March 1, 2020
So, here we are in our first week of Soul Boot Camp. Boot camp is all about making necessary changes through hard work. In Lent, we are invited to a similar season of introspection; a time of discernment of sin and all that separates us from the knowledge of the love of God for us, and a time for repentance and renewal of life in preparation for Easter.
We begin the season with a reminder of the power of temptation – that which leads us to sin. These days “temptation” is a word we use primarily with regard to personal choices, many of them susceptible to outside influences. We are vulnerable to choices, offered often through the media, that cause us to desire things or experiences that are not essential and might even be harmful. We feel tempted by the choice to be different than we are and the difference between what is healthy or harmful varies greatly. After all, Christ calls us to be other than we are and that’s a good thing. So how do you discern which choice is a temptation and which is encouragement? What draws us closer to the knowledge of God’s love for us?
We could busy ourselves in endless reflection on where we draw the line in our personal lives, but that might be a temptation in itself. Can we enter this demanding season faithfully and yet not become ultimately self-absorbed, losing sight of the big picture in light of our daily effort to resist gossip or gluttony? If Lent is like a boot camp for the soul, what is the hard work that can be done in this limited, intensive time?
Perhaps we can start with the hard work of saying, “No.” During every stage of our lives, our actions and attitudes are curtailed by a certain number of what might be called “necessary no’s.” From the time we are toddlers, “no’s” seem to whirl around us like confetti at a New Year’s Eve party.
- ”No” you can’t run into the street for your ball.
- ”No” you can’t reach for that beautifully steaming pot on the stove.
- ”No” you can’t have Peanut Butter Cup ice cream for breakfast.
- ”No” you can’t have a slightly squashed earthworm for lunch.
As we grow older, the “no’s” get a little less pervasive but no less persuasive. What is more, they still succeed in cramping our style.
- ”No,” we tell our 8-year-old, you are not old enough to ride your bike into town by yourself.
- ”No,” we reveal to our 13-year-old, you cannot stay out at the mall until it closes and then hitch a ride home.
- ”No,” we preach desperately to our 16-year-old, you may not get involved in drugs or alcohol or be sexually active.
- ”No,” we break to our college-bound kids, we cannot afford a new car and tuition, adding, “Get a job!”
We drum these necessary no’s into our kids’ skulls while we have them at home, hoping and praying that our lectures and lessons will sufficiently sink in. If we’ve done our jobs successfully, we say to ourselves, little “guilt-bombs” of “no’s” will detonate in their souls whenever they are confronted with potentially dangerous, ethically dubious situations throughout their lives.
Jesus was no soft touch. But sometimes the disciples despaired of getting any serious dialogue going with their Master since He was always surrounded by rowdy, crowding, cuddling kids. Instead of telling them “no,” Jesus would simply haul them into his lap or make them the whole point of his discussion.
Women of all types were also forever encroaching on the circle of learning Jesus’ serious students seeking to establish. Instead of telling women like Mary to return to their real work – preparing meals, caring for the needs of their families and homes – Jesus encouraged women to listen in and learn. Instead of rejecting the embarrassing and unsanctified attentions of women like the one who poured costly nard over His head, Jesus praised her for her unique insights and unhampered compassion. Jesus couldn’t say “no” to invitations to sit down for dinner discussions and fellowship with disreputable types like tax collectors, sailors, and prostitutes.
This being true, it’s interesting to observe the occasions in which Jesus invoked a necessary no. What did Jesus refuse to say? What did Jesus refuse to do? Surprisingly, if you look at the silences of Jesus, His refusals, you find that these “no’s” were actually affirming something else.
Sometimes Jesus refused to work a miracle. Take, for example, our text this morning. Christ’s ministry would be rich in miracles, and He began by refusing to perform one. Why? Jesus refused the devil’s first temptation, to turn stones into bread because our Lord refused for His own use the powers that God had given Him for others. It was for others Jesus Christ was here. He came, not to be ministered to, but to minister. The day was coming when He would feed 5,000 by a miracle. But by a miracle He never fed Himself.
Jesus also had one distinct advantage over us humans who wrestle with the temptation of giving in to “necessary no’s.” Jesus knew Himself. At the moment of His baptism, Jesus had that essential self-revealed and proclaimed. He was the “Son of God.” Free from the assailing doubts of self-worth, Jesus had no need to practice acts of self-aggrandizement, self-promotion or self-absorption. Jesus didn’t need to change stones into bread just to show He could fill his stomach. What Jesus did need to do, and did so by refusing to succumb to the tawdry temptations the devil strutted before Him, was to demonstrate His genuine Sonship through His complete and utter obedience to God.
Sometimes Jesus refused to answer a heartfelt plea. Remember the story of the demon-possessed man in the Gerasenes. After he is cured, clothed, and in his right mind, he pleads with Jesus that he might follow and serve Him: And that was the only plea or prayer that Christ refused. “Go home to your friends,” said Christ, “and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”
We are not here to enjoy Christ so much as to serve Him. Have you ever noticed how the most popular TV sitcom shows seem to involve groups of people sitting around not working? The Friends crowd is always sitting around the coffeehouse, talking and not working. The late-much-lamented Seinfeld characters were always hanging around Jerry’s apartment or their coffee shop, talking and not working. Characters on these shows would rather be seen dead than seen actually doing something.
Jesus is our God, our Savior, our teacher, our healer, our friend. Jesus is not a TV show we just sit around and watch, laughing at His jokes, waiting for Him to perform His next big miracle, or proclaim the next great truth that will enrich our lives. Jesus’ words and witness call us to action, not atrophy. So sometimes Jesus has to refuse a plea that seeks an easy way out, a sideline seat.
Sometimes it is the prayer that God refuses that leads us to our service and our crown. Paul prayed, but Paul didn’t get the thorn in the flesh taken away. Jesus prayed – “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me!” (Matthew 26:39) – and He didn’t get the nails in His flesh taken out. Indeed, the refusal of that prayer saved the world.
Sometimes Jesus just refused to explain. In Matthew 21:23 the chief priests and elders come to Him and demand to know “by what authority” He teaches and performs the miraculous healings they have witnessed. Likewise, before Pilate (Matthew 27:13-14), Jesus refused to answer “even to a single charge” that was levied against him by those bitter and vituperative priests and elders.
Jesus refused to answer the questions of the trouble seekers until they would answer a question He put to them. Jesus’ question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” challenged those priests and elders by forcing them to look at what motivates their considered answers. As they mull over their answer options, the “truth” is never even considered as an issue. All that concerns these weak-willed yes men is how the crowd will react to their answer. Jesus refuses to dignify their question about His authority with the truth because they do not seek the truth.
How can we say “No” to the powers and principalities of this world? By saying “Yes” to the ultimate power and authority, God. In fact, the hard work of the necessary no must, of necessity, lead to the hard work of the affirming yes. Jesus said no to the devil because He had already said yes to the Father. Jesus said no to the seductive words of the tempter because He said yes to the authority of Scripture.
You say to your child, no, you cannot play in the street. That necessary no is only possible because you, as a loving parent, have already said yes to your commitment to safeguarding the health of your child.
- You say no to drugs because you have said yes to clean living.
- You say no to revenge because you have said yes to forgiveness.
- You say no to temptation because you have said yes to self-control.
- You say no to Satan because you have said yes to the Spirit.
- You say no to racism because you have said yes to love.
- You say no to oppression because you have said yes to justice.
- You say no to crankiness because you have said yes to kindness.
In our gospel lesson, the devil offers Jesus power over others, and He denies it for a kingdom greater than this world. What power are we tempted to seek, and how might we instead work for a kingdom-level justice that might seem impossible in this world?
Let’s consider the temptations Jesus faced – how we acquire our daily bread, how we understand what it means to live, and how we impact the world around us. As we begin the journey of Lent, let’s consider these very essentials of living, free from the tempter and the bondage of sin for we ARE forgiven.