21 February 2010

The Journey of the Cross: I. Identity & Confession

Matthew 4: 1-11

The First Sunday in Lent/ 21st February 2010

This begins a sermon series leading us up to Palm Sunday. I’ve entitled it, Journey of the Cross, not Journey to the Cross. There’s a difference. We will focus upon Jesus’ march toward Jerusalem; we will be attentive to his life. But I want us to be attentive to our lives. During Lent we can remember Jesus’ journey, we can reflect upon what it really means for Jesus to die on a cross. I don’t want to take the focus away from Jesus, of course, but yet I want to take the focus away, to explore what it really means for us. Although Jesus might have asked his followers to take up their cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23 & Matthew 16: 24), only Jesus was really able to go to the cross, to do what he did through his death. No human being could ever have accomplished what he did. Then what does it really mean for ordinary, sin-bound-yet-redeemed children of God like us to take up a cross and follow Jesus?

This series will be grounded in scripture, but it will have a lot of my own theology and thoughts thrown in (and I welcome your response, your questions, disagreements, or assent). My theology is very incarnational, that is I not only believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection were redemptive for us, but that the entire scope of his life was salvific, from birth to death to beyond death. His entire life becomes the pattern for human life. Discerning how he lived, with an intimate relationship with his Father, we discover that Jesus demonstrated for us what it really means to be authentically human. In his journey to the cross we learn something of our journey of the cross. His journey becomes a pattern for our lives. This leads us to the question, then, what does it mean for us to live a cross-shaped life? Or, to use a term Mike Gorman, professor of New Testament at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute here in Baltimore has coined – cruciform. (1) What does it mean to live a cruciformed life? For Jesus, but not just for Jesus, for us. As the truly human one, our potential humanity is contained in his humanity. He has the power to not only show what it means to live, but equips us through his Spirit with the power to live it.

We could begin at the manger in Bethlehem, but I want to start where Jesus’ becomes conscious of himself, for knowledge is always rooted in consciousness, and that place is the wilderness of Judea. It is there we first meet Jesus the adult being baptized by John in the River Jordan. Jesus comes up out of the water and hears a voice that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As we saw several weeks ago looking at this text and as we discussed with the confirmation class here around the baptismal font on Friday evening, baptism it is less about incorporation into the church (it becomes that later) than it is first about identification, one’s identity in God. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

And then, almost immediately, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, to the point of exhaustion. He was famished. Weak. Two things, at least, we need to note here. First, it is the Spirit of God who leads Jesus into the wilderness, not the Tempter. Second, the words of the Tempter, or the devil, are actually part of God’s larger purpose or plan for Jesus; kind of the most outward of outward bound experiences. The devil or the tempter has often been seen as personified evil that attempts to thwart God’s will. As a person or force that is at odds with God, battling with and against God. Leaving us with the question, will God win or Satan? But the Bible is never in any doubt, especially after the resurrection, that God is in control. Even Satan is at the mercy of God. We have to be careful we don’t project images of the devil that emerged much later, in the Middle Ages or from Dante Alighieri’s (c. 1265-1321) Inferno back upon this word in scripture. The Satan (literally, Ha-Satan in Hebrew) for example, in the story of Job, literally means “adversary,” and is actually part of the heavenly throne (see Job 1:6). In other words, Satan is actually on God’s payroll.

Yes, Jesus is confronted by the Tempter. We know about the temptations. But the temptations serve a purpose. Indeed, the entire setting for Jesus’ struggle and exchange with the Tempter serve a purpose. It’s in the wilderness, the desert, the wild places where the call of Yahweh is often heard. It’s the place where one is confronted with the question of identity.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is intentionally portrayed as the New Moses who will lead God’s people through the wilderness to a new promised land, to offer an-old-yet-new teaching. Where did Moses learn the name of God? On Mt. Horeb in the wilderness of Sinai. Where did Moses, the murderer, running from his life in the middle of no place, running from the law, stuck tending his father-in-law’s sheep, discover the true work and purpose of his life? In the wilderness. Actually, Exodus 3: 1-3, tells us Moses went even beyond the wilderness to the mountain of God. Once Moses and the Israelites made it out of Egypt, how did they get to the Promised Land? Through the wilderness. And how long did they wander? Forty years. In fact, God intentionally sends Israel on the long way home (see Exodus 13: 17ff). There was a direct road along the coast, built by the Egyptians. But God said go through the wilderness. For it was through the long journey through the wilderness that Israel learned to trust, absolutely, upon God to provide for their every need. (2) And, at the same time, the experience in the wilderness forged them into being a people. It forced them to a new consciousness of themselves that they would never have had apart from the wilderness. In fact, the parallel is so clear that every occasion the Israelites failed in their wilderness journey – hunger, putting God to the test; false worship – Jesus is faithful. Temptations deal with hunger, one’s ability to trust in God, wrestling with false worship. In each place, Jesus is faithful against the tempter’s power. (3) Jesus survives the struggle. Jesus is faithful. But we can go deeper.

The temptations serve a purpose. But so does the location: wilderness, the desert. There is a strong connection between the presence and voice of Yahweh and fierce landscapes, whether it’s Sinai or the Judean wilderness (which is a desert), or the wilderness of the human heart, or the wilderness of Golgotha. Yahweh seems to dwell and be revealed in these dangerous, potentially life-threatening, limiting kinds of places. “The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak,” says Yahweh (Hosea 2:14).” It’s a place of desolation. It’s beyond the norm, beyond civilization, the opposite of home. Writing from the around the fifth century, Saint Jerome (c. 347-420), who knew a thing or two about deserts and wilderness said, “Nudo amat eremos.” The desert loves to strip bare. Actually, the desert is indifferent to human concerns. It simply doesn’t care about you or me. It’s in different. It takes you out of the center of your world. It means you’re not the focus of everything, because the wilderness really doesn’t care about you. In his book, Desert Solitaire, the American naturalist Edward Abbey (1927-1989) writes about his many years living in the deserts of the American Southwest. “The desert says nothing,” he writes. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.” (4) Contemplation.

When we are knocked off center, when we are brought to the edge of existence, when we are forced to contemplate our lives and the world from a completely new perspective, when we are taken out of our comfort zones, when we are taken out of the noise of our lives and forced to silence all the chatter that fills our ears and our hearts, then – and probably only then – can we begin to hear another voice, a deeper, stiller voice who calls out in love.(5) It’s then in the gracious threat of silence we are confronted with ourselves – and not ourselves alone (although that might be a deep fear, that we really are all alone). But deeper than that fear we are confronted with ourselves and ourselves in the presence of the Wholly Other, who waits in the silence and speaks from the silence. It’s from hearing that voice and living into what it means, that we come to see who we really are.

The Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness for him to ask the question, Who am I?, to come through the wilderness with an answer. What does the Tempter say first? “If you are the Son of God…” If you are…. It’s here in the wilderness that Jesus’ identity is to put to the test. Will he be faithful to who is and what God is calling him to be, or will he take the easy route? The wilderness is the place where we discern the call, the vocatus, our vocation, discover a voice and what we have to say. It’s where we discover who we are and therefore what we are called to do.

In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Long, is really insightful to see that the three temptations Jesus faced were not temptations of doing (that is, doing one thing versus another), but temptations of being – that is in each temptation he is tempted to be someone other than the person God has called him to be. These are temptations that try to pull him away from the voice, to deny the voice, the voice that told him, “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” Each temptation is trying to get him to deny who he is, to settle for someone less than who he is, to settle for less than the purpose of his life. (6) It’s a temptation to do gospel-lite.

Indeed, the Tempter is trying to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his life and his work too small, limiting the scope and impact of what he can do. In this way, the temptations Jesus faced are not any different than the ones all of us face on a daily basis. There are so many forces that prevent us from hearing the voice of our calling, that block the Spirit’s whisper, so many times the tempter wants us to deny or forget who we are, to deny we are all, right now, children of God. So many times we are tempted to set our sights too low, to settle for gospel-lite, so many times when we personally or collectively as a church risk losing sight of the breadth and height and depth of our calling, when we’re tempted to be “realistic,” or “practical,” or that most American of traits, “pragmatic.” (A nineteenth-century philosophy, pragmatism, that had its origins here in the United States, as the nation woke up for the nightmare of the Civil War and came to grips with the devastation and loss.)

Identity leads to action. Remember who you are, then even the gates of hell cannot prevail against you (Matthew 16:18). That’s what Jesus discovered in the wilderness. It’s probably why, for us, we find the wilderness so threatening and why we try to tame it with “civilization,” because we just might come out from it completely changed.

There Jesus discovered who he was and sought to be faithful to his calling. Jesus left the desert, went back to Galilee, and got to work, confessing, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. It’s Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom that stands at the heart of his message and ministry, a vision of God’s gracious intent for the well-being and healing of God’s people, a radical, disruptive vision of grace and love, of acceptance, forgiveness, and welcome; a radical, disruptive vision of the limitless generosity of God who loves to be generous; a radical, disruptive vision of God that places at the center of the kingdom a child, a child who, in Jesus’ time, was worth no more than a slave, with no status or power, completely vulnerable, who places at the center of the Kingdom all those without status or power or privilege or wealth and gives them a seat of honor at the joyful feast of the people of God. A radical and disruptive vision because it comes with judgment, God’s judgment and assault upon everyone and everything in this universe that attempts to thwart the Kingdom, that harms and destroys “the least of these,” everything in our lives that causes us to forget who are and what we are to do with our lives. This and so much more Jesus came out of the wilderness preaching. And because he was faithful to himself and his God, faithful to his calling, he was courageous and bold and had the guts to confess God’s power in the face of the enormous power and brutality of the armies of Caesar. This is what inevitably led to his death at the hands of the Romans. It’s the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus because it could not tolerate the threat Jesus posed by preaching and embodying with his life the gracious Empire of God.

This might be a new or different way of viewing Jesus’ death. It goes like this: the cross was the consequence of being faithful to his purpose; the cross was the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his work; the cross was the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his calling; the cross the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his identity. Being faithful to your God-given identity and work comes with a price. To follow him today means something of the same today. Our cross is the consequence of being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling; our cross is the consequence of being faithful to our God-given identity, both as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what it means to have a cross-shaped, cruciform life, we who bear the name of Christ.

Image: Piedra Lumbre, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. Photo by K. Kovacs.

1. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
2.Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 43.
3. Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35-39.
4. Cited in Lane, 23.
5. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: With the drawing of this Love/ and the voice of this/ Calling/ We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot (1888-1975), “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
6. Long, 35-39.

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