Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death.
Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.
But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.
And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves.
Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)
Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:
I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song.
Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.
Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
I stood before the gathered church and began, “The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Countless times had I uttered the words. Innumerable Sundays marked by the words recalling the mighty acts of God’s salvation.
“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his friends and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of us, and on the gifts of the bread and the cup, that they might be the body and blood of Christ for us, and they we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
I broke the bread.
I lifted the cup.
I invited the people of God to feast.
One by one they came with hands outstretched recognizing the gift being given. One by one they received the bread, they dipped it in the cup, and they put God in their mouths.
Until the final person in line stepped forward.
He was probably 12 years old, I had never seen him before, and his parents were nowhere to be found.
He said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Did you really say that we get to eat his body and drink his blood?”
“That’s the idea.”
“Wow,” he said, “Church is way more rad than I thought it would be.”
And with that he feasted on the Lord.
Sometimes it takes a 12 year-old boy’s question to knock us out of our comfort with familiarity. How many times had I presided over the meal without thinking about what it might sound like to someone unfamiliar with church? How many times had I shared the bread and the cup with people who saw it merely as a routine? How many times had I myself feasted on the Lord without thinking about actually feasting on the Lord?
There’s a physicality to all of this. And by this I mean the church.
We stand, we sing, we bring our hands together. We eat, we breathe, we laugh, we cry.
It is good and right for us to experience the physicality of it all because God’s love has a physicality to it. It is not as obscure or as intangible as we might think.
God’s love can be felt, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and (probably even) smelled.
Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, God’s love for God’s people shows up as manna, a voice, through blood, a pillar of smoke, a raging fire.
And in its fullest expression, God’s love shows up as an actual person: Jesus.
Jesus is the Lord made flesh – God emptied God’s self, took the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul puts it in the letter to the church in Philippi.
And yet, more often than not, church becomes some sort of ethereal, spiritual, or merely mystical manifestation. We spend time thinking about how, whatever we do in here, it connects with us only in ways that are intangible.
But Jesus is the Lord made fleshand skin and bone.
Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, is inherently materialistic because God becomes material in Jesus.
God, to put it bluntly, becomes us.
We find Jesus in our scripture today on the other side of crucifixion. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pilate and the religious authorities, stripped, beaten, marched to Golgotha, nailed to the cross, left to die.
And then John tells us that, because it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before Passover, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the sabbath. In Deuteronomy the people of God are specifically commanded to not allow a corpse to remain all night upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21.23) and the conflation with the day of Preparation made the hanging bodies even worse. Therefore they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and their bodies removed.
Crucifixion was an explicitly horrific way to die. Not only were individuals hung for all to see, a reminder about what happens when you challenge the powers that be, but they eventually died because they could no longer support their bodies enough to breathe. Breaking legs was, strangely, an act of kindness that would bring death faster rather than letting it run its natural course.
The soldiers then came to break the legs of the crucified men but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took a spear and ran it through Jesus’ rib cage and blood and water came spilling out.
Strange. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t include these details shortly after Jesus’ death. And yet John lifts them up for those who wish to follow Jesus.
These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
In some way, John wants us to see that all of it, even the very death of Jesus and the treatment of his dead body, is part of God’s great salvific narrative. There are connections drawn from the cross back to the book of Exodus and to the Prayer Book of God’s people, the Psalms.
Jesus suffered and died on a cross because the cross is the way Rome made an example of those who asked too many questions, pushed too many buttons, and instilled too many fears.
And yet, if we were asked why Jesus suffered an died on a cross, we’re likely to say something like, “He died to make us right with God” or “It was Jesus’ way of forgiving us” or “He died so we could go heaven.”
Which, to be clear, aren’t necessarily wrong. The cross is a moment of reconciliation, Jesus does forgive all of us from the cross, and it is part and parcel with what salvation means.
But one of the things we often gloss over, something John really wants us to see and remember, is that Jesus died on the day of Preparation for Passover.
And Passover isn’t about being right with God. The Lord didn’t look upon the misdeeds of the Hebrews in Egypt and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones. I will wash away your sin.”
God says, “I’m getting you out of Egypt! Let’s go!”
Passover is about freedom.
Back in Egypt God’s people were given specific instructions to follow in terms of their Exodus, their deliverance from oppression, and the connections with Jesus’ life and death are rampant:
Jesus is without sin and innocent of the charges lobbed again him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.
Jesus is beaten to the point of death and pierced in the side, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.
Jesus was hung high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.
Perhaps we’ve always seen the connections, maybe John’s words are already obvious to us, but in case our vision has been on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus – it is our delivery out of captivity into something new.
The Psalms and the Exodus story contain these particular details about unbroken bones not as throwaway lines about God’s strange obsession with anatomy and rule-following, but because the transfiguration of the cosmos is something physical and tangible. They help us to see how even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the great sweeping narrative of how far God was willing to go for God’s people.
How far God was willing to go for you and for me.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”
We are, to use the language of the Psalm, rescued by the Lord on the cross, it is our exodus from death to resurrection. In the end of all things, in the resurrection of the dead, God keeps our bones and, as Ezekiel so vividly conveys it, will reknit us to be who we will be in the New Heaven and in the New Earth.
John the Baptist proclaims toward the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus was the Lamb of God. And John the Evangelist takes that proclamation to its beautiful conclusion: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
This story, as strange and tangible and difficult as it is, is like God saying to us, “You want to know what I’m like? You want to know what I’m up to? Look no further than the One hanging on the cross! You cannot break my bones! I am the Passover Lamb who comes to bring you the exodus you need more than you know!”
In many ways, even though it’s perplexing, this is an easy text to preach. For, all of us are all well aware of the innocent suffering that takes place in this world.
A man walked into three massage parlors in Atlanta this week and murdered eight people because, as the law enforcement put it, he was having a bad day.
We just hit the one year no in-person worship because of the Coronavirus, a virus that has now been contracted by more than 121 million people across the globe, and is responsible for more than half a million deaths just here in the United States.
It doesn’t take that long to scroll through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or to turn on the evening news so see exactly why God had to send his Son into the world.
Jesus is the only hope we have.
And when he came to teach about the kingdom of God, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and lift up the last, least, lost, little, and dead, how did we respond? We hung him in a tree to die.
But that’s not the end of the story.
God did not leave God’s people in chains in Egypt, and God does not leave us stuck under the terrible tyranny of sin and death.
Jesus Christ, with bones unbroken, is our Passover Lamb and reminds us that God is in the business of deliverance.
Because Jesus did what Jesus did, because he mounted the hard wood of the cross, offered a decree of forgiveness, died, and was resurrected, we are no longer bound or defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames.
Jesus became sin who knew no sin, nailed them all to the cross, and left them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have already been forgiven, and we’ve been set free.
What was done to us does not define us.
What we’ve done, and failed to do, is no longer kept in a ledger of God’s design.
Our scars and our wounds and our sins and our shames may be real, but so is our rescue.
Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are doing to the same things over and over again.
Jesus says, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that all of us will walk in the light of grace knowing that just as God broke the chains in Egypt, our chains to sin and death are broken right here and right now.
Which is all just another way of saying, “Church is way more rad than we often think it is.” Amen.
We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.
From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.
Until it isn’t.
And then the Law refuses to let us go.
So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.
And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”
At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.
Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.
Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever.
The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.
Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.
But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.
Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.
And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.
Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world.
Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.
Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us.
We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun.
Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [B] (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 51.1-12, Hebrews 5.5-10, John 12.20-33). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the ministry of running, new covenants, flipping questions, wedding rings, Christology, W. David O. Taylor, the judged Judge, clergy collars, the American Dream, and dirty liturgy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sinning Like A Christian
“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas
If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.
Which is no easy thing.
I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”
I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”
Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.
There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.
Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.
That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.
Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.
But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
Election is, often, a dirty word in the church. In our particularly problematic political times we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and partisan ideologies. We encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions in regard to such matters.
However, even more divisive than American electoral politics is the church’s struggle to respond to the Doctrine of Election.
Put simply – The Doctrine of Election (attempts) to explain the lengths of God’s sovereignty. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is a theological way to respond to questions like “Why did God allow this/that to happen?”
To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We, of course, don’t care much for mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions. We like things being neat and orderly. However, God often hands us the complete opposite.
And so, because we like to make order out of chaos, we have disagreed throughout the history of the church about God’s electing work and we now have the great mosaic of denominations rather than “dwelling together in unity.”
Enter Karl Barth. [Barth was a very significant Christian theologian in the middle of the 20th century.]
In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth sets out to define what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer about how election is not something to be earned or deserved, but simply is the way that it is. But then, in a profound and rather long excursus, Barth compares the elected and the rejected characters throughout the Old Testament in order to bring home exactly what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ.
Cain and Abel – The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision on God’s behalf concerning them. However, even though Abel is clearly favored and Cain is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain. Notably, even though Cain killed his brother, God promises to protect Cain’s life.
Jacob and Esau – Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the little heel grabber) who ultimately receives the birthright and the blessing. However, God does not abandon either of them to their own devices, but promises to bless the world through their offspring.
Rachel and Leah – Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. However, God does not reject Rachel and she, eventually, gives birth to Joseph.
Joseph and his brothers – Joseph is rejected by his brothers and self off into slavery. However, Joseph is instrumental in the deliverance of God’s people from famine who are then brought into the land of Egypt.
On and on we could go. Barth’s central point is that even though certain figures appear rejected by God, they are, in fact, blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus.
Without them the great narrative simply isn’t possible.
And then, in Jesus, we discover both the elect and the reject. The Elect Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.
He is regaled by the crowds and dismissed by the religious authorities.
He is celebrated by the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to be chased out of town for preaching a sermon about himself.
He is surrounded by followers who hang on his every word only to be abandoned by all of them when he, himself, hung on the cross.
And yet, how does Jesus choose to use some of his final earthly breaths?
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We, all of us, deserve rejection. We all choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. That, in a sense, is what Lent is all about. This liturgical season is focused on considering the condition of our condition.
To borrow an expression of Paul’s: There is nothing good in us.
We, to put it another way, are up the creek without a paddle.
And yet, strangely enough, the elected rejected Jesus Christ takes all of our sins, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever. Thanks be to God.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
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.
His hair was still wet from the baptism in the Jordan river when Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark tells us that the Spirit literally kicked Jesus out in the unknown places.
And there, for forty days, Jesus ate nothing and was tempted by the devil.
It is a tradition in the life of the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while fasting from certain items, behavior, or practices.
Some of us give up social media, or chocolate, or unkind thoughts (good luck with that one). While some of us add new disciplines like daily bible reading and prayer, intentional silence, or journaling.
Nevertheless, this temptation story leaves us with a question: Who in the world is this Jesus?
Earlier in the gospel we read about how he was born to a virgin in a back alley of the town of bread, and how an angelic host sang the Good News of his arrival to a bunch of nobodies out in a field in the middle of the night.
Later, magi from faraway places brought him gifts fit for royalty and King Herod was so terrified of his arrival that he ordered all of the children in Bethlehem to be put to death.
We then fast forward to his baptism by his cousin, after which the sky was torn into pieces as a voice bellowed: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
But now this Son of Man and Son of God is out who-knows-where dealing with who-knows-what.
And yet, this story tells us exactly what kind of Messiah this Jesus is and will be. It gives a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos. It helps us to know how it ends just as it begins.
“Okay,” Satan says, “If you are who you say you are, let’s see some ID. No pockets in your robe? Fine. I’m sure you’re hungry. We’ve been out here for forty days. So why don’t you make some of these stones into bread? It might come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”
“It is written,” Jesus says, “That we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”
“So you know your scripture!” the Devil replies, “I understand. And, frankly, I’m with you Jesus – you can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But what about this? Would you like some political power? Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all you have to do, and it’s a tiny thing really, is bow down and worship me.”
“It is written,” Jesus says “we shall only worship one God.”
“Okay, okay, geez. Don’t be such a stick in the mud,” the devil continues, “So you won’t show compassion to the hungry, not even yourself, and you won’t just go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. Fine. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too. So what about this? Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for doesn’t it say in the Psalms: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’? Do it and the people will be filled with faith.”
“It is written,” Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
“This is getting boring,” Satan intones, “I’m getting out of here.”
Pretty wild stuff.
The devil temps the Lord of lords and fails to catch him. The devil even attempts to use scripture to catch Jesus in the snare, but it doesn’t work.
Now, usually, when we hear this story at the beginning of Lent (if we hear it at all) it is framed in such a way to encourage us to resist our own temptations. Lent, after all, is a season when we ditch a bad habit or pick up new ones.
And, yes, we should resist temptation – there are things we want to do that we shouldn’t do.
But if that’s all the story is meant to do, than surely Jesus’ could’ve been a little clearer about what is and isn’t permissible. If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, than wouldn’t it have been better for the Lord to add a little exhortative proclamation for the people in the back?
Do you see? This isn’t, really, a story about how we deal with our temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world, how Jesus deals with us.
Notice – The devil offers Jesus objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles.
And yet, Jesus refused all three.
It would be one thing if Satan offered Jesus ten Big Macs, or nuclear weapons, or let your imagination run wild. But the devil didn’t. Instead, the devil presented Jesus with possibilities for the transformation of the world and Jesus did nothing.
Except, and here’s the real kicker, throughout the rest of the Gospel Jesus does, in fact, do all the things that the devil suggests!
Instead of whipping together a nice loaf of artisan bread out in the wilderness, instead of making some biscuits from the rocks, Jesus later feeds the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of wonder bread and a handful of fish sticks.
Instead of getting caught up in all the political policies to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from, of all places, the cross of his execution and then ascends to the right hand of the Father as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Instead of pulling off a Houdini-esque magic trick that would make even the crowds in Las Vegas jump to their feet, instead of jumping to certain death only to be rescued by the heavenly host at the last second, he dies… and refuses to stay dead.
We often think of Jesus and the devil as these two far ends of the spectrum – one good and the other evil. And yet, at least according to this story in the strange new world of the Bible, the difference between Jesus and the devil is not in the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those things come to fruition.
And the devil actually has some good suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself when you can easily rustle up some grub? Why let these fools destroy themselves when you can take control of everything? Why let the world struggle with doubt when you can prove you are entirely worthy of their faith?
The devil here, frighteningly, actually sounds a whole lot like, well, us. His ideas are some that we regularly champion both inside, and outside, of the church.
Who among us wouldn’t want to give food to the hungry?
Who among us wouldn’t like to see our politics get in order?
Who among us wouldn’t enjoy seeing a powerful demonstration of God’s power every once in a while?
But Jesus, for as much as he is like us, he is also completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and to all of us, that power, whether it’s over creation, politics, or miracles, doesn’t actually transform the cosmos.
Jesus, in his refusal to take the devil’s offers, reminds us that we, humans, are obsessed with believing that power (and more of it) will make the kingdom come here on earth.
And we’ve been obsessed with it since the beginning.
In the early days of the church’s bed fellowship with the powers and principalities there were forced baptisms in order to make perfect little citizens.
In the Middle Ages the church require more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while the cathedrals got bigger as did the waistlines of the clergy.
And even recently, the lust for power (political, theological, geographical) has led to violence, familial strife, and ecclesial schisms.
We’ve convinced ourselves, over and over again, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more fight, if we could just get everyone to be exactly like us that everything would turn out for the best.
But it never does.
Instead, the poor keep getting poorer and the rich keep getting richer.
Marriages keep falling apart.
Children keep falling asleep hungry.
Churches keep fracturing.
Communities keep collapsing.
Therefore, though it pains us to admit it, Jesus seems to have a point in his squabble with the Adversary. Because the demonic systems of power, even those under the auspices of making the world a better place, they often lead to just as much misery, if not more.
The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.
The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.
Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what we want to do.
But here’s the Good News, the really Good News: Jesus is able to resist temptations that we would not, could not, and frankly do not.
Even at the very end, when Jesus’ hands are nailed to the cross, he is still tempted by the Adversary through the voices in the crowd: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”
But at the end Jesus doesn’t respond with passages of scripture. He doesn’t offer a litany of things to do or things to avoid. Instead, he dies.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.
The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”
Most of them were asleep.
Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.
It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.
She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged.
She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”
“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”
She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”
“I guess so.”
“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”
We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”
“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”
I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”
“My turn to do what?” I asked.
“To confess your sins to me.”
So I did.
Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.
And that is astonishing.
Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.
But the psalmist sees it different.
The psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.
The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.
Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.
After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!
Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own.
That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.
But Lent is also a time for honesty.
Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own.
Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are.
We are dead in our sins.
And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.
We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen.