The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we, yet without sin.”
The gospel writers, including our Gospel Lesson today, clearly portray Jesus as vulnerable to temptation. The writers of other New Testament documents, such as the book of Hebrews and the Letters of Paul, understood a Jesus vulnerable to sin. It is important to remember that sin and repentance have a common characteristic. They are both about direction.
Sin, as an old Semitic archery term refers not to the arrow missing the bull’s eye, but rather failure to properly aim, or to have another target in mind. If the direction we aim is not for the target, whether we hit the target or not, it is still sin. It has to do with intention.
Repentance, metamorpho, from which we get our word metamorphasis, is to change directions, or to correct our direction. The sin could be understood as an intentional change for the bad, and repentance, intentional change for the good.
For the Christian, life is about being tempted, to aim our lives in ways inconsistent with the will of God. Our values, our attitudes, our behaviors, our ambitions. It is also about the sin of not having the desire to choose the way of God, even if we are not sure which way that may be. So many Christians have never asked, “What does God will for my life?” We either like the way life is going, and don’t wish to have things disturbed, or we think it foolish to think that God has any particular thought, especially for our lives. This is to say that many of us have never experienced or sought the joy and the grace of intimacy with God.
Sometimes we do find ourselves unclear, unclear about the right thing to do, the right direction to take. Or on retrospection, we realize that we did not do the best thing, or we did not do the right thing, although we certainly and sincerely desired to do so.
You know the old saying, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intention.’
But the Christian faith says, ‘the road to heaven is paved with good intention.” For the redeemed heart loves God and will change when the truth of God’s will and our sin is known.
I love the prayer that I have used often by Thomas Merton. It is a prayer that gets at the heart of intention even when life is not clear. Merton writes this prayer in his book, “Thoughts in Solitude.”
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, God, and that fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe, God, that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”
Jesus was vulnerable to sin. Jesus struggled with obedience to the unfolding will of God, to submit himself, his power, his fear, his uncertainty, to God, and to continually seek God’s will, to seek God’s help and God’s strength. Jesus was tempted in every way, as we are. And yet Jesus kept his direction.
And so we must live seeking and submitting our lives and our wills and our intent unto God.
The tempter said to Jesus, “Why don’t you turn these stones into bread? Prove yourself.” But Jesus’ reply was, “Life is more than bread.” Is this not one of the great temptations of our lives? To believe that we can live by bread alone? Do we understand that life is more than work, life is more than success, life is more than survival. It’s even more than our happiness and our comfort. I love that book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” When Jonathan discovered the joy of breaking out of the sloth of life, and living in higher and more liberated planes, he began to fly and soar. But it was so counter-cultural that the elders called him to account. And as he stood before the elders trying to explain the joy that he had found, they said these words to him, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.”
Whether we are about accumulating millions, or working for enough power to secure our political, social or cultural place in life or history. Whether life is about simply making ends meet; Christian faith is for us that life is about more. You and I as Christians must understand that life is more. It is about intimacy with God.
Jesus said in Luke 9:25, “If anyone wants to become a Christian, my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
And then, listen to these words. “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose themselves?” What does it profit us to gain all that we think is the bread of life, and never know who it is that God would have us to be? Lily Tomlin put the best spin on that when she said, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The second temptation. “Cast yourself down. Cast yourself down. Make God prove the divine self.” And Jesus responded, “We should not put God to the test.” How many of us are testing God? How many of us feel or say, “I would believe God if God would just do this or that? Or if I had a little bit more tangible sense of God, maybe I could be a little bit more religious.” And then there’s the one that tends to destroy the most intimate relationships, much less ours with God, “ If you really loved me, you would do or you would do that. If God really loved me, God would not have let this happen, or that happen.”
Have you ever been angry with God? Angry with God for not acting? I think of the story of Job and how his wife stood there and saw the man she loved hurting and dying and withering away, and yet trying to hold on to his faith saying, “I know my redeemer lives.” And she said to him, “Job, I can’t stand it any more. How can you stand it? Why don’t you curse God and die?”
Have you ever felt that way? I have. I saw my father laying, dying of cancer, and the pain and agony seeing a good man, a Christian man, suffering so. Oh, I didn’t think I could stand it day after day, month after month. And yet what I couldn’t see was his holy dying. What I could not see was the peace that God had given him. What I could not see was that he had a gaze that was looking to another land that I had only talked about. I could not see his holy dying. And when I was able to get beyond my anger, I realized that rather than testing God, he was really about receiving God, receiving God’s love.
But in those times, we have to tell God how we feel. Pierre Wolf, in his book, “May I Hate God?” have something important for me, and I hope for you when he said, “When I can freely show my anger to my friends, I also show paradoxically that I believe that his love is able to take it. I cannot be myself with my friends if I cannot be honest, if I cannot be exactly as I am right now, for better or for worse, if I cannot be myself with my friends, then with whom?
So the intimacy with God is to know that God’s love is able to receive the integrity of how we feel and who we are at a given moment. And when we have that relationship with God it envelops not only our joy and our faith, but our anger and our doubts.
The real sin is not to enter into a relationship with God that allows us to share who we are.
Then finally, Jesus was tempted with the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, the dreams of power and the dreams of great glory.
You know that wonderful poem that we hear so often, it’s so seductive, and yet it troubles me each time I hear it. It is by William Hinley.
The poem, Invictus. We hear it sometimes at funerals or great orations:
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
As the MTV crowd says, “not”?
None of us, none of us, is the master of his or her fate. None of us is the captain of our own soul. In this life we all have a master. We all bow to some master, be it ambition or wealth or power or professionalism, security, fame, romantic love, complacency, or fear. There is some master that is charting our life that is dictating our choices. We are bowing to something, to some master, to some power.
The question for the Christian is, “Will it be God to whom we will bend the knee?”
Lent, my brothers and sisters, is our annual pilgrimage, our annual retreat into the wilderness, to examine the demons and the devils of our own lives, and to grow deeper in our relationship and commitment to God. It’s our annual opportunity. Just as our brothers and sisters use Ramadan, cannot the Christian take seriously this time to reflect on our own spiritual lives and our commitment with God?
Jesus kept his focus, Jesus kept his intentions on God because he had a spiritual life. He was led by the Spirit, the Bible tells us, into the wilderness. This suggests that Jesus had a life that was sensitive to the lore, to the whisper, to the nudging of God. Like the old spiritual that says, “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart I will pray.” A sensitive spirit helps us to know when God wants to talk with us.
The Bible also tells us that many times Jesus went apart to pray. Sometimes Jesus would get up early in the morning and leave the house where he was living, early in the morning before daylight. And the Bible tells us that he would go to a quiet place apart, and he would pray.
Are you being led this Lent to discover the quiet place in your life? Are you being led to discover a retreat? Maybe you have never been on a retreat. Is this the Lent for you? Maybe you’ve never been a part of a Bible Study group or a prayer group. Is the Spirit leading you to discover a prayer group, a Bible Study group? Maybe you’ve never had in your day someplace that you go away and break from the board room, break from the court room, break from the classroom, break from the marketplace, to have a time of quiet with God? Maybe this Lent can be your time of intimacy with God.
Jesus often spent the night, the entire night, in prayer and meditation. Do you know how to pray, Christian? Other than reading a prayer from the Prayer Book, have you ever learned how to pray? Maybe the Spirit is leading you this Lent to find a spiritual director. Maybe this is a time for you to learn meditation. You know it’s not just the Buddhist who have meditation. There is Christian meditation. Meditating upon our Lord, sensing the presence of God. Maybe the Spirit is leading you to learn to pray. Maybe a spiritual director or a pastor can help you.
And then finally, we know that Jesus prayed when he was fearful. We know about Gethsemane. And we know that Jesus often prayed before a miracle or a healing. But do you know that Jesus often prayed after the success of a miracle or a healing? How often have we found ourselves in trouble because in the time when we have succeeded, something great has happened in our lives, and rather than give thanks to God our egos and our ambitions are so great that we are more vulnerable to sin than ever in our lives.
Before we can understand Jesus as Lord, before we can understand him as Savior, we must remember and understand him as a person of spiritual faith, a person who found strength to be what God had called him to be.
The temptation to choose life without intimacy without God, without seeking to know God’s will and purpose for you and for you and for you, not to know God’s will, is sin.
Lent is a time to examine ourselves, to listen, to talk honestly with God, and to recommit ourselves.
In a few moments we will all come to this altar railing. Some of us will come to receive the bread and the wine. Others will come and fold their arms to receive a prayer. But let us all make the coming to these altar railings our recommitment to find a new intimacy with God in this Lent, that we may know the joy, the grace, and the beauty of life with God.