Preached at Alger First UMC on 3/5/2017
First Sunday of Lent, Year A
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him. (Matthew 4:1-11, CEB)
So the season of Lent has officially begun! That’s why we have all the purple up here – it’s a new liturgical season. In case you forget or don’t know, Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter – that’s 40 days not counting Sundays. And it began this past Wednesday, which was Ash Wednesday.
Now the season of Lent has tended to be a period of navel-gazing, centered on ourselves. A lot of people think Lent is the season where we ask “What’s wrong with me?” where we’re all worried about our own individual sins and shortcomings. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to go about this work of preparing for Easter.
That’s why today we’re starting a series called “Living your Baptismal Calling” that’ll get us all the way through Lent and bring us to Easter. [idea for the series came from the UMC General Board of Discipleship] And I think this series gives us a healthier way to prepare. With this series, we’re going to prepare for Easter by focusing on the vows Christians make at their baptism. So if you’re baptized, I hope this series will be a reminder of what you agreed to in baptism. Even if you were baptized as a baby, we’re still called to live this life.
I was baptized as a baby and I can’t remember it. But just because I can’t remember my baptism doesn’t mean that I’m not baptized. I am baptized and I’m called to live into this life of baptism.
Now if you’re here and you’re not baptized and you’re wondering “what in the world am I supposed to get out of this series?” that’s ok. We’re glad you’re here. If you’re not baptized, this will give you a picture of what kind of life baptism calls us to. And my hope is that through this series, God might call you to come under the waters of baptism.
So to do this, each week we’re going to focus on a different portion of the UMC baptismal vows so that we can come to Easter reminded of what baptism is and how the baptized community – the church – is called to live.
In the UMC, our baptismal vows are framed in a series of questions. So here’s the portion or question we’re going to focus on today:
“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”
There are three words I want to make sure you get from that, so repeat these words after me:
The Gospel reading for this week, what I just read for you out of Matthew, gives us a great example for how to live out that portion. In that story, Jesus shows us how we might renounce, reject, and repent.
Before this story of Jesus in the wilderness, he had just been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. God’s voice had just boomed out from heaven: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” So these are his first steps. How is Jesus going to live out his baptismal calling?
So he’s in the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and forty nights, he’s starving and weak, and the devil comes to him with those three temptations, right? Turn these stones into bread; throw yourself off the temple so everyone can see angels grab you; and get control of the world by bowing down to evil. As I read it, all three of these temptations are trying to get Jesus to grab for power.
But Jesus doesn’t take any of that bait, does he? How does he resist all that? Because those are some pretty powerful temptations. But he resists all that by living into the portion of our baptismal vows we’re focusing on today:
Now, those three sound like some pretty harsh language and we don’t use them very often. So let’s go through each one, ok?
First – in baptism, we renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness. Renounce – that’s kind of a strange word, isn’t it?
Actually, it happens in the real world. For example, with the US, there’s a process to go through to renounce your citizenship. If you want to move to another country and become a citizen of that country, you go to the U.S. embassy there, you appear in person before one of the diplomatic officers there and you sign an oath of renunciation
Specifically, you’re renouncing all the rights and privileges that you had as a U.S. citizen. And further, this renunciation of citizenship is irrevocable – you can’t go back on it.
I think that gives us a good way to look at the work of renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness. Because renouncing has to do with breaking allegiance with a power or authority to whom you used to give allegiance.
Now Jesus was fully human. And that means that he was born into the same sinful world that we were born into. And it means that he was just as susceptible and vulnerable to the spiritual forces of wickedness. But in that story, when Jesus refuses to take the bait or lure of power, when he doesn’t give in, he renounces the spiritual forces of wickedness in the world.
When he beats those three temptations, he’s saying “My allegiance is not with the powers that continue to break the world and draw everyone into the brokenness. My allegiance is with the original Creator of this world, who created the world in goodness and is working to restore the world to goodness.” So he renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness.
Second – in baptism, we reject the evil powers of this world. Now that word reject – that’s a pretty strong word. And it should be. Because with this part of the baptismal vow, we are doing more than saying “I won’t do bad things.” We’re saying “I’m going to throw out, cast out, and shut the door behind any evil powers that try to use me.”
We can see this in that passage from Romans that was read earlier. [Romans 5:12-19] Because Adam and Eve renounced God, death ruled the world. But in that passage from Romans, Paul tells us “If death ruled because of one person’s failure, those who receive the multiplied grace and the gift of righteousness will even more certainly rule in life through the one person Jesus Christ.” (5:17)
So what I hear in that passage is that death is still the evil power that rules throughout the world. That means that sin happens. Everyone does it.
But God’s grace also happens. Everyone is showered with it every minute of every day. And to truly receive this grace, we must reject the power of death that rules over us. We must throw it out and slam the door shut behind it. So Paul calls us to reject the evil powers of this world.
Third and finally – in baptism, we repent of our sin. Now that word “repent” comes with a lot of baggage. For some of you, maybe it brings feelings of guilt and shame, maybe it brings a fear of condemnation or feelings of not being good enough. We think we need to feel bad and sad and ashamed for everything we’ve ever done.
But that’s not really what that word ‘repent’ means. Because even Jesus repents here in this passage. Now maybe that’s kind of weird to think of. “Jesus doesn’t need to repent, he’s the Son of God, he hasn’t sinned!”
But repentance doesn’t really have anything do with feeling sorry about bad words we said or bad behaviors or actions in our lives.
In this story, I hear Jesus saying “If I give in and claim power in all these ways – If I take control of the situation and turn stones into bread, if I show my otherworldly powers to everyone so they’ll follow me, if I take control of the whole world by bowing down to evil – then damage will be done. My relationship with God, with the earth, and with my neighbors will be damaged because power corrupts.”
So our repentance of sin goes beyond just feeling sorry or guilty or ashamed for the bad things we’ve done. When we truly repent, we commit to turning and walking away from all of those patterns of life, our habits, and any of our behaviors that hurt others and damage our relationship with God, the earth, and our neighbor. So this story calls us to repent of our sin.
So, to review – Jesus renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejected the evil powers of the world, and repented of sin. In baptism, we are called to do the same.
We are called to renounce and break allegiance with power and authority. Now the church has so often given in and failed at this point. The church throughout history and the Western world has claimed earthly power and taken control of society. And because of that, the pages of church history are splattered with genocide and other horrors happening in the name of Christianity.
And this continues to happen today. A brief look at the history of Christianity shows pretty clearly that Christianity doesn’t work well when we’re in a position of worldly power and dominance. But we keep trying for it. We keep saying “We’d be able to run this country better. So let’s do it.” But it has never worked out.
So in baptism, we break this cycle. We renounce and break allegiance to these spiritual forces of wickedness that always start with that inner impulse to gain power and privilege.
We are also called to reject the evil powers of this world. This work of rejecting is a necessary 2nd step after we renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness. We not only break allegiance with wickedness, we also kick out the powers of evil among us and within us and slam the door shut behind them.
And finally, we’re called to repent of our sin. We’re called to identify our patterns of life, our habits, our behaviors that cause damage to you and to others. We’re called to recognize those and turn away from them.
This work of renouncing, rejecting, and repenting is intensely practical. It cannot just stay as an idea in your mind. This work of renouncing, rejecting, and repenting is also work that is best done in community. On your own, it will be so hard. But we’re all in this together, so let’s come together and do this work together. For the season of Lent, I’m going to be holding prayer gatherings every Saturday at 7:30 in the morning. We had our first gathering this past Saturday, and we would love to see you at the gathering this next Saturday so that we can work through how each of us can renounce, reject, and repent.
I want each week of this series to be practical for all of us, so here’s what we’re going to do today. You should have two inserts in your bulletin that look the same, and they should both have the title “Living the Call: Renounce, Reject, Repent.” Could you get those out?
We’re going to give you some time here, and I want you to fill those out for yourself. What concrete steps will you take to live into this call to renounce, reject, and repent this week? That could include fasting or some other spiritual discipline that you’ll pick up for the season of Lent. It could also include making those Saturday morning prayer gatherings a part of your weekly schedule.
So I’d invite you to write down in those spaces the way you will step into this call throughout this coming week, and I’d invite you to copy your answers down on your second insert. I’d like you to then give that second copy to someone else here today – maybe your spouse, maybe a friend, maybe just whoever’s sitting next to you. That way, someone else will see what you’ve written down and you can be accountable to them. What good is this if we don’t actually take steps to live into this call?
So I’d invite you to take a few minutes to do that, then I’ll close this portion of the service in prayer.
[Online-only readers: The congregation had bulletin inserts to guide them through this process, but it’s easy to do on your own. What will you do this week to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness? What will you do this week to reject the evil powers of this world? And how will you repent of your sin this week?]