“Temptations and Territories”
Welcome to another Season of Lent. As the days lengthen and Easter comes nearer, the church marks a season of 6 ½ weeks, 40 days, not counting Sundays, in which we traditionally pray, fast, and give alms. We may take on spiritual disciplines, re-commit ourselves to practices of faith, and turn and return our hearts and lives to God as we prepare for the Great festival of Easter.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t give anything up for Lent this year. I kind of feel like we’ve had to give up so much over the last couple of years that I just don’t have the energy for it. And although I have lots of devotional books and Lenten resources at my disposal, I haven’t added any new prayer practices for this season either. The one thing I am hoping to add is worshipping together LIVE, in-person, with a congregation once again. That will be enough to make this season special for me, after a season of online only and an empty sanctuary.
If you who are listening this morning, whether you’re here in the church building or watching online, want to take up a spiritual discipline for Lent this year, I encourage you to do so. Even if it’s just to decide right now that you’re going to come to worship in the church every Sunday again. Or if it’s not safe for you to do that yet, commit yourself to participating online each week, without fail.
And if you’re up for doing something more, don’t add a bunch of extra things to your already busy schedule. But just commit to taking worship seriously. Come and listen with an open mind. Come and pray with an open heart. Come and open yourself to hear something new, to let the Spirit speak to you and guide you, to let Jesus challenge you, to let God change you.
Writing about the Season of Lent, Shively Smith says that “Lent is the time Christians purposely give our faith permission to ‘work on us’… [Our faith] compels us to take seriously this time of penance so that we can become more patient, equitable, and altruistic in a world obsessed with instant remedies, dominance, and self-glorification.”
In terms of Lent, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness functions as the basic biblical story and rationale for the forty days leading up to Easter. Luke tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.
Although he experiences temptations from the devil in that place, his faith sustains him through the challenges, and with the help of God’s Word, he responds to the temptations with wisdom, courage, and humility. Christians are invited to follow him to that place and experience something similar.
James Howell provides us with a picture of the wilderness area where this might have taken place:
“Consider the terrain: from Jericho, tourists lift their gaze westward and see the Mount of Temptation. An ancient monastery, to mark the memory of Jesus’ forty-day trial, is carved into the cliffs. It is one thing for Christians to build a church where a healing miracle or the resurrection happened; but why venture out to the place Satan chose to assault Jesus?
“This wilderness is not a vast expanse of sand with the occasional cactus or tumbleweed. Instead, we see a rocky, daunting zone of cliffs and caves, the haunt of wild beasts. People avoided the place, believing demons and evil spirits ranged there, knowing that predators and brigands lurked there.
“Jesus chose to go there – or, as Luke strangely tells us, was led there by the Spirit. How silly are we to think that if the Spirit leads, it will be to a smooth, comfortable, pleasant place. The Spirit that leads us led Jesus into peril.”
So, where are we being led to this Lenten Season? There are many possible answers, and each one of us may experience a unique call. But the Mission & Outreach Committee of First Church is inviting us to consider spending some time during this season learning about, grappling with, and responding to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
It’s not going to be a smooth or comfortable place to hang out, or a pleasant spiritual practice to enjoy. We will be invited to consider our history, come to terms with our past mistakes, and acknowledge our present biases and assumptions. We will be called to live differently in relationship with our neighbours, and to do the work involved in moving towards healing and reconciliation.
Out of the 94 Calls to Action from the TRC, there are some aimed at the Canadian Government, others addressed to Canadians generally, and several that specifically call for the response of the Churches. Since The Presbyterian Church in Canada operated eleven Indian Residential Schools, we were one of the Parties of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and we have a particular responsibility to take seriously and heed the Calls to Action.
When the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, there were three things he was tempted to do: 1. Turn stones into bread, because he was very, very hungry, after all; 2. Claim power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world; and 3. Throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was God’s own son.
Of course, Jesus does not succumb to the temptations. Instead of asserting his power, authority, and special relationship with God for his own benefit, he chooses patience and humility. He trusts that God will sustain him without such self-serving tactics.
If we read carefully, we will notice that there are two things that assist Jesus in resisting the temptations. It’s not just through some kind of magical strength of will, but it’s because of the presence of the Holy Spirit to strengthen him and the Word of God to direct his decisions. These are gifts from God that we have received as well – that are available to us as we face our own temptations too.
Any one of the temptations Jesus faced might have comparisons to our experience today. But it was the second one that really struck me as I began to prepare for our Lenten exploration of the Calls to Action. I imagined Jesus at the top of a cliff with the devil telling him to look out at the world around him. “All this will be yours,” the Evil One hisses, “To you I will give all the kingdoms of the world with all their glory.”
And I could not help but think of the “Doctrine of Discovery” and the concept of terra nullius, that Call to Action #49 asks that we reject and repudiate. The Doctrine of Discovery is a set of concepts developed from a series of papal bulls (decrees) issued around the 15th century, while terra nullius is Latin for “empty land.” Land was treated as terra nullius if it was deemed unoccupied or unowned – specifically, this often was assumed to mean unfarmed by European standards. Drawing on the concept of terra nullius, the papal bulls provided theological justification and legal backing to European monarchs to invade and seize non-Christian lands, enslave non-Christian people, and to take their property.
The papal bull Dum Diversas, for example, was issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 and granted the King of Portugal “full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, [and] subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ… and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate [their] realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”
And although these concepts and decrees might seem like ancient history, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that their use in the colonization of Canada has had a lasting effect on Indigenous people that must be acknowledged and addressed.
The Justice Ministries Report to the 2019 General Assembly of our Church explained the lasting legacy in this way: “The attitudes behind these practices continued even after the power of the medieval papacy waned. The ideology that European colonial powers had a right to appropriate lands and possessions and treat non-Christians they encountered as undeserving of the rights accorded to their own citizens flows from these doctrines and heavily influenced the legislation that eventually governed Indigenous-Crown relations. It also heavily influenced the system of residential and day schools in which the church was complicit.”
The report continues a little further on: “For the church, what is important is how the behaviours and activities that reflect these concepts influence the church’s mission and ministry with Indigenous people, and more broadly, how the Doctrine of Discovery has shaped attitudes of the dominant society towards Indigenous people. The focus of the Church must be on reconciliation and healing the trauma we helped cause.”
And we have begun that work. As a church we have confessed to God and to Indigenous people our complicity in the Government of Canada’s policies of assimilation, the harm it caused, and that “the roots of the harm we have done are found in the attitudes and values of western European colonialism, and the assumption that what was not yet moulded in our image was to be discovered and exploited.” (A&P 1994, p. 376)
We have engaged in the process of Truth and Reconciliation, begun to listen to and learn from Indigenous Presbyterians, and responded to the many recent discoveries of unmarked graves across the country at residential school sites. And officially, the 2019 General Assembly did “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”
At the same Assembly, another recommendation was adopted which called upon the members of the Church to study the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius in order to understand contemporary ramifications of these concepts in Canada, including how this is reflected in our Church’s mission and ministry with Indigenous people.
You probably have lots of options for what to do during this Season of Lent in order to follow Jesus into the wilderness for a little while. Do consider joining us in our learning and engagement with the Calls to Action each Sunday afternoon, beginning today with the Doctrine of Discovery.
Whatever you choose, may the Spirit lead you, may God’s Word sustain you, and may this season prepare and equip you for your life and mission with Jesus in the years ahead.