Who are we? A test.
Homily: Yr C Lent 1, February 14, 2016, Highlands United North Vancouver
Reading: Luke 4.1-13
Lent is traditionally a season of self-examination and repentance in the life of the church, and that seems to me to be an entirely appropriate, no more than that, an entirely necessary thing for the church to be doing, in all times, yes, but especially in our present time. And when I say repentance, I don’t mean it in the moral sense of penance or of being sorry for what we’ve done, although there is a time for that too. No I mean it much more in the original sense of the Greek word metanoia, that is, a time for turning around, a time for change, a time for a paradigm shift. A time for a new way of being and doing church.
Just as I was about to board my flight to Vancouver on Friday, there was a ping on my phone and I had a look at a Facebook post from my friend Mark Dunwoody who works for the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. He called it a rambling, and he wrote, in part,
Some words have powerful meanings; A.W. Tower makes a strong statement at the beginning of his book The Knowledge of the Holy: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
I’d like to propose, in a similar way, that what comes into our minds when we think of the word ‘church’ is the most important element in shaping how we function as a church.
When I say the word ‘church’ what comes into your mind?
You don’t have to tell me right now, though I may ask some of you again over lunch later on.
Questions of identity are important, and really what my friend Mark is getting at is a question of identity, the question of our corporate identity.
Today’s gospel is about a question of identity.
It is for many of us a familiar text, a story that we often read in one of its three versions on this first Sunday of Lent. It is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. At least that’s what we usually call it. However, instead of using the word ‘temptation’, I prefer to use the word ‘test’, which is an equally good translation of the original. I find the word ‘test’ to be more helpful because too often we reduce the word temptation to a narrow moralism, a moralism which we then try to emulate when we do things like giving up chocolate for Lent. There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate for Lent, but Lent, like this story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness, is about so much more than that.
It is, first of all, a story about identity. Who am I? It’s a question we’re all faced with. You’ll recall that immediately before today’s text, Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan, and as he was praying, the heavens were opened and a voice came from heaven which said “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
But in today’s passage, the devil casts doubt on that identity. “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Are you really the Son of God? And if so, what does that mean?
It’s a question of identity. Who am I? What is my story? What is the story in which my identity is rooted?
But it’s also a question of trust. When we are put to the test, where do we put our trust? In what or in whom do we put our trust? I think that most of the time, most of us prefer to trust in ourselves, to trust in our own strength. In our intelligence, in our health, in our experience, in our own strength of character. But in this story, the Spirit of God has deliberately led Jesus into a place of weakness, a place of vulnerability where his ability to rely on his own strength must be greatly diminished. Alone, in the wilderness, fasting, you’d have to think that Jesus is in pretty rough shape after forty days, without much strength to resist the testing of his adversary. Yet this place of weakness is where the Spirit wants Jesus to be; this is the place where we can learn who we are and in whom we put our trust, a place that is, of spiritual growth.
As I was preparing to preach here this morning, I had a look at your website, and under sermons it said something like this: “The sermon looks for the metaphor in biblical scripture that relates to the challenges we all face today.” So I’m going to take you up on that. In fact I’m going to go even a bit further. This morning I want to look at our gospel text not just as a metaphor but as an allegory. So let me retell you the story of Jesus testing in the wilderness as an allegory for the church. Because I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that the church in North America is in the wilderness these days.
If you had to place our church into a season of the church year, I think that many of us would place the church in the season of Lent. And maybe that’s not just a matter of social circumstance. Maybe that’s where the Spirit of God has led us. So here we go: The Testing in the Wilderness.
The church, the body of Christ, left its comfortable and influential place in Christian culture and society and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty, maybe fifty years the church was tested by the devil. The wilderness is a harsh and difficult place. During those years, many things changed. Attendance on Sundays declined, the church lost its influence in society, finances became fragile and by the end of those years the church felt weak, vulnerable, weary and irrelevant.
And the devil said to the church, “If you are the church, then you should meet the needs of your members.” You see, the devil is clever and cunning. Because he knew that meeting the needs of church members is a good thing. And he knew that churches want to meet the needs of their members. But the devil also knew that meeting the needs of its members could consume all of church’s time and energy. And he knew that there was a fine line between meeting needs and trying to make everyone happy. And he knew that if the church made meeting the needs of its members its primary focus, it would turn inward, and that inward focus would shape the church, and that eventually, it would cease to be the church. How will the church respond to the first test?
The devil then led the church to a high place and showed it in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he reminded the church of the days when it had power and authority in the land.
And he said to the church, “I can restore you to your position of power and influence. I can make you relevant again, and restore the authority you once had.” And the church was tempted by the devil’s promise of power and influence. Many longed for the good old days, the days when Sunday mornings were reserved for the church, when politicians still paid attention to its teachings, when people found that what the church was saying was relevant to their lives. And the devil was being cunning again. He remembered only too well how the church had been tempted by power in the past, aligning itself with colonialism and consumerism. He knew that the desire for relevance was great, and that perhaps in these present times he could convince the church to water down its message, to let go of the Bible, or to stop talking about Jesus so much in order to make itself more palatable to the society which surrounded it. Perhaps the church could be convinced to behave less like a prophet and more like a business, to blend into the surrounding culture until it was visible no more. And so the devil nodded wisely as the church pondered how to regain its power and relevance.
And then the devil led the church to the most difficult place of all. He brought the church to the brink of death, to the place where the church would be brought to die. And he asked the church, when you are faced with death, from low attendance, lack of money and cultural irrelevance, will you cry out to God for survival? Will your own survival become your overriding priority? In whom, or in what will you put your trust? For the devil knew that once the church put its own survival ahead of the mission that God was calling it to do, it would no longer be the church.
The devil in this story is clever. Because in each instance he dangles something good in front of the church. Meeting the needs of its members. Relevance. Survival. All good things. Things that are easy for the church to grasp at, especially when we are feeling weak and vulnerable.
And how we respond to each of these tests will really depend on how we answer the following three questions about the church:
Who are we?
What are we for?
Who do we trust?
Or back to my friend Mark’s rambling, “what comes into our minds when we think of the word church is the most important element in shaping how we function as a church. The way we define church will determine how we measure success, how we focus time and energy, how we design our strategies and form our ministry strategies, even how we pray.”
If we think of the church as a building, or as this community that meets on Sunday mornings, or as the people of God in this place, or as an institution or a denomination, all of these will influence how we respond to the tests posed in our story this morning.
I’d like to suggest that we think of the church as a movement. A movement started by Jesus, a movement led by the Spirit, a movement of people on a mission, a God-given mission to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in our time and place. Because if that’s who we are and that’s what we’re for, then this will shape the way we will be and do church, and it will shape the way that we respond to the tests of the present time. A movement of people doing God’s mission will never put its own needs first, nor will it prioritize its power or relevance or influence, nor will it be preoccupied with its own survival. The mission comes first. The church was never meant to exist for its own sake, it is not an end in itself.
But what is our mission? How are we as this particular expression of church being called to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in our time and place?
Now that’s a good question. That’s the question the devil never asks. But that is the question that the Spirit is leading us to. That’s the question that may require us to reimagine what it means to be church and how we do church.
If we were to continue reading the gospel of Luke, we would find that the very next section after the testing in the wilderness is the part where Jesus announces his mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Now that’s a mission statement! Jesus’ time in the wilderness, his time of testing, allowed him to discern, articulate, embrace and embark upon his God-given mission.
My hope is that the church’s time in the wilderness will do the same for us. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, a time to discover in the midst of weakness who we are and what we are for. And I am hopeful because we are a people who put our trust in God. God’s mission will continue, the movement started by Jesus will continue, even if some its institutional and organizational forms will not. But that’s OK. We are an Easter people. And we know that when we’re in Lent, even as we see Good Friday in our path, we know that we’re always heading towards Easter.