Sunday, February 25, 2007

First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where 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. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then 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, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Elie Wiesel: “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The last one is my favourite. Uncle Ben, of course, is the Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame. Who says comic books can’t help in sermon preparation?

Who has power?

I hope your answer is “I do.” More often than not, we begin our list of “who has power” with others, some powerful leader or institution that has power over our lives. Rarely do we begin in the mirror. I recall a rather spirited discussion at school once where the question was “do ministers have power?” A class of eighteen produced a variety of viewpoints, from the ridiculous (“ministers have no power, we’re servants”) to the profound (“we have the power of access—access to the most important moments on people’s lives”). My own power at this moment comes from the fact that I’m the only one with a key to the elevator. Wanna ride? See me.

In many ways, power is the ultimate human topic. God gave us the power to create and destroy, the power to cooperate or go our own way, the power to serve others or serve ourselves. We have the power to imagine that are all somehow connected, or to imagine that problems that exist elsewhere do not touch us. We have the power to heed the lessons of the past or ignore them.

My mini-homily on power, of course, is inspired by the second temptation, where the devil gives Jesus a glimpse of all the earthly kingdoms and offers him power in exchange for obedience. It’s possible to find power in the substance of each of the three temptations, but two is the most blatant. In the end, the story of being tempted in the wilderness is a bit like a very quick game of Bible trivia. Jesus and the devil are busy quoting scripture at each other until Jesus prevails. This is, no doubt, the source of the line “even the devil can quote scripture.” An indirect quote, more like an echo, is the way in which this entire passage from Luke finds a source in 1 Kings 3:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said…give your servant…an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. (vv. 5, 9-13)

In many ways, this is the positive version of the temptation story. It forms the beginning of the story and takes the form of a kind of “anointing.” Solomon is given the opportunity to ask for any kingly power, and the power he chooses is the power to discern. In an early version of the famous “three wishes” he chooses to make a single wish (to be wise) rather than the traditional approach (more wishes!).

Solomon is also asking for the thing most likely to honour and serve God. In his wisdom, Solomon brings justice to the land, and glory to Israel among the nations of the earth. In a wonderful bit of biblical storytelling, the very next episode in the Solomon story begins: “Later, two women with a baby came and stood before the king…” You know the rest.

Lent is meant to be our time of wilderness wandering. It is meant to be a moment where we anticipate the journey up to Jerusalem and find our place in the story. The story has one direction, and we are encouraged to imagine ourselves at each moment: in the cheering crowd, in an angry crowd, and in a crowd of people to steal way. In the midst of this movement, we are given “snapshots” of Jesus ministry and clues to understanding the meaning of Good Friday. There is only one direction to this story arc, and we are meant to participate.

Reflection one, on the use and misuse of power, is a good starting point on our Lenten journey of understanding. To be human is to choose, to admit that we have a great deal of power to determine our own outcome. Not all the power, but much of it.

Case in point. Back in the summer, during my three-weeks of study in Chicago, I was a participant in an incident that I have struggled to comprehend and struggled to put into any kind of context. I have described this incident in various ways over the last months, from the most benign “lost my wallet” to the most literal “I was robbed at gunpoint.”

Leaving the pub (why do all bad stories start this way?) Carmen, James and I were suddenly confronted by three young men, one of whom was holding a gun. The whole incident lasted seconds. A bit dazed, we made our way to a security kiosk (they are all over campus) and pressed the button. A voice said “Campus Police, can I help you” and Carmen, the most coherent of the three of us, replied “we’ve just been robbed by three young men.” The voice shot back: “were they black?”

In an unpleasant bit of foreshadowing, the question set the tone for the rest of the evening. Over the four hours we stood on that street corner with the police, we were shown several cruisers full of very frightened young black men, obviously scooped up because they happened to be black and walking in the neighbourhood nearby. Of course the young men who robbed us were long gone, later confirmed by the use of my credit card and some distant gas station.

When this service is over, please do not express sympathy. “I’m glad you’re not dead” is okay, but I took the risk of telling you this story to illustrate the many ways people use the power they are given.

Three young men had the power to frighten us and take our things.
We had the power to access the police and get a rapid response.
The police have the power to protect us but also to apprehend with what seemed little cause.
The school had the power to adequately warn us, but chose not to.
I have the power to tell this story (or not to) and to spin the story in any way I choose.
You have the power to interpret this story in any way you choose, and to either bolster or challenge whatever preconceived notions you have about crime, the United States, or foolish ministers who go to the pub late at night.

Both Lent and life are about power. The greatest temptation we face is to misuse the power we have been given. The greatest gift we can ask for is the wisdom to use the power we have wisely. The greatest task in Lent is to reflect on the ways we have used our power and ask God to help us understand what this means. And the greatest source for reflection is the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ, who had power, but gave it away. He had life, but surrendered it for you and me.

May God bless you and keep you on this Lenten journey. May you be held and led as you look within, to discover what it means to be a Lenten people. Amen.


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