February 10, 2008

Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19

Did anyone watch the show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” this week? It’s the CBC comedy about a little Mosque in a community somewhere on the Canadian Prairies. There aren’t a huge number of Muslims in the fictional town of “Mercy” but there are enough to gather together in a rented space in an Anglican Church. And there are enough to hire a young Imam from Toronto (the clergy person in an Islamic community).

This week’s episode of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” began with Friday prayers and the Imam’s sermon. It’s the beginning of the festival of Ramadan in which Muslims fast and pray, read the Qu’ran and re-focus their lives on following the ways of God, including good deeds, kindness, and helping others. Though the TV show wasn’t concerned with giving many details about the meaning and significance of Ramadan, what was clear was the call to individuals to rid themselves of bad habits, negative practices, or what in a religious context, we would call sin.

Are you reminded of the Christian season of Lent that we began a few days ago on Ash Wednesday? That’s what came to my mind as I listened to an excerpt from Amar’s Ramadan sermon. Amar was really straight-forward in his sermon. He said, “You’ve got to stop lying. You’ve got to stop gossiping. You need to work on being patient, and not getting angry, because that’s what God requires of us. The practical response to his sermon was amazing that week, as various members of the community tried (with humorous results) to avoid the bad habits and vices that were their usual pattern of daily life.

The Christian season of Lent consists of the 40 days leading up to Easter, and it too is a time of re-focusing our lives on following the way of God. In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA describes Lent in this way:

“Lent is a time to prepare for the Easter celebration
and to renew our life in the paschal mystery.
We begin this holy season
by acknowledging our need for repentance,
and for the mercy and forgiveness
proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,
to observe a holy Lent
by self-examination and penitence,
by prayer and fasting,
by works of love,
and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.”

During Lent, many Christians choose the discipline of giving up some negative habit or practice, or some unnecessary luxury. Others choose to add a spiritual discipline of prayer, scripture study, or giving to the poor. The practices that we avoid or adopt during Lent are a sign and symbol of our repentance, of our turning and returning towards God. We acknowledge that as humans we are sinful. This morning, for example, our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us of the “fallen” state of all people. Adam and Eve represent all humanity, as they disobey God’s instructions and try to raise themselves up into god-like beings.

As I was driving home from Prince Albert on Wednesday afternoon this week, I popped in a random CD that was sitting in my car and found myself listening to Sarah McLaughlin’s song “Fallen.” The song is a kind of lament of past mistakes that the singer seems unable to rectify. The words of the chorus go like this:
Though I’ve tried, I’ve fallen…
I have sunk so low
I have messed up
Better I should know
So don’t come round here
And tell me I told you so…

As I listened to Sarah McLaughlin sing about the guilt of sins that cannot be covered, about mistakes that cannot be corrected, and about the pain and struggle of living with that brokenness, I began to think about Lent, about confession, and about forgiveness. I guess the sound of her plaintive voice, crying out for redemption reminded me that the ritual of Lenten repentance is not about little things like eating too much chocolate or watching too much TV. It’s about real, significant, painful brokenness in people’s lives. It’s about betrayal, neglect, and abuse. It’s about unfaithfulness and selfishness. It’s about people who have tried, have really tried, and yet have fallen. We’ve sunk so low. We’ve messed up. Yes, we should know better. We do know better, but we have fallen. And the only redemption that we have is in the gracious love and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. We confess our sin, we trust in God’s grace and love for us, and with God’s help we go out to live bit by bit, day by day, and more and more in the way of God.

During Lent, we are challenged not just to give up rich foods or get more exercise. We are challenged not just to pray more and study scripture more carefully. We are challenged not just to spend less on ourselves and give more to those in need. More than that, we are challenged to acknowledge and to face that darker part of ourselves that leads us to choose comfort, and power, and prestige for ourselves, often at the expense of others.

The Gospels speak quite a lot about the “Kingdom of God.” When Jesus began his ministry he announced that God’s Kingdom had arrived, and he invited people to return to God and live as God’s obedient children. At its heart, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a story about which kingdom will prevail. Who is in charge — God or the tempter?

Personally, I’m not all that comfortable with a lot of talk about the devil or Satan. It makes me think of those who would say, “the devil made me do it” as an escape from personal responsibility. It reminds me too much of those who label their opponents as “tools of the devil” simply because they disagree on some issues. I even worry about how devil-talk can scare children and even some vulnerable adults into thinking there is a powerful, evil “being” out to get them. But the author of Matthew’s Gospel does use the terms “devil,” “Satan,” “the evil one,” and “Beelzebul” the “ruler of demons” as synonyms for the figure that had come to represent the personalized power of evil.

I don’t have to believe that there was a literal “devil” creature out in the wilderness with Jesus though, in order to get the point that the Gospel writer was making. The point was that the Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in was a kingdom over and against another kingdom. Jesus made a choice between kingdoms, and he chose obedience to God. He chose God’s Kingdom.

He chose not to prioritize his own comfort by making stones into bread. He chose not to show off his special relationship to God by jumping off the temple and testing whether God would protect him. He chose not to claim the kingdoms of the world by bowing down to evil and doing the devil’s bidding. Jesus chose to let God be in charge of his life and decisions, and it led him to a life of care and service as he spoke about and demonstrated the love of God for all people.

There is a struggle going on within each one of us as well. I wouldn’t call it a war against the devil within us, though I’m sure some people would. But it is a struggle over who’s in charge. Do the concerns of God have first priority for us in all our decision-making? Or do we get distracted by concerns for comfort, convenience, or self-interest? Is our identity as children of God and followers of the way the essence of our lives? Or are we people who make our career, and family, and financial decisions just like everybody else does, and we just happen to go to church on Sunday mornings?

I’m not really concerned this Lent, whether you give something up, or take on a spiritual discipline, or whether you fast and pray any more than you do during the rest of the year. But if you do one thing for Lent this year, let it be to consider whose kingdom you belong to. Does God’s Word lead and guide each decision you make? Does God’s call give shape to your activities at work, at home, and during your spare time?

The good news is that in Jesus Christ God’s Kingdom has come near, and by God’s grace we are all welcome to be a part of it. We don’t have to be perfect yet. And we don’t have to live with the pain and guilt of mistakes and failures that cannot be corrected. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, and we are invited into God’s Kingdom of love.

May this Lenten season be a time of turning and returning to God. And may God’s Kingdom grow within and among us this spring. Amen.