Choosing the Way of Love: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 10, 2019, is built around the readings for the 1st Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 am service

Here is a transcript of the recording

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.   Amen.

Please be seated.

It almost seemed like a dirty trick yesterday afternoon at about 6 o’clock when the snow was blowing sideways past my kitchen window.  Here we are.  It’s the first Sunday of Lent 2019, the first day of daylight savings time, in the middle of the winter that just won’t let us go.  So I think it might be a good idea in this morning for us to turn our mind to some, perhaps, happier moments.  I’d like to ask you all for just a minute to close your eyes and remember how you felt in those moments that seemed to change everything.   Maybe it was the moment you got picked for the team, or for the show.  Maybe it was graduating, or being accepted to school.  Maybe it was when that one person said yes, or asked.  Maybe it was the moment you learned that you would become a parent…  Think about the joy that you felt in those moments, the astounding way that your body felt alive, your heart pounded in your chest, as the possibilities opened up before you.  And then, acknowledge with me if you will, the anxiety that came just a little while later.  Will I be good enough to stay on the team?  What kind of actor will I be?  What kind of student will I be?  How will I study and what will I study?  What kind of partner, what kind of parent will I be?  And how will I know how to do all of these things?

If you’re feeling that moment of question and doubt, imagine how a young man from Nazareth in the Galilee must have felt.  He’d heard the stories, the stories about an angel coming to speak to his mother.  He’d heard the stories about the birth of his cousin John, the stories about the day when his mother and his aunt came together and sang with joy because they were expecting children.  He’d heard the stories… and he had this recollection of sitting in the Temple at 11 years of age and answering the questions that the teachers posed, and then asking questions of his own that they struggled to answer.  All his life he’d sensed that there was something different about him.  All his life he’d wondered what it meant.  And then, having gone to see his cousin John the Baptist ministering there in the wilderness, standing knee-deep in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, Jesus stood up water streaming from his hair and dripping from his nose and chin, and heard a voice that made sense of it all.  “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

He must have been ecstatic to finally, finally understand and to be able to make sense of all of those stories…  I wonder if that joy even lasted until his feet were on dry ground there on the banks of the Jordan.  What does it mean to be the son of God, the Beloved?  What is it that I’m supposed to do?  How will I be this person?

The next thing that happens in Luke’s Gospel, after a short insertion of Jesus’s genealogy to give us the reader some evidence that this is in fact true about Jesus, Jesus goes into the wilderness.  Now it’s important to note that in Matthew and Mark Jesus doesn’t seem to go of his own accord.  In one of those versions he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  In the other he is driven into the wilderness.  But here in Luke’s Gospel it says that the spirit led him in the wilderness.  It’s like he went there of his own accord to work this out.  To think about it.  To ponder just what it might mean.  To ponder his vocation and how he would live it out…  and once he got there the spirit managed what would come next.

We don’t know when, during those 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus figured out what his vocation was, or his mission.  We do know that as soon as he returns from the wilderness he goes home to Nazareth, he goes in to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he says this,

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then Luke tells us,

“And he rolled up the scroll gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus returns from the wilderness with the understanding that his vocation, his mission, is to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  But an understanding of his mission and his vocation isn’t the only thing that he gained in the wilderness.  He also learned, or declared how, he would live out that vocation.

Luke tells us that the devil came to him and said, “If you are the son of God turn this stone into a loaf of bread.”  Surely, if it’s your mission and vocation to set the prisoners free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… if you can snap your fingers and feed people they’ll get right in line.  They’ll do exactly what it is that you ask them to do because you will be able to meet all their needs.  Jesus turns his back on that temptation.

So the devil tries again and takes him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “If you are the son of God just take it it’s mine I can give it to you” and you will be in charge.  You can tell them what to do and they won’t get right in line.  You will have the authority to demand that they release the prisoners; they take care of the blind, the lame, and the sick, the poor…  All you have to do is worship me and you will have the power to make them do whatever you want.  But Jesus says no.  Certainly, he would be a benevolent dictator, a benevolent autocratic ruler, but that’s not the way that Jesus chooses.

So the devil tries one more time, and takes him to the pinnacle of the highest point of the Temple, and says growing yourself off.  Because if you’re the son of God the Angels will catch you before you hit the ground, and people will see that, and they’ll know without a doubt, in an instant, that you’re the one to follow.  And they’ll jump right on board with whatever you tell them to do, because it would be foolish to not do what you say.  And again, Jesus turns his back.

William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few short years in the 40s, his tenure was cut short by his untimely death, speaks about The Temptations in the Wilderness as the temptation to coercion.   Buy their allegiance.  Force their allegiance.  Prove that it would make no sense to do anything but get in line and follow you.  All of those William Temple calls coercion because what God really wants, and what Jesus really wants in this moment, is not our allegiance.  It’s not our trembling obedience.  It’s our love.  God wants us to love. And love cannot be coerced.  I’m sure William Temple had never heard this phrase but you all have heard it, “If you can’t say no, it’s not love.”  If Jesus were to try and buy us, by turning stones to bread, that wouldn’t be love.  Forcing us wouldn’t be love.  Even proving, as a matter of science, who he was, would deny us the ability to choose.  And it’s only when we can choose, that love is possible.  So, Jesus instead, walks out of the wilderness and chooses the path of the suffering servant, and it makes himself vulnerable to us, in the hope we will love in return.

That’s really great news if you think about it.  Now it might be more expedient… It might have remedied a lot of the world’s problems that Jesus had chosen one of those other paths; if he was turning stones into bread, and feeding the poor; or making autocratic leaders who aren’t so benevolent step in line because he had the power to force them; or proving that it’s for our benefit, or to our benefit, to live the life to which he’s calling us.  But any of those paths would have made us less human than we are capable of being.  It would’ve denied us the ability to choose to love even when the evidence all points to the contrary, or when it might be easier to choose other paths to achieve laudable goals.  It’s good news that God wants us to love.

And I think it’s very instructive to us as we enter the wilderness of Lent, to spend our own 40 days trying to discern how to live out our identity, given to us that our baptism, as beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased; as we try to figure out how we will live in this world, seeking to realize God’s dream and vision for creation in our own lives and in the community around us.  It might feel good to get self-righteous and indignant and angry.  It might feel good to yell and demand.  But what Jesus does in the wilderness is turn his back on those behaviors, and to reach out, making himself vulnerable, and hoping that the relationships that are forged will lead to a community that lives its life together in light love and grace.

As we make our way through these 40 days we may have the opportunity to discover, within ourselves and in our lives, places where our anger, or our impatience, or our need to be right and to have the right answers, or to know the right way of doing things, gets in the way of love.  We may find those things within ourselves impacting our families, our workplaces, the people with whom we interact in the marketplace, and in the voting booth.  But in this moment, as we began our journey through the season of Lent, we are called to do the same thing that Jesus did; to walk out of the wilderness with our humanity intact, whole, loving, forgiving; willing to be vulnerable to change, to the needs of others and to their place in this garden with us.

Forty days.  Forty days in the wilderness.  Forty days in the season of Lent, with God as both our destination and our companion on the journey.  Today we get a true gift, the knowledge, the truth, the understanding that it’s all about love; loving ourselves, loving our neighbor, and loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; in the wilderness, at home, wherever we are.  Love.

Amen.

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