Resisting Temptations

[Today marks my first Sunday as interim rector at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Colonial Heights, Virginia. The photo above is of our baptismal font, which came from another church that was decomissioned before our church was built in 1959. It's from the 19th Century and weighs a ton. We got their altar, too, a beautifully carved wooden one. I am aware that this photo shows an unfortunate truncation of the whole inscription that goes around the top. The light wasn't good enough to get the other side at the time I took the photo. Anyway, here the sermon I preached this morning at St. Michael's on this First Sunday in Lent.]

And so here we are. The first day of the month of March, the first Sunday of a new ministry here, the first Sunday in Lent.

We’ve eaten our pancakes and received our ashes and maybe we’ve begun some private practices for the season: something we are doing or not doing to be intentional about deepening our relationship with God. 

And speaking of private practices, if you haven’t settled on one, I heard about one possibility while I was in the Walgreens the other day. A couple of guys were stocking the shelves and when one of them saw me in my collar, he asked the other one what he was giving up for Lent. The other guy apparently didn’t know much about Lent so the first guy did a little explaining about how some people give something up during Lent as a discipline. The other guy said, “Well, I guess I should give up being a jerk.” (Except he didn’t say jerk.) Maybe your Lenten discipline is a little more easily measured. But it seems like a great idea, really.

As a congregation we will be journeying together through the season as the scriptures present to us the story of Jesus. Not the whole story, of course, but particular stories especially selected to show us who Jesus is and by extension, who we are. It’s a time of discovery, and self-discovery, too.

The themes the Scriptures present to us include identity, trusting in God who brings new life, self examination, of letting go of the old in order to embrace the new, of grace and forgiveness and healing. We will see how God does new things and brings new life that will encourage us to see the new things and look for the new life God is doing with us.

Now, it is traditional for the Gospel lesson on the first Sunday in Lent to be about Jesus’ going into the wilderness where he is tempted, resists temptation, and is then attended by angels.
The tempter begins: If you are the Son of God … So we see immediately that he starts with Jesus’ identity. And as he goes on, we quickly see that Satan is sowing doubt - is Jesus who he thinks he is? Should he really trust in God? If you are the Son of God, says Satan, then test God in these ways: Make bread for yourself. Jump off a building. Accept my offer of worldly power. In other words, Satan is asking Jesus: How do you know that God will feed you when you are famished? Will God catch you when you fall? Look how miserable you are right now: Why should you trust God (who I don't see anywhere around here) when I am with you now and can give you instant power and fame?

But Jesus refuses these temptations despite his miserable state. And the angels attended him.

Now, the thing that happened just before Jesus came into the wilderness was that he was baptized. And at his baptism, he heard the Divine Voice saying that Jesus is his beloved with whom God is well pleased. This is the identity that Jesus brings with him into this place of wilderness. Jesus knows who he is and whose he is, and that is what sustains him through the time of trial.

We tend to think of identity as something we forge on our own, perhaps with the help of our hairdresser, fashion magazines, and self-help books. We decide who we are going to present ourselves to be to the world.

Identity actually comes from a combination of things - family, friends, community, place, experiences …. all those influence us and give us a sense of ourselves, for better or for worse. For some of us, family is where we feel the most rooted; for others, it’s the place where we grew up. Some of us most strongly identify with a group, or a political party, or a club, or our school. 

Behind all those things, though, the most basic core identity for us Christians is that we are beloved children of God. We belong to God, we came from God, we will go back to God. Theologian Paul Tillich described God as the ground of our being. That’s where we are truly rooted, and our identity as God’s beloveds transcends everything else. Everything.

So this is how we begin Lent, headed off into the wilderness, a place of disorientation, a place where we will be tempted to make decisions that are not in line with who we really are. The world tempts us daily to succumb to fear, to be scornful and mean spirited, to be angry and to fall under the spell of the outrage machine, to get in fights for a piece of the pie, to objectify people and cast others as undeserving. The world tempts us to forget about grace: that none of us are deserving and yet that God loves everyone. The world tempts us to believe we are inadequate, to think that there’s not enough, and that we have to draw circles around who’s in and who’s out.

It takes some strength to resist these temptations that come at us from every direction, sometimes in subtle ways. It takes strength to remember in the face of messages sowing doubt and distrust that we are God’s and that we can trust in God’s promises, to remember that in God there is always enough, that we are enough for God. And since God has given us what we need, we are empowered to be God’s hands and feet in this world and so we must strive for justice and love mercy and act accordingly. We are to feed the hungry, lift up the poor, offer hospitality to the stranger, respect the dignity of every human being. These things can be hard, and in the face of them, sometimes we might be tempted to forget who we are and find reasons not to serve God’s people in these ways.

What Jesus takes with him into the wilderness to face temptations is his identity given to him at his baptism as the Beloved. Knowing he is beloved by God, remembering who he is, he is able, despite his weakness and hunger and worn-outness, to resist.

And so it is with us. Just like Jesus, it is through our baptism that we have been given a powerful new identity as God’s beloved children and given new life before we are sent out into the wilderness that is our loud, polarized, modern world. 

In many churches, the waters of baptism are always available so that people may touch them when they come to church. Touching the water and maybe crossing ourselves with it or simply touching it to our heads where we were just marked on Wednesday with the ashes of repentance is a tangible way to remind ourselves of who we are, of our identity as God’s beloved. And to remind us of the promises made at our baptism - promises to be faithful, to resist evil, to live out the Gospel message by seeking Christ in all persons, by loving and honoring all God’s people, by respecting their dignity, and by striving for justice and peace.

So today, right now, we are going to pour water in our beautiful font and bless it, and we will keep water in it for us to see, to remember, and to touch to give us strength for this journey through the wilderness, to give us courage to resist the temptations of the world. You might want to touch it as you come to the altar for communion, or when you come into the church, or when you are leaving church and going out to face the world, to remind yourself of who you are and to give you strength.

When I baptize someone, I invite everyone who wants to to come forward so that they can see and participate. So if you would like to join me for this pouring and blessing of the water, please come…..

[And so we filled the font and blessed it and I was pleased to see several people coming forward to touch the water before communion or after the service.]


anne said…
i almost always dip my fingers in the baptismal font at my church and touch my forehead with my wet fingers in remembrance of my baptism.

i have 3 sisters and all of us were baptized on mother's day of the year we were born wearing a long white gown made by our grandmother---with lots of lace and tucks.

i hope the congregation at st. michaels will embrace this new opportunity.
Thanks, Anne. I love the image of your baptismal gown with lace and tucks!