(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 2/14/2016)
First Sunday of Lent, Year C
We officially started this season of Lent this past Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service. Lent is the season during which we journey toward Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter. These are the events that make up our faith-without them, we would not be here. They’re so important that we need this season to prepare for them. In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, the early church marked Lent as the final period of preparation for these getting baptized on Easter Sunday, during which the whole church would renew their faith with those being baptized.
That’s kind of what we’ll be doing this year for Lent as a church. On Easter Sunday, March 27, we will all remember and renew our baptisms as a whole church. You see, in baptism, we receive the power of Christ’s resurrection and are initiated into a new identity as daughters and sons of God in Christ Jesus. Easter is the perfect time for it. This is incredibly important, so during Lent, we’ll be preparing for it.
We’re going to do that by focusing on different parts of the United Methodist baptismal vows. You all have that as an insert, could you get that out? These are the vows taken by anyone who is to be baptized in the United Methodist Church before they are baptized. No matter what denomination or tradition you were originally baptized in, these vows tell us what we signed up for when we became followers of Christ and were baptized. And even if you were baptized as an infant, and therefore couldn’t have taken these vows yourself, they remind us of our identity-who we are in Jesus. We need to be continually reminded of this, so we’re going to unpack these all through Lent.
Now, if you have not been baptized, this is all still for you. God will still speak to you through this, because this is important stuff to hear, whether you’re baptized or not. If you haven’t been baptized, please, come talk to me. I would love to discuss it with you. Even if you don’t want to be baptized, I’d still love to talk with you about it.
Baptism is a defining moment in my life. I don’t remember it, I was baptized when I was a baby, so I have no idea what actually happened at my baptism. My parents have pictures, and we had the Bible given to me at my baptism. I don’t really understand that-did the church expect an infant to read a King James Version Bible with Precious Moments pictures all over it? But it’s still a defining moment in my life, even though I don’t remember it, because it was at my baptism that I was claimed as a child of God, holy and dearly loved, and my parents made sure I knew that.
But sometimes, it’s hard for me to remember that. Questions and doubts rise up in my mind, asking me “Are you really loved like that? Are you sure of your identity? Do you really belong? Who do you think you are to say you are loved like that?”
This is a problem for a lot of people. Just do a quick Google search for self-doubt and you’ll find hundreds of articles written about conquering your self-doubt, symptoms of self-doubt, diagnosing severe self-doubt, in everything from serious psychology journals to the Huffington Post to blog writers.
You see, I think we all struggle with those deep and painful questions of identity and belonging. They seem to keep popping up in our heads, even if it’s in our subconscious and we don’t recognize it all the time. Are you really loved? Are you sure of who you are? Do you really belong? I think our Gospel lesson for today can really help us with this.
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. (Luke 4:1-13, CEB)
If you put away the insert with the baptismal vows, get it back out. I’d like us to read together the first section so that we can see what we’re talking about today.
[For those of you reading this, the first part of the vow goes like this: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of your sin? (from The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992, pg. 88)]
Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers in the world. That’s what we’re talking about today with the Gospel lesson I just read for you. We’ll get to “repent” in a few weeks.
Renounce-can you say that with me? Renounce. Does anyone know what “renounce” means? To renounce something is to give something up, to refuse, or to resign, usually by some formal declaration.
Reject. Can you say that with me? Reject. Does anyone know what “reject” means? To reject something is to refuse to accept, consider, or submit to something.
Renounce and reject, our words for today. In our Gospel reading for today, this is what Jesus was doing in the wilderness when Satan was testing him, renouncing wickedness and rejecting evil by refusing all of Satan’s tests. Seems simple enough, right?
But it gets really interesting here. The Gospels talk about Jesus going through three tests in the wilderness, but I want to focus on the last of them here. Luke’s telling of it here has the story climax with Satan’s last test, where Satan takes Jesus up to the tallest tower of the Jerusalem temple and he tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple. And Satan reminds Jesus that God will send angels to protect Jesus and won’t let his feet hit the ground.
Now, realize where Jesus is emotionally here. Right before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River. He was pushed down under the water, and when he came up, the heavens opened up, the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form like a dove, and God’s voice boomed out from heaven telling Jesus “You are my son whom I dearly love. In you, I find happiness.”
In you, I find happiness
At Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice was telling Jesus something that we all long to hear. In a way, God told Jesus “You belong. You have a purpose. You are loved. You are my son, and you belong here in my love.”
But then, after this amazing, warm and fuzzy moment, Jesus was pushed into the wilderness for 40 days and nights.
He was all alone
and then he had all of these tests thrown at him. The love and belonging that he felt at his baptism seemed to be distant memories.
So Satan pounces on this with this last test and seems to say “Are you sure?
Do you belong?
Are you loved?
If God loves you as much as he said at your baptism, if you’re really God’s Son, then where has he been the last 40 days? Why has he left you starving in the wilderness all alone? Why has he let all of these tests and temptations come upon you?”
Don’t call me a heretic here, but I picture Jesus actually beginning to doubt that voice he heard at his baptism, claiming him and naming him. So Satan says “Why don’t you force God to show up? Jump off this roof. If you’re really as important to God as you say you are, God will be forced to show up and save you. Then you’ll be sure that you belong.
Then you’ll be sure that you’re loved.
Aren’t these the perennial questions and tests of Satan? Are you loved? Do you belong? Who do you think you are? See, I don’t think Satan really works to get us to break the Ten Commandments, misbehave, lie, cheat, steal, any of that. We do all of that very well on our own. We don’t need any help doing any of those things. But these questions, aren’t those the real questions of Satan, 99% of the time?
Evil and wickedness catch us in our self-doubt. “Who do you think you are to do that? Who do you think you are to say that? Who do you think you are to think that?”
We’re talking about renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness and rejecting the evil powers in the world. Saying it like that seems to paint the world in black and white.That is evil and must be rejected.This is wicked and must be renounced. But I don’t think it’s actually that easy.
What is evil? What is wickedness, really?
Perhaps evil and wickedness are the dark parts of ourselves we try to keep hidden form everyone, the parts that plague us with doubts about our worth and love and belonging. The shadowy thoughts of our hearts that keep us awake at night.
Maybe they’re the voices inside of us that clamor for our attention. I don’t mean psychotic voices. I mean those competing voices all of us have inside us, calling for us to define ourselves by our income, by our occupation, by our station in life, by how many friends we have, by how healthy our family is, by our activities and hobbies.
The same voices that then leave us high and dry when those identity markers slip through our fingers.
At your baptism, you took the vow to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers in the world. If you’re not baptized, this is the essential work of any Christ follower, and anyone who even wants to do any kind of good in the world, no matter what faith, if any. But do you see how hard it is to keep this vow? Evil and wickedness are within us all, they infect the very foundations of the world. They fill our minds with those questions:
“Do you belong here?
Are you really loved, by God, by your family, by anyone?
Is God really with you?
Are you really worthy of this love?”
On Easter Sunday, we’re going to remember our baptism and renew our vows. But before we get there, we must begin by renouncing and rejecting the evil and the wickedness that is within us, that throws these doubts in our minds, that takes away our assurance of love and belonging.
I say that, but I know this is not easy, to turn aside these questions of self-doubt and, to be honest, self-hatred. Trust me, I know what those voices sound like. But at our baptism, God gave us a brand new identity that is not defined by anything from this world. Our new identity is defined solely by God’s love for us and the grace and mercy God has shown to us. We are made children of God, that is our new identity.
And in this identity as baptized children of God, we are able to renounce and reject all the evil and wickedness that is within us.
This is your work for this week, church. Lent has historically been a time for deep self-reflection. So I invite you to have this be your reflection for this week. Where do these questions show up in your life? “Do you belong? Are you loved? Are you good enough? Are you acceptable? Do you measure up?”
What parts of your life are affected by these underlying questions?
We all have them. And when you find yourself operating in fear of these questions, answer back “I am a baptized child of God.
Yes, I am loved.
Yes, I do belong.
Yes, God makes me good enough.
Yes, God makes me acceptable.
Yes, God makes me able to measure up.
That is my identity, and no one, not even myself, can take that away from me.”
If you’re not baptized, know that you are still deeply loved by God, and this is all available to you, too. It’s not that you have no access to this grace of God if you haven’t been baptized, that’s not true at all. But if you haven’t been baptized, please, come talk to me, let’s talk more about it. Because this is important, and I don’t want you to miss out.
I don’t want any of us to miss out on this. Whenever those questions come up, follow Jesus’ example and remind yourself and remind those voices of who you are and whose you are.