Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Everywhere you look is imperfection, but you know in your heart of hearts there is a perfect version somewhere: face it, you’re a Platonist.

You want to understand everything: and you want to be happy, and do good, and find that Goldilocks spot between the unpleasant extremes of life: you need to confess—you’re Peripatetic.

You want to live in harmony with nature, and you reject a desire for a Hummer and a spot on American Idol: so you’re a Cynic.

You’re whole life is fun, and about having fun: you’re no Hugh Hefner, but you’re certainly Cyrenaic.

Everything is a fluke, there is no plan or order, and you just want to live simply and avoid pain: Epicurean.

You want to live in harmony with nature too, but you’re not gonna get all emotional about it: Stoic.

Since you can’t prove anything anyway, you’re going to try to find a “tranquil mind.” When did you begin to practice Pyrrhonism?

So when did you begin rejecting bodily pleasure and fun impulses in order to purify your soul? How long have you been into Neopythagorean?

Okay Cicero, you’re playing the field: a little of this and a little of that, you’re into Eclecticism.

Actually, one of my favourite stories is a chance encounter between the most famous man alive (Alexander) and the most famous Cynic (Diogenes). Alexander says to the great philosopher: “I’m a big fan of yours, Diogenes, name whatever you desire, and it’s yours.”

“Just now,” Diogenes says, “I’d like you to stand aside: you’re in my sunlight.”

It is hardly a surprise that the most popular place in Greek society was the Agora, the marketplace: a place where goods and ideas were exchanged. The same haggling over dates and pomegranates extended to the world of ideas: there was an endless push-pull between competing schools, each convinced that their approach to life was better than the rest. The insanity of the place even made it into modern psychology: if you are afraid of going out into public, you are agoraphobic: literally, afraid of the marketplace.

Looking to my list of rival Greek philosophies, it wouldn’t take long to become overwhelmed, almost agoraphobic, confronted by every possible take on human living. Denying, embracing, accepting, rejecting: fun, no fun, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, and of course, my friend Diogenes. Like calamari on the Danforth, the whole of Greek society was marinating in ideas and always wanting more. Here’s John:

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Suddenly it’s no surprise that Greeks were seeking Jesus: they even shop for ideas on vacation. These hellenized Jews were doing what all hellenized people do: seek the truth wherever it might be found. And, what better place to look than Jerusalem? Already a famous place to pursue religious truth, and then only a third of what it would eventually become.

So what is truly happening here? How is it that the Jesus, who spends much of John’s Gospel saying “my hour has not come, my hour has not come” is suddenly saying, “my hour is come.” Is it coincidence that he declares that his hour has come moments after these Greek seekers arrive? Or would his hour have come that day nonetheless? Assuming for a moment that the Greeks did this, it would be easy to see why: a threshold is crossed, and suddenly Jesus has made the “A-list” of philosophical inquiry. When the Greeks seek you, you have gone international, and your local, itinerant days are done. Jesus has become the subject of something bigger, and now must decide.

The decision, I think, reaches back to Diogenes. Both men rejected conventional living: Diogenes lived in a rather large tub in the street, and rejected material possessions. Both men rejected fame, Diogenes of the famous story I told you a moment ago and Jesus continually saying, “tell no one.” Both men promoted virtue, Jesus with lengthy sermons and summaries of the law, and Diogenes (according to legend) carrying a lamp through Athens in daytime and saying that he wanted to shed light on an honest man.

So what must Jesus do? Greeks have scouted him, and now the world may follow. How long before Emperor Tiberius seeks him out and Jesus gets a chance to enter history by saying something clever? Let’s see: cross or clever story, cross or clever story? No, Jesus makes his choice, and insists that his “hour” has come:

Truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This was never a story about fame, it was a story about fruit. Being famously clever was never the goal: the goal was to transform human hearts, and this was never going to be achieved by founding a school or entertaining Greeks or finding the right turn-of-phrase. The grain of wheat must perish to become a harvest of grain, and Jesus knew that by clinging to some version of a successful life he would lose it: only by surrendering life would more life come.

Did Jesus choose to die? No and yes. No, in that the decision to crucify the Son of the Most High remained a human decision, uniquely ours to make, right up to the moment the last centurion went looking for nails. But yes, insofar as the life of Diogenes was laid out before him, the opportunity to enjoy all that he had built through three years of itinerant ministry. Call it the last temptation of Christ, the true last temptation: the temptation to sell his shares and return to the company as a consultant, without a real stake in the enterprise and free to come and go as he pleased. It was not to be.

What you see in John 12 is a crossing over: a recognition that events will unfold and decisions will be made. Some will turn to Jesus and some will turn away. The world will reject him but the whole of nature will speak. The signs will be plain but no one will see. We will bring anger and Jesus forgiveness. A curtain will tear from floor to ceiling and our innermost fabric will be repaired. Someone will say, “surely this was the Son of God.”

That fear of the marketplace will touch all of us: the growing realization that an unruly marketplace of ideas is no comfort in the face of death, it lends no meaning to the great joy we can know, it refuses to speak to the love we share, it cannot forgive. The marketplace is rejected at the end, in the moments before an impromptu parade and a meal with friends: it is rejected for being all things to all people and therefore nothing to anyone. Fame is fleeting and voices fade, but following the Way is forever, thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Yesterday Carmen and I had a rare first-day-of-spring visit to our island lair, a piece of paradise near Kingston, and we remembered snakes. You see, the trouble with owning a piece of paradise is enduring the occasional biblical-style plague, a kind of modern testing, where nature wants to know precisely what a family will endure to remain in place.

First it was spiders, big ugly ones, that had a habit of dropping down to eye-level just to say “welcome, this is our place too.”

Next, a flood. Water everywhere, enough to delay a building project that still begins an annual conversation, “so, what do you think, we build next year?”

Then beavers, mice, ferrets, wind and, of course, snakes.

Let me back-up. We have a very unusual camper-bus, a gift of my father, carefully converted to provide basic living space. Think of Partridge Family meets the Hatfields and McCoys. The first snake dropped in at dinner, landing under my feet. The next snake was resting on the windshield wipers, staring me in the eye. I knew we had a problem. It seems that a black hood and a large V8 is the prefect venue for snakes. We couldn’t count them.

All day Isaac and I would open the hood, grab a dozen snakes for transfer to a trusty tub, wait ten minutes and try again. With the tub full, it was off to the other side of the island where, like modern Irish saints, we drove the snakes away. Oddly enough, they never came back, and our early island sainthood was confirmed.

What are little boys made of?
Snakes and snails, and puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

Some versions say “snips and snails,” but since no one knows what a ‘snip’ is, and owing to our theme, we’ll go with snakes.

So snakes are bad. Bad for Adam and Eve, bad for the Egyptians, and bad for the Israelites. In one of the first and best examples of what would later be known a kvetching (in Yiddish), the Israelites say ‘Why [Moses] have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Think George Costanza in the wilderness. And then his mother: “What, you’re too good for manna now?”

Then in verse six we get one of the most bizarrely understated descriptions in the Bible: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Not much of an action sequence, hardly the stuff of a good B movie. Just a statement of fact and the story continues.

In an oft-quoted summary, an aboriginal elder was heard to say “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.” The elder was referring to some story of her people, and trying to explain how factual and truthful are not the same thing. You see, we are a people of the facts. We have some ambivalence about what truth can be known, but we love facts. Our aboriginal elder, and a generation of literary theorists is trying to say something else, that our obsession with ‘the factual’ is getting in the way of seeing truth, even it it’s only my truth, or your truth, or the truth we claim for our little tribe of people.

So, I don’t know if the terrible story of the snakes in the wilderness happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.

The reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true, goes back to all that kvetching. In Numbers 11, just ten chapters back, the people are fed up with manna. “We remember the fish, we had in Egypt; and the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” And now we have manna: day in day our manna, manna, manna. So God sends quail. A bit gamy, but now they have manna and quail. But here we are, ten chapters later, and they are back at it. And even before they begin reciting Egyptian recipes, God sends snakes.

You may have noted a bit of a pattern here. It seems to go: calm, complaining (disobedience), anger, punishment, repentance, reward. Like a desert band of toddlers they make a lot of noise and always get what they want. And each time it’s better than expected, with the latest example being the best one yet: a bronze pole that requires only a quick glance and you are make well. This seems a far cry from the cut-and-suck method discussed at length on Bayou Bob’s Rattlesnake Ranch website, the source of all my knowledge on such matters. See me after for full details: truly, you need not fear snake venom.

The reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true is found in a wonderful book by Jack Miles called “God: A Biography.” In it, Miles tries to imagine the Bible as literature and God as a literary character. Not to say that God is fiction, but to help understand how God changes throughout the 66 books of the Bible. So in the beginnning, God is alone in the universe, longing for companionship, planning a world rich with life and beings to interact with. Add humans, and we are much more than playthings, we are partners of a sort, having a relationship with God, and doing all the things that make relationships difficult. God, accustomed to solitude and being fully in charge, must gradually adjust to this new reality and does so in a variety of ways:

Adam and Eve: cast out for snacking and operating a nudist camp.
Noah: trying to start over, having regretted the whole human thing.
Abraham and Sarah: playing favourites, working toward an outcome that we might call religion.

Jack Miles suggests that God’s character matures and relaxes into a relationship with us, and the amount of smoting decreases and eventually stops altogether. And this is certainly our experience, the smoting stopped but the disobedience ongoing.

The other reason I know it’s true, the reason I can be certain it’s true is not found in the details of the story, but in the pattern. The original pattern was calm, complaining (disobedience), anger, punishment, repentance, and reward. But if we boil this down, and distill from it an essence, it might be something as simple as disobedience, repentance, reward [meaning forgiveness]. So we could be really bold, and reduce it further still to simply disobedience-forgiveness. And I only suggest that because repentance is a grateful response we make, and not vital to the function of forgiveness. God forgives whether we repent or not, so says Paul and Luther and Wesley and more than I can name.

So all we’re left with is disobedience-forgiveness, maybe the only human theme we’ve got. Taking the first half of our theme, I begin with the squeamish: There are, it seems, lots or people who are deeply ambivalent about disobedience. They don’t like Augustine’s “original sin” and they don’t like to think that children can be bad and they really want to believe that we are all basically good people and we make the occasional mistake. Poppycock.

In the news this week: An Austrian man admits that he willfully abused and confined his own daughter for 24 years, since the Reagan years, and will spend the rest of his days in a hospital for the criminally insane. Here in Toronto, a 15-year old uses a mixture of sexual threats and awkward text messages to coerce another teenager into killing a 14-year old girl she had never even met. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, four more Canadians die in combat trying to defeat an insurgency whose favourite trick while in power was to behead teachers in front of the children to reinforce that education is contrary to the Taliban way of life.

From reading the news this week it seems to me that we should be knee-deep in snakes, disobedience and a willful disregard for each other the most obvious theme we’ve got. Thank God that God rethought direct divine punishment because it would be constant, much in the way that human sin is constant and our naïve disregard for it is constant too. And I only highlighted one week in the unfolding story of human living: choosing almost any other week, it would only be worse.

So all we’re left with is disobedience-forgiveness, the heart of today’s text and the theme above all themes both in the Bible and in our everyday. This past week a brave band of curious people gathered for a little food and an introduction to the three great themes of scripture to act as a guide to the rest: exodus, exile and Emmanuel. For those of you who didn’t make it, I just caught you up, and I hope you come on Thursday. So I distilled to three great themes of exodus, exile and Emmanuel: but even as I recount it now I regret that I didn’t superimpose “disobedience-forgiveness” as the uber-theme, spanning the others and acting as the glue that makes sense of the entire book.

Forgiveness follows disobedience, and this is God’s business. Forgiveness is the thing that we struggle at and sometimes get right and often get wrong and usually make conditional and do too late and forget to do at all. No, forgiveness is God’s business, the thing God does best of all, the thing that defines God much more than love or salvation or even creation. God forgives and began forgiving the moment God made companions on the way. And thanks be to God, that we have this ultimate hope, this pinnacle of Godly achievement, that we can live and learn, and try to follow, with God’s help, Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent

John 2
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

You savor that first mouthful of food and the phone rings.
You secretly imagine you are James Bond in an Aston Martin with a full array of weapons to eliminate bad drivers.
You’ve written the email but worry that ALL CAPS may not be strong enough.
You curse the first kid who ever said “but I’m not tired.”
You are prompted by the voice on the phone to say “English” and instead you say “angry.”

Meanwhile, in your head, various sensory organs are already on the phone to the amygdala, ready to send orders. The neurons fly as the limbic forebrain gets ready, with particular attention to the chemists in the Hypothalamus department. They are busy cooking up a potpourri of hormones to raise your heart rate, blood pressure and overall sense of readiness. They’ll keep this up until the coffee truck comes, and then its break time and everyone will calm down.

Meanwhile, back in childhood, you were likely conditioned to forestall the entire process. There is no reward in the daycare for expressing anger, where the catch phrases are “use your words” and “use your inside voice.” Both assume that the workshop in your brain can retooled or downsized, resulting in reasoned toddlers fully engaged in alternate dispute resolution on their way to a pre-school Nobel Prize.

If you follow the evolution of humanity through the most reliable source I know, namely Star Trek: The Next Generation, you will discover that the future will be populated with Starfleet philosophers and well-meaning empaths. Anger and frustration can be cured with a trip to the holodeck or through a stiff dealcoholized drink and a conversation with Whoppi Goldberg.

So we eliminated anger in our collective fictional future, what about the past? How have we applied the lessons of the daycare yard to the Ancient Near-East, and in particular the ministry of Jesus? So I have to ask, did Jesus get angry?

If I recall properly, anger is in the top seven with a bullet (the others are greed, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, sloth). And early theologians, who seemed to spend entirely too much time thinking about the big seven, were beside themselves knowing that someone might misinterpret cleansing the temple with anger. Jesus’ perfection is on the list of reconsidered doctrines, but in the past it was critical to theological reasoning. The early answer, then, was that Jesus was not mad, he was “righteously indignant.”

Now, before I say more, I have to say I am a big fan of righteous indignation. Some idiot drove to the airport in Burlington, VT and didn’t realize that his poodle was in the back seat. The dog was locked in the car for nineteen days, often in sub-zero temperatures, and somehow managed to survive. So I hear the story and I’m on an emotional roller coaster: brave little Fluffy, proving that poodles are superior beings, and red-hot anger at the stupidity of said owner, an example, I suppose, of righteous indignation.

The problem with righteous indignation is that like the tough little poodle, it’s domesticated. Anger has been transformed into something presentable, laudable, almost expected in our tradition, when it is really no longer anger at all. When we deny Jesus the ability to get angry (and make him righteously indignant instead) we deny much of his essential humanity and we undermine the gravity of the situation itself. Off to the temple.

There was all manner of livestock for sale. There were currency traders, there were middleman, speculators and those guys who say “apply today for a low introductory rate and a free gift.” The place was crowded with buying and selling, negotiating, bartering, chirping, bleating, mooing and that other thing animals do if they hang around long enough. It was a mess. And into this mess arrived Jesus armed only with a keen respect for God’s house and a mitt full of commandments. Ten, in fact, and fully half of them spoke to the situation in the temple:

Greed is a god, and the command was ‘have no other gods.’
Coins are idols, when Augustus is hailed as God’s son on every other coin in the place.
God’s name is misused, when God is the excuse for the whole sorry mess.
And they made be keeping the Sabbath, but they sure aren’t keeping it holy. (Ex 20. 3-8)

And just for good measure let’s throw in “Thou shalt not steal,” because everyone knows that the only way to describe currency conversion is theft.

So Jesus is in a mad-non-mad state and gets noticed. He has thrown the entire enterprise into an uproar, he has disrupted the free-flow of commerce and the vaulted place of the market. He has interrupted the spot price for sheep belly futures and hurt triangle arbitrage between drachmas, denarius and shekels. In other words, he has become the enemy of big business. And that never ends well.

And it still wouldn’t end well, and it’s still a bad idea to mess with the free-flow of commence, except when commerce is somehow humbled and the tables turn. It took a comedian (Jon Stewart) to finally get angry about the incestuous relationship between business and business journalism this past week and finally ask the angry and appropriate questions. It took a comedian to finally demand some accountability from a businessperson giving advice as a journalist while simultaneously profiting from the very advice they were shouting on the air. Maddening.

The truth is we have been lured away from anger, when in case after case anger remains the best response. We are like a nation on lithium, cut off from emotional highs and lows and existing in an emotional limbo where no one gets very excited and no one gets particularly angry either. And then when we do get angry, it’s more likely to be directed at the person from “customer service” than someone who is actually doing something worthy of anger. A parent slaps their kid in the supermarket: we head for the next aisle. A “person of colour” is being mistreated in line, we look away. Someone tells us “religion is stupid” and we change to topic. Time and time again we reject anger—not for the sake of rejecting anger—but because sometimes, we just don’t care.

The truth is, only God can save us. Only God can help us lift up the commandments and liberally apply them to the hurt in our world. Only God can sweep through the temple and turn tables. Only God can help us discern what deserves anger, or understanding, or forgiveness, or grace, and prompt us through the Spirit to use the right response. Only God can save us, and lead us, and set us free.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What are you giving up for Lent? Bloggers are making lists:

A number of young people suggested they are giving up Facebook for Lent, owing I expect to the addictive quality of the site. One person in Chicago said they were giving up Rod Blagojevich for Lent. A handful mentioned giving up carbon, which sounds very trendy and good, but somewhat impossible at minus 12.

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.

At one time, not that long ago, the entire topic of Lent would have been completely foreign to our fellowship. Lent, you see, is in the realm of recovered tradition: long considered too Catholic for the United Church. When the 60’s and 70’s brought ecumenical conversations and a rediscovery of liturgical tradition, Lent came back. And with Lent, of course, came the entire conversation of abstinence. So perhaps we have given up denominational differences for Lent, refusing to abstain from the tradition of seasonal abstinence.

One of the reasons that many of my predecessors on the wall out there would be shocked that we are engaging in Lent is that it is not biblical. Lenten themes appear throughout, but the season itself is an invention of the church. At the Protestant Reformation all the good non-biblical stuff like unction (I’ll leave it to you to look-up unction) went out the window and we were left with almost no tradition. In the absence of tradition, then, we are left to recreate Lent and make it our own.

The first theme is temptation. The journey we make up to Jerusalem is symbolic, and the church in her wisdom begins the journey in the desert. John baptizes Jesus: the heavens part, the Spirit speaks, and the action begins. There is a remarkable economy of language in Mark, with each verse driving the narrative forward. Mark can’t wait: he has a story to tell. So while Matthew and Luke devote 25 verses between them, Mark does it in two:

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now economy of language is often frustrating for the preacher, accustomed as we are to pouring over the details of the text. Nothing preaches easier than a long rambling story, with lots of places to enter the story and look around. Not so in Mark: he is all business, telling the story with little elaboration. Mark is Carnation milk (if you are looking for a metaphor) or anything else distilled which you have given up for Lent.

Back in Matthew and Luke for a moment, temptation is more of a contest. Satan offers this and that, Jesus resists with the help of scripture, and we look on. With specifics like bread from stone, we are able to make symbolic meaning, or contemporary parallel, or something that allows the story to speak. In Mark we have a different task, an opportunity perhaps, to enter the story in an entirely different way.

We can’t be Jesus in the story, but we can be tempted. One of the opportunities in Mark is to look within, recognize your own temptation and enter the story. Imagine the wilderness strewn with whatever might lead you away from God: whatever bitterness, envy or pride that gets in the way of your relationship with the Most High. Worthwhile, to be sure, but maybe not what Mark had in mind. Looking to the next verse, we may find a clue:

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This seems to be as close as Mark comes to giving us a manifesto for his Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And coming on the heels of the temptation, we can assume that one develops the other. In other words, whatever was tempting or Satanic during those 40 days and 40 nights was certainly not “of the Kingdom.” Whatever counter-Kingdom temptation Satan served up on in the wilderness would have had a clarifying effect: adding to the imperative to get the people to repent.

Now we have a full-blown mystery, as we seek counter-Kingdom ideas, or activities, or themes worthy of Jesus’ desert sojourn. And knowing that Jesus’ will one day take on the sins of the world, we can imagine that these counter-Kingdom themes are in a category all on their own. And that being the case, the first and most obvious might be idolatry:

I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

The atomic age began with these words, as Robert Oppenheimer quoted Hindu scripture to try to sum up the implications of the first Los Alamos test. I can think of no greater idolatry than to assume the power formerly reserved for God alone. But we did. Sadly, the remaining chapters of human history will be a continuous game of cat and mouse between those who commit this form of idolatry and those who would like to. I can’t say for certain if Jesus’ desert sojourn included a glimpse of the power we would one day possess or simply the awareness that possessing that power is a constant human theme.

What about blasphemy? Are the words spoken when hammer meets thumb worthy of a desert sojourn? Is it a temptation worthy of mention, or has it become so commonplace that it never really mattered in the first place? At its root, blasphemy is a sin against dignity. Whatever is worthy of our respect, whatever deserves a measure of reverence or dignity can be the object of blasphemy. The earth is our mother. Is it blasphemous to mistreat the only home we have? With 1.7 trillion barrels of oil locked in sand, we are the greatest energy superpower the world has ever known. When is it a sin against the dignity of the world God made to extract carbon from the earth?

Finally, what about apostasy? Whatever else happened in the desert, I can guarantee you that Satan encouraged Jesus to abandon his faith, to commit apostasy. What greater coup could exist that getting the son of the Most High to speak against God?

We all experience moments of doubt, because doubt is at the heart of being human. But when we take the next step, and begin to seed the doubt of others, we have entered the realm of apostasy. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others will not rest until they have convinced you that your trust in God is misplaced and that we humans are utterly alone. They are willing to disregard your religious experience, and credit themselves for being clever and endowed with gifts.

I say we give up apostasy for Lent, and give God the glory.
I say we give up blasphemy for Lent, and give God the glory.
I say we give up idolatry for Lent, and give God the glory.

Whatever temptation surrounds us, I believe that God alone can save us. Whatever doubts confronts us, I believe that God alone can save us. Whatever trials await us, I believe that God alone can save us. We come together in Lent to care for one another, to support one another, and grow together in love. God will tend us, in these days of desert wandering, and forevermore. Amen.