|As kind of a background or context for
our reflection on the scriptures today, I thought it would be useful to
look in our little black book on what it says for the first Sunday of Lent.
Here we have a description of baptism: Lent got started in the first
place because of baptism. It was an intense period of spiritual exercises
for adults in their last stages of preparation for baptism. The whole
community prayed for them, fasted, gave alms, and spent time pondering
the implication of their own baptism.
Lent is a time when we really think about what
Then we read that during the time of Jesus
the Jews practiced many kinds of water purifications. Priests washed
themselves ritually before exercising any sacred functions. People
had to be purified with water after they touched a corpse, bones, or a
tomb. Some Jewish leaders required a ritual washing before eating.
But the first thing to note about baptism is
that it is very different from any of those ritual washings or cleansings.
The Jewish washing rituals were self-administered and could be repeated
many times. Baptism, on the other hand, is administered by another
person and happens only once in a lifetime. And hereís the really
important part -- most of all, baptism is not primarily a washing.
Itís not primarily a cleansing of ourselves or of our souls from sin, but
rather itís an immersion into water.
The Greek words used to describe purification
rituals mean to wash or to sprinkle. On the other hand, baptism comes
from a Greek word that means to plunge. For example, plunging cloth
into a dye or to become submerged in water and drowned. At the heart
of Christian baptism is dying, drowning to one way of living and then rising
to a whole new way of life.
So it should be a very dramatic thing for us
if we renew our baptismal promises and renew our baptismal commitment.
Itís like we died or drowned in this pool of water and we rise up to a
whole new way of life.
Now if we turn to our scripture lessons, I
think we can get some pretty clear ideas about what this new way of life
should be for each one of us; what we need to do during Lent to deeply
and profoundly renew our baptism; to be submerged, immersed totally, to
drown, but then be ready to rise up again at Easter with Jesus.
When we turn to the first lesson today, a lesson
Iím sure many of us find familiar because weíve heard the story of original
sin many times before, but a lesson that is not really all that simple
in a way -- how did sin really come into the world? God didnít make
anything evil. God is only good and anything God makes is good.
So how did sin come into the world?
Well, the writer of that passage in Genesis
devised this story to show that, somehow, human beings at the very beginning
of creation made a choice and this all revolves around following the will
of God or not. Somehow, they were tempted because they had been told
not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, but the temptation came to eat
that fruit anyway. And it all seemed so reasonable because the promise
was that that fruit would give them wisdom and knowledge.
You wonder -- well whatís wrong with that;
isnít wisdom or knowledge a good thing?
But what happens and why it is sinful in the
story is because they chose something contrary to the will of God.
And if you choose against the will of God, then it will not be the wisdom
of God that you receive. Instead, it will be the wisdom that Saint
Paul later calls the wisdom of this world, a wisdom that, in fact, is contrary
to the depth of the wisdom of God.
Thereís a passage in Paulís letter to the Corinthians
that brings this out so clearly when he is telling the church in Corinth,
ďI was not sent to baptize, but to proclaim the good news of Jesus; the
gospel, the good news, to proclaim that. You cannot proclaim the
message of Jesus in terms of human wisdom because it goes contrary to human
wisdom. The depths of the wisdom of God are so different from what
seems so reasonable to us and seems to be common sense in a way.
Paul says, ďLook, I have to preach Christ crucified.Ē
Now you look at that cross and tell me that seems to make sense, that Jesus
gave himself over to his enemies and didnít fight back, didnít try to overpower
them. He simply loved them, totally loved them and forgave them.
In human terms that does not make any sense,
but itís the wisdom of God. In that passage, Paul tells how the foolishness
of God is wiser that human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than
So Jesus on the cross is exhibiting foolishness,
maybe from our ordinary perspective, but itís a kind of wisdom that if
we followed could change our whole world, could change every one of us
in very dramatic ways; change the world in which we live because what seems
to be foolishness, Godís foolishness, is so much wiser that human wisdom.
Jesus totally weak and helpless on the cross
has a spirit power that is greater than any power on earth. He declared
about himself, ďI, when I am lifted up,Ē and he meant by that when I am
raised on the cross seemingly helpless then I will draw all people to myself
through love. And thatís the only thing that can heal, that can change
When you look at the temptations that are described
in Matthewís gospel, you can get some specific examples of how what seems
to be wise from a human perspective is ultimately foolish and what seems
to be foolish could be extraordinarily wise is Godís way.
These temptations that are described in Matthewís
gospel, which was written about 60 years after Jesus died and so it was
written for the church at that time, are temptations that the church, the
community of disciples was experiencing. So the gospel was
a way of trying to show how we overcome these temptations that confront
us right now.
The first temptation is what? To attach
yourself to the things of the earth and to think that is all you need.
Multiply these stones or change them into bread. Have everything
you need, all wealth and resources right there at your disposal and keep
getting more and more.
But Jesus reminds the tempter, ďLook, you cannot
live on bread alone.Ē Material things will never bring you fullness
of life. You will never become a full human person simply through
accumulation of wealth. The more we are attached to that or cling
to that, the less we are able to really deepen our spirit life. You
canít live on material things alone. They have to be in a secondary
place and give way anytime there must be a choice between strengthening
my spirit life and accumulating more goods.
That doesnít seem very reasonable in the world
in which we live because weíre encouraged all the time to get more, to
accumulate and build up our wealth. We see extreme examples of it
in our news all the time. People who have accumulated hundreds of
millions of dollars and still itís not enough. They want more.
They canít be satisfied with what they have no matter how much it is. Theyíre
missing something, a spirit life.
Isnít it strange, but I struggle for a word
that I would say is almost obscene or grotesque, that when we face a crisis
in our nation that we live in an economic system where our president tells
us: If you want to be really patriotic and support your country in
this time of crisis, go out and spend more, consume more. Thereís
something so distorted in that when you live in a world where four-fifths
of the worldís people donít have enough.
And so the way we serve our country is to buy
more, get more. Thatís foolishness, absolute foolishness, and it
will never bring us what we long for, peace in our hearts or peace in our
world. We have to reject that way of the world and follow the foolishness
The gospel describes him as being without a
place to lay his head. He had what he needed everyday, but he didnít
accumulate, didnít hang on to, he didnít try to find his security in material
things. He let all that go. Of course, that seems foolish,
doesnít it? But somehow we have to move in that direction if weíre going
to follow Jesus.
The second temptation, which evidently faced
the early church, too, was to become popular, do something fantastic so
that you draw a lot of attention to yourself. Thatís what the devil
wanted Jesus to do: Throw yourself down. Everybody will think
youíre an extraordinary wonder worker and theyíll come flocking to you.
But thatís not the way Jesus wants us to draw people to ourselves and to
our community of disciples. Not by becoming famous or doing wonders
or extraordinary things.
Isnít this a very common temptation in our
society? The popular people, the famous people, are held up for us
as being the really important ones. Thatís so contrary to Jesus.
The least person in his eyes has every bit as much dignity and worth as
the most popular, most famous person. We need to straighten out our
sense of values on that too; to seek only to follow the simple way of Jesus,
the ordinary way of Jesus and not to try to seek to do things that would
draw attention to ourselves.
And, finally, the third temptation, and this
is one that did confront the early church and sadly enough, eventually,
the church seemed to give way to this temptation -- to seek the power of
the kingdoms of the earth, to act as a worldly power and to think that
somehow through power, through force, through violence, through wars, through
armies, and all of that, that you can make the reign of God happen -- which
is what we should be about if we are the disciples of Jesus. You
canít. Youíll never bring peace. Youíll never bring the reign
of God into the world through armies, through violence.
I find it so striking that here we are 11 or
12 years after we went to war in Iraq and thereís an analysis that I read
recently that says back then in 1991 we had hoped to overthrow the government
of President Hussein. But we chose not do it with military force
and that we had already done enough harm and killing in that country and
his regime would simply collapse. But then we wanted to do something
to make sure to put pressure on him. So we imposed an embargo.
We keep that in place and thatís a form of power and violence against the
people of Iraq. And now this analysis that is obviously true.
President Hussein is more firmly entrenched in power than he ever was.
So all of our military force and embargo has
not done any good toward achieving the goal that we set before ourselves.
It certainly has not done anything to bring peace to that area. It
has only brought suffering and death.
The ways of the world are not the ways of Jesus.
He rejected those temptations. And when the early church in Matthewís
community wrote about them, they rejected them also. But the temptations
keep coming back. In fact, in the gospel, the writer says, ďThe devil
left Jesus for a time.Ē So those temptations keep coming back to
you and me and to the community of disciples that follows Jesus.
And we have to keep on rejecting them. We have to keep on trying to be
a community that is different, that rejects the so called wisdom of the
world. And thatís why we want to enter profoundly into this season
of Lent so that we really can be drowned, immersed into the death of Jesus
and rise to new light.
At the very end of the passage for todayís
section in the black book it says: It would be interesting to list
the ways in which, because I am a disciple of Jesus, my way of life is
different. Now suppose each of us throughout Lent began to try to
reflect how my way of life is different because I follow Jesus -- or maybe
we find it isnít different because Iím following the ways of the world.
Certainly, if all of us enter into this season
of Lent with great fervor, we will begin to be immersed into the death
of Jesus and we will change the way in which we live. We will become
much more faithful disciples of his and through that conversion of each
of us and of our whole community, we will begin to extend the reign of
Jesus, the reign of justice and peace to this world in which we live.
So make that list, see how your way of life
is different or not and through this season of Lent try to make sure that
it becomes different -- that I live differently because I follow Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.