Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those who attended the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy introduction to Lent that ends with this invitation: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
The purpose of self-examination during Lent is not to admire ourselves in the mirror and praise ourselves for our accomplishments, but to become aware of our temptations and to repent of our sins. Now, unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not sin, not ever. But he did know what it was like to be tempted. And in today’s Gospel, we hear the story of his temptation.
It begins right after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The English translation we heard today says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It makes it sound like the temptation of Jesus was a chance occurrence. The original Greek text, however, says something a little different. It says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness in order to be tempted by the Devil for forty days.” In other words, the entire event takes place at God’s behest, not the Devil’s.
Why would God test his Son? Unfortunately, we are never told explicitly, but I have some ideas on the subject. I suspect that this time of testing was necessary for Jesus to figure out what kind of Messiah he was going to be and what kind of Kingdom he was going to proclaim—and then to come to terms with the consequences of those decisions. Each of the three temptations serves in its own way to clarify Jesus’ thinking. At least, that’s my claim!
In the first temptation, the Devil preys on Jesus’ desperate hunger. After all, Jesus had not eaten for forty whole days. The Devil dares Jesus to magically transform a stone into a loaf of bread. In good Rabbinic tradition, Jesus responds by quoting scripture, in this case Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem at first glance that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do anything even remotely sinful. But I suspect that the Devil is hoping that, if Jesus gives in to even one self-serving act, it will eventually lead down a slippery slope to a Messiah who is more concerned with feeding himself than he is with feeding a multitude of 5000.
Two Sundays ago, we heard Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. According to his chronology, last Sunday’s Gospel reading should have been the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But instead, the lectionary gave us the wedding feast at Cana. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit. Just keep in mind, that Jesus had just come back from 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness when today’s Gospel story begins.
After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, to the town where he grew up. He does what every good Jew does on a Saturday morning; he goes to the synagogue service. Small synagogues often didn’t have a regular rabbi to preach, so men in the congregation would take turns reading the appointed scriptures and giving some form of commentary or explanation. (Note that in Jesus’ day the preacher stood to read the appointed scripture, then sat to preach. As some of you know, that’s what I like to do at the Tuesday Eucharist.)
It’s not entirely clear whether Jesus read the appointed scripture or one of his choosing. In any case, what he read is a portion of Isaiah that had long been understood to be the job description of the Messiah. Jesus begins his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The rest of the sermon isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the congregation was so stunned by the opening line that the rest of the sermon was a blur!
Happy new year! In the U.S. civil calendar, the new year starts on January 1. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the new year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. But the church’s new year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which just happens to be today. The basic meaning of the English word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Two Comings of the Messiah. The first is the coming of the Messiah some 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the anticipated coming of the Messiah on the Day of Judgment. And in one way or another, all of today’s readings deal with the Coming of the Lord.
In an oblique way, all three Bible readings today speak to the political and spiritual crisis that the United States finds itself in today.
The first reading is an oracle from the prophet Jeremiah. And it starts off somewhat dramatically with a curse against political leaders who are corrupt and ineffectual, leaders who have failed to protect the people they were given charge over. Malfeasance, incompetence, and just plain bad government have resulted in a national disaster. The people of Judah have been conquered by their enemy and are being sent off into exile. Through the gloomy prophet Jeremiah, God warns the leaders of the nation that they will be punished by God for their failure to do their duty: “You have not attended to my flock; so I will attend to you!”
So far, the reading is all gloom and doom—at least for the corrupt leaders of Judah. But the tone changes abruptly to one of hope and promise. God vows that he will reunite his people by sending them a leader who can be trusted, a true descendent of David, a Messiah. “He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This prophecy was made about 2600 years ago, and unfortunately we are still waiting for it to be fulfilled. Yes, the Messiah came as promised, but the promised reign of justice eludes us still. And so, we wait with longing for his Second Coming.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23, a psalm read at almost every Christian funeral, also makes a bold political statement. It starts out with that well-known phrase “The Lord is my shepherd.” Since the shepherd is a metaphor for the leader of the people, what the psalmist is really saying is that the only king, the only leader, the only President who gets his full allegiance is the Lord. After this affirmation of undivided loyalty to the Lord, the rest of the poem expresses the most profound trust that this divine shepherd will provide for every need. He will provide food and water for physical sustenance. He will provide guidance through every sort of danger. No longer will there be anything to fear. Then abandoning the metaphor, the psalmist speaks directly of the generosity, the goodness, and the compassion of the Lord. And he expresses the hope that he may abide in the presence of the Lord forever.
For us Christians, this shepherd, this leader, this divine king is the one to whom we give our allegiance, above every other allegiance. And today, as we recited that pastoral psalm, we joined our voices with that of the ancient psalmist and declared that the Lord alone is our shepherd, the Lord alone is our leader, the Lord alone is our President.
The Letter to the Ephesians goes on to speak of the unity that this shepherd has brought. In the Church, he has united Jew and Gentile, citizen and foreigner. This shepherd, this Messiah, this divine President does not build walls to separate peoples; no, he breaks down the walls that divide one people from another. With the election of President Jesus, there are no longer illegal immigrants and legal citizens. There are no longer Democrats and Republicans. All are united into one new humanity. All are reconciled and welcomed as citizens of the new commonwealth. This, brothers and sisters, is the Christian dream and the Christian hope. It hasn’t happened yet—that’s for sure! But we are promised that it will happen—but only if we follow the right shepherd, the right leader, the right President, the one whose name is above all other names—Jesus Christ.
Lastly, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It too speaks about our divine President Jesus. And what does it tell us about his approach to leadership? That he truly cares and that he knows how to express it! He sees people who are oppressed, who are tired, who are hungry. He sees people who have lost their way and don’t know which way to turn. So what does he do? Out of the purest compassion, he cancels the weekend at the golf resort, and he abides with his people. He teaches them about God’s love for them. And as we will hear next week, he feeds them. Lastly, he reaches out and touches them, and by his touch, he makes them whole again.
I took a course on leadership a few years ago. Do you know what the most valuable leadership skill is? It’s the ability to let the people you lead know just how much you care about them. I was astonished! But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. For what we were promised by Jeremiah, what we were promised by St. Paul, what we were promised by St. Mark is a leader who cares for us. And folks, President Jesus has always cared for us, every one of us. He cared so much that he was willing to give up his very life for us. And he wants us to care for one another in that same way.
Now, frankly, no American President, no political leader anywhere, could ever hope to compete with President Jesus. But it behooves the leaders of the world to try a little harder to emulate the compassion of the Good Shepherd. It behooves them to guide and to protect and to feed and to unite. And it behooves us to speak out when they fall short. But no matter how badly our leaders may fail us, we know that someday things will be better—much better! Someday, we will all live together as one new humanity in the commonwealth of President Jesus, and he will fulfill his campaign promise to make Creation great again. Let us pray with all our hearts for the swift coming of that day!
The gospel we just heard is part two of the story we began last week And the change from Part One to Part Two is really amazing, even frightening. This is, I think, a gospel not easy to hear, not easy to take in, and not easy to respond to.
I said we heard the first part last week, but other things were going on last week and you may not remember, so let me take a leaf from the soap opera serials first of all and summarize “the story so far.” When we tuned in last week we heard Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The custom in those days was to honor a stranger in town by calling him up to the bema to read from the scriptures and to say something about the text. It’s not very different from what happens today when a boy or girl comes of age and reads from the Torah for the first time at a bar or bat mitzvah.
Jesus had come home again after beginning his ministry. Already he had some reputation as a teacher and healer so there was a special interest in what he might say and do back now in his own hometown. So they gave him the scroll to read and he read from the Prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind… To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It was commonly assumed that that wonderful passage had to do with the coming of the Messiah. So Jesus read it and rolled the scroll back up and sat down there at the front of the synagogue to teach and he began by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” That’s the story so far. That’s where we ended last week and that is also where we began today full of hope and promise.
Jesus says in effect, “You have this wonderful expectation and right now right here it is fulfilled. You are waiting for the Messiah? I’m here.” Good news, right? And that’s where we ended last week, but it’s not the end of the story. This week we find out what happened next.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today is the first day of the season of Advent, and the start of a new liturgical year. The basic meaning of the word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Coming of the Messiah. Note that the name of this season is singular, Advent. Well, I think someone must have made a mistake! We ought to call the season Advents, with an “s.” Because this season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the Second Coming that we still await. The readings today testify to the duality of this season.
The first reading from that gloomy Gus, Jeremiah, is like a ray of light breaking through the clouds on a dark and dismal day. Jeremiah is renowned for his oracles of doom, yet here we find him giving us a word of hope. He predicts that a descendant of King David will one day rule over the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah and bring peace, and the people of God will once again know justice and righteousness. This is, of course, a classic Messianic prophecy. And Christians find its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. We believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, prophesied by the prophets of old. And yet, in all truth, even after his coming to us, God’s people are still waiting for his righteous rule. Jerusalem does not yet live in safety; the world does not yet experience the shalom of God. And so while our Jewish brothers and sisters wait for the first coming, the first advent, of the Messiah. We Christians await the Second Advent, when the Messiah will come again in power and glory to bring justice and righteous, not just to Israel and Judah, but to the whole world.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ at his birth, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. At the risk of being called pedantic, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the virginal conception. It is the story of the angelic Annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and bear God’s Son.
The angel’s greeting in this story has inspired composers throughout the history of the church to try to capture the essence of that moment in a musical setting of the “Ave Maria.” And this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. A typical painting would look something like this. A young woman dressed in a diaphanous blue gown is seated on a throne, her head surrounded by a golden halo. Before her there kneels an angel of ambiguous gender with hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Above is a white dove in a golden nimbus, and from the dove a ray of light emanates, aimed at the head of Mary—as if Jesus is to be conceived in Mary’s head!