Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Luke 4:1-13
by Daniel Harrell

I’m sure that some of you read my sermon title for this morning and thought, oh no. “Please tell me we are not changing the Lord’s Prayer again. Just as I’m getting used to praying ‘lead us not into trial,’ here’s our vacillating Vicar trotting out the temptation language again.” Worry not, O flock. We made the switch from temptation to trial so that we might pray the Lord’s Prayer as accurately and as sensibly as possible. Sensibly since God would never lead anybody to be tempted. And accurately because trial is how the Greek word translates. Every modern English translation would concur, by the way, though few have the courage to show it (our own pew Bible being a rare exception). Instead, most preserve the familiar King James choices in the main text while relegating the more accurate rendition to the marginal notes. The reason is primarily commercial. You can’t sell Bibles if the Lord’s Prayer sounds funny. I traveled door-to-door selling Bible encyclopedias one summer in college. A potential customer asked whether the encyclopedia I sold rendered the Bible in King James English. I assured him it did. “That’s good,” he replied, “because you know that’s how God spoke.” “Yes sir,” I said, as I filled out his receipt.

I take for granted that most realize the New Testament was penned in Greek (and that Jesus spoke Aramaic) rather than King James English, as beautiful as the King’s English is (especially if you’re hooked on Downton Abbey). Bible translation from ancient Greek into contemporary English remains an ongoing adventure as evidenced by the large variety of English translations available. So many words simply don’t make an easy jump into contemporary usage. For instance, the Greek word translated daily in the Lord’s prayer is found no where else in the entire New Testament. Daily is as good a guess as any, but given the word’s uniqueness and the intentionality in using it, its likely that its meaning is more than merely everyday. Recalling the daily manna provided by God to the desert-roaming Israelites, as well as Jesus’ self-identification as the bread of eternal life, it’s likely that the petition for daily bread means more than a piece of toast in the morning. More likely, it’s a prayer for the bread of life, for that eternal sustenance by which we will never again hunger. This everlasting bread is promised to us for that morrow, that coming day, when God’s light outshines the sun and his Kingdom finally comes in full (a day prayed for when we say “thy Kingdom come”). Your pew Bible suggests “our bread for tomorrow” in the margin to reflect this.

Similarly with “deliver us from the evil one.” Here Jesus echoes his own prayer to the Father for his disciples, “not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” The Bible blames the evil one, the devil, for wreaking all sorts of sinister havoc, and thus Jesus’ prayer is a specific prayer for faith and righteous resistance to Satan’s snares. While we may not be able to avoid evil in general—bad things do happen—we can strive to resist committing evil ourselves. This part of the prayer directly ties back to our not being led into trial. Praying for the coming day and the coming kingdom, means praying for mercy to withstand the trial of Judgment Day, where Scripture teaches that all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to account for the evil we commit. The good news is that grace can allow believers to settle out of court. And thus “lead us not into trial” is a prayer for leniency.

This mostly makes sense. That is until we stumble upon this morning’s passage. Sensibility dictates that God would never lead anybody into temptation because succumbing to temptation is what got humanity into all the trouble it’s suffered and caused since Adam bit off more than he could chew. “Lead us not into temptation” is a waste of since you wouldn’t ask God not to do something God would never do. But then we turn to Luke 4 and read how: “The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

It is helpful to remember a few things here. First: Jesus gets to do a lot of things that you and I have no business doing. Second: Jesus functions as what theologians describe as the “second Adam.” This notion derives from the apostle Paul who famously wrote, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” As the second Adam, Jesus gets another shot at the serpent. Similarly, with his being tempted in the wilderness. The wilderness (or desert) signals not only Jesus’ role as a second Adam, but as a second Moses too. At the end of Israel’s long road out of Egypt, Moses told God’s people in Deuteronomy, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” As we all know, Israel failed that test. The trial exposed their unfaithful hearts. As the second Moses, indeed as the second Israel, Jesus gets another shot at the desert (albeit 40 days instead of 40 years). Redoing both Adam and Israel, Jesus aims to get it right this time.

You know the story. Following his baptism by John, Jesus was marched off into the desert where for 40 days he fasted in preparation for the best that the devil could dish out. (The season of Lent is modeled after these 40 days). The 17th century King’s English poet John Milton, in his sequel to Paradise Lost called (appropriately) Paradise Regained, makes the temptation of Christ in the desert, rather than the crucifixion, to be the fulcrum on which salvation balanced. Blow this, and we would all be lost. You can’t die for the sins of the world if you have sins of your own.

“If you are the Son of God,” Satan sneers at the hungry Jesus, “command this stone to become a loaf bread.” Jesus would later turn water to wine to keep a wedding reception going, and after that would convert a couple loaves and fish into a feast for 5000. What’d be the trouble with turning a rock into a roll? Can’t a hungry Messiah blink himself a quick snack? He can. But he mustn’t. Israel failed in the desert because they tried to act apart from faithful dependence on God. Not this time. Jesus cites that same desert passage from Deuteronomy spoken by Moses. “It is written,” he says, “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’”

So Satan then takes Jesus and shows him all the magnificent kingdoms of the world. “All this can be yours,” he said, “if you will worship me.” What sort of temptation was this? As King of kings and Lord of lords, everything belonged to Jesus already. And worship Satan? That’s no temptation either. However, if in fact the world had been given to Satan temporarily—as John’s gospel implies by naming Satan as the prince of this world—wouldn’t Jesus be obliged to take away his wicked power as soon as possible if only to diminish the chaos? Not on these terms. Jesus says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Apparently, you don’t sell your soul to the devil even if it means ridding the world of its evil.

 “It is written, it is written,” Satan jeers as he finally hauls Jesus up to the pinnacle of Jerusalem’s Temple. “Very well, ‘It is written, in Psalm 91, ‘God will command his angels to protect you… with their hands they will bear you up.’ So Mr. Son-of-God, jump off this top of the Temple and let’s see if what is written is true.” But again Jesus said resisted. Not only did Satan cite Psalm 91 out of context—God’s protection is for dangers that befall his servants, not an excuse to seek out danger—but Deuteronomy again made clear that you “Do not put the Lord God to the test.” That’s what Israel had done in the desert as they were unwilling to trust in the Lord.

Why not feed yourself when you’re famished with altered stones if you can do it? Why not reign over that to which you are already entitled? Why not exercise your Messianic prerogatives if it means undoing the devil? Certainly it’s no sin for the Son of God to act like the Son of God. If you’ve setting up to save the planet, why not go ahead and get her done? “Why move thy feet so slow toward what is best?” is how Satan heckled Jesus in Milton’s version. Show some power! Give us some thunder! Force the world to submit to your authority! Blow injustice out of the water! Let’s see a little Superman instead becoming the sacrificial lamb. This was the temptation. Jesus prayed as much in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God for an easier way to save the world. And it explains why Jesus so angrily snapped at Peter when Peter insisted Jesus stop all his crucified dead and buried talk. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus barked, “You’re thinking like a human and not like God.” 

Well, no kidding. What kind of God sacrifices his only son for the sake of everybody else’s sin? And even if the crucified Jesus is also God the Father as the Trinity teaches us, why should an innocent Lord die for the sake of guilty sinners? Can he truly love us that much? Are we really that bad? And even if we are, and if dying for others is the supreme act of love, and if you can’t die for the sins of the world if you have sins of your own, why be deliberately tempted and risk it? If a sinless sacrifice was essential, why not just drop down one day from heaven and do it? Why hazard thirty years of ramping up? Get it over with quick and painlessly. Why go to the extreme of hanging on a cross? (Now I’m sounding like Satan).

Bad enough that Jesus died. Worse that he died as a convicted criminal. God was crucified in Christ not simply as a human being, but as a human sinner. The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking our sin and our shame onto himself. He takes on our sin and we take on his life. ““For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This was the reason for all those years of incarnation and all those temptations. As the second Adam, Jesus redoes the garden. As the second Israel, he redoes the desert. He obeys where they rebelled. He lives a righteous life. And then takes away our sin. And then gives away his righteousness. More than merely a status update, Christ’s righteousness in us makes our obedience possible. It becomes something we actually want to do--as hard as it can too often be. Which finally brings us to the last reason for Jesus’ temptation. We find it in Hebrews chapter 4: “In Jesus we have a Savior who sympathizes with our weaknesses, “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness (and not shame or embarrassment), so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Lord knows we need help. Remember a number years ago those WWJD bracelets? What would Jesus do? They didn’t last too long, did they? No surprise. Let’s say that me and Jesus both diligently serve at the same office where a co-worker who chronically shows up late to his cubicle gets a salary raise but me and Jesus don’t. What would Jesus do? He’d probably make it into some parable on the undeserved generosity of God and keep on working hard as unto the Lord. What would Daniel do? I’d probably get envious and resentful over the blatant inequity and start spreading some malicious gossip about the co-worker (like they do on Downton Abbey). Or let’s say Jesus and I both found out that one of our good friends went behind our backs and double crossed us for some self-serving reason. What would Jesus do? He’d probably say forgive them or something silly like that. What would Daniel do? I’d probably write off that friend and get vengeful and start plotting ways to even the score. Or let’s say that Jesus and me both come across the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue that came in the mail this week. Or let’s not. I know this may come as a shock to many of you, but even though I am a minister and a fountain of obscure theological trivia, I am also a sinner.

My excuse is that I’m only human. I can’t help it. That’s why I need grace. But here’s the thing about grace. Twisted by the devil, it can tempt you to treat righteousness as impossibly idealistic. Nobody’s perfect, so why bother trying? Just confess your sin, get your grace and get on with doing what you were going to do anyway, without any worry for actual obedience. This is exactly what kept Israel tromping around in circles in the sand all those years.

Which makes me wonder about Jesus. How can you be human if you never sin? But this is the difference between me and Jesus. I’m only human. He’s truly human. Christ is the embodiment of God, but also the embodiment of humanity—humanity as God intended it. Salvation does not rescue us from my human nature; it redeems my human nature. We are new creations in Christ. We are not helpless. You can live a righteous life. You can do what God wants. You can even want to do what God wants. You can love your neighbor and forgive your enemies. You can put other’s needs before your own. You can resist the temptation to lust, or get even, or get angry, or be selfish, or lose control. You can do the right thing. It may be hard, but we are not helpless. In Jesus we have a Savior who sympathizes with our weaknesses, “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness (and not shame or embarrassment), so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Being only human no longer applies. In Christ we get a shot at living as the true humans God made us and Jesus redeemed us to be.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Walk in the Light

tangled-II1 John 1:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

As I turn out the lights on my sermon series on light this Sunday and next, among the things I’m sad about going dark are these occasions to use quantum physics as sermon illustrations. I’m sure you’ll miss that too. Not that I really know anything about quantum physics, but among its novelties is this notion called “photon entanglement.” If two distinct particles of light, photons, enter a state of entanglement—and there’s a few ways to do that—each photon then loses its individual identity and acts with the other as a single unified system. Any change to one is mimicked immediately by the other, whether the particles are next to each other, or get this, even if they are light-years apart. It’s like particle voodoo. There is nothing analogous to this in the physical reality we personally experience. It’d be like you getting a mosquito bite down in Florida with me feeling the itch here in Minneapolis. I scratch and you feel better. With quantum entanglement, a photon of light cannot move without the other moving too. It’s so radically at odds with our everyday way of viewing the world that Einstein himself pronounced it “spooky.”

The apostle John asserts that “God is light.” Applying quantum entanglement as analogy, this might help explain the interplay of the Trinity. By virtue of their entanglement, Father, Son and Holy Ghost (in keeping with Einstein’s designation of “spooky’), cannot exist in isolation. When one moves, so do the others. The Son does not act outside the will of the Father. The Holy Ghost does only as Jesus does. Jesus acts as Creator, the Father suffers the cross and the Holy Ghost walks in human flesh. Spooky indeed. The Bible affirms all of this. And not only this, but Jesus goes on to say that believers are entangled with the Trinity too. John uses the word koinonia in this morning’s passagewhich while normally translated as fellowship meaning coffee and bagels after church, can also be translated participation meaning “a part of.” As followers of Jesus filled with the Ghost, we are participants in the life of the Trinity. We are a part of the divine existence. We are one with God and with each other too.

Spooky again. In John’s gospel, Jesus prayed for as much when he asked “that they (meaning us) may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that … they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” in us. That’s as entangled as it gets. This is why the Bible says of the church, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” even if we’re light years apart.

Now to say God is light is not to say God is a photon—even though photon is the word John uses here. The ancients understood light as analogous to God’s glory and presence, his righteousness and goodness and grace. Whether a wave or a particle, light is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, existing everywhere all at once while keeping the universe together. It is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing warmth, hope and beauty. To have koinonia with God is to walk in this hope, following the way of the Lord, a straight path in the right direction, fully able to see where you’re going.

To walk in darkness, by contrast, is to stumble and fall into sin and defiance. You can’t stumble and fall if you can see where you’re going. God is light, it’s impossible to have fellowship with him and still walk in the dark. You can’t be a follower of Jesus if you’re not following Jesus.

This being Super Bowl Sunday means that its time for a football illustration. Sports Illustrated ran a story on its cover this week asking whether God cares who wins the Super Bowl. I say clearly not since the Patriots are not in it. Then again, Jesus had a preference for losers. As even Sports Illustrated noted, “the Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong and the poor at the expense of the rich.” Not that that the Patriots can be described as poor. Neither weakness nor poverty are NFL values. Still, despite all the contradictions with holy Scripture, there are a lot of believers in the NFL, both players and coaches, both Ravens and 49ers. All those tattoos on 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s biceps? Bible verses. This despite Leviticus 19:28 which reads: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” (There’s actually a tattoo parlor on E. Lake St. called Leviticus Tattoo and Piercing)

Sports Illustrated recounted how “just 50 years ago [any] coziness between public Christianity and football would have seemed absurd.” Athletes were nobody's idea of good ambassadors for religion; they were more likely to be seen as dissolute drinkers and womanizers instead of devout. The aggressive, violent play preached by coaches of an earlier generation was accepted as natural precisely because sport was pagan, not Christian. Christianity was light: peaceful, charitable and pious. Sport was dark: savage, ruthless, impious. Now players regularly meet for Bible study on Wednesdays before pounding each other into a concussive stupor on Sunday. Praise the Lord. Churches will cancel services tonight so that believers can gather in alternative houses of worship around big screen altars over a communion of beer and buffalo wings. Lifeway sells a media kit you can play during halftime to lead your neighbors to Christ. $149.95. The Patriots chaplain attended my church in Boston. Once had a tight end preach the sermon during revival week. It was terrible, but who cared? He played for the Patriots. Touchdown Jesus. We make it work.

Among the most vocal of believers is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Tonight’s Super Bowl will be his last game in a Hall of Fame career. Lewis has definitely made it work for him. He is a passionate follower of the Prince of peace despite his violent play on the field, and his questionable behavior off. This past week it was deer antler spray—whatever that is—sold to him by a brother in the Lord. Thirteen years ago it was accessory to double murder outside an Atlanta nightclub to which Lewis pleaded guilty in exchange for his testimony. “My mom taught me to put my complete faith in God,” Lewis recently said. “You talk about the walk of Jesus… that’s what my life is based on.” 

Asked which biblical figure he most closely identified with, without hesitation Ray Lewis cited King David. A flawed yet righteous stone cold giant-slayer with a heart for God, King David abused his power to commit both murder and rape. Exposed by a prophet, David confessed his sin and rose from disgrace to grace, blessed by God and made things right. Ray Lewis’s identification with David demonstrates that he understands the moral ramifications of being involved in an event in which two young men lost their lives. Lewis does not make a habit of publicly talking about that fateful night, but his life afterwards, whether or not he acknowledges it, has been a testament to redemption and atonement, making the most of a second opportunity. Observers attest that Lewis has become a force for good in the community and a strong mentor to younger players in a billion-dollar football culture rife with temptation toward sin and corruption.

John writes that “If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” And yet we all know it is possible to walk in the light and still stumble and fall. Believers in Jesus do unbelievably dumb things. Dark things. Hurtful things. Harmful things. We are living contradictions. “Light has come into the world,” Jesus declared in John’s gospel, “and people loved darkness rather than light because they did not want their evil deedsexposed." "If we say we have no sin we rationalize, we minimize, we deny, we deceive ourselves.” God’s light that illumines the straight path also shines a glare on the detours we choose. The difference is in how we respond to the exposure. 

To do right in God’s sight is to walk the righteous path of obedience and love and grace. But here’s the thing: when we stumble and fall off the path, we can still do right by making it right in God’s sight. Again, John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, we make God a liar and the truth is not in us. But if in the light we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To repent is to participate in resurrection. To say “I have sinned” is also the right thing to do. God’s light exposes our wrongness so we can walk straight. That’s how it worked for King David. And how it worked for Moses and Peter and Paul and linebacker Ray Lewis too. Confession is good for the soul.

So why is it so hard to do? Ironically, part of the problem is that being wrong rarely feels like being wrong. More often than not, being wrong feels like being right.And it’s because we love the feeling of being right so much that we fail so often at relationships and at ever knowing the truth. I remember once doing some marriage counseling with a couple where the husband eagerly listed the reasons he and his wife were at odds: she didn’t understand me, she misinterpreted the situation, her expectations are too high, she’s being unreasonable. Might there yet be any other reason for their conflict? I asked. Sure, he added, “she didn’t hear me right, she disregards my feelings (most men would never say that), she’s stubborn, she refuses to compromise.” I suggested that there may be one other possible reason he was leaving out him. He genuinely had no idea what I meant. I suggested that, maybe, he was wrong. He looked as if he had deer antlers. Caught by the light. Completely nonplused. His being wrong had never crossed his mind.

Which is why confession of sin gets scheduled into communion services. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It’s such a small price to pay given the enormity of the benefits. Confession is not only good for the soul but is essential for relationship with God and each other. The communion table is a koinonia table, an emblem of our oneness with God and each other: one cup, one loaf, one faith, one Body. It is a participation in Trinitarian life as God’s people. John writes how “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin,” but to eat and drink Christ is even more than taking away sin. We take on Jesus’ life as our life. We have fellowship with God. We are filled with the Ghost. We get entangled with Christ.

Being cleansed by blood marked Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, something his Jewish disciples gathered around that Last Supper table would have understood. They’d taken part in the ritual of sacrificing animals and shedding blood to atone for their sins. They were taught that the wages of sin are death and that life is in blood and blood pays for death and life atones for life. Jesus’ disciples understood blood as sacrifice. What they would have never understood was blood as dinner beverage. Jews aren’t even allowed to touch blood, and here’s Jesus saying drink it? Talk about spooky. But this is the point. More than atonement as taking away sin, Jesus adds the idea of atonement as taking on life. The Holy Ghost gets inside us. Jesus explained that once resurrected, his disciples would finally realize that “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Jesus’ blood shed for us is Jesus’ life in us. John speaks of it as “the truth in us” and “the word in us” by which he means Jesus in us—in all of us together as members of one entangled body. We have fellowship with God. We are entangled with Christ. We walk in the light.

“If we walk in the light as Jesus himself is in the light, we have fellowship with God and one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” The word for cleanse is catharsis. There’s real power in that. To say “I was wrong,” to say “I have sinned” and mean it opens us up to that power. John knew it. Moses, Peter and Paul and King David knew it. You know it, I know it. Ray Lewis knows it too.