Miroslav Volf is a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, and he says in his classes the academic study of theology frequently prompts a question from his students: “What does any of this have to do with ‘real life’?” (1)
It’s a deeply personal question for Volf, a survivor of the terrible civil wars in Serbia and Bosnia, who credits his faith and his beliefs with holding him through a period of imprisonment and interrogation and helping him to have a hopeful future on the other side of his suffering. Volf, and other theologians like him, have reflected deeply on how our thinking about God relates to our living in the world. How our beliefs affect our practices.
At First Baptist Greensboro, this is our Lenten theme, as we reflect on Practicing our Faith, recognizing that faith is not merely something we profess, it’s something we live. Faith is not merely quiet or personal. It’s active. It’s public.
And what could be more urgent in our world today, than for Christian people to embody their faith in ways that make a difference in real life?
On Wednesday, with foreheads marked with ash and dust, we heard the tragic news of gun violenceat Douglas High, so dramatically accentuating the reality of this world where so often we render one another and the vulnerable among us as little more than dust.
There’s much we can say and do, but it’s hard to know precisely what to say and do together, as we acknowledge in this church that people of good conscience can disagree about what our faith is compelling us to do. But of all we could say, one thing seems most vital to me this morning – that is, to say to our children, particularly our young people and teenagers, that you are not alone, that you are loved deeply, and that you are taken seriously. We take seriously the stresses and strains of your life, the pressures you’re under, the fear and grief you must feel so acutely. So know that in this church, we are for you. And we want to hear your voices, and we need your insights as we work for the hopeful future ahead.
For me, some of the most hopeful sounds amidst the madness of the last few days have been the voices of teenagers, as students from Parkland, FL have shared boldly, communicated powerfully. They’ve said things hard for me to hear at times, as they demonstrate waning confidence in the adults and institutions around them to fix anything. But still, they’ve called on their country and all the adult influences in their lives to take action.
“Prayers are not enough,” we have heard. It’s an ever more familiar refrain after a human-made disasters, as people have grown weary and cynical toward the well-worn phrase, “thoughts and prayers.” We people of faith have had to come to a painful understanding of how our promises of prayer can frustrate a hurting world, when that is all we offer. This in and of itself serves as a reminder – maybe the most urgent reminder we could have – of the importance of what we’re focusing on this Lent: the essential call to practice our faith. Like faith without practice, prayers without commitment leave people asking, “What does any of this have to do with real life?”
But still we pray. Hands stretched toward the cross and toward one another, we believe prayer is vital. We pray and call on God, believing that without God nothing redemptive will happen. But we must be careful not to believe that without us, everything redemptive will happen. We don’t want our prayers to become empty, like the prayers that priest must have uttered in that story Jesus tells, as the religious leader sees a man beaten, and robbed, and thrown away half-dead in a ditch, and he probably whispered a prayer as he passed by on the other side of the road on his way up to the house of God.
As people of faith, the question is not really whether we will pray, but how. Will we insure that our prayers include the commitment to act as we sense God is calling us to practice our faith, to live out our prayers?
It recalls what Frederick Douglass said in his memoirs. The statesman and abolitionist speaking of his years of captivity as a slave once said, “I prayed for freedom for 20 years, but I was never free until finally I also prayed with my legs.” Our prayers, our beliefs, our faith itself must “have legs.” Our faith must be practiced and lived out in our whole bodies.
This morning we consider how this happened for Jesus and how it is tested in the wilderness that Mark describes, as in the desolation of temptation Jesus learned how faith in God involves the Christian practice of choosing – what Dorothy Bass in her book Practicing our Faith describes as “Saying ‘Yes’ and Saying ‘No.’”
At all times we have before us the choice between life and death. This was what Moses laid out before the people of Israel in his final farewell to them as told in the book of Deuteronomy, reminding them in a parting word of the options before them – blessings and prosperity and life itself, or curses and adversity and the bleak reality of death. If you say “yes” to God, “obeying the commandments of the Lord your God by loving the Lord, walking in the Lord’s ways, and observing the Lord’s commandments,” Moses declares, “then you shall live and become numerous and blessed.” If you say “no” to God, then you shall perish.
And Moses says these choices affect not only you, but your children and all your descendants. “You guys are the adults. We’re kids” a Parkland teenager said this week, reminding of the weight and responsibility of the choices before us. “So choose life,” Moses says, “so that you and your descendants,” you children, your teenagers, “might live!”
The same stark contrast appears before Jesus in the desert. In Mark’s swift telling of the story, he describes how this desert temptation follows directly after Jesus’ baptism by John, the parting of the heavens, and the clarity of that voice from above, “You are my son, the beloved one.” Jesus could no doubt still hear the echo of that voice as he walked in the desert to only the sound of his footsteps against the arid ground.
But if Jesus was going to say yes to living out that love of God, he also had to say no to all that the love of God is not. So as the voice is drowned out in the wind, and as the once opening heavens seem little more than a distant mirage, a tempter moves in on the beloved son of God and asks him to choose. Matthew and Luke provide some further detail. In Matthew the temptations come in rapid succession: turn stones into bread, throw yourself down, take control of all the kingdoms of the world.
These tree invitations are not so bad on their own. After all, the options of death don’t usually look like death.
“Why don’t you turn stones into bread?” That could be useful, even vital in a world of great hunger.
“Freefall from the pinnacle of the temple.” That could be inspiring, even wondrous, no doubt, in a world of pressing cynicism.
And then the tempter shows him all the kingdoms of the world. “These can be yours…you can have full political and social control, if…if…” That would be convenient, even transformative in a world of corrupt leaders and failing confidence in government. I admit, Jesus, sometimes I wish you’d have thought a little longer about that one!
But in each case, the answer is “no.” And not just “no,” but an adamant “no.”
Kyle Childress is a longtime Baptist pastor in Texas, and he has told a story of some of the best advice he ever received as a pastor.
He was ordained over 30 years ago by a small, rural Texas Baptist church who had called him as their new young pastor a couple of months before. He invited to preach his ordination service a retired preacher whom he knew from his college church. The preacher was in his mid-80’s, gentle and kind, as attentive to others as anyone Kyle had ever known, had a deep prayer life, and rumor had it that he had memorized the entire King James Bible. He preached a fine sermon on loving God, loving the Bible, and loving God’s people. After the service, of course, they all joined in a potluck church dinner on the grounds. And then as it came time to part, Kyle escorted the older preacher back to his car, thanked him for coming. And the preacher laid his Bible on the roof of the car as he opened the door and turned to young, newly ordained Kyle, “Son, there are two more things you need to know about being a pastor. You’ll need to learn to say ‘No!’ and you’ll need to learn to say ‘Heeeeeck no!’”
Now, please understand, I’m cleaning up the language a little bit for your Sunday morning sensibilities. But with that irreverent parting word, the elder took his King James Bible from the top of his car, got inside, and drove away. (2)
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I was shocked to hear that a minister could use language like that, too. But the point is there are times when not only must we say NO, but an adamant NO. And an adamant NO is possible when you have an even more adamant YES.
Jesus is able to say NO with strength and decisiveness– to choose the life that God had set before him and reject the alluring forces of death – because he had first said as loudly as a voice crying out from heaven, YES. YES to who God had called him and what God had named him. YES to his identity as “beloved son.” YES so surely that it allows him to resist all else that would render him anything other than that.
Frederick Buechner has said that, “This is the moment in the Jesus story when Jesus decides what it means to be Jesus.” (3)
None of these temptations are inherently evil on their own. Temptations rarely are. Death usually doesn’t look like death. But all of these temptations ask Jesus to be something other than who God has called him and what God has named him. See, the greatest temptation is to become something other than what God intends for us to be.
That’s the temptation that nestles up next to us so often, and once again this day, with all of its craftiness and trickery. It invites us to fear one another. Or it provokes us to cynicism. In the face of violence and frustratingly defiant forces of death, it tempts us to acquiesce as if this is the way things are and ever will be and there’s nothing more that can be done. The Jordan River starts to seem a distant memory as our feet strike the dry ground. The parting sky becomes a mirage amidst the fatalism that sees violence and death as our inevitability. We forget all those gathered by the riverside, and instead suspicion creeps toward us. We start to see danger in our neighbors, forgetting that they have also heard the echo of God’s voice, “beloved.”
Yes, the temptations visit us, and try with all that they have to intrigue us, to change us, and to make us other than we are created and called to be.
This was the temptation that was before Baptist pastor and peace organizer, AJ Muste, in the 1950s. Muste, an unapologetic pacifist and the long-time leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was deeply concerned about the violence in the world, and particularly the growing production in that day of weapons of destruction, that is, nuclear weaponry. Muste worried for his children – his “descendants” – wondering what the future would hold for those who would come after him. So he began a practice. Every morning he would stand outside the gate of a Strategic Air Command base alone, holding a sign that urged the halting of nuclear armament. Each day he stood there in silent vigil, all by himself, praying in his heart and praying with his whole body.
A reporter heard about this and finally came to watch him and see for himself. Eventually he approached Muste, and he asked the obvious question, “Rev. Muste, you’re one man, with one sign. Do you really think you’re going to change anything?”
All these year later, it would seem the reporter was right, as in just a few short years from that day the world would experience the coldness of war, the horror of the Cuban missile crisis, people would build bunkers in their neighborhoods, and school children, including my parents in North Florida, would practice drills learning to hide beneath their desks should the worst actually happen. Our vulnerability to nuclear arms continues even to this day, so much so that it’s difficult for most of us to imagine a defense strategy, or national security, without them. So it seems that detractor was right when he prodded Rev. Muste with his question, “Do you really think you can change the world?”
But we should remember Rev. Muste’s response this day. “My friend,” he said, “I’m not here to change the world. I’m here to make sure that the world doesn’t change me.” (4)
Jesus never changed the tempter in the desert. But through his adamant YES to the call of God on his life, he insured that the tempter never changed him.
And so we know what happens. He moves from that wilderness to the temple to the mountain, following the motions of his three temptations.
He knows the path to redemption won’t come through satisfying his own hunger, but he does go on to feed thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the mercy of God.
He declined the offer to throw himself from the heights of the temple and thereby prove his power, but he does go on to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in that temple who had failed to make his Father’s house a place where all are welcome.
He never took the offer of a gilded throne. He takes up a cross.
It’s there he faces his final temptation, echoing the words of the tempter in the desert: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” But he remembers on the cross his commitment in the desert, so he prays, “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit”
He prayed remembering who he was. And then with his legs, his whole body even, he lived those prayers out even unto death.
Because he did, a choice remains for us. To what will we say NO, and to what will we give our most adamant YES? Once again set before us are life and death, blessings and curses. Let us choose life, so that we – and all of our descendants – might live.
- “Theology for a Way of Life,” in Practicing Theology, eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, p. 245
- Thanks to dear friend, Emily Hull McGee, for pointing me to Kyle’s article, “Saying ‘Yes’ and Saying ‘No,” for Ekklesia Project (www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2013/02/saying-yes-and-saying-no/)
- In Whistling in the Dark
- As told by friend Lucas Johnson of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.