Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Would Jesus NOT Do - A Homily for Lent 1, Year C

Homily for Lent 1, Year C, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 4:1-14

We often hear it asked, “What would Jesus do?” However, I suppose the question set before us in today’s text is “What wouldn’t Jesus do?” The story invariably read on the first Sunday of Lent, whether it be the version from Matthew, Mark, or this year from Luke, is the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness. Following his Baptism, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In the life of the Church, Lent is traditionally a time of preparing candidates for baptism. Of course, baptism is such a joyous occasion and almost always followed by a lovely party with family and friends. Jesus got no party. Instead, he was given forty days in the wilderness, starving, thirsty, fighting of demons, and to top it all off, the devil came to him and tempted him. This story should serve as a word to the wise, and to those seeking baptism, namely, that the Christian life isn’t always a picnic in the park. The Christian life is filled with desert moment. The Christian life is filled with struggle against demons internal and external. The Christian is filled with temptations to do the things we ought not to do, and leave undone the things we ought to do. It may come as a surprise to many outside the Church who harbour such saintly, pious pictures of Christians who seem to never complain, drink, swear, get angry, or sad, that at times we may feel, as the words of the Book of Common Prayer confession says, as if we have no health in us.

There are many moments in our lives when we are confronted by choices. We are called upon to make decisions in our private lives, in our public lives, in our work and in our play that require ethical decision-making. We may not be literally confronted by that caricatured little fellow with the pointy tail and ears, horns on his head and pitchfork in hand, but we are confronted by situations that have the potential to destroy our lives and the lives of those around us. Often, those decisions may not present themselves as very profound. They may be deceptively prosaic. And what is even more alarming, they may offer choices that seem to actually offer a good outcome, but as St. Paul wrote, the devil masquerades as an angel of light, and so we also take the advice of St. John, to discern the spirits because not every spirit is of God.

Thus, we meet Jesus in the wilderness and subsquently taken to the pinnacle of the Temple. Satan sets before him three temptations: the temptation to turn stones into bread, to become the master of all he could see, and to test God to do a miracle by saving Jesus from death. Now, are these things in and of themselves bad? Turning stone into bread to feed the hungry, Jesus as Lord of the world, and God delivering Jesus from death were all things that later became integral to the story of Jesus and salvation history. Feeding the hungry, Jesus as Lord, and the conquering of death through the resurrection are all signs marks of the Gospel. Yet, here, they are temptations by the devil.

Consider it further, in the shorter version of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11, three of the key petitions clearly echo the evil’s temptation: give us today our daily bread; your kingdom come; save us from the time of trial.” Bread, kingdom, and salvation from the time of trial – all things with which the devil tempted Jesus, and yet, all things for which he prayed to his Father in Heaven.

As I see it, ethical decision-making in the Christian tradition, therefore, cannot simply involve proof-texting the Bible to see what it says, for the devil quotes Scripture, too. The words of Scripture can be twisted to justify the most insidious forms of chauvinism and bigotry. When posed with a difficult ethical question we must ask the question, to what end is my decision directed? Is my decision about filling my own stomach or quenching the hunger and thirst of others? Is my decision about giving glory, power and dominion to myself or about giving glory, power and dominion to God, the Father almighty and to his Christ? Is my decision about saving myself from the time of trial, or about relieving the trials, suffering, pain and brokenness of those around me and of the world at large? These considerations lie at the core of our ethical decision-making. And I believe that these are the principals that Jesus teaches us in Holy Scripture. He could have desired and accepted the good of all that the devil offered him, for the devil was not offering him inherently bad things. Yet, if he accepted what the devil offered, it would have been for his own personal aggrandizement and on contrary to the divine and triune will. He would not only have sold his soul, but he would have broken the heart of the Trinity. The Trinity would have ceased to be perfect holy divine communion. Ethical decision-making is about seeking Holy Communion with God and Holy Communion with each other. It means that we each have to give up a part of our own longings and desires to be together as God’s people, and to be a part of his body, in Christ.

This is not to say that we are to give up our human dignity, for human dignity is nothing less that image and likeness of God in us. Thus, we strive and fight “for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” as our baptismal covenant states. We stand against the evil forces that drive a wedge between us as a people and between us and our creator; we stand against the powers and dominions of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and we stand against our own sinful desires that draw us from God’s love and break the bonds of our communion with each other.

Christ our God set before us the pattern of Christian ethical decision-making, namely to honour the divine, creative life in each one of us, not by turning to self, but turning outward to others, and upward to God the Father. True, authentic, divine selfhood is free from selfishness.

In and of ourselves, we are incapable of such divine selfhood; yet, in Christ, we learn what true selfhood is. In him we find our identity, and in him we live and move and have our being. And in communion with each other around his holy altar we dwell in him and he in us.

Thus, the answer to making ethical decisions is not always to simply ask what would Jesus do (although that is never a bad place to start), but perhaps to ask what he wouldn’t do. He would not turn stones to bread. He would not take the Lordship of the world for himself. He would not test God to save him from the time of trial. Tempting, and good as these things might have been, to have done them would have been to place his love of self ahead of his love for the world and his love for his Father in Heaven. Jesus knew who he was and what he wouldn’t do, because he knew that there is no greater love than that a man should lay down his life for his friend.

c. 2010 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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