Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ash Wednesday Sermon: "Your Broken Crown"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a] 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b] 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (CEB)

“Your Broken Crown,” Luke 4:1-13, Ash Wednesday 2013

I used this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermon last year too, but it is such a good one for setting the right balance in mood and tenor for a service like this that I could not pass up a repeat telling of this story.  The Reverend Lillian Daniel, an immensely talented pastor in the United Church of Christ, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she co-authored, called “This Odd and Wondrous Calling,” about her experience as a pastoral intern at a parish while in seminary.  She says:

“I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from god that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few annual scoldings.”

Now, we have no seminary intern here to deliver us our annual scoldings—you just have me!  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding.  After all, we have come to a place in the life of the church—the big church, not just our parish, but the entire church—where it is easier to either preach exclusively about God’s love or exclusively about God’s wrath.  God is either your chummy pal who you could always shoot some pinochle with, or God is this perpetually infuriated son-of-a-gun with serious anger management issues.  There is no in between. 

And those polarities are appealing to people—they are simple, easy to remember, and Scriptural in the sense that in Revelation, God says to us that because we are neither cold nor hot, that we are lukewarm, He will spit us out of His mouth.  So if our faith is in a God who is not lukewarm, maybe that lukewarm God will not spit us out of His church?  But…no, that cannot be it, either.  The truth is, honestly, that I think many, perhaps most, churches are guilty of idolatry in the basest, most fundamental sense of the term—they have gone and made God in their own image, rather than the other way around, of trying to craft themselves in God’s image--if they are hateful people, then God must be a hateful God.Which is perhaps the most profound sin of all…after all, the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments are to have no other Gods before Yahweh, and to not make for ourselves any idol or graven image.  In trying to make God like us, we violate both commandments.

The temptation in the wilderness, the story in Luke, and in Mark, and in Matthew, thought not in John, is, then, the opportunity for Jesus try to create God in His own image as well.  The tempter, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, whatever you want to call him, appears, and tries again and again and again to goad Jesus into using His Godlike powers for selfish purposes.  The things Jesus is asked to do, to turn stones into bread, to call upon angels to save lives, these are the powers of God in the Old Testament, the God who sends manna to the Israelites on Sinai, and who sends down the chariot of fire to save Elijah from earthly death.  What Jesus is being asked to do in the wilderness is to play God, to take on the role of the Father who has, for the moment, left Him in the wilderness.  The first time that Jesus is forsaken, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, is not upon the Cross, it is here, at the very beginning of His ministry.  Here, in the wilderness.

In other words, it is a bit ironic that Jesus, in the course of His ministry, is not at the most danger in the wilderness…after all, He is sentenced and executed in the capital city of ancient Israel.  But His first vulnerability comes in a context and setting that is 180 degrees different from where He will find Himself just several weeks from now on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

And it’s with that which Satan eventually tempts Jesus—His current location.  We see it a bit in the first temptation, to turn stones into bread, but where it really comes into play are the next two temptations—Satan actually transports Jesus—“led up” is a close translation from the New Testament Greek—to a place where Jesus can see everything in the world, and then, when that isn’t good enough, Satan “takes Jesus to Jerusalem and place(s) Him on the pinnacle of the Temple.”  In other words, Satan isn’t just tempting Jesus with the obvious—food, fame, and power—but with geography as well!  He’s letting Jesus out of the prison bars of His fast for an instant in the hopes that it will be just enough to sway the Son of God to his side.

Of course, it isn’t.  For Jesus, anyways.  For us, though…that’s an entirely different question.  I mean, don’t we catch a glimpse of something far away from what we currently have and begin to long for it, almost as an escape from our current dreariness and drudgery?  We see an ad for a new car, or an exotic vacation destination, or even a freaking Mega Millions ticket, and our mouths start to drool just a little bit…

And that’s what Satan is doing to Jesus here, except on steroids.  He’s taking this poor chap who has been completely shelterless for 40 days and nights and showing Him the greatest of cities and palaces and in effect saying, “Here, take your pick.  But only if you disavow God for me.”

And that’s what temptation is, isn’t it?  It isn’t this pitched battle—I have always resisted the notion of “spiritual warfare” not only for its overly violent imagery but for its premise that this is somehow a fair fight or battle—instead, it is this sneaking-up on us, bit by bit.  After all, we know what an act of war looks like, and we are kidding ourselves if we think war is meant to be tempting.  No, temptation is temptation because it grows and grows, almost organically.

That characteristic of organic growth is something put on alarming display by Satan in Luke’s version of the temptation.  Because in this story, Satan learns.   His tactics evolve over the course of the story.  Jesus rebuffs Satan the first two times by quoting verses from the Old Testament, so what does Satan do the third time he tries to tempt Jesus? He quotes the Old Testament himself, pulling out a quote from Psalms.

Which should be one of the most telling ways that we know exactly what our sins are—that we will come up with newer and increasingly vehement justifications for them.  We even appeal to our moral authority—Scripture—in order to justify our sins.  It is, in part, how institutionalized slavery persisted for so long in the United States—there were Christians who used the moral authority of Scripture to justify that particular sin.  The same went for delaying women the right to vote, for allowing child labor, and for so many other things we have done wrong in our past.

And so it is disingenuous for us to go to God and pray for forgiveness, for a blanket amnesty, for all the wrongs we may have done without including the wrongs that we know we have done.  I just rattled off some collective sins, but this is just as true for our own personal sins as well.

And it’s tough to admit that.  I get it.  We have this sort of schizophrenic reaction to sin…in the abstract, we’re totally okay with being labeled as sinners.  Because hey, we’re all sinners.  We all sin, do sinful things, sin, sin sin.  But as soon as you take your fingernail and scratch below that thin-layered surface, things get touchy and testy in a big damn hurry.  We may be okay with calling ourselves sinners, but our egos and our sense of denial keep us from really actually owning our own brokenness.

It’s something that we can learn not only from Jesus, but from HOW we depict Jesus.  I honestly have not come across many portraits of Jesus in the temptation as someone who has fasted for 40 days would really look.  Often, Jesus is in some sort of “the thinker” pose or standing elegantly, thoughtfully turning his gaze away from Satan, who is either hovering over Jesus or confronting Him.

How unrealistic, though!  What about the portraits of a starving, exhausted, even emaciated Jesus in sore need of a hair cut or a beard trim?  Is it that we are scared of ever depicting the divine Son of God in such a way, or is it that we are that afraid of owning up to the sheer brokenness that is the human condition?

Maybe it’s a bit of both.  But I have found at least one portrayal—at least, I have seen it as such—that depicts the agony of the temptation.  One of my favorite bands is the British folk quartet Mumford and Sons, and their 2012 album Babel included a song entitled, simply, “Broken Crown.”  Its lyrics, in part, go like this:

Touch my mouth, and hold my tongue, I’ll never be your chosen one.
I’ll be home, safe, and tucked away.  You can’t tempt me if I don’t see the day…

So I’ll crawl on my belly til the sun comes down, but I’ll never wear your broken crown.

I have no idea what the band’s personal meaning was behind these words, but from my perspective, it just feels like the perfect thing that Jesus could have said to Satan.  It acknowledges great physical weakness, but also sheer spiritual strength.  It acknowledges light, but also the coming darkness.  And it acknowledges the broken crown of sin that we can all choose to wear, or to not wear.

What if, this Lenten season, during these 40 days in the wilderness where we come out the other end shouting “The tomb is empty!  He is risen!” we acknowledged the broken crowns we have chosen to wear in our lives…and to turn them over to the one true God, the one true King, the wearer of the one true crown?

In doing so, may our brokenness finally, miraculously, wonderfully be made whole once more.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 13, 2013

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