Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3
14And the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as that metal snake was lifted up by Moses in the desert. [a] 15Then everyone who has faith in the Son of Man will have eternal life. 16God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. 17God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them! 18No one who has faith in God's Son will be condemned. But everyone who doesn't have faith in him has already been condemned for not having faith in God's only Son.
19The light has come into the world, and people who do evil things are judged guilty because they love the dark more than the light. 20People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done. 21But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do.

Where is this quote from?

They can be a great people...if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–for their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

I confess to a terrible trick. Here at the halfway point in the service you have been marinating in the third chapter of John, and the remarkably familiar sixteenth verse, and so the above quote feels biblical. You could even say it feels "Johannine" (meaning in the style of John) and impress your friends. But alas, it is neither Johannine or even biblical: it is from the trailer to the new movie "Superman Returns."

Superman comes to us from the fertile minds of the late Jerry Siegel and the late Joe Shuster. Shuster, born here in Toronto, moved to Toledo, Ohio at the age of nice and befriended Siegel. They shared a love for science fiction and for comics and collaborated on a number of projects, but nothing like the story that debuted on June 1st, 1938. "Superman" was a huge success, and though a multitude of incarnations and a multitude of imitators, remains the gold standard for superheroes. (By the way, if you have a copy of that first issue tucked away, you have the most valuable comic ever published)

The problem with the trailer for the latest installment of Superman is in the allusion. Listen again:

They can be a great people...if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–for their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

This injection of Jesus-language ("my only son") wouldn't sit well with Shuster and Siegel, a couple of Jewish boys who wanted to retell the story of Moses through their hero Superman. All the elements are there: sent as infants from the troubled place of their birth (Kryptonite, slavery in Egypt) to a better place (earth, the palace of Pharaoh) each embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Both must resolve their duel identity problem (Clark Kent/Superman, Prince of Egypt/Moses) and the appearance of miraculous powers, in order to do good.

The movie builds on the success of the television show "Smallville," a show that tells the story of Clark Kent as a teenager. The show has an innocent feel to it, and some not-so-hidden Christian undertones, and for this reason has been popular among conservative Christians. The trailer is no accident, building on "Smallville" and using the language of John's Gospel to turn Superman (aka Moses) into Jesus.

This, however, is not the first time there has been some Jesus-Moses fusion going on. John himself does it as he tells the story of a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish leader Nicodemus:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

The lifting up, you will recall from the first reading (Numbers 21.4-9), is the miraculous sign that brings healing in the desert. The Israelites are complaining so bitterly that God sent poisonous snakes to punish them. In some of the most realistic dialogue in the bible, the Israelites say "we hate this stupid manna." (Without a doubt, this passage of scripture was written by someone with children). God quickly repents of the snakes and through Moses gives them the symbol of healing that doctors continue to use, the snake on a staff.

The comparison here, Jesus as the Son of Man also lifted up, doesn't quite work. It is as if John is trying too hard, trying to draw a parallel between the miraculous healing power of the snake-staff and the power of the cross. He is trying to draw the followers of Moses (Jewish readers of his Gospel) into the story of Jesus and his death. He is trying to build a bridge between what has become two camps in his community: Jewish Christians within the church and Jewish non-Christians who are increasingly hostile to the message of the church. Ultimately these two groups will go their separate ways, and John's Gospel will continue to be a document that defines the divide between them. John's Gospel is filled with allusions meant to retain Jewish Christians in the first century, but also to condemn those who could not follow. It is the most anti-Semitic of the four Gospels, and must be read carefully for this reason.


The other theme that enters this Moses-Jesus-Superman jumble is the light. When Moses speaks to God on Sinai his face becomes so radiant with reflected light that he frightens Aaron and the others. His face is so radiant that he must wear a veil to cover it, a veil that he begins to wear in God's presence as well. If you are a student of John this can only lead you to his famous prologue in chapter one:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

If you are thinking to yourself "why does he quote that passage so often?" then I will tell you. The prologue, the first 14 verses the first chapter, is the key to understanding John's entire Gospel. It is the "rosetta stone" that allows us to interpret the rest of the story. Here is a little more of the prologue:

The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Now jump ahead to chapter three and listen to the way Nicodemus enters the story:

After dark one evening, a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to speak with Jesus.

It is no accident that Nicodemus appears in the dark. He comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness (it is already dangerous for a religious leader to speak to Jesus) and his quite literally in the dark about the meaning and purpose of Jesus' teaching. The other notable part of this exchange is the question "what do you mean?" It passes the lips of Nicodemus twice in five verses, and is clearly meant to cast him in the role of someone lost and in need of the light of understanding.

The climax of this exchange, the reason Nicodemus enters the narrative, and the message that Jesus wants to leave with both hearer and reader is this:

The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. They hate the light because they want to sin in the darkness. They stay away from the light for fear their sins will be exposed and they will be punished. But those who do what is right come to the light gladly, so everyone can see that they are doing what God wants.

This is not my favourite Jesus. I have to say I much prefer the forgiving Jesus, the "consider the lilies" Jesus, the eating and drinking Jesus, the healing Jesus, even the cryptic and hard to understand Jesus. Judgmental Jesus, the Jesus that explains the nature of human sinfulness, is not a favourite. And whenever I'm challenged by some aspect of Jesus and try to put it into context, I go back to the prologue. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him," John said. We did not receive him, or at least not in his more unsettling ways of being, because we couldn't bear his light.


Everyone in this sermon—Jesus, Moses and Superman—is about the business of confronting evil. Each must develop a self-understanding that permits them to confront evil in their context. Each must name the evil in the hope that others will see it too. Where they stand apart, in is in the way evil is confronted. Moses/Superman will follow the path of the miraculous sign and the mighty act. Jesus will choose the cross. And this is where we begin to stumble. God demonstrated powerful acts in human history, a limitless capacity to defend his people. How does the cross fit this picture?

When the sky was darkened, when the earth shook, when Jesus breathed his last human breath, the light was momentarily veiled. The light was nearly extinguished, but “the darkness will never overcome it.” The cross is the mysterious way that God now confronts evil, it is the way of sacrifice and self-denial, it is a way apart from the way of the world. Our work, is to see the sense in God’s new way, to reject that power must meet power, and find God in those that suffer. We find God there, and we find ourselves, and we find the light. Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Third Sunday in Lent

John 2
13Not long before the Jewish festival of Passover, Jesus went to Jerusalem. 14There he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves in the temple. He also saw moneychangers sitting at their tables. 15So he took some rope and made a whip. Then he chased everyone out of the temple, together with their sheep and cattle. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their coins.
16Jesus said to the people who had been selling doves, "Get those doves out of here! Don't make my Father's house a marketplace."
17The disciples then remembered that the Scriptures say, "My love for your house burns in me like a fire."
18The Jewish leaders asked Jesus, "What miracle [c] will you work to show us why you have done this?" 19"Destroy this temple," Jesus answered, "and in three days I will build it again!"
20The leaders replied, "It took forty-six years to build this temple. What makes you think you can rebuild it in three days?"
21But Jesus was talking about his body as a temple. 22And when he was raised from death, his disciples remembered what he had told them. Then they believed the Scriptures and the words of Jesus.

Let's call this exercise "what on earth is he talking about?"

They come in five colours: green, red, blue, light blue and burgundy (remember, I'm colourblind)

They are a fixture in our lives. It is widely believed that if you select one of the colours in childhood, you will remain with them for the rest of your days.

They are shrinking. The local form has diminished by 800 in the last five years.

They seem to have an aversion to poor people. Most of the missing 800 went missing from neighbourhoods in need.

They want to shack up together: It seems that the blues want to be together and green has a thing for burgundy.

If you guessed the banks, you are correct. Of course there are more than five, but most often we differentiate between the "big banks" and all the little banks. And they are very much a fixture in our lives.

Love them or hate them, everyone has an opinion on the banks. Should the blues be allowed to get together? Does green mix with burgundy? Are bank executives rewarded for coming up with new services charges? Why are they fleeing poorer neighbourhoods while building new and bigger branches in the "better" neighbourhoods? Why has the government never compelled them to release statistics on how many people are refused credit? And why can the banks charge 19% on a credit card when interest rates hover around three percent? How is it that the Money Marts and other thieves are allowed to move so seamlessly into the areas that the banks vacate? And how do they get around the law that says you can't charge more than 60% interest on a loan?

Sorry, I guess I'm on a rant. Luckily for me, it's the theme of the day.


There are few places on earth as intense as the Temple in Jerusalem. At the very top is the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Islam as the site from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Near by is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a secondary Islamic structure. All of this is surrounded by what is left of Herod's reconstruction, including the Western Wall, sacred to Jews as the last remaining parts of the ancient Jewish Temple. It is also believed to be the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, as well as the legendary location of Jacob's ladder to heaven. Conservative Christians believe that the Second Coming of Jesus will occur here, and the most extreme of them dream of displacing both Muslims and Jews to allow this to happen.

As intense as all that, I want you to imagine that the temple in Jesus' day was more intense. Not intense in the sense of potential conflict, but intense in that the temple was God's dwelling place. It was divided into three sections: an outer court, an inner court called the "holy place" and finally the "Holy of Holies" the place where God lived. Each section was accessed by rank. The highest rank, the Chief Priest, was the only one allowed into the Holy of Holies, and only once a year. So intensely sacred was this precinct that the Chief Priest would enter with a rope tied around his waist, so that in the event that he died within the Holy of Holies the other priests could pull him out without violating the sanctity of the inner chamber.

It was also intense as the centre of Jewish commercial life. After the period of exile in the sixth century BC, the Persians allowed the Temple to be rebuilt as both religious shrine and a sort of national treasury. Call it the biggest of the big banks, and then roll in an early version of Revenue Canada (or whatever they call it now) serving both the new Jewish elite and their Persian overseers. One of the most interesting features of the Temple ruins is called "Wilson's arch," named for the archeologist who figured out that the curving outcrop at the top of the Temple mount is all that remains of an ancient bridge that allowed the elite members of society to cross over to the Temple without having to rub shoulders with the rabble below. It is into this intense situation that a new character enters:

There Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves in the temple. He also saw moneychangers sitting at their tables. So he took some rope and made a whip. Then he chased everyone out of the temple, together with their sheep and cattle. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their coins. Jesus said to the people who had been selling doves, "Get those doves out of here! Don't make my Father's house a marketplace."

Most scholars agree that this was a small-scale protest. Far from "cleansing the temple" as we might imagine, this was akin to tearing up your deposit slip and telling everyone in line you are moving to the credit union. Jesus, "larger than life" as he was, was still one man against a large and complex organization that dominated the city and the nation. It was a symbolic action, one designed to gain the attention of his adversaries, and the one thing that his protest did very well. Even though John decides to place this episode at the beginning rather than the end of his Gospel, it is still one of the primary links between action and official reaction (meaning trial and cross).

And there is another layer too, one that illustrates the symbolism at work here:

The Jewish leaders asked Jesus, "What miracle will you work to show us why you have done this?"
"Destroy this temple," Jesus answered, "and in three days I will build it again!"
The leaders replied, "It took forty-six years to build this temple. What makes you think you can rebuild it in three days?"

The temple, we soon realize, is his body, destroyed on the cross and rebuilt in three days. And this is even more pointed when we recall that John is writing this Gospel thirty years after the Romans destroyed the Temple a final time. He writes about the thing that may happen--and has, in fact--already happened. Nor is this new. When the author of 1 Kings recounts the words spoken to Solomon after the dedication of the First Temple, words of warning that predict the destruction of the Temple, it too has already happened. Writing from exile, the author of 1 Kings writes a warning that describes what is already true:

6But if you or any of your descendants disobey my commands or start worshiping foreign gods, 7I will no longer let my people Israel live in this land I gave them. I will desert this temple where I said I would be worshiped. Then people everywhere will think this nation is only a joke and will make fun of it. 8This temple will become a pile of rocks! [a] Everyone who walks by will be shocked, and they will ask, "Why did the LORD do such a terrible thing to his people and to this temple?" 9Then they will answer, "We know why the LORD did this. The people of Israel rejected the LORD their God, who rescued their ancestors from Egypt, and they started worshiping other gods."

Recall that Solomon's dedication of the temple was one of the most commonly known passages in the Bible and one that Jesus would have known since childhood. It describes the primary tension in the life of the Israelites: God will only remain faithful to them if they remain faithful to God. Jesus lived and breathed this tension, and although he didn't agree with it, it certainly coloured the way he viewed the Temple and the economy that grew up around it. Rather than acting to defuse the possible destruction he welcomes it, knowing that the Temple had become too corrupt to save.


Sermons on "cleansing the temple" can follow a number of directions. We can meditate on righteous anger. We can look at social justice. We could look at temple sacrifice and the pure sacrifice to come. We can even use it as an excuse to take a poke at the banks. The primary topic, I would argue, is God. A poem, recently recited:

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The decrees of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The commandments of the LORD are right,
bringing joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are clear,
giving insight to life.

Reverence for the LORD is pure,
lasting forever.
The laws of the LORD are true;
each one is fair. (Psalm 19)

Again, this is a song that Jesus sang many, many times. It is a compelling summary of why the law is at the heart of the Jewish religion and why we believe Jesus fulfilled the law rather than overturning it. The poem essentially restates the same idea six ways: the law is commended to us, and its impact is made clear. "The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul." The reason that the Lectionary makers linked this to the "cleansing of the temple" and the reason it is powerful for today is this: Jesus believed that the key to a happy and faithful life lived in the law.

When a teacher of the law heard Jesus give a smart answer, he asked him, "What is the most important commandment?"
Jesus answered, "The most important one says: You must love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.' The second most important commandment says: `Love others as much as you love yourself.' No other commandment is more important than these."

Ignore the content for a minute and listen to the topic. Jesus is a teacher of the Law, the perfect Law, the Law that Moses carried to the people, the Law that resides in Ark of the Covenant that resides in the Holy of Holies. Rather than divorce Jesus from his religion and his past we need to draw a stronger connection. Jesus was using his whip to protect the law, to make the holy place holy again, and to act on his twin desires to love God and love neighbour. There are no greater commandments in the Law. Failing that, he was willing to risk arrest and even death to live out these commands.


The real sermon, the living sermon, is the one that leaves with you and informs the way you spend your week. It is not my sermon, and may bear little resemblance to the words spoken today. The living sermon is the one that honours the same God that Jesus honoured with angry words and an improvised whip. The living sermon is the choices we make to glorify God and love neighbour and maybe get angry when the structures that surround us make this difficult. The living sermon will prepare us for Good Friday when the world's anger conspired to destroy Jesus. And the living sermon will find meaning, when the temple is rebuilt, in three days, and God will be praised. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8
31Jesus began telling his disciples what would happen to him. He said, "The nation's leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. He will be rejected and killed, but three days later he will rise to life." 32Then Jesus explained clearly what he meant.
Peter took Jesus aside and told him to stop talking like that. 33But when Jesus turned and saw the disciples, he corrected Peter. He said to him, "Satan, get away from me! You are thinking like everyone else and not like God."
34Jesus then told the crowd and the disciples to come closer, and he said:
If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. 35If you want to save your life, [e] you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me and for the good news, you will save it. 36What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? 37What could you give to get back your soul?
38Don't be ashamed of me and my message among these unfaithful and sinful people! If you are, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

He's lying there, clearly dying, and all he can say is "Rosebud," the name of a long lost sled.

It turns out that each of them already possessed the things they desired. All the wizard did was point this out.

All seems lost for Rosie and Charlie until we realize that their partially submerged boat, torpedoes still attached, lies directly in the path of the German ship.

At the end she decides to return to Tara and says, "after all, tomorrow is another day"

I have a new favourite website called "" Could you tell? Notice I have only ruined classics and not the latest showing at the Cinemax. My son and I see a lot of films, and as a result have become a regular source for film reviews. "How was it?" someone will ask, and then begins the delicate dance of giving enough information without giving up the ending. This, of course, becomes even harder when there is a twist involved, such as the one at the end of Woody Allen's new film "Match Point." What a terrible thing to have such delicious knowledge and not be able to share.

Preaching in Lent is a bit like trying to tell the story without giving away the ending. We all know what is going to happen to Jesus. We know it in such great detail, in fact, that it colours our entire trip through the season (and one could argue our entire trip through the Bible). In some ways it is hard not to jump ahead. The readings in Lent all point to Good Friday and Easter Sunday and the temptation to talk about the end of the story is very strong.

The other temptation is to feel smug in the face of the disciple's ignorance. When Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him to stop suggesting that the road to Jerusalem leads to death, we are left feeling rather self-satisfied: we've read the final chapter, and we know where this goes. We have been drawn in, and the literary device that Mark employs is designed specifically to build within us the sense that we are insiders, to increase our affinity for Jesus and his story.

Thomas Merton wrote these words:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. (Yancey, p. 195).

One of the great ironies of the Christian religion is that they more you know the less you seem to know. Thomas Merton, arguably the greatest Christian minds of the last century, puts this in sharp relief as he makes his confession: he can only suppose that his actions are consistent with God's will for us. If you are like me, I read such a quote and think, "if Thomas Merton can't know, then how on earth am I expected to know?"

In the same manner we can consider the "ignorance" of Peter. Jesus stated again and again that the "Son of Man" would suffer and die at the hands of a people that could not accept him and could not accept his way. ”You are thinking like everyone else and not like God," Jesus said, and we think to ourselves "that's a rather tall order there, Jesus. If we could all think like God the problems of the world would vanish pretty quickly."

While we are walking with the spiritual giants, there is also a wonderful observation from C. S. Lewis regarding the nature of our experience of God. First he points to the image of a ship on the ocean, an image of being surrounded by something vast and limitless. He sets this image aside, however, and opts instead for an image of walking near the sea, and only catching occasional glimpses of the ocean nearby. This seems to ring true in a way that the former image does not. It also seems to speak to human desire, in that travel near the ocean has a unique excitement. We look forward to that first glimpse of the ocean, it is something extraordinary, and for those of us who live "inland" quite rare.

Why, then, is it so important to admit our ignorance in the face of "knowing the end of the story"? What value could there be in lifting up the things we cannot know? Looking again at Peter, it wasn't so much that he was ignorant, but rather he was mistaken. In his mind there was a program, call it the Messiah program, which involved the acquisition of political power and an end to Roman occupation. He wanted a new king, the traditional understanding of Messiah, and Jesus seemed to be the best candidate for the job. "Get behind me Satan" is a rebuke for Peter to be sure, but it is also a rebuke for anyone who would turn the story of God into a story about gaining worldly power.

Perhaps part of the call of Lent is to rehearse our ignorance. What are the things we cannot know? Emptying ourselves of the things we think we know and the things we cannot know will perhaps leave us better prepared to hear the things God wants us to know. In other words, why wait if you already possess the thing for which you wait? In preparing for the death of Jesus, we have an opportunity to set aside the assumptions we have gathered over the years and look at this event anew.

"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." (NASB)

"If any of you wants to be my follower," he told them, "you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross, and follow me." (NLT)

"If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me." (CEV)

Perhaps for our purposes we will indulge in a new translation: "If any of you want to be my followers," Jesus said, "you must set aside what you think you know, pick up your cross and follow me."

Henri Nouwen (yet another spiritual giant) coined the phrase "a ministry of absence" to describe the need to look beyond a sense of God's presence and prepare for the moments (far from rare) when God seems absent. He wrote these words:

We eat bread, but not enough to take our hunger away; We drink wine, but not enough to take our thirst away; we read from a book, but not enough to take our ignorance away. Around these "poor signs" we come together and celebrate. What then do we celebrate? The simple signs, which cannot satisfy all our desires, speak first of all of God's absence. He has not yet returned; we are still on the road, still waiting, still hoping, still expecting, still longing..." (Yancey, p. 242)

Waiting, hoping, expecting and longing we wait. And while this waiting has all the hallmarks of Advent and the beginning of God's incarnation, it is radically different. The new signs of God's coming are found in the shop where nails are made, in a thorn bush growing by the wayside, in the tall trees that surround us. Can we begin to examine these signs or will we look away?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9
8Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying,
9"Now behold, (I)I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you;
10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.
11"I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall (J)never again be cut off by the water of the flood, (K)neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth."
12God said, "This is (L)the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations;
13I set My (M)bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.

Mark 1
9(H)In those days Jesus (I)came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him;
11and a voice came out of the heavens: "(J)You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased."
12(K)Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness.
13And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by (L)Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.
14(M)Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, (N)preaching the gospel of God,
15and saying, "(O)The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; (P)repent and believe in the gospel."

Have you given something up for Lent?

We live in a kind of "echo tradition," where the rediscovery of long held Christian traditions is mostly incomplete. After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, most of what we now mark as the Christian year went out the window. In the stark Catholic-Protestant divide that has defined the last few centuries, things like Lent were considered "too Catholic" and not worthy of our observation. It's only in the last few decades that we have gradually warmed up to the seasons of the church year and traditions such as a forty-day period of preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

I say "echo tradition" because the specific requirements around Lent that exist in the Roman Catholic tradition are modified and certainly reduced in ours. The triple obligation of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is largely ignored in the United Church and other churches of the Reform tradition, with the exception perhaps of additional study and the occasional person who insists on "giving something up."

The common thread on the topic of "giving up" seems to be things that are pleasurable or things that a bad for you. At least one person suggested they were going to give up Google for Lent, but by day two was really struggling. I wouldn't even consider this, of course, because I'd have very little to say on a Sunday morning. And so, having not given up Google, I give you some of my favourites from bloggers and other internet misfits:

From John Zmirak: Schadenfreude, fox hunting and Conspiracy theories (schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others -- something we should never do outside of yacht racing).

From Joel Achenbach (Washington Post): Angel food cake, Deviled eggs, Demon rum (covering the gamut) and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (Braille edition).

At least one person said they were giving up abstinence for Lent--a delightful paradox--and one that I expect describes most of us. Now that scientists tell us that many of the things that were once bad are now good (red wine, chocolate, coffee) it might be a safe bet to give up giving up.


Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Mark is a man of few words. Call it the Coles Notes version of Jesus' time of testing. There is no extended dialogue, no competing scripture passages, no challenges or elaborate promises, only the essential details of the story: wilderness, temptation, danger and angels. Not much for the preacher to hang his hat on, unlike the delightful exchange between Jesus and the devil in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Forever proving the old proverb that "even the devil can quote scripture," the longer versions are rich with sermon possibilities as Jesus and the devil confront each other as "dueling Jewish intellectuals." (Jack Miles)

Left then, as we are, with the condensed version, we are free to free associate and find deeper meaning by looking outside the text. The first and most obvious segue from the text can be found in the words "forty" and "wilderness." In the realm of biblical key words, these two transport us to the wilderness wandering of the Israelites and the forty year period it took them to reach the promised land. Lent, of course, is also forty days (excluding Sundays) and so we are clearly being directed to consider this a shared time of testing and utter dependence on God. Manna, water from a rock, the gift of the Law, all of these things put the focus back on the need for people to turn to God and away from self-reliance. It remains a key Lenten theme.

The other key word is "temptation." It was Anthony the Great, the first of the fourth century desert fathers who said, "without temptations, no-one can be saved." He also said, "expect temptation to your last breath" and "whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly this was a big theme for him and his followers, off there in the desert escaping from a world of temptation. They seem so far removed from our experience that it is hard to imagine that they have anything to teach us, but perhaps it is precisely that we have so little in common that their words can make us think. My favourite Anthony saying is also rather Lenten in it's outlook:

Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.

I think this sums up almost every self-help book in the last 50 years. Move over Dr. Phil.


Following Anthony's advice to not worry about the past, we are confronted by Genesis 9:

Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you...I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth."

The rainbow is God's promise to never again destroy the earth. Sort of. Well, not really. Take a listen:

God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. "It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.

God is generously making a unilateral covenant, a unilateral pledge to disarm by setting aside his bow (his weapon) and never again destroy the earth and all it's creatures. The rainbow is not a promise, however, just a reminder. And not even a reminder for us, but rather a divine memo-to-himself to never again destroy the earth. Kind of scary when you think of it in these terms. Why does God need a perpetual reminder that he pledged not to destroy us all?

Jack Miles, author of "God: A Biography" puts all of this into fine relief when he argues that despite the rainbow, God very quickly returns to his menacing ways pre-flood. God begins to threaten destruction again, and even if we ignore this we cannot ignore the sense that we know what this God is capable of. Miles describes God as "not just unpredictable, but dangerously unpredictable." (p. 46)

The antidote to all of this is also found in the scriptures. This is the conclusion of the flood story, found many books later in Isaiah 54:

In an outburst of anger
I hid My face from you for a moment,
But with everlasting lovingkindness
I will have compassion on you,"
Says the LORD your Redeemer.
For this is like the days of Noah to Me,
When I swore that the waters of Noah
Would not flood the earth again;
So I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
Nor will I rebuke you.

This is the real change in the life of God we are looking for. It's not so much that God will set his bow aside and choose not to use it. It is not so much that God will set up an internal memo regarding earth-destroying violence, but that anger will turn to love. This is the true revolution in the heart of God that we lift up. This is more than disarmament: this is peace. And because it is God's peace, it is also filled with justice, because God said, "I will have compassion on you."

This is what I am giving up for Lent: I'm giving up any suggestion that God is to be feared. The decision to not end human life became final when it became a decision to love. The real end to the flood story is God's unending desire to forgive. We live with the constant temptation to fear God, to imagine that God could destroy us and perhaps the whole world, when this is not the case. We need to set aside fear--especially was we relate to God--and accept the love and forgiveness God extends.

The other temptation worth giving up is the temptation to seek God's favour. Here we enter the land of paradox, because earning God's favour seems to precisely be the motivation that leads people to give things up for Lent. If you do it, however, I suggest you do it to "get right with you" rather than to "get right with God." God already loves you and forgives you your chocolate, red wine and excessive amounts of schadenfreude. If you give these things up, do it to improve your life and the life of others. Do it to mend the fabric of your life or your family or your community, but don't do it to earn points with God. Those points have already been won.

In the end, I'm still going to listen to Anthony of the desert:

Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.