Holy Fertilizer

Luke 13.1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Interior coffee shop: early morning.

Rain falls steadily against a window.

An assortment of customers in various states of caffeination are spread out among the tables and chairs.

A preacher sits alone in the corner. Computer and Bible are on the table, a subpar sermon is coming along splendidly.

He tries to focus on the matter at hand, but he can’t help but overhear a conversation from a nearby table. 

“Can you believe he cheated on her?”

“Oh honey, that’s not the half of it. I heard he’s been living two lives between two houses with two different families.”

The preacher knows better than to eavesdrop, so he goes back to the flashing cursor on his computer. He’s able to jot a few ideas down, none of which will actually make it into the sermon. When, a few minutes later, he catches bits of different conversation at a different table.

“You know, the Ukrainians, they’re getting what they deserve. They elected that Zelensky and his liberal agenda. I think we would do well to have a leader like Putin here, someone tough who isn’t going to let anything get in his way.”

The preacher closes his computer and decides to leave before he overhears even more sinners talking about other sinners and their sin.

There are times when I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the time of our Lord, that we’ve progressed from some of our wandering recklessness.

And then I am reminded that, all things considered, not much has changed.

Do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will die like them.

What a grace-filled and hopeful word from the Word!

Robert Farrar Capon wrote that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should behave like bad kids. We ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing congregations and steal all their bottles of religion pills, and spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.

Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. We’re addicted to the certainty that, as bad as we might be, at least we’re not as bad as those other people over there.

There’s a reason reality TV is still such a favorite past time within and among the wider culture. We feel better about ourselves when we get to see other people behaving badly. It’s also why we’re quick to post photos of our perfect little families, even though they acted like animals while we were trying to get that perfect photo, so that everyone else will know, with certainty, that we have it all together.

But the sad truth is none of us know what we’re doing – some of us are better at pretending we know what we’re doing. But at the end of the day we’re all making it up along the way.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferiority.

The crowds bring to Jesus their query; they want to know if people get punished for their sins – they want to know what it takes to be guilty.

And here’s the bottom line: if the God we worship punished us according to the sins we’ve already committed, the sins we’re currently committing, and even the sins we will commit in the future, then none of us would be around to worship in the first place.

Or, to put it another way: If every bad thing happens because God does it to punish us, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.

Over the centuries the church has been a place of guilt. Make em feel bad about their behavior, scare them about punishments in the hereafter, and they’ll show up in droves to hear about it all again next Sunday. And the same is true in our wider culture; we’re all keeping our little ledger books in our minds about who has done what to us.

But the strange new world of the Bible, the strange new world we talk about week after week, isn’t obsessed with guilt. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness!

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

What then, should we make of Jesus’ quip about repentance? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will die like them.”

Of course there should be repentance – a turning back, a return to the Lord. We’ve all wandered away from the Way. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, not a bargain chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.

Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.

We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, and maybe we should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, the more we lob on guilt, the more likely we are to keep sinning because of our guilt.

The only thing we can ever really do about our sins, is admit them. It’s a great challenge to be able to see ourselves for who we really are, sinners in the hands of a loving God, and then take a courageous step in the direction of repentance. But if we ever muster up the gumption to do so, it will be because we live in the light of grace.

Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family, perfect job, perfect paycheck, perfect morality, perfect theology earns us anything.

Grace is not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And, according to the wondrous weirdness of the Lord, grace is like manure.

Or, perhaps we should call it holy fertilizer.

This is classic Jesus here. The crowds approach with their question and his answer to their question is a story, a parable.

A man has a vineyard and in the middle of the vineyard he planted a fig tree. But for three years it produced not a single fig. So one day the vineyard owner says to the gardener, “I can’t take it anymore. This fig tree is wasting my good soil. Cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Why not give it another year? I’ll spread some manure on it this afternoon and maybe next year it will have some fruit.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned and yet, even in its simplicity there are a bunch of weird and notable details. 

For instance, why does the vineyard owner plant a fig trees among a bunch of grapes? Do you think he was trying to develop a new, and perhaps bizarre, variety of wine? Or maybe he was going to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

Strange. But perhaps nothing is stranger than the gardener. This gardener speaks in defense of a speechless fig tree.

And what does the gardener says, “Lord, let it alone for a year. Let me give it some manure.”

At least, that’s what it sort of says in our pew bibles.

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN.”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Lord, forgive it!

These might be some of the most striking for from the strange new world of the Bible both because they proclaim the forgiveness of the Lord for not reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

There’s a reason that, when we nail Jesus to the cross, he declares, “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what we are doing.”

Lent is the strange and blessed time to admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. That we are in need of all the grace and manure we can get.

The cross with this we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump because of us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

It’s wild that Jesus has the gall to tell this story at all, and that the divine gardener offers to spread some holy fertilizer on the fig tree, on us.

Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, becomes the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be. 

God’s grace gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and get co-mingled in the soil of our souls. It is messy and even bizarre, but without it we are nothing.

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we’re doing. 

For, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all the world problems by now. But we haven’t.

We are fruitless fig trees standing alone in the middle of God’s vineyard. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing. 

And yet (!) Jesus looks at our barren limbs, all of our fruitless works, our sin sick souls, and he says the three words we deserve not at all: “Lord, forgive them.”

On Friday afternoon, the aforementioned Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia during a rally that was celebrating the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. While Russian forces attacked Kyiv and blockaded civilians in other parts of Ukraine, Putin assured his people that Russia was forced into this war into to get the Ukrainian people out of their misery.

And then he said, “And this is where the words from the scriptures come to mind, ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’”

That a world leader used Jesus’ words to justify violence and bloodshed is not unusual. It’s been done again and again throughout the centuries. Even here in the US, it is a familiar refrain whenever violence is on the table. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton each used the quote at one point or another during their years in office. 

But Jesus spoke those words before mounting the hard wood of the cross, not before going to war. Jesus laid down his life for his so-called friends who betrayed him, denied him, and abandoned him.

Jesus laid down his life for us.

And even with a crown of thorns adorning his head, and the cross over his shoulder, he still says, “Lord, forgive them.” Amen. 

The Playlist of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 1.4-20 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including door stoppers, double dipping, the importance of names, John Behr, the theology of death, singing the faith, prophetic calls, the “S” word, Good News, blessed assurance, Little Red Riding Hood, and apocalyptic language. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Playlist of Faith

Beware The Preacher

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including coaching connections, problematic relationship advice, Reba McEntire, pots and pans, letter writing, priests, sin removal, eager waiting, cultures of call, anti-stewardship, and power cocoons. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Beware The Preacher

A Different Kind Of Church

Psalm 124.8

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

“A Different Kind Of Church.”

Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”

I see these slogans online, on tee-shirts, on billboards.

And, truth be told, they drive me crazy. They drive me crazy because they all present a version of church that is false advertising.

It’s the same when churches boldly proclaim their commitment to inclusiveness. It’s one thing to say it, and another thing entirely to live it.

More often than not, the call to inclusiveness in the church is all about getting people in the door. Some pastor says, “God loves you just the way you are,” but then, rather quickly, the church becomes a program of moral observance and we no longer want people to be the way they are – we want them to be like us. 

There’s no such thing as a different kind of church. Sure, churches might vary in expressions of worship, or missional engagement, or even multicultural representation. But, at the end of the day, churches are all the same because they are filled with the same kinds of people: sinners.

The most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that all of us are the sinners for whom Christ died. 

Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!

Karl Barth puts it this way: “It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong… We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that… [in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.”

We live in a time in which church and individuals alike excel in the practice of marginalization. That is: we delight in demonstrating all of our rightness against all the wrongness we see around us. It’s why we put certain names on our bumper stickers and attack people on social media and whisper when particular people dare to sit near us in church. 

Despite what we might feel, or even believe, there are no innocents in human history. Most of our programs to make the world a better place accomplish little more than making the people who created the programs feel better about themselves (read: ourselves). 

We don’t need programs. We don’t need “different kinds of churches.”

The only thing we need is the One who comes to deliver us from ourselves. That deliverer’s name is Jesus Christ – the judged Judge who comes to be judged in our place – the great rectifier of our wrongs. 

Or, to put it another way, our help isn’t in us. Our help is in God. Could there be any better news than that?

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

By Thine Own Rejected

Psalm 22.1-5

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Mark 15.25-39

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aa! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn  in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It was early in the morning when they crucified Jesus. 

The night before he was breaking bread with his friends and sharing wine. He was washing feet and talking about the command to love.

But then he was betrayed and one by one his disciples deserted him and denied him.

He went on trial before the powers and principalities, accused of crimes uncommitted, and ultimately sentenced to death.

He was paraded through the city to mocking crowds. His weakness was such that someone was commanded to help him carry his cross, his instrument of death, all the way to Golgotha.

And in the early morning light, they crucified him.

Nailed his hands and feet to the wood, and lifted him high for all eyes to see.

One by one they came to see this “King of the Jews” and the mocked him. 

“You said you would destroy the temple and build it in three days! Good luck doing all that from up there!”

“You’ve saved others, let’s see if you can save yourself.”

“Come down from that cross you soon-to-be-dead-king, and we will believe you.”

Even those who were themselves hanging on crosses next to him lifted up their own taunts.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land and it lasted for three hours. And then, around three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and he died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I have thought about those words for a long time.

I can remember sitting in a dimly lit sanctuary as a teenager hearing those words proclaimed from a rather portly-looking Jesus in a dramatic re-enactment.

I can remember coming across them in college and wondering why in the world Matthew and Mark decided to include them in their versions of the Gospel.

I have read all sorts of commentaries and listened to all sorts of sermons just on this one sentence and, frankly, not one of them have left me satisfied.

I have been unsatisfied with so many thoughts on these words because they so often try to avoid what it is that Jesus said – they try to avoid the words that we, for millennia, have proclaimed in faith.

When I was in seminary, we debated this verse in a class. My professor wanted us to explain to him why Jesus used these words as his last. And so we competed with one another – “Well, surely Jesus meant to quote the entirety of Psalm 22nd but died before he could finish.” “Naturally, Jesus intended his disciples to understand that he didn’t really mean what he said.” And on and on we went.

That is, until my professor slammed his hands on the podium and declared, “This is one of the most important verses in the Bible! You cannot explain it away. Look at the words! Jesus has taken on our sin and he is abandoned!”

There is no good way to talk about this text. This is not a passage that leaves us walking with our heads held high. This is the depth of our depravity held high for all eyes to see.

This is, to put it bluntly, our sin.

In order for us to come to grips with the Cross of Christ, we are called to consider the gravity of sin. And I don’t just mean the little choices we make every day that we shouldn’t, or the things we avoid doing that we should do. I mean them plus all of the horrific examples that you only need a moment to scroll through Twitter to find.

“None is righteous. No, not one.” St. Paul says.

And he’s right.

Had we been there in Jerusalem all those years ago, we, like the crowds, would’ve started the week with “Hosanna” and ended it with “Crucify!”

Even his most faithful disciples abandoned him in the end.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Why did he say it?

The moment of Jesus’ death is total hideousness. In that moment Jesus experienced separation for the Father for the first and only time.

Paul puts it this way: He became sin who knew known sin. 

The condemnation that we deserved was absorbed by Jesus in totality.

Consider the strange new world of the Bible – God looked upon us and our sin and what did God do? God did not remain above and far removed from our struggle. Instead, God chose to come right down into the muck and mire of our existence. God looked upon us and our sins and God entered into our very condition, birthed as a baby to a virgin in a manger.

That baby grew to proclaim the Good News for a world drowning in bad news. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He befriended the lonely. And when he entered the Holy City we nailed him to a cross.

And in so doing, God removed the condemnation we rightly deserved.

This will no doubt cause us to wince, or simply to dismiss it because, surely, we don’t deserve condemnation. Maybe someone else like those people we saw on TV or the people who voted for the other candidate or for the person who keeps insisting on posting such reprehensible things, but definitely not us.

But we, all of us, are sinners without a hope in the world unless (unless!) we have something that can save us.

Something had to be done about Sin otherwise we would be doomed.

Something had to be done to get us from where we were to where we could be.

And that something is actually a someone – his name is Jesus.

In the Cross, justice is served. But it is also an injustice. It is an injustice because Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world. 

All of our versions of justice in this life can certainly make things better and, at the very least, bring comfort to those wronged. But it will never be true justice because the specter of sin raises its ugly head over and over again.

But divine justice is altogether different. 

We do not deserve God’s love, and yet God’s reigning attribute is love for us.

There is victory that begins on the cross (and comes to fruition in the empty tomb) in which the old word of Sin and Death is destroyed. That is our proclamation. It is, to put it simply, the Good News.

And yet, we sit in the shadow of the cross.

It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them up in our living rooms and even tattoo them on our skin – not just as a symbol of our faith, but a reminder about what we did and what has been done for us.

We lift high the cross because the Gospels remind us over and over again the bitterest of ironies – the only person who can touch us and heal and forgives and make us whole is dead. Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there. Amen. 

Write This Down

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the pros and cons of clergy couples, connect ministries, rule following, divine jealousy, the freedom of the Law, Thomas Merton, the foolishness of the cross, the S word, musical instruments, and the Temple tantrum. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Write This Down

The Devil We Know

Psalm 91.9-13

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.

Luke 4.1-13

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.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

We Are What We Pretend To Be

What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?

This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.

And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.

As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”

Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.

So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith. 

But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.

Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…

Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness. 

The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.

Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.”