February 27, 2016

Encounter, Action, Faith: Searching Ourselves


[There is no recording of this sermon.]

Text: Luke 4:1: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

There is probably a reason why Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days immediately after his baptism; and whatever that reason is, it probably was not to give us a measure by which to set the length of the liturgical season of Lent. Surely there must be other, more important purposes in view for the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in telling us this story.

Scholars of biblical history and the early church would remind us that the first Christian communities emerged from within synagogues, and that the writers of the first gospels were eager to show that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of the covenant promise of a Messiah. So in every respect they sought to show how his life recalled aspects of the whole story of Israel, how Jesus’s life was a complete recapitulation of the story of Israel; his trip from Israel to Egypt and back to Israel in Matthew, his ready ability to quote the Jewish scriptures.

Here, the story of a forty-day exile would recall for any faithful Jew of Jesus’s day the forty-year exile of the people of Israel in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt. Israel passes through the waters of the Red Sea and spends forty years in the wilderness, Jesus is baptized in the waters of the River Jordan, the same waters through which Israel crossed to finally reach the promised land, and spends forty days in privation and temptation.

For us, the purpose of this trial in the wilderness might be seen a little differently. The case has been made for us; we accept that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. So the force of those parallels is not really the message for us. What might it be?

During this season of Lent we are reading through Jane Shaw’s profound little book A Practical Christianity. What drew me first to Shaw’s book is that she takes what we have come to understand as the usual order in which our lives as disciples unfold and pretty much completely turns it upside-down.

We’re taught, or at least we somehow come to think, that we are introduced to the idea of Christianity by our parents, or by someone, and then we spend a lot of time and effort trying to get our beliefs right, or struggling with the conflict between what the faith teaches and what science seems to reveal, and only once we get our beliefs all lined up correctly we will be, and behave like, Christian disciples.

One neat thing about this model is that it always gives us a perfect reason why our own behavior falls short of what it might be. Because we can always say that our beliefs just aren’t there yet, that we somehow don’t believe correctly in order to behave as disciples do.

What Shaw offers is something like the complete opposite of that. She points out that for the very first Christians the basic question was not “What do you believe,” but: “How has your life been transformed?” She writes of those first Christians that “They were converted to faith because Christianity transformed their lives.” Maybe it was the kindness of Christian strangers, or simply by observing the differences in the way Christians treated each other and the way the rest of the world seemed to treat them.

We hold up this idea of “right belief” as a way of keeping us out of a deeper relationship with the heart of God; we simply can’t see how we will get there. Shaw’s contention is that putting the thing in that way is seeing it through the wrong end of the telescope. First we have to take up practice; aligning our lives with the example of Christian ideals, love, and compassion, and reconciliation, and dignity. And from that emerges a deeper and more profound faith.

So there is a sequence, but a different sequence, of steps in our road to faith. It doesn’t begin with confident, orthodox faith somehow arriving fully formed in our heads. It starts somewhere else. Very specifically, it starts in the work—the real work—of self-examination. Because in self-examination you have to come to grips with just how much the example, the teaching, the love of Christ and of the Christian community has changed you, and how much it might change you even more.

This series of three sermons comes under the title “Encounter, Action, Faith” as a shorthand way of giving you some navigational aids along this path. First we have to risk the patient, unflinching, encounter with ourselves—the long look in the mirror, the searching investigation of our own desires. When we do that we will see clearly and certainly the ways in which we have been touched by, transformed by, Christianity—not as it is codified in a set of doctrines, but as it is lived out by Christian people in Christian community.

Of course by this I don’t mean that it is not possible to be touched and transformed by the help and compassion of people who are not Christian.

But I do mean to say that the only community on earth, the only community in human history, which has as its core purpose the expression and expansion of the transforming power of compassionate love is the Christian church.

My first boss in ministry used to sit down with each new seminarian who came to work in that church and say to them these words: “Every one of us who comes into the ministry does it for at least one of three reasons: To get the attention you didn’t get as a child, to get the respect you didn’t get as a child, or to get the love you didn’t get as a child. Your ability to respond as well as you can to a call of ministry depends on your figuring out which of those is true for you—or else it will get the best of you.”

The instruction in that piece of stringent advice was to take seriously the work of self-examination. There is a long and sorry story, a story we have come to hear many times in recent years, about ordained people who never got that advice, or didn’t take it to heart, and found themselves at the mercy of their own needs.

Self-examination is the time in the wilderness. Searching ourselves takes discipline; but it brings us face-to-face with the reality of how we have been changed, how we have been touched and transformed and made to sense the darker truths and the better possibilities within ourselves by the love of Christ.

Once we have done this—only once we have done this—can we escape the prison of the stuff that gets in our way, or leads us astray, or somehow puts a deeper encounter with the God seemingly out of our reach.

When we find in ourselves the traces of the changes that love has made in us, we will find strength and courage to act toward others in that same way; and through that action, more and more, we will find a greater capacity for faith growing in us.

Let us pray:

Gracious and merciful God, give us the will and the patience to make space in our lives for you; to search out and recall the changes you have wrought in us, the better selves you have fashioned in us; and by your mercy, give us grace to commend those blessings in ourselves, and live them out in the world; through the love of Christ, our Lord. Amen.