Sunday, February 17, 2013

Choices - 1st Sunday of Lent 2013

Luke 4:1-13

"Too many Christians have a commitment of convenience.  They'll stay faithful as long as it's safe and doesn't involve risk, rejection, or criticism.  Instead of standing alone in the face of a challenge or temptation, they will check to see which way their friends are going."  Charles Stanley

It is a colossal mistake to believe the devil as portrayed in the Gospels was red, carrying a pitchfork, and had horns coming from his head as that common image many have of what the devil may looks like.  Though Jesus was surely aware of who He was dealing with, it cannot be said that we could always be as spiritually discerning - especially if we never take the time to spiritually discern anything.    

These choices Jesus was confronted with are the very same choices we face nearly every single day in practical living - in human desire and ambition; refusing to deny ourselves as our flesh desires, striving for money and power and "things" as the culture demands, refusing to consider the sin of gluttony in our quest for acquisition, and often "testing" our Holy Father much like a child will test a parent - which is always cute, huh?

Looking at this encounter between Jesus and the evil one always raises questions, but the dominant questions usually center around the third temptation when the devil quotes the Scripture - although I will grant that the "stones to bread" temptation is one that throws many off.  After all, Jesus has just endured a forty-day fast.  We are not given specific information about the extent of Jesus' fast or whether He ate anything at all; we just know that at the end of this fasting period, the Scripture says He was "famished" - very hungry!

So what harm would it do to eat?  How much good can we be to the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth if we were to fast ourselves into such a weakened state?  After all, this is the argument many Christians use to excuse themselves from the "need" to fast, claiming it as an "ancient" practice no long necessary after the Resurrection of Messiah.  For the "nominal" Christian who is perfectly content with the way things are, it is hard to show fasting as "necessary".  For the DISCIPLE who is on a Journey WITH Christ, however, the need to fast would be clear.

Think, for instance, about how much time during the day is spent thinking about, planning, preparing, and then actually eating the meal.  For some it may not be a big deal, but for others it is extremely time-consuming.  This is not to say it is a bad thing, of course, because we have to eat (and food is a gift!); and for those living on the edge of a tight budget, meal planning is essential.  The purpose and practice of fasting, however, is not strictly about "doing without".  Rather it is about examining the time we spend away from the Lord through the neglect of worship; tithing; and reading, studying, and praying of Scripture. 

In other words, fasting is about how much (or how little) time we spend actively and consciously engaged in the Divine Relationship rather than treating it as "incidental" to our lives.  It is about trying to determine whether we are simply "being" Christians - OR - "doing" discipleship.  The difference between the two is profound much like the difference between simply "being" married and earnestly "engaging" the marriage relationship.

The difference, then, can be determined and summed up by the third temptation when the devil quotes the Scriptures to Jesus.  He says, "It is written, 'He will command His angels concerning you, to protect you' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'".  These passages come from Psalm 91 and, depending on the translation you have, is pretty solid - as the verses themselves go.  However, the problem lies in the context and practical application which depends entirely on genuine, first-hand knowledge of the Scriptures. 

Quoting a few verses out of context is the greatest problem "pop" Christianity suffers from because nearly any verse from the Scriptures removed from its context and setting will almost always alter its true meaning.  Consider Psalm 91, for instance.  Verse 11, "For He will command His angels concerning you ..." has no real meaning apart from verses 9-10: "Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you."  

The assurance we receive from the psalm is only to those who "dwell" in the Lord.  That is, our lives are totally consumed and regulated by the Lord and His Word, His Will, and His Way.  Everything we do revolves around the Lord and His Scriptures.  There is no portion of our lives that is not intimately connected with the Lord.  However, such a life devoted to the Lord is not possible apart from the Scriptures.  Such intimate knowledge of the Lord and His Way is not possible apart from His Word.  If our "bible", however, is a series of bumper-sticker quotes, we will always fall short of the full revelation found only in The Word - not a few select words.

My favorite comes from those who resist or outright reject being held accountable to discipleship by fellow disciples: "Only Jesus knows my heart".  While it is true that the Lord does see us within ourselves and does see what we do "in the dark" even when we think we have everyone fooled, Jesus specifically teaches that "out of the mouth comes the abundance of the heart"

So while it is true the Lord does indeed know what is in our hearts, He is not the "only" one who knows.  Our mouths will ultimately reveal what is within us ... good OR bad; just as it is written in Ecclesiastes 10:3: "When a fool walks along the way, he lacks wisdom, and he shows everyone he is a fool."  It must also be said that our actions usually follow our mouths - all coming from within our true hearts; not the heart we desire nor the heart we wish but rather the heart we truly possess.  So the only ones these "pop culture Christians" are kidding are themselves - and everyone else who shares their ignorance of the Scriptures.

The whole practice and purpose of Lent and fasting is to get real.  It is not about "what" we decide to give up for Lent (if we ever do); it is about "where" that something comes from that we choose to give up, and "why" we choose to give it up.  I don't mean to belittle those - and there are always many - who give up chocolate for Lent.  I love chocolate myself, but I cannot say that chocolate in and of itself interferes with my relationship with the Lord (or those I have spoken with in the past).  Even in my lowest years, I never stayed home from worship just to eat chocolate.  I never put aside Scripture study in favor of a Hershey bar.  There were many other excuses I used, but chocolate in and of itself never interfered with my spiritual life. 

But chocolate, for me, is only an example of what fasting is NOT intended to accomplish for us.  Fasting was never intended as a mere physical challenge just to see if we could; and its use strictly for self-improvement will always be limited.  For many, choosing a fast for Lent is a lot like New Year's Resolutions; we often set ourselves up for failure before the journey has really even begun not because fasting is not necessary - but because we enter into the call to fast completely self-absorbed (i.e., to lose weight or save money) and uncommitted.  It is rarely about our relationship to the Lord and His Church through His Word.

Lent is a time of profound choices, but we must choose according to an honest and earnest inward reflection - NOT simply for the sake of making a "choice" but rather determining what is standing between us and our commitment to genuine discipleship.  What is it that prevents us from attending worship as often as we can?  What is it that claims time which could be spent in Scripture study and earnest prayer - alone AND with a Bible study group?  What keeps us from the Lord and from one another?  This must be the point and focus of intense inward reflection because if we are not Bible-reading Christians, we cannot claim to be Bible-believing Disciples of Christ.

As a body of believers, let us resolve together to make the right choice; and let us then make this choice intentionally and purposefully.  Let us be willing to submit to mutual accountability during this very serious, very somber period of reflection.  Because Jesus made a clear "choice" for us.  Let us "choose" Him in His Word and our deeds.  Together.  As the Church, the very Body of Christ.

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