Monday, February 22, 2010

Yielding the Sacred Ground

Sheepscott Community Church February 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Luke 4: 1-13

Yielding the Sacred Ground

In his commentary on this week’s gospel, Barclay draws a bleak picture of the wilderness where Jesus went toe-to-toe with the devil, which is to say, his own self-seeking, creature self, aided and abetted by all that is not of God and conspires against God and union with that One, whatever that reality is, personal or impersonal. The wilderness or desert that Barclay describes is not a desert of dunes, of shifting sands, like the Sahara or Death Valley. It is, he says a “terrible wilderness,” 35 X15 miles long and wide, called Jeshimmon, which means “The Devastation.”

“The hills were dust heaps,” he writes, “the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; the ground sounded hollow to the horses’ hooves; and it glowed with heat like a vast furnace and ran out to precipices, 1200 feet high, which swooped down to the Dead Sea.” You’re not in Palm Springs anymore, Dorothy. It was here that Jesus met himself, did battle with the temptations to his dual nature as it figured in the life that was spread before him.

It’s worth noting that even at that time, Jesus must have been aware of having exceptional powers. The whole point of the temptations is that they could have come only to a man who knew he could do amazing things. It isn’t a direct temptation to us to turn stones into bread or to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple to see if we get set down safely. These would be temptations for a man with great powers who had to decide how to use them, and that’s what Jesus was doing in the desert. How can we not contrast Jesus’ response to his temptations with the response of powerful men from our time in the sports and political worlds? Without naming names, I think we can all think of one or more persons who either didn’t battle the temptations at all, or who simply didn’t have anything like Jesus’ success in resisting. The temptations to Christ’s extraordinary life and nature do translate out for us, and I will talk about that in a bit, but for the moment, these are the temptations that this extraordinary man was given to answer or respond to from within himself, and he did that with flying colors.

The outcome of this milestone desert experience in Jesus’ life that followed the milestone of his baptism was that Jesus chose once and for all the method by which he proposed to win hearts and minds to God, and that method was one which rejected power and glory outright and embraced the way of suffering by immersing himself in God, and whatever that might hold, might mean––eventually death on a cross as it turned out.

Jesus had been ceding––C-E-D-I-N-G, giving up––the ground of his soul to God for a long time by this point, but it was in the desert that he completed his preparation for being God’s man, made space for God to realize God-self on earth in him. Are we called to cede our own inner landscape to God as Jesus did, in our own desert experience?

I would make a parallel between that question and this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. “When you enter the land the Lord is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.... Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.” There are at least two levels we can think about doing this––as individuals and as a church. I suggest to you that the land God gives to us is our lives. Are we willing to allow God access to that land of our lives for his purposes, as Jesus did in the desert? We all have certain powers in our lives, and God can make the best of those powers to foster and promote his will and work in the world.

Some of us are called into our lives or some aspect of our lives as early as childhood. Jon is The Sailor of our family. He tells of his great pleasure in pushing boats around in the bathtub when he was a child and pulling boats by a string across the water off Purse’s Cove on Southport Island where he vacationed in the summers. If we think about it, we all might remember events or activities or thoughts we had as children that were subsumed as we realized them in our adult lives. Hooray for the dreams and play of children!

During our adolescence we tested out many possible identities for our lives, and in adulthood, we may circle back to the earliest calling and begin to make conscious choices toward realizing that calling. When we know what our life is, when we begin to realize the firstfruits of that life, are we willing to take some of the firstfruits from the land the Lord has given us, put them in a basket and place them before the Lord God and bow down before him? That is how we can respond to that reading as individuals, following the lead and example of Jesus of taking seriously the matter of God’s call on our lives and answering that call after a period in our own deserts where we do battle with our own appetites and habits that would lead us off the path and on to dissolution.

Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners knew well that temptation could simply overcome people. Victims of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, oppression, abuse, violence and drugs reveal to us how easily people can be driven beyond endurance, and Jesus, who was human and tempted can identify with those struggles. Far from creating a divide between Jesus and ourselves, our own trials and weaknesses become the privileged place of our encounter with him, but not only with him, but with God. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us––he knows all of our difficulties. He knows our condition from the outside and the inside, and that is how he acquired his profound capacity for compassion. A person has to have suffered in order to truly feel for others; it’s a kind of fellowship of suffering. From Jesus and his experience, we learn that God is present and sustaining us in the midst of test, temptation, and yes, even sinfulness.

How can we as a church respond to the Deuteronomic exhortation to give of our firstfruits to God? By taking some of the first fruits of our life together as a worshipping community and putting them into the basket before the Lord our God, and then bowing down before him. The land he has given us to settle on is this opportunity, this life as the worshipping community of the Sheepscott Community Church. From that land we take the firstfruits of prayer and scripture reading, communion together, music and song, monetary gifts, our vows and pledges, our fellowship together, and our community outreach. But above all, God is after our surrendered hearts. All of this can be put in the basket we place before God, but what we must all remember is the bowing down before God, before whom we are nothing except his Spirit raises us up in Jesus.

God does not beat down the door; does not force the issue. God does persist in the invitation, however, quietly and inexorably. At some point we may have the good sense to take him up on it. We create and construct our own little worlds, that are often in our own images. God’s invitation is to allow for the deconstruction of our own self-involved edifices, for his reconstruction or transformation of existing structures for his purposes, which can become our own.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to issue a caveat though, and I tell you from experience. If you do decide to empty your cup of what is most precious to you onto the ground in thanksgiving for the great gift of life you have been given, if you are willing to allow the hound of heaven, the persistent God who just won’t leave you alone to have access to the sacred ground of your free will, your living soul, the caveat is that like the camel with its nose under the tent, it won’t be long before the head and neck, the first hump, if it’s a dromedary, the second hump if it’s a Bactrian, and even the tail are under the tent. God is in the tent, God is in the house. Watch out!

I think this is what happened with Jesus in the desert. He allowed God to claim all of the territory of his inner self, his soul, and when he came out of the desert place, out of the wilderness of Jeshimmon, God’s purposes had become entirely his own.

I said earlier that I would talk a bit about how those temptations that were unique to him could still translate into our lives. Jesus was tempted to actually change the stones into bread––and by the way, the pieces of limestone in that wilderness actually do look like loaves of bread––because he would have been hungry after a protracted period of fasting. Whether that was actually 40 days is irrelevant. What the scripture is saying with that number 40 is that it had been a long period of time, enough time for a complete change, a complete turning, which is what 40 represents. One way we can interpret that temptation in our own lives is that we use the good material gifts of God, food and drink among them, to avoid the more important food of our spirits, which is the revelation of God in our lives, however that comes to us, and the allowing for the development of that revelation.

The second temptation of Jesus is to fall down and worship Satan who will then give him power over all the kingdoms of the world because, as he states, all power had been given to him and he could give it to whomsoever he wished. Jesus wisely said, “The Lord God thou shalt worship and him alone shalt thou serve.” I think we can appropriate that quotation wholesale and keep it on file for the moment when we need it because we are all tempted in this way, to fall down and worship at altars other than God’s. And only we know what constitutes those altars in our lives: cowardice, gossip, lying, avarice––name your altar other than God’s. Significantly, these altars, these temptations in our lives can also be good and positive things––family, work, sports. The question is when do these things become more important to us than our relationship with God?

Jesus’ third temptation was to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple because, as he was tempted to think, he was God’s chosen one. He could burnish his reputation by doing that, couldn’t he? Wow! Did you see that? He threw himself down and landed on his feet. And the devil ably quotes scripture to underscore this temptation, here, from psalm 91, which we read from this morning: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” But Jesus isn’t fooled into testing God. He quotes back to the tempter from Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And scripture then tells us that the devil left him for a season, left him until an opportune time.

Last Sunday that we heard the gospel of the Transfiguration where Jesus was validated in his divine nature, in the role he had taken on, and which he was discussing with Moses and Elijah in vision before Peter, James and John. Juxtapose that scene, that gospel with him hanging on a cross, dying a horrible death. Where’s the validation at that point? How could he remember it in his state? It didn’t matter whether he remembered. Jesus had poured out his life three years earlier in the desert of Jeshimmon, had faced down all that was within him that would defeat God’s purposes for him in his life. He had ceded the ground of his immortal self to God at that time, and was ready––at least theortically––in his will, with his will to meet head on whatever was to come.

What are some of the desert experiences we have experienced in our lives? Are we living through a desert experience right now that we find difficult to talk about? Find someone to talk to. Someone who listens as Christ listens––from the heart, and some of us are blessed to know such people. That listening heart is like an oasis in that desert. Where there had been only the hot and arid wilderness, there is cool, refreshing water, green grass and swaying palm trees. The importance of fellowship, of community, cannot be overestimated.

When and where do we find the time and place for contemplation of God’s word, and listening for God in prayer in the midst of our busy lives? We simply have to prioritize, to make time in a place for prayer and listening, especially during Lent, this season of penitence, if we are going to have the strength to resist the temptations of our lives––and we all do have temptations. Know that I am holding all of you up in prayer every day and I ask that you do the same for me. Thereby can the plan of God for us inividually and as a church be realized. We ourselves are the firstfruits. Amen.

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