Sunday, March 5, 2017
What would you say is the most important, holiest day for Christians? Easter! Did you know that the seasons of Lent and Easter are some of the oldest seasons of the Christian church? They were established about two hundred years before the Christmas holiday even existed, and still today we say that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christ’s death and resurrection are central to what we believe as Christians – that God sent the only Son into the world to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. For the early Church, and still for many churches today, Lent is also a time of preparation for baptism. During Lent, candidates for baptism would go through an intense period of preparation – our version of confirmation classes for adults – and they would be baptized all together on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. For over a thousand years, in fact, you could not enter a church building for worship until you were baptized – so Easter was the first day the newly baptized could join the Christian community for worship and Holy Communion. For Christians who were already baptized, Lent was a time of remembering and returning to those promises they made at their baptism. In that spirit on Sundays this Lent, we’ll be reflecting on what it really means to be baptized into Christ so we can more fully celebrate the gift of new life Jesus gives us at Easter!
In our gospel for today, we remember how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for forty days. At the beginning of the baptism rite, the pastor asks the person who’s going to be baptized or the parents and sponsors these three things: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God? And we answer, “I renounce them.” The thing about temptation, though, is that it’s pretty difficult sometimes to resist or renounce. If only it were that easy – to say those three simple words: “I renounce them,” and to feel confident that indeed, the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin have no sway over us!
What does it really mean to renounce evil as a Christian, to follow in the way of Jesus and resist the temptations of this world? It’s pretty popular in Lent to give up something – maybe chocolate or pop or Facebook. These are small ways we can resist the temptations of this world and practice going without something we don’t really need. We have to be careful, though, that we are not lulled into complacency, thinking that chocolate or Facebook is the worst evil we have to resist in this world. As Americans, we are extremely fortunate that most of us do not have to endure atrocities that others around the world face – extreme hunger, sexual exploitation, slavery, war crimes, persecution because of our faith. Evil for us is often much less obvious or identifiable, which is how evil works. Just eat this fruit – you will not die – the serpent tells Adam and Eve. But that seemingly innocuous offer of fruit is the beginning of the end for Adam and Eve, as we well know.
Similarly, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread – it seems harmless enough. After all, he is fasting in the wilderness, and what could it hurt him to eat something? But Jesus knows he doesn’t need the bread – he has committed to a spiritual fast to prepare himself for his earthly ministry and journey to the cross. What’s more, when he returns from his wilderness fast, Jesus will take a few loaves of bread and feed over 5000, sharing his gifts with others. God calls us to resist evil not only in refusing personal temptation, but by doing what we can to share our bread, our material wealth, with those who face greater evil than we know. We renounce the forces that defy God, the powers of this world, and sin when we work to feed the hungry, aid refugees, and combat evils like human trafficking and slavery.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have personified evil in the devil, through artistic depictions like these. Even in cartoons, you might see the angel and the devil sitting on either side of our shoulders. If only it were always so easy to identify the evil that surrounds us and the evil within us. Evil is not just something “out there” for our elected officials or trained military to fight and for us to fear. It’s easy to identify the threat of terrorism and ISIS as evil, or those other things I named earlier – hunger, slavery, war crimes. It’s a lot harder to examine our own selfish desires and sins and realize how we’re tempted daily to serve ourselves rather than God, to follow earthly power rather than God’s power, to work for the kingdom of heaven rather than serve the kingdoms of this world. Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond, which our Bethel Prayer Group has been reading, puts it this way: “Satan does not tempt you so much to the ‘hot sins’ like greed, lust, and gross ambition. They are too obviously evil and will eventually show themselves as such. Instead Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons…Nuns who work in the inner city are not taken too seriously, while we envy city bosses who are being driven in stretch limousines.”
I believe one of the greatest temptations we face as American Christians today is to allow FEAR to rule our lives rather than trusting in the power of Christ. We don’t follow Christ’s call to love or even talk to our neighbors because we are afraid. We shut out those who are suffering and seeking a better life here because we are afraid.
It is our baptismal calling to take resisting evil seriously and to be on our guard about the ways that sin can easily overtake us. It is also our baptismal calling to trust in God’s strength – that God in Jesus Christ is more powerful than any evil no matter how pervasive or unspeakable in this world. We know that we cannot resist all the temptations we face daily – we give into fear, we give into our selfish desires, we give into the delectable goodness of chocolate! God in Christ calls us back to serve him and him alone, to continue to resist temptation. God promises to deliver us from evil, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer.
We are going to sing one of my favorite hymns for the hymn of the day today, which is not just a celebration of Martin Luther, but at the core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians about resisting evil by putting our faith wholly in the power of Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus did on the cross for us – he overcame death and the grave to give us the victory. We have already won. Pay attention to the words as we sing this today. Especially pay attention to the third verse: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, we tremble not unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail. God’s judgment must prevail. One little word subdues him.” Do you know what that little word is? Jesus. It is in the power of Jesus’ name we pray. And it is in the power of Jesus’ name that the devil runs and hides, because he knows he cannot win. This is what our yearly journey through Lent to Easter is all about – acknowledging our vulnerability to all forms of evil and sin, yet being strengthened through those baptismal promises to know that Jesus has defeated all of that for us on the cross. Because he lives, we live. Because he has won, we share in his victory. Use the power of that little word to live confidently, temptations and all. Amen.