Sunday, March 13, 2011

One Man's Obedience (sermon for the first Sunday in Lent)

What could be wrong with eating good food and becoming wise? What could be the problem with becoming more like God?

Our church's pulpits are full of people who promote the benefits to us of a relationship with God. How we can know what God knows, wield God's power, live forever, get rich, get healed. If we are good people who live responsible lives we get rewarded with well-being and prosperity. If we are lazy, irresponsible or immoral people, we get punished with poverty and illness. God is in his heaven, and this is how God operates.

Why wouldn't God want us to be prosperous and healthy? We say God loves us. That's what love is, isn't it? Wanting us to have what we want, to be what we want to be? When we go to war, wouldn't a loving God be on the side of the people who are moral and just and not on the side of people who are really hardly even people? Why wouldn't God back the right?

Eve doesn't take the fruit because she is lascivious or sociopathic or perverse or depraved. She takes the fruit because she's smart. She knows a good thing when she sees it. God must be mistaken, she thinks. The fruit is good to eat, it will make one wise, and it will bring one closer to God. How could it cause death?

No one likes to be fooled. And it would be easy to blame the serpent. But despite all the traditional interpretations, I have to say there is no evidence anywhere in the scriptures that the serpent is the devil. The serpent was in fact regarded as a wise animal in the ancient world, sort of how we think of an owl. Imagine if it was a wise old owl that said, "You won't die. It will make you wise; it will make you like God. Not to mention, one a day will keep the doctor away." The owl, or the serpent, is simply an symbol of the sharp thinking of the human creature.

God told me this was bad for me, but I know better. This isn't adultery, this is love. This isn't murder, this is peace-making. This isn't idolatry, this is self-esteem. This isn't gossip, it's a concerned discussion. This isn't stealing, it's a shrewd sales tactic. This isn't covetousness, it's the American dream.

Are we therefore to cultivate dull ignorance and stupidity to be right with God? Hardly. Jesus teaches us to be wise as serpents. We are not to make ignorance a virtue. Our intelligence is God's gift and like all gifts from God it is meant to be cultivated. But in the same breath, Jesus says we should be innocent as doves. Our intelligence must be put into the service of God.

Take Jesus for an example.

"Still wet from his baptism," as Fred Craddock puts it, Jesus is immediately led into the wilderness, not by the devil, but by the Spirit of God, and for the express purpose of being tested. The main message that came to Jesus when he was baptized is in fact the main message that should come to everyone who is baptized in his name.

God had said, "You are my Son, with whom I am well-pleased."

When Jesus meets the devil, he is not meeting a leather-faced, pointy-eared demon with a spiked tail. He is meeting a creature that God made expressly for the purpose of testing people. No temptation comes out and says, "I'm a temptation, boogah boogah!" No. Something beautiful and good presents itself. Something, yes, made by God.

"Well," the devil says, "God has said you are his Son. What do you think of that?"

While we're asking, what do we think of God calling us his sons and daughters? Do we believe it? Do we believe that God is inviting us to be divinely born? To be more than merely human? And if we believe that, what does it mean?

The devil asks us, "Doesn't that mean you should have whatever you want, whenever you want it?"

What do you think? Wouldn't that make sense? God has made you his children. What parent wouldn't give his children what they wanted?

The devil asks us, "Doesn't this mean that you will be protected from every danger, healed of every illness?" It makes sense, doesn't it?

The devil is quoting Psalm 91, one of the most popular psalms of the health-and-wealth gospel. The devil is suggesting we name it and claim it, and he's showing us scripture to back up his suggestion.

We're all tempted by various vices. We all think resisting those vices has to do with willpower, personal strength. We thrash ourselves when we can't resist. And our struggles with our vices tell us some important things about the nature of real temptation. We don't reach for the dessert when we are already overweight or diabetic because we are moved to do bad things. This isn't a slice of sickness and death, we tell ourselves, it's a slice of relief. How can something that works so well at relieving our inner pain be evil?

This is more than rationalization. It is a denial of truth. It's a denial that we are in pain, for one thing. It's a denial that there is something somewhere in our lives we have not dealt with honestly. The person who quits smoking with hardly a thought is a person who didn't need to smoke in the first place. The person who puffs away while lugging around an oxygen tank is someone who is denying a deeper issue, some inward suffering that the nicotine eases.

The temptation to use scripture to obligate God is not a question of wanting to do something bad. It is an expression of a denial born of inward fear. People in our pampered culture are terrified of poverty and death, so much so they want to deny its very existence. To such people, the appeal of a God who is obligated by God's word to keep one wealthy and healthy is irresistible. I'm not making an idol of God, I'm getting relief for my terror.

The devil asks us, "Doesn't being God's child mean you should be in charge of the world?" It's logical, isn't it? How are people going to obey God unless they are forced to? If we are the children of God, shouldn't we have our candidates in office and our judges on the Supreme Court? Shouldn't we be the people who tell the armies where to fight? Shouldn't it be our fingers on the big red button?

In the gospel of John, Pilate will ask Jesus if Jesus considers himself a king, and Jesus will tell him that he does. But he will add that the kingdom over which he rules in not the kind that will come and take Pilate's palace by storm in order to free its king. It's a different kind of power.

Our sin has two sides: on the one, it is a denial of our brokenness. On the other, it is a denial of our holiness. When confronted with our inward sickness, we deny it. We challenged to be holy, we claim imperfection.

Discipleship begins with honest self-assessment. It begins with admitting that inside, we are incomplete, we are diseased, we are not right.

But it also begins with simultaneously recognizing that you are called by God to be a child of the light, that God has offered you God's own power and wisdom.

These two truths must live in our hearts and minds all the time as God's people. Denying either renders us at best impotent to carry out God's will. At worst, such denial will lead us into the outer darkness.

But this obedience, this one man's obedience, the clear-eyed understanding of these two truths, opens for us the way of salvation and eternal life. For the end of our labor, the point of our struggle, is not to glorify ourselves, or even to save ourselves. It is not to impress people with what kind souls we are.

It is to become, truly and honestly, the vessels of God's presence in our world.


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