The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday after Epiphany
For any who missed Ash Wednesday last week, Lent has begun, officially. It comes early this year. I am confused. I drive home in the evening, and still see nice Christmas lights glowing. It doesn’t feel like Lent. Some of you may recall Lent was not part of my life until I became an Episcopalian. Later I understood why we didn’t observe Lent – didn’t have to. Baptists had already given up all known pleasures.
Scripture doesn’t mention Lent, and I suspect that is partly why we didn’t either. Lent began in the early church as a forty-hour fast before Easter Day. And you think giving up just chocolate is tough. Time passes in the church. The faithful relax. Worship attendance drops. Fewer people feel the love. Prayer is for when you need a divine favor. And widows, “Go find a job, and get off the church dole.” Soon you couldn’t tell a Christian from anyone else. New plan – the faithful need to repent and return to God. It’ll take 40 days at least, like Jesus’ 40-day wilderness exam. You know the story. Jesus refuses the devil’s guidance on ways to carry out his mission. We know how the devil is – I’ve even met the devil in some churches – sly and vicious, and sometimes mean-spirited.
You’d think Son of God would come hardwired to withstand temptations. But he’s also fully human. I don’t know how all that works. But I believe he’s genuinely tested at a level where cosmic good and evil struggle. In summary, Jesus’ test is whether he’ll trust God. Our choices are cosmic-lite, so different than Jesus, whether to order the salad or fries, buy those new shoes, tell the cashier your teen is under 12, or do I give up chocolate, or wine, for Lent. We face Jesus’ choice, too. Will we trust God, regardless, as Jesus does, even when we don’t know what’s ahead?
Being pain and death averse, I’d avoid suffering and dying. Feeding the hungry is a noble goal. To gain political power could really help God’s cause. To do something spectacular to attract attention – won’t these reach the desired result without Jesus getting sacrificed in the process?
No one escapes the wilderness and the critical decision to choose God’s will. A dear woman’s husband of 60 years dies of heart failure. I’d visited him in CICU and prayed with them. I suspect she figured by attending church, paying her tithe, being nice to people, her god would let nothing bad happen to her. When her life crashes and burns, her god has let her down, and she lets everyone know it. I didn’t stay at that church long enough to learn if she ever chose Jesus’ God over hers. We don’t always get what we want – or figure we are to get what we deserve. Trusting God does not immunize us from disappointment. Honestly, to trust Jesus’s father in uncertain times takes a leap into a dark unknown. It’s called a leap of faith. Jesus took the leap – got a cross and humiliation for it. God wasn’t done. Jesus also gets raised from death and a crown. As for Jesus, so for us, the Holy Spirit never leaves us alone in our testing – cosmic or human in origin. And even when we let go of God, God always has his hand on us.
In many ways today the church finds itself in the wilderness – uncertain, fearful and anxious – awaiting pews to refill. Some tinker at the edges thinking that’s important, sell their tradition, souls and crosses for marketing, to capture the masses. They cling to fear, despair or denial rather than embracing their mission and purpose. In so doing they lose their identity. God won’t save churches from irrelevancy and boredom when they refuse their mission, which is to proclaim and live God’s love for all. That takes us out of our comfort zones. And our biggest temptation is to forget we live in a world greater than ourselves. So we fall into despair. By resisting that temptation and choosing God’s love and life, God can transform us. In transforming us, God inspires us to be countercultural – repay evil with blessings; be servants of others; join God in practicing mercy, humility, compassion – and if you must kill your enemy – do it with kindness. We’ve signed on to bring God’s dream to all people and creation – and that’s neither irrelevant nor boring.
The Spirit today calls us to dream new ways to get beyond our walls to go and restore, renew, reconcile, and love others as God does. That won’t happen automatically, or by wishing it. It happens when each morning we recommit ourselves to choose God. We are as Bishop Curry says, crazy Christians. We commit to be crazy enough to believe God is real, Jesus lives – crazy enough to live by the gospel, and trust God’s love is greater than evil and death. Some are crazy enough to believe we’ve already died, with Christ in baptism, and now we’re raised to walk in new and transformed life. Crazy Christians live in a world greater than we can imagine, one we glimpse occasionally, enough to trust always.
Like Jesus we have a choice. Today is our wilderness exam.