his life’s calling? Think how different life and history would be if Jesus could not have mustered up the courage to journey out into the wilderness of Judea and be baptized by John in the Jordan?

We begin our Lenten journey with the temptations of Jesus by pondering for a moment as he stands on the banks of Jordan before he steps into the water to be baptized by John. In due time this season we will journey with Jesus to the wilderness for a second time when he fasts and is tempted by the tempter, but for now let stand on the riverside as he looks out over the muddy stream.

Jesus was not the only one standing on the bank of the Jordan; he was joined by people from Jerusalem, Judea and all over the Jordan River valley: hill people and city folk, business men and day laborers, woman with their servants and servants of without their masters, all sojourning out to the muddy river. They were responding to the message of John the Baptizer, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He was preaching the advent of God, the coming kingdom of heaven on earth; folk by the truckload responded by submitting to an act of ritual cleansing known as baptism.

For the moment place yourself in Jesus’ sandals: you have realized that the time has come, it is time for you to fulfill your calling, it is time for all those stories your mother told you about you and how you were destined for great things to come to fruition, it is time to unite with the movement of God. As you prepare to approach John what are the temptations sneaking in? What fears are about to overtake you?

-Are you tempted to turn away?
-Are you tempted to say the heck with it and go to Nazareth?
-Are you tempted to think what a mistake this is?
-Are you tempted to think that it will never work?
-Are you afraid folk will laugh at you?
-Are you afraid folk will not pay one iota of attention to you?
-Are you afraid folk will not be moved by your actions, words and presence?
-Are you afraid you have no idea what is next?

Facing all these temptations and more Jesus stepped into the waters; walked to John and presented himself for baptism. And he is met with great words of assurance! No, instead he hears an ancient version of You are more, I am less. Jesus needed words of assurance and he received words of doubt: I should be baptized by you. John’s words may have caused Jesus’ knees to buckle but another temptation only made his resolve stronger. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ ancient way of saying just do it.

I wonder about Jesus’ temptations and fears. We know he was tempted and had fears. I cannot imagine a time in his life as presented in the gospels or imagined in my mind when was not tempted, did not have doubts or fears. If Jesus cannot escape temptations then surely we cannot either. But what does it mean to be tempted? What role does temptation play in our lives?

For some clues I want us to fast forward past Jesus life on earth a couple hundred years to the time known as the era of the Church Fathers and Mothers. Present in Christian teaching are the seeds of an alternative society. Once Jesus called the disciples and retranslated the meaning of family and friendship Christians have struggled how to properly place our feet and straddle the line between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of earth. Different eras of history reveal different models of how to accomplish this struggle, some are ill and some are healthy. One model that Christians are rediscovering is the one offered by embryonic church, the early church fathers and mothers.

Roughly 1700 years ago a twenty-year-old man named Antony of what is now Egypt lost both of his parents. He inherited their possessions and one day in church heard the gospel read: If thou wilt be prefect, go and sell all you have. He responded by selling all of his inheritance and took up residence in an abandoned village and began to practice the presence of God. At first one or two individuals went to the wilderness seeking solace and direction. But soon more and more seekers sojourned. What began with an impetus for deeper and truer prayer transformed into an alternative society.

They sowed the seeds of what we now know as monastic life. Folk went to the early communities for varied periods of time so they could gain instruction on the inner life. They went out seeking spiritual guidance, seeking answers, and seeking to fill the God shaped hole in their heart and some went for no plausible reason. When people wayfared out to the desert a certain pattern emerged, there were certain questions that everyone seemed to ask. One of the core questions dealt with temptation. The questions and conversations were passed down and collected as The Sayings of the Church Fathers and Mothers. Roberta Bondi, professor Church History at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta wrote two accessible books on the fathers and mothers or Abbas and Ammas as they were called. In her book To Pray and To Love she quotes several illustrative stories about temptation. In one:
  A brother came to see Abba Poemon and said to him, “Abba I have many thoughts and they put me in danger. The old man led him outside and said to him, “Expand your chest and do not breathe in. He said I cannot do that. Then the old man said to him, if you cannot do that no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.

Temptations are part of our everyday existence. We cannot escape them no more than we can escape the air we breathe. And if you think that only if you could get away from all the crazy people in your life then everything would be okay, then there would be no temptations, then listen to another story recorded by Dr. Bondi:
A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger. So he said I will go, and life somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease. He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put in on the ground. It happened suddenly to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fee. And this happened a third time. And in a rage he snatched up the jug and broke it. Returning to his right mind he knew that he demon of anger had mocked him and he said… I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.

If we cannot escape temptations then what are we to do? We can simply ignore them (which probably means we are already giving into them). We can be overcome by them and paralyzed by our guilt. Or we can creatively incorporate them into our daily lives. If God is constantly present and if we can constantly practice God’s presence then we can look at all of our experiences of life as creative encounters with God. Viewed this way, even temptations can be seen as valuable, to our growth as disciples of Christ. In our live with God, nothing is ever wasted.

In his book Heat the former fiction editor of the New Yorker, Bill Buford, chronicles his time as an amateur kitchen worker at Mario Baltai’s Baboo restaurant. One day while Buford assignment was to chop leeks, he did, then tossed the green tops in the trash. After working for a good hour Mario came over and shouted what are you doing? Buford looked up rather quizzically then saw Mario dive into the trashcan only to pull up handfuls of the green leek tops, then shouted “These are great for stock!” In a restaurant we buy food and make into dinners which sell for a profit, we cannot make any profit if you are throwing my goods in the trash.

In our lives with God nothing is wasted. Instead of impending our inner growth temptations can be aides to growth, they can be valuable experiences which push and hone our souls. Again quoting another church father, Take away temptations and no-one will be saved. We will be tempted, we are tempted, we will fail miserable but we will also have wonderful triumphs and we will have wonderful growth by being tempted.

Although the gospel story does not explicitly state that Jesus was tempted before his baptism by John we can all easily imagine it. With this imaginative insight we can also see how Jesus creatively incorporated the temptations to strengthen his soul and will. Let it be so for now for you baptism in proper for us in this way, here in the Jordan, to fulfill all righteousness. Then Jesus was baptized and as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were ripped open and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Instead of giving into the temptation to turn back and head home, Jesus flipped the temptation around and went into the water. His simple actions pleased God. Could we ask of anything more than to live a life that pleases God? How do we please God? Do we ask God to bless us and our actions?

At the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, President Bush invited Bono, the lead singer of U2 to deliver the address. As he drew his message to a close he told a story of how for a long time in his life he asked God to bless his work. One day a wise friend to him to stop. Stop asking God to bless what you are doing. Get involved in what God is doing because it is already blessed.

We please God, not by asking God to bless us but by perceiving what God is already doing and hitch onto that train. This is exactly what Jesus did. John was in the wilderness baptizing people in preparation the advent of the kingdom of God. Jesus perceived God’s blessing on John’s work and chose to unite his life with that work. He went into the waters and when he came up the heavens ripped open, the spirit descended and God spoke.

Let us close by placing ourselves on the banks of the Jordan we can see God’s blessing in John’s work, we will cave in to the temptation that tell us our actions will not matter; will we believe the temptation that God doesn’t have time for us? Or will we unite with God’s blessing already evident in this world? True, to unite with God’s movement on this earth will require a radical shifting of our daily lives, our outlooks, how we spend our money, how we treat others, how we view ourselves and what we do with our time on earth. But we know the hard work will be worth it, we know that by following the way of Christ on this earth will reveal the abundant life. We know that a life that pleased God is a goal for all of us to integrate and strive for.

The Jordan River, isn’t just in Israel – it is in our homes, where we work, at the grocery story, it is anywhere and everywhere we are when we are confronted with temptations to live or not to live out our calling as disciples of Christ. We will fail at times in our attempt to live out our calling but our resolve will not change. Christ has called us and we will follow. Will you step into the water and become soak and wet following God’s blessing, uniting with God’s blessing or will you remain on the bank high and dry?

Living God, softly and tenderly you are calling us to follow you onto the way of abundant life. Open our eyes that we may see your blessing and strive to unite our whole selves with you and your continual revelation of your movement/ your kingdom here on earth. Amen.

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