Thursday, March 13, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent 2014: "Starting here, starting now"

Matthew 4:1-11

I think maybe to begin what I hope to share, I must first back-pedal on a statement I made recently.  I had suggested that when we are faced with our "moment in eternity", that glorious moment when the Lord reaches out to us in an unmistakable and intensely personal way, our response in that moment must never be "maybe" or "I'll get back to you"; that "not now" can be construed as "not ever".

Clearly this is an unfair statement for a couple of reasons, not least of which is our Lord cannot "misunderstand" us as we often misunderstand one another.  The Lord knows what He is asking of us - discipleship is no cake walk - and He surely knows above all else we humans fear the "unknown" more than we fear almost anything else. 

Jesus clearly states commitment to discipleship, to following Him, requires much more than blind faith - especially if we, as many do, have trust issues.  Jesus calls us to "count the cost" before we jump into something lest we come off looking foolish when we decide it's more than we bargained for (Luke 14:25-33).  In other words, there must be a period of thought, prayer, testing and preparation - because we are never called only to be justified (saved); we are beckoned into sanctification (the journey of continued spiritual growth AND service to one another - two sides of the same coin).

Some traditions believe the Lord's call is compelling beyond our capacity to resist or to doubt, that we are so moved by the Holy Spirit in such a way that we literally cannot resist or be forced to act against our own will.  Our Arminian-Wesleyan tradition does not see it quite that way.  The calling is compelling, to be sure, and unmistakable; but our tradition and heritage teach us our ability to reason and to think things through is truly among our Creator's great gifts and thus cannot be denied.  Working within that free will, however, still requires that we seriously consider an appropriate response to what is being asked of us while we explore discipleship honestly and openly within the many means of grace; prayer, fasting, Scripture study, and worship to name only a few.    

Lent is always a good place for seekers to start asking the hard questions because it is during this time when many begin to look at Jesus' life and ministry in a more challenging way; and the reason many look more critically is we know this journey will come to a head on what has become known as "Good Friday", that most cursed and blessed of days when even Jesus Himself cried out to the Holy Father, "Why have You forsaken Me?"

Surely we have all had those moments at some point; those moments when we questioned this God who promised, "I will never forsake you", especially when bad things happen to us.  And we try to embrace that certain promise in the midst of chaos and despair when we feel completely and utterly forsaken.  And I promise you this: if we stand firm in Christ, in what is written in the Scriptures as Jesus did in the wilderness, we can be sure even some "Christians" will turn on us when we seek to do what is right in the eyes of our Holy Father rather than worry about what our "friends" or our culture may think of us. 

These attempts at destruction happen all the time in cliquish social circles, private gossip circles, on social media, and even in "conversation forums" such as one I am currently engaged in at the local university.  People do not want to hear anything other than what they already think they know (I doubt any of us can be excepted from this!); and anyone who speaks outside that particular frame of reference is at least a potential "enemy" - but certainly a threat.

Sometimes the attempts to undermine our faith are more subtle, such as when the "tempter" takes Holy Scripture out of its appropriate context in an effort to make a self-serving point.  He does so when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable as Jesus surely was, or at least as vulnerable as the "tempter" hoped He would be.  Lest we forget, however, it is probably even easier to be tempted when we think we are at our strongest - you know, when we are pretty full of ourselves and have lost all sense of humility and spiritual need. 

Fasting alone does not bring us temptation even though we should understand taking on such a spiritual practice can be quite a test of spiritual endurance.  Yet fasting alone does not serve a spiritual purpose if our only measure of success is whether we were able to "go the distance" and do without something for a specified period of time without cheating.  It must never be fasting alone or strictly "giving up something for Lent"; it must be fasting AND prayer AND Scripture study AND self-sacrifice AND the other means of grace by which we connect or reconnect with our Lord in a meaningful way.

This is why a statement of suggesting "now or never" is unfair and borderline manipulative; it leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to work.  It puts people on OUR time table.  We observe Lent every year, and for good reason.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to fasting as a presumed and necessary spiritual practice already in place as He says, "When you fast ..." - not "if".  Like repentance, fasting is not a "one-and-done" proposition.

Lent is a reminder for us that discipleship is not a static "thing" that just sits there after we have been baptized; that false notion of believing we are "saved" only for our own sakes and not for the sake of the Lord's Kingdom AND His people who have yet to make a commitment, those who find it difficult to let go, those who are lost, those who feel "forsaken", angry, and bitter because of what they have suffered and cannot find their way back. 

Jesus clearly teaches that the "end" of spiritual life in Him is not at baptism; rather that baptism is a means to an end, a way to something greater and clearly beyond oneself as being "led ... into the wilderness" as Jesus was.  I suppose it can be said that after baptism is when the real work begins, when perhaps we become a greater threat to the "father of lies", when we have been marked with the sign of faith and means of grace by which our Lord claims us and we declare our allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and to the Lord's people on earth - His Body the Church - as well as to those who continue to struggle or are struggling perhaps for the first time.

But we also must never overlook or soft sell Jesus' use of the Holy Scriptures to endure and overcome this "testing", this "temptation" - NOT clever bumper sticker slogans we make up for ourselves that are, more often than not, not quite biblical.  Standing firm in the Word, returning to that Word after we have drifted away, or entering into that Word as a new beginning, is a daily challenge for us all.  This is the justification and necessity of the fellowship of the Church, the congregation of disciples who continue to struggle themselves and are glad for the company of others who so struggle.  This is discipleship; to struggle rather than to settle.

So if we really care about the state of this nation, if we are truly concerned about the state of the Church, it is time to more seriously and prayerfully consider what our Lord asks of us and WHEN He asks it of us.  We must resolve to "start here, and start now" each day to affirm for the first time - or reaffirm once again our commitment to our Lord.  Let the sacraments of the Church be to us our Lord's call to Reconciliation - to Him AND to one another. 

All glory and honor to the most High God, and peace to His people on earth.  Amen.  

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