Remembering Mission

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 4:1-11.

After he was baptized in the Jordan by John, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the Devil. And the Devil came to Jesus and said, “If you are the Son of God…”

I think in some ways that one clause, that one word “If,” is the core of the temptations, the most insidious temptation of all. Each of the three specific things the Devil tries to get Jesus to do is designed to make Jesus question who he is, to forget who God is calling him to be, to settle for something less than the fullness of life God wants to give to the Beloved Son.

“You’re hungry,” the Devil says. “Change these stones to bread.” The temptation for Jesus is to feed his stomach, but to ignore his spirit, to settle for something less than the true sustenance that comes not from bread alone but from the word of God.

“Jump from the Temple,” the Devil says. “Surely God will protect you and hold you up—Scripture says so! You trust the Scriptures, don’t you? You trust God, don’t you?” The temptation for Jesus is to fear that his trust in God is misplaced, to settle for a cheap test of God’s love, rather than the deeper trust that Passion and Crucifixion and Resurrection will demand.

“You’re destined to be King of kings and Lord of Lords,” the Devil says. “I can make that happen for you, quicker and easier than the way God has in mind.” The temptation for Jesus is to feed his ego, to grab for false glory in a quick-fix, self-gratifying way; the temptation is to settle for something less that the true glory of Ascension and sharing the Reign of God that God wants to give him.

In each case, the Devil tempts Jesus to forget who he is, to forget who God is calling him to be, to settle for a cheap substitute instead of the real love God wants to fulfill in the Beloved Son.

And in each case Jesus refuses to take the bait. Jesus resists the temptation, not by exerting his will power, not by gritting his teeth and bearing it, not by showing how strong he is so that both God and the Devil will be impressed—no, Jesus resists each temptation by staying focused on his mission, by grounding his sense of identity and his sense of purpose in what he discerns God is calling him to do, by centering himself on dwelling in God’s word, and worshiping God alone, and trusting that his relationship with God goes deeper than any cheap stunt could show. Jesus deflects the Devil’s temptations by remembering who he is and whose he is—and he remembers that by staying focused on his call to share in the mission of God.

And I think the message of this Gospel for us is that that’s how temptation works in our lives, too. For us as individuals and for us as a church, temptation tries to make us forget who we are, it tries to make us forget who God is calling us to be, it tries to make us settle for something less than the fullness God wants to give to us: a lesser love, a littler life, a smaller self, a less genuine discipleship.

As a church we can be tempted to be something less: we can be tempted to become a social club, a gathering of like-minded people who enjoy each other’s company well enough but who don’t make any real difference in the world or in the Spirit.

We can be tempted to become a social service agency, a philanthropic organization that does good works in the world and strives to meet people’s material needs, but pays little or no attention to the spiritual transformation our world really, deeply needs.

We can be tempted to become a historical society, an antiquarians’ club dedicated to preserving customs and traditions that don’t really mean anything anymore, but we hang on to just because we’ve always done it that way.

We can be tempted to become an enclave for saints, a purity group, a collection of holiness wannabees who see to their own spiritual well-being but who end up being so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

The church can be and has been tempted to be many things other than what Christ calls it to be; the church can be and has been tempted to forget who it is, to forget whose it is, to settle for something less than the full life, the full love, the full communion God wants to give it.

And when we the church are tempted like that, then for us, as for Jesus in the story, the way to resist temptation is to stay focused on our mission. Resisting our corporate temptation is not just a matter of being strong and exerting our collective will power and coming up with a new strategic plan for church growth and promising to do better to be relevant in society. The way to resist temptation is to stay focused on our mission, to keep our attention on doing the things Jesus taught us and God calls us and the Spirit empowers us to do.

The season of Lent is a good time for us to practice that focus on mission. We often think of Lenten disciplines primarily in personal terms, things we do as individuals: giving up chocolate or alcohol, taking on extra volunteering or special prayers. But there are corporate disciplines for Lent as well, and we as a church can use this time to renew our focus on God’s true calling to God’s true mission.

I think our Wednesday Lenten program is a great example. God’s mission in the world is for justice and peace, right-relationships for mutual well-being. By gathering week by week with Jews and Christians and Muslims, to learn together and eat together and grow fellowship together, we build better relationships, we do at least a little bit to cut through the fog of misunderstanding and misrepresentation and hatred for “those people” that clouds so much of our society right now. By building better relationships, we help create well-being, we help God create well-being among us. And that is resisting the temptation of fear and hatred by being focused on God’s mission.

In a different and yet equally powerful way I think our Sunday worship in Lent is a discipline that focuses us on mission. Every Sunday is a feast day, even in Lent – and yet in Lent we strip away some of the fancier parts of our feast, so that we can concentrate on the heart of it. And the heart of it is that we take simple things – bread and wine and words and each other – and we bring these simple things together in Jesus’ name, and in Jesus’ name they are transformed into living communion in the living love of God. And what we do in here teaches us what we can do out there: how in ordinary moments of ordinary lives we can take simple things – mealtimes, sports practice, job tasks, co-workers, family members – we can bring simple things together in Jesus’ name, and in Jesus’ name they can be transformed into moments of communion, moments of sharing the deep and life-giving love of God. William Temple said this sacred meal teaches us the sacredness of all meals; God-with-us in this gathering teaches us to look for God-with-us in all our gatherings. And being with us in all our togetherness for giving and receiving in love is precisely God’s mission. We resist the temptation to separate church and life when we stay focused on that mission.

In Lent we remember that the Spirit led Jesus to be tempted by the Devil, and Jesus resisted temptation by staying focused on God’s mission. How will you stay focused on God’s mission – and God’s place in God’s church for you in God’s mission – this Lent?

May you go with God this Lent. Amen.