If

A Sermon for 7 February 2016 – First Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday during the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, then perhaps you remember his Narnia Chronicles. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are the siblings who step through the wardrobe door to discover the wonder-filled world of Narnia. The whole series is an adventure in that magical place where the siblings come to know their true selves. They live in the real world – and similarly at first in Narnia – unaware of who they really are and what their lives have been destined for from the start. It is as if the circumstances of life in the real world left them with a sort of amnesia. A film of forget-fullness regarding their true identity. Through a series of fanciful events in Narnia, the siblings finally see that they are royalty. Heroic kings and queens of the land – there to ensure the forces of evil are battled. Aslan, the great talking lion, guides them in their quest that is as much about them discovering who they are and what their lives have been destined for from the start, as it is about fighting against the malevolent forces trying to capture Narnia. . . . It’s the classic hero’s tale. The unsuspecting under-dog who rises to the challenge of their life to impact the world for good. To claim the fullness of who they are – the hidden powers within that are needed to battle inner and outer demons on the path that twists and turns until at last the hero stands triumphant. If only the hero can remember their true identity, then for sure all else shall be well.

If only . . .

Naturally the gospel of Luke is going to start the adventure with such a struggle. If only the hero can claim his true identity. If only the one of royalty can remember his deepest self. If only the one freshly baptized in the Jordan River by John and driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness place of testing. If only Jesus can remember who he really is and what his life has been destined for from the start; then, for sure, he will stand triumphant in the end. . . . Each Lent we’re given this story on the Sunday at the start of the season. Too often it’s been presented as some sort of super-human ability to best the devil at his own game. You know – withstand with the strongest will-power the deepest temptations of our lives; so that somehow people end up making empty vows during the season of Lent to overcome the temptations of certain vices – like chocolate cake or swearing or beer. As if that’s what the season of Lent is all about: shoring up our own will-power in order to beat some devil at his own game. . . . If only. If only. . . . If only we realized the testing in the wilderness is the hero’s training ground. It’s not so much about temptations as it is about amnesia – a forgetfulness of his true identity and the God-given destiny about which his life is to be.

A close reading of the text shows us that Jesus just has been baptized. He’s just heard the Voice declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The very next voice he hears echos: “If . . .” Really? “If you are God’s son . . .” To the best of our knowledge no one was there but Jesus and the Tester – and the Spirit. Which goes to show that if is a powerful, little universal word that pops up in the voices in all of our heads. Forty days fasting in the wilderness left Jesus vulnerable. Would he remember The Voice? Would he remember the Way of the Voice: the self-emptying path of the Voice that is love – the greatest force for good the world ever has seen? Would he overcome any doubt the Tester sought to provoke? Would Jesus remember his true identity and that for which he had been destined from the start? . . . That’s what’s at stake out there in the wilderness. If only this one can remember.

If only we can. Because how easy is it for us to forget who we really are and what our lives have been destined for from the start? Lent is about that remembering. It’s our annual forty day testing ground to see if we can remember our true identity and that for which we have been destined. In years when snow doesn’t prevent it, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – or today as we’ll do in a few minutes – with the self-emptying sign of love traced in ash. Right there on the same spot where we received our mark of baptism, we begin our Lenten journey with an ashen cross that calls us to deeper dedication in following the path of Christ. We are reminded that we too are royalty: sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe! Children of the LORD God Almighty! Heroes on the winding way of life here to wrestle inner and outer demons until at last we stand triumphant. If only . . . If only we remember our true identity, then we too can empty ourselves of our own wills to pray in deepest trust with Christ in Gethsemane: “Thy will be done through me, O God. Thy will be done through me.”

Life out there in the real world can make us forget, or leave us wondering if it ever was true in the first place. The pains we experience, the losses, the other voices that shout. Before you know it, we succumb. If wins the day. The memory of the Voice grows dim. We take the path that’s easier than the way of self-emptying love. . . . The sun sets and the sun rises, and we are given a new opportunity to re-claim our true identity. To ground ourselves in God, so that we can face whatever challenge that comes. If God were afar watching, I’m sure there would be cheers of encouragement. Messages to get back up and give it another try. . . . The good news is that God isn’t afar at all, but within and all around. When we feel like we’re in the throes of the hardest battle, God is right there with us willing us to remember our true identity – pleading for us to rise to live out our destiny as sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe – ones who follow the path in every encounter we have. If only . . . If only . . . We’ve got the rest of this special church season to remind us – and one another to encourage us along the path as well. For we’re needed in this world. We are in this world to live the alternative way of Christ – so that others will remember, or discover for the very first time, their true identity too. Until at last every other force is redeemed and for sure all else is forever well. . . . If only, brothers and sisters of Christ. If only we daily remember . . .

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

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