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Sermon – “The Lord Your Refuge” – February 17, 2013

Sermon for February 17, 2013 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

The Lord Your Refuge Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Deuteronomy 26: 1- 11; Luke 4: 1-13

A young, single pastor had an organist at his church who also was a young single man, and one Sunday the organist brought two friends to worship. They were both young women, more or less contemporaries of the men. The sermon that day was on temptation.

Everyone met everyone else before church started, and exchanged chitchat at the Coffee Hour after. The organist’s friends were pleasant, but they never returned. The minister didn’t think too much about them one way or another, until a small card came in the mail a couple of weeks later. There was no signature, but written on the card were the words “The Only Way to Get Rid of Temptation is to Give into It”.

Was it from one of the young women? The handwriting was feminine, and it was the first and only time such a card ever came in response to a sermon. It seemed like it might have been from one of the visitors– but did it mean anything? In the event, that was all there was to it. There probably was a little temptation at least to investigate, but the identity of the sender simply guesswork, and the significance of the message, if it were a message and not just a species of humor, so unclear that it was let go.

I begin here a few days after Valentine’s to acknowledge that the topic of temptation includes relations between people who at least potentially might become romantically involved. There are various questions of morals and sometimes of ethics–ethics at least in the case of whether there are implicit constraints, like roles of unequal power, which might privilege one party in an unfair way, or obscure the meaning of any relationship–and there are questions of personal expectations–what does one expect of oneself, how do choices about behaviors support or contradict who it is we have decided to be?, and so forth.

I won’t belabor this element of the sermon. This will have to do for my annual addressing of topics like this around Valentine’s Day. I will say that matters of the heart are often exempted, in people’s minds, from scruples about identity and character, I think because those achievements seem so deliberate and considered, and romantic events can be so spontaneous and overwhelming, but the same thing applies to them which applies to every other opportunity to stray from the person one has established–that’s what a temptation is, a chance to go wrong, or it would simply be a desire–and so what we’ll say about temptation in general does apply even to those impulses which seem to be a law to themselves.

The religious person has an identity given by God. That’s not to say that there aren’t complex layers of personality and nuances of character which can be credited to genetic inheritance and the influence of upbringing and events, nor that persons can’t make decisions for themselves, to some extent, about who it is they shall be. Part of religion, however, is recognition of relationship to a deity, and to the extent that someone is a worshiper, or someone who engages in prayer, or a thinker about God, that consciousness of God is part of who the person is. This is more true if someone thinks of himself or herself as a child of God, or as a disciple of Christ.

This recognition of ourselves as meaning something because of who God has declared us doesn’t come immediately. We all have at least a number of years of life which are formative, and even the child reared in religion and encouraged to adopt it as one’s own may discover, at some later point in life, a more meaningful sense of religious identity than that conferred by the rituals of passage part of faith. There’s no rule of thumb as to when we own an identity as God’s person. Some of us may still have that in our future.

Both the scripture from Deuteronomy and the gospel passage show us that the achievement of an identity as a person of God comes at least in part from God’s initiative, and requires a cooperative response. In Deuteronomy a ritual is being prescribed for any and all future members of the Chosen People who will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the benefit of the Promised Land. They are to bring a good gift, a share of that with which they’ve been blessed, and then to recite a speech.

The speech is telling. It’s not about them as an individual, and it’s not about their time or their circumstance. In the speech they repeat the history of their whole people, making the claim that all the experience of Hebrew history is represented in them. That individual was a wanderer, was enslaved, was liberated by God’s power, was given laws and invited into Covenant, and led to a promised land. It would be a speech made by a peasant and by a prince. Its truth would apply equally to any and all who were part of the cult. Converts would say it, for whom there was no bloodline, but for whom the dominant part of the story would be belonging to God’s unfolding blessing.

They wouldn’t say it because it occurred to them to do so. They’d say it because God exacted that of them. They would make those claims and own that identity in obedience to God, confirming their place in God’s plan of deliverance.

What have you ever said that’s like that? Many of you were in Christmas pageants, and have reenacted a central story of Christian identity. Many of you have sung “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” That’s a blending of self-consciousness with the claims of faith. Many of you have agreed, in the pool of baptism, that you as an individual are part of the vast story of salvation accomplished in Christ. That’s not to mention prayers and devotions and honest conversations about God, and all the other ways you have acknowledged an identity which includes being a person of God.

This morning’s gospel lesson is the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation, and in connection with declarations of identity, I want to remind you that this comes immediately following Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes to John the Baptist, is baptized, something like a dove appears to descend upon him, which is a metaphor for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus at least hears a voice from heaven saying he’s God’s son and the world should listen to him. The, we’re told, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and nights, and then endures the temptation about which we’ve read today.

The unimportant connection with Lent is the forty days. From Ash Wednesday to Easter is forty days because you don’t count Sundays, which always are festival days, no matter what season. Sundays always refer back to and celebrate the resurrection. The rest of Lent, however, is a time of self-conscious avoidance of self-indulgence. But I’ve said that the forty days is the unimportant connection with Lent. The important connection here is that these temptations are Jesus facing, and making decisions about, the sorts of desires which he would have throughout his earthly ministry–using God’s power to serve himself instead of others, seeking worldly political clout, trying to dodge death. He regards them as temptations–he associates them with the Tempter– and he rejects them. What that has to do with Lent is that he goes to and through Holy Week and to the cross having anticipated what forgoing these advantages would mean. He is determined to count entirely on God, and not to presume on God’s keeping him from suffering.

Now, would he have undergone this six months earlier? No. Half a year before this time he was not identified in the same way. Half a year earlier he had options, he could have chosen one course or another, he could have, at least presumably, elected to make his life something else. Now, after baptism, he has had a claim made upon him by God, and in baptism he has chosen that identity. Now there is something to lose, now there is a reality which could be affirmed by his choices or undermined by his choices. Choosing to do what he found tempting would undermine who he is.

Life is a little more in earnest for us each step we take toward forming a person, and acquiring a character. When we are little we may be naughty, and though reproved, are understood. We’re finding our way. At some point we begin to make claims of responsibility, we begin to own citizenship, and religious identity, we might give ourselves to an ethos like that of scouting, we might at some point marry. With each new assertion of loyalty and relationship we add limitations to what we can, in good conscience, do– we begin to draw the lines which will define who it is that we are.

The more God-mindful you are, the more you’ll be aware of who you are both as a child of God and who you won’t be, the options and opportunities you’ll forgo in order not to obscure your identity, or subvert your standing. Jesus’ recognition of himself as claimed by God leads him to perceive that he is going to have to choose between service to self and service to others, between seeking the power by which the world attempts things or relying upon God, between accepting the reality of death and living in fear of it.

Jesus faces those choices because he is born into this world. Where are we from? Who is it to whom we belong? What is the source of our confidence in what lies before us, and can God count on us to live up to the identity God has given us?

 

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