Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday in Lent - February 17, 2013

What are bookends?  They are two solid, heavy objects that belong together.  Often they are the very same object, with the simple and only difference that one is turned in one direction, and the other in the opposite.  Others are not the same objects, but are like a single object that has been cut in two.  For instance, one book end would be the head of a fish, while the other would be its tail.

What do bookends do?  Their purpose is to hold up the books which are held between them.  To give definition. : The books in between will be vertical.  They will be pushed together.  The bookends give the sense that the books which are found in between belong together.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a bookend.  Jesus is led to a particular place where he  will endure a trial.  It is the wilderness.  Jesus is making himself vulnerable at this time by fasting.  Fasting produces physical weakness.  He consents to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and to become vulnerable in order that he might rely on God to bring him through and prepare him for something important which is to come.  In this instance, the thing for which he is being prepared is his ministry.

So what happens?  In the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, at which time he was surely very weak, the devil comes to him.  I’d better nip something in the bud.  The devil is surely not some kind of ridiculous cartoon figure with horns and a tail.  This would be to defeat his aims, which are to seem reasonable and even likeable so as to tempt a person into doing that which they should not do.  So the devil comes to a weakened Jesus and begins to tempt him. 

First, he tempts him with pride, “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  A prideful man would reply, “You’d better believe I can do it; just you watch.”  But Jesus is not a prideful man who needs to justify himself before others.  He declines the temptation.

Next, the devil tempts Jesus with glory, showing him the kingdoms of the world and saying, “To you will I give their glory......”  A man interested in his image would say, “That’s mighty enticing.  I think I’d like that.”  But Jesus is not interested in his image.  He declines the temptation.

Finally, the devil tempts Jesus with false piety, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here......”  A man interested in his religiosity might fall into the trap, thinking, “If I’m really a spiritual man, I had better show my faith.”  But Jesus is not interested in his own religiosity.  He declines the temptation.  The devil then departs.

These temptations are an attack meant to destroy God’s son before he can do his work.  These attacks are designed to appeal to a man’s self-regard.  What the devil did not seem to realize is that Jesus came to the wilderness absolutely vulnerable; he was in his father’s hands.  In his father’s hands he had no reason to justify himself or to seek glory or to prove his faith.  He already had all of those things.  And so instead of destroying Jesus, the devil provides him with a defining experience that will launch him into his ministry.

Now for the second bookend.  If we look to the end of Jesus’ ministry we will see it.  He is led to a particular place where he  will endure a trial.  This time the place is not the wilderness, but Jerusalem.  Jesus is making himself vulnerable by going to the very location where his enemies are most powerful.  This time the enemies are the Scribes and Priests.  Jesus knows full well that they are going to kill him. 

So what happens this time?  His accusers come to him and have him arrested and he is put on trial.  But instead of mere temptation, this time he is put to death. 

The first attack was intended to destroy Jesus before his ministry started.  This attack against Jesus is intended to destroy him before his work can be completed.  But they make the same mistake.  Jesus arrived at Jerusalem in a state of absolute vulnerability, trusting completely in his Father.  By killing a willing victim of perfect innocence the Scribes and Priests actually further the work of Jesus instead of destroying it.  For it is by such a death and then his resurrection, that his life became available to us.  This is the second bookend.

So then, the two bookends share the following characteristics:
  • Jesus becomes willingly vulnerable; that is, he entrusts himself completely to his father.
  • He endures suffering from powerful forces who seek to destroy him.
  • This experience of vulnerability and suffering further his mission.

What I would like to suggest to you today is that these two bookends which stand on either side of Jesus’ ministry are the defining characteristics of his whole ministry.  They give his ministry its meaning and its form.  Certainly Jesus performs many miracles, he heals people, casts out demons and teaches.  But these things all lie in service to a single ideal.  The Son of God becomes vulnerable and suffers for the sake of others.  This is the heart of the story, the heart of the gospel. 

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