Preamble. These Lenten Sundays, we are turning to Christ for personal empowerment in this time of public distress. I believe our church traditions will be instrumental in keeping faith with each other and with the world as this era of climate change unfolds, and I will lift up 5 different ways. I take up, first, Christ’s Way this morning, then on the successive Sundays of Lent: the ways of ritual, of devotion, of reasoned inquiry, mystical practice, and the way of right action. Many people say they are spiritual but not religious; however, given our present global circumstances, I want you to get some religion. We will need it for personal support and to sustain our community commitments. My thoughts fall into two parts: I. Fantasy. II. Reality.
Let us pray. . .
Christ’s Way—resist the Devil. Matthew 4:1-11
How would you describe your feelings today about this moment in time? It’s hard to do, isn’t it? These are new feelings to us, and it’s hard to own up to all of them—either publicly or privately, or even to ourselves.
We did not expect any of this. We certainly didn’t bargain for this when we agreed to our planetary lives. All of a sudden, the carefree life vanished.
If we are having trouble with our feelings, imagine the reactions to the climate crisis by the generations which are succeeding us—climate grief, resentment, resignation on the one hand, and on the other hand, the energized mobilization of political and social will as in the case of Greta Thunberg, God bless her!
As for reactions to the Coronavirus threat, you can already see the “survivalist”-bunker mentality emerging, which of course is ridiculous unless you’re willing to move to the South Pole.
The two situations are different only in that one is short term and the other is very short term—you can decide which is which.
These threats to life as we know it have altered significantly our emotional lives. And they inspire wishes similar to those Jesus must have felt in the wilderness, to judge from the temptations that the Devil presented Jesus with. The Devil confronted Jesus with prospects of infinite power.
Of course, these prospects were just fantasies, and Jesus knew it. But fantasies are powerful, they are so . . . well, tempting. Guaranteed food (stones into bread); guaranteed health and life (protection against all dangers); guaranteed riches (dominion over worldly kingdoms). To have the power to bring this about, how tempting indeed! We recognize these temptations because everybody wishes for these things—that’s what wars are about, that’s why we protect our own interests so guardedly, that’s why people play the lottery or the stock market. The things we do to fulfill these tempting wishes are the bane of human existence—fighting, lying (to ourselves and to others), cheating, stealing, even killing, all for more power.
When he entered the wilderness following his baptism, Jesus demonstrated what it means for us to survive in this world full of glories, this world full of contingency and terror, our world. The drama between the Devil and Jesus demonstrates that whether you are the Son of God or a mere mortal, the answer is the same: grasping at absolute power the Devil’s way does not avail, nor does invoking the power of God (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).
Under conditions of severe deprivation such as Jesus endured in the wilderness, the Devil offered him a way out, and Christ’s way was to refuse it. In Jesus’ words, paraphrasing Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything you need follows.”
But just how were the people Jesus preached to supposed then to go about meeting their needs? And how are we supposed to go about meeting our needs, and the world’s, under these planetary and medical conditions if we don’t reach out for some super power?
The wishes for insulation and isolation and invulnerability are the same as they ever were, during the plagues, the influenza epidemic, but intensified—people wonder how are we supposed to get food on the table, keep healthy and alive, make it to work and meet all our obligations without some miracle? “Give us this day our daily bread” will not be an idle prayer.
What are the chances of our living a Christian life, let alone a Christ-like life, in this world?
We can—we must. In truth, nothing has really changed since Jesus’ time, except the knowledge of our mortality has intensified lately, which is what Jesus experienced during his 40 days in the wilderness. In truth, we need something like that ourselves, which is what the 40 days and nights of Lent are really for. But the rescue fantasy has got to go.
Christ’s Way is revealed here—it means getting a good grip on reality: power is a mirage, and God will not rescue us.
We face today multiple situations at once that scare us. Many of our fears are unwarranted because the imagination has a way of running away with us. But we will never be able to cope with the realities unless we follow Jesus’ example and reject the temptation of wishing for rescue, be it divine or demonic.
We have seen what Jesus did NOT do—let’s turn and ask what he DID do—how did he resist temptation? Is there something positive we are supposed to learn here for the conduct of our own lives?
Yes, there is, and Kierkegaard explained it. What enabled Jesus to refuse those temptations was to have come out of that wilderness experience with one purpose—he found his way in those 40 days and nights to will one thing which is displayed clearly before any reader of the gospels.
If we’re faced with limit situations as we are, Christ’s way comes down to this: to will one thing, only one thing.
Kierkegaard preached that, when someone chooses to will one thing, when one finally comes to the point when you organize all your disparate “obligations” around a single priority, you are, in effect, refusing temptation of divine or demonic power. The wilderness ordeal of Jesus was a clarifying experience, an ordeal that revealed who he was to himself—have we attained that kind of clarity for ourselves, and have we reorganized our lives around that single identity?
The thing most needful in uncertain times is certainty about our purpose.
We see examples of willing one thing not only in the religious world—Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, etc.—but lots of other places, too: the artist’s life (but not every artist), the athlete’s life (but not every athlete), Alcoholics Anonymous.
It’s not a matter of imitating Christ, as it is learning single-mindedness from him. It’s not a matter of giving something up for Lent, as it is pruning your priorities—giving up the vain wishes that drive you to delusions of grandeur or to depression. It’s not a matter of putting yourself through phony renunciations, but instead putting yourself in a place where God can find you (that’s what we explore these Lenten Sundays).
Christ’s Way may seem miraculous, but notice: the gospel story this morning has no miracles—and no miracles are required of us.
This Lent you could be finding Christ’s way to cope with the world as it is. As Jean Sulivan wrote some years ago, Jesus was unnoticeable among the worldly glories twenty centuries ago—it is up to “the poor” in spirit (which is us) to choose him in the secret of our hearts. To choose the Christ of this temptation story is to will one thing and to be empowered for anything ahead.
What that single thing will turn out to be that will animate and reorganize your life, only going through the 40 day and night experience of Lent will reveal to you. We survive climate change, we survive Coronavirus, we survive that cancer malignancy, not by “survivalism,” but by finding and embracing the inner clarity and singleness of purpose that can reject distractions and easy answers the way Christ did.
I have made my decision for that Christ. And the one wish I will in this season of discontent is that you find God, or better, that you place yourself where God can find you, where that single purpose in life can reorganize and animate you. I decided this Lent I wanted to give you something to do, something you can start practicing right now, for these times.
Call them “spiritual practices,” if you will, but I am exploring the specifically Christian ones, five over the next five Sundays—ritual, devotion, study, and contemplation that lead to action.
I know you may be thinking, isn’t there getting to be too much “Jesus” here? Maybe for some people, but here is someone offering us bread for the journey, who is inviting us to a wedding feast such as the one laid for us at this Communion Table right now.