Encouragement to Discipleship (Dt. 26:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13)
I have never been one who thought of the Lenten season as a time to be morose and brood about sin. Believe it or not, I grew up thinking that Lent in that way was not a part of my Baptist tradition. It was only later that I learned that some Baptists think of very little else than sin – usually someone else’s. Much later I learned that the name “Lent” itself is derived from a Middle English word for “spring,” which, in turn, was derived from the lengthening of daylight hours we begin to experience now. I think that’s hopeful not sombre. Our experience and our confidence is that it will get lighter and lighter. So, Lent can be a hopeful time to consider our life of following Jesus toward the greater light. Now, following anything or anyone requires discipline and choice. I want to listen to our scripture lessons today in the light of some of the choices for our discipleship with which they challenge us as we follow Jesus. Our scriptures, though diverse in many ways, are tied together as pieces of the ancient church’s story by the fact that the characters in them tell out parts of their tradition, their story, their scripture as a response to their experience. If we’ll listen these stories, they can also give us some benchmarks our discipleship.
Our Lesson from Deuteronomy contains a summary of part of Israel’s story that worshipers at the Feast of Weeks recited when they presented to God a sample-basket of the first of their crops. The first challenge or choice with which this story presents readers who would use it as a benchmark for discipleship is that the story is retold within the community of faith. We tend to think individualistically, but the Bible does not. It thinks in a corporate, community way. Second, the story began with reminder that their first-parent had been “a wandering Aramean”. Let me pause over those words. This community of Hebrews were called on to remember that their roots were not Hebrew at all, they were Arameans, and Arameans, though the years of Israel’s history, were often called their enemies. What was distinctive about the Hebrews (whose very name means “boundary crosser”) was not purity of ethnic origin or heritage. No their ancestors were “others,” “strangers,” “foreigners,” “immigrants,” “refugees.” They all started as something else. In claiming that memory today, we understand that being God’s people is not a being member of what we’ve been, but of what we’re becoming. We’re all rooted somewhere else, we’re all strangers and aliens. Nobody’s “pure-blooded” and “the real thing” (whatever that might mean). We are challenged to remember how we started and accept diverse others of all sorts. The circle of God’s love is very wide and challenges ours to be.
Third, our foreign forebears were “wandering,” which Hebrew word has the connotation both of being homeless and of being helpless. We are asked to remember what that’s like as we welcome others. These three things challenge our discipleship as specific ways of following Jesus. To erect doctrinal, social, or political fences and force people either to stay in or keep out contradicts the discipleship our community requires.
Next, most importantly, these diverse wanderers (some of whose names were Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph), were invited to follow God to a good and safe place for them to be at home. These wandering ancestors chose to follow, and their journey, by and by, led their children to a safe stopping place in Egypt as a shelter from famine. That shelter turned into an ugly place of slavery when a nameless pharaoh enslaved them as pawns of a greedy state. These slaves, now again without a good and safe home, cried to God who liberated them and invited them to follow, once again, to their own land where they, once again, flourished. In solidarity with these their great-great (many times great) grandparents, the worshipers in Deuteronomy 26 told this, as their own story, out loud, and it was as if God had done this, not just a long time ago, but, right now, for them. The motive for all their following, worship, and work was gratitude for the person and work of this God who had been faithful to their wandering ancestors, and was still faithful to them. As we read this text this day, it challenges us to choose to make our pilgrimage with gratitude to God and to one another.
As we, week by week, come here to tell God’s story, it is a story that is ancient and yet ever new. This text encourages people through the generations to choose to see their lives within the worshiping community of faith as a continuation of that same story of God that began with a wandering foreigner. Of course, after the first generation, the real stories of these folk were different in detail from those in the biblical story. And so are ours. In spite of the change of details, however, these people, too, knew what it meant “to wander” and be lost. They knew what it meant not to know where to turn, and to cry to God and to find God sufficient for the moment. And so do we.
I am convinced deep in my soul that gratitude to God and others is the root of Christian worship, action, and discipleship, but it’s a choice whether to walk gratefully or not. And it makes a difference. The words “gratitude” and “grace” are related in English. In classical Latin and the Greek of the New Testament the same word serves for both (Latin gratia, Greek charis). It is very difficult to experience God’s grace, much less be channels of it if we have not been formed and shaped by and in genuine gratitude to God and one another. To live in communities that tell God’s story and base our common life in gratitude is a choice. We can do it or not. One of my former colleagues used to say that people could visit the Louvre and be swept away by the glories of art, or simply whine about how much the walking and standing had made their feet hurt.
In the last verse of the Old Testament Lesson, Israel’s ancestors are challenged to share and celebrate the first part of their harvest in the context of God’s people who were like them (called “you” in the text), those who are not like them (“the Levites”), and those others very unlike them (“aliens”), we can choose a path of discipleship that isn’t morose, negative, and about how bad we’ve been. We can choose to celebrate it in an inclusive context of diversity, in sympathy with the weak and struggling. We choose the attitude with which we will follow Jesus, just as much as we choose how to follow him.
Luke’s account of Jesus in the wilderness comes at it from the context of Jesus’ genealogy that occurs just before this story. This genealogy showed that “people thought” (it says) that Jesus was the son of the humble woodworker Joseph. Of course, he was, but the genealogy actually showed that he was, much more, the son of such as David, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Adam, and, finally, son of God. Now, in Jesus’ culture such a stupendous claim was sure to be tested and challenged. In our story, the challenger is not a human, but “the slanderer,” or the devil. Jesus’ choice of mission and ministry would be tested. How would he do as the Messiah?
In essence, the devil tempts Jesus to misuse power in three ways. Old Scratch (as my mother used to call the devil) says, “Won’t you serve yourself? Won’t you serve me? and Won’t you show how godly you are by daring God to save you? Jesus responded three times from the Book of Deuteronomy. His answer was “No, my loyalty is to God and God alone.” At this level of the story, Jesus chose loyalty to God by claiming the word of the scriptures as his own story, and refused a misuse of power. On this level, the story is about Jesus’ triumph over the temptation to put something or someone else than God first.
Luke also tells this story at another level. He’s not just passing on information about what happened to Jesus at least a generation before he was writing. He is telling this story as a model for normal disciples of Jesus who are not only being tested, but actually being enticed – tempted – to make harmful choices about how to follow Jesus in a different day. And, many years later, we, too, may so hear and read this text. In this reading Jesus and disciples with him, are enticed, not to do what he/they/we can’t do – that’s really no temptation at all – but rather what he/they/we can do.
Here, the devil tempts Jesus, and disciples of every age, to decide to use certain methods to get things done. In this text, when the devil says, “If you are the son of God (in vv. 3 and 9),” the Greek makes clear that he means something more like, “Since you are the Son of God…” The devil says, “Since, you are the Son of God, use that great power to honour and feed yourself, and do it in a flashy, miraculous way.” “Turn stones to bread!” Jesus said, “People aren’t fed by bread alone.” If we were reading Matthew, we could include the rest of the verse from Deuteronomy about every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth, but Luke simply stops with “People are not fed by bread alone.” Period. In Luke’s story the tempter comes as a distinct character, for us, the tempter may be more subtle than a red suit and horns. This temptation is to try to serve God by making ourselves comfortable first. And Jesus says, “God’s way isn’t self-centred, or about meeting our own needs, as important as these may be.” Again, this is not a temptation to do what we cannot do, but to misuse what we can as we follow Jesus. Discipleship is not about making ourselves feel good and comfortable, even in the service of others. What a lesson!
Next, the devil says, “God has made me the broker of all wealth and fame. If you want that, you’ll have to honour and serve me.” “Do it and I’ll give you the world.” Jesus says, “It is written, Honour and serve God only.” For us, to make a long story short, this is being tempted to use methods that really conflict with the other-centred, inclusive, gratitude-based, story-telling values of community that Jesus teaches. It can be easy and effective to manipulate people, push their guilt-buttons, play on their fears, and give them what they want, all in the name of Jesus, to attract people. I heard a public lecture from one of my former students, who’s now a professor, that cautioned about making church just another commodity in our consumerist culture. We go to church to get the religion we want. It’s being done, every day in churches now, but to continue to choose such methods really pays homage to values other than those of Jesus. “Serve God alone,” no matter how easy it is to manipulate and get to people with slick tricks and bumper-sticker slogans.
The third time the devil says, “Since you are the Son of God (he’s back to that) show your power by tossing yourself off the top of the temple.” By now the devil’s on to the fact that some people are impressed if you quote the Bible, so he lets fly with a couple of verses from Psalm 91. “Don’t worry, God’s angels will protect you if you jump.” Jesus responded, “Don’t test God.” It’s not that Jesus won’t trust God and take risks. That will become evident in the rest of his story. But Jesus says, “Don’t take risks for stupid or selfish reasons.” Don’t just dare God to “come through for me.” What I take him to mean here is to be prudent and thoughtful about decisions that we must take in discipleship. What this implies for those who would follow Jesus is that we must continually assess and evaluate what we are doing so as to choose to do what is wise today. This may mean a new course from that of yesterday, and yet another from tomorrow’s. Thinking, reflecting, meditating about how we follow Jesus and are faithful to his teachings is an ongoing task. One reason for this comes in Luke’s unique conclusion to his story. The devil, was only bested by Jesus for a while until a more opportune time. Temptation to cheat keeps morphing into new forms. Each year, Lent comes as a good opportunity to reflect on the community of which we’re called to be a part and how to be faithful, and grateful, and joyful. And move forward.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.