If you are …
“The Temptations of Christ,” 12th century mosaic at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.
Lectionary blog for March 9, 2014
The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; Psalm 32;
Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
By Delmer Chilton
I was with a group of clergy the other day and heard about an acolyte whose hair caught on fire during communion. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it had to do with a relatively small chancel, lots of candles including torches in floor-stands, and longish hair. At some point she got too close to a candle and her hair caught on fire. At first people just smelled it, then she turned to one side and the choir saw it, then the assisting minister saw it and started beating it out with his hands while family members got up from their pews and headed for the front. After it was all over, someone commented to her about how calm she had been and she drew herself up and said, “I AM an acolyte and acolytes DO NOT panic!”
It is good to know who you are and how it is you are expected to behave. Our Gospel reading from Matthew turns on those very questions of identity. While Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting and praying, he wrestled with bedeviling questions of identity — of what it meant to be “the beloved Son of God.”
In last the verse of Matthew, chapter 3, following Jesus’ baptism, we hear God’s voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then today’s reading starts, with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where the devil begins to work on him. The devil does not question whether Jesus is the Son of God — that’s not what “if you are the Son of God” means in this text. It’s more like, “If you are the Son of God, (and I know that you are) …” Perhaps something like “Since you are the Son of God,” gets at the meaning better. The devil is attempting to lead Jesus away from the true path into an almost true path.
First, the devil tries to get Jesus to use his powers to satisfy his own needs. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t you turn these stones into loaves of bread. Jesus was fasting, so it is reasonable to assume that he was hungry.
Then, the devil tries to get him take an easy way to calling attention for his message. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t you throw yourself off the temple? God won’t let you die and people will know who you are and listen to you.
Finally, the evil one puts aside all pretense and says it plainly, “Worship me, and I will let you rule the world.”
All of these temptations have an almost rightness about them. Stones into loaves. Feed a hungry world. When you throw yourself off the temple and the angels catch you, everybody will know you are the Son of God; they will really listen to and obey you. Rule the world; wow, you can legislate morality, create peace with justice, usher in the kingdom of heaven.
But, but. These temptations also have an air of desperation about them. “OK, I’m the Son of God. What do I do now? My father expects a lot from me, and I’m not totally sure about what it is I’m supposed to do.”
While Jesus is fasting and praying and thinking these things, the devil comes and offers his “suggestions.” And Jesus responds, “I am the Son of God, and the Son of God does not panic.”
The Son of God trusts the written word of God and the Holy Spirit to lead him to a clear awareness of who he is and what it is he is called to do.
Lent is a time for us to fast and pray and think about questions of identity and mission, of who we are and what it is we are to do. And like the acolyte with her hair on fire, we must not panic.
We must firmly say “I am a beloved child of God, and children of God do not panic!”
Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit also came upon us. Just as the voice from heaven claimed Jesus as God’s beloved Son, at our baptism words were spoken that made it clear that we too are claimed and loved by God. And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, we too have been led into a time of prayer and fasting.
Both as individuals and in our congregation, it is important for us to take this time to look at our lives, to reflect on the gifts God has given us, the abilities God has blessed us with, the opportunities and relationships God has laid before us, and ask ourselves, “Am I, are we, using these things for ourselves only, or are we using these gifts to reach out to and serve the world in God’s name and with God’s love?”
As a congregation, are we anxious about our future, anxious enough to attempt desperate measures to make the world notice us again? As a Christian people in an increasingly secular nation and world, are we so concerned about pushing our agenda that we will engage in political strong-arming to get our way in the public square?
Or, are we sufficiently confident in our identity as children of God, trusting enough in God’s love and guidance to step out into God’s future full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever mission and ministry God has in store for us?
I close with a prayer that is found in the service for Evening Prayer in both the Lutheran Book of Worship (p. 153) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (p. 317):
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
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