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Today begins the first Sunday of Lent, the season of the church year that moves us toward Holy Week and Easter. This year we began with the dispensation of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and there were a few who joined for this opportunity. We even had a few folks who saw the sign on the door and came in to receive the blessing of the church.
Of course a good number of you – even some who came – said, “Presbyterians do ashes? I thought that was a Catholic thing!” It is a Catholic thing – just like Lent and the liturgical calendar ; however it is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Just as we say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in the “Holy Catholic Church,” catholic means all encompassing. It means all who profess belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
So this year we began Lent with Ashes – a somber and austere reminder of our human limitations and the limitless love of God that holds us together and sets us apart. And today we begin our journey toward the cross and the resurrection with a simple question – what do you believe?
Our passages today are about a particular claim about who God is, who we are, and what kind of relationship we share between us. Now, before I go any further, let me say that I am taking the view that a belief – any particular belief – is based on a set of reasonable assumptions. We all have things we take as truth that are dependent on a little bit of guess work, a lot of trial and error, and the expectation that certain actions will yield certain results.
If I flip the switch, the light comes on – assuming the bill has been paid, the bulb is good, and the light socket still works. Chemistry is based on the assumption that the value of a mole is 6.0221479. I’ve never understood why it can’t just be 5, since it is an assumed value. Our own sense of basic human rights assumes that everyone should have an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – yet even when those words were written there were assumptions about who was truly human enough to have these rights.
You see, what we believe that we know changes over time. Within Christianity there are – and always have been – fierce debates over changing values and Biblical standards. That’s why the story has always been important. We are a people of the story. From the beginning the story has been that God made us, that we rebelled against God, and that God chose a people through whom to demonstrate grace and mercy.
From the beginning the story has been that providence is real, mercy is real, and that God offers them and demonstrates them most fully in community and through relationships. That’s what salvation looked like in the time of Moses. It looked like a community of believers who recognized that everything came from the hands of God, and that was a God who wanted them to enjoy and celebrate the fact that they were loved.
That might seem a little odd to think about today; I mean, we just celebrated Mardi Gras! Isn’t Lent supposed to be somber and penitent? Well, yes and no. If you never take time to say sorry to God or to consider how uncomfortable and difficult loving others can be, then by all means, take time to do so. But, if Lent is just a time to feel guilty, then it probably doesn’t do much to help you move beyond guilt and into redemption.
Lent is a time to consider deeply what you believe, and that is why we start out with the story of God’s covenant to Abraham and his descendants. That is why we hear from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that our belief that justifies our hearts – in other words, believing in God’s action of forgiveness completes God’s action of forgiveness. And in the same way, confessing with the mouth – sharing what we believe – completes God’s action of salvation.
Paul is clearly talking about eternal salvation and the wideness of God’s mercy – as we know about it through Jesus. Salvation is not just for one group or nation. Salvation is for everyone who believes. But it makes me wonder, what if you do not believe that you need to be saved? Is God’s action blocked? Do we dare claim that power?
A few weeks ago in our Wednesday night book study on the book, What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?, we talked about some current ideas on salvation. Some say there is nothing after this life, and when we die we simply cease to be. Some say that all are saved no matter what, because eternity is a long time to burn for a few years of selfish behavior. Some even say that there is some way that we will become purified through death and eventually return to the embrace of God.
The reality is that none of us know because none of us have been there or done that. There is, of course, a whole genre of literature based on near death experiences dating at the least back to St. Teresa of Ávila in the 1500‘s. But the question of salvation remains – as it should be – a matter of belief.
As for me, I don’t think it is fruitful to say who God will or will not save, but I do find meaning in the claim that belief in Jesus offers salvation. Not only that, I believe that to be true no matter what happens. That’s right. Whether we just cease to exist, barely make it out of Hell, are purified through death, or simply join a party that includes people you would never invite – I believe that claiming that salvation is possible through Jesus still matters.
I think it matters because I don’t think Jesus came to hand out “get out of jail free” cards. Instead, Jesus came to demonstrate a new quality of life, and Jesus came to demonstrate that God was active and present in all things. And – believe it or not – I think this story about the temptation of the devil is an excellent example.
Presbyterians don’t really like to talk about the devil. Partially that is because we don’t want to deal with the idea that there could be a spiritual force that could control us, given that even God almighty has given us free will. A strictly Reformed position is that God alone is sovereign, and that any form of manipulation by any other spiritual force is still within the reign of God. When the actions or manipulation of anyone or anything other than God are opposed to the what we think of as God’s will – say teenagers getting accidentally shot while sneaking out after curfew – well that’s just the mystery of God’s undisclosed purpose.
Personally, I find the mystery of God’s undisclosed purpose to be a tough pill to swallow, because I believe that Jesus came to demonstrate God’s character and purpose for once and for all! That is why this story about the devil matters – not because of what it says about the devil, but because of what it says about Jesus, about God, and about the relationship we share.
So, at this point in the story, Jesus has been vetted genealogically by Luke and baptized by John. He has been attested to by the Holy Spirit in a voice from heaven, and he has been led into seclusion in the wilderness to prepare for his journey toward the cross. And who shows up but the one who stands for everything he does not.
Jesus is tempted with hunger, and God is represented as the one who could provide but doesn’t. Jesus responds with the knowledge that there is a deeper hunger that God has already provided for through God’s word in scripture. Jesus is tempted by power, and the idea of God’s authority is mocked. Jesus responds with devotion to God and disregards the idea that there is any other author than the author of life itself. Finally, Jesus is tempted to prove God’s love – daring God to prove it, too. Jesus responds by refusing to attempt to manipulate God into action, and the devil departs in order to return at an opportune time.
So, here’s why this matters – no matter what. Jesus believed that providence is real, that devotion can only be given to God, and that the proof of God’s love is not found in manipulating the will of God but in the invitation to participate in it. That means that salvation is not simply about beating the devil. Salvation is about being part of something greater than yourself, and sometimes this life can be a pretty good place to experience it.
Of course, as Presbyterians, we believe that salvation is not limited to this life. But we also believe that you don’t have to wait until this one is over to enjoy it. Temptation will come and go – the love of God remains. If you don’t believe that, well you certainly won’t experience it!
Or, maybe you will whether you know it or not. The thing is – God cannot be goaded into action because God’s action is ongoing. Some will give things up during Lent to try to be more aware of what God is doing. Some will take up a new discipline like prayer or reading scripture or making Easter Baskets. At the core of it all is this, what do you believe and how do your words and actions demonstrate it?
As for me, I believe that Jesus offers salvation in this life and in the one that is to come – even if it’s just a new quality of life today. I believe that providence, grace, and mercy are real. I believe they come from the hand of God, but I believe we receive them best from one another. I pray that it may truly be so with you, and that it may truly be so with you. And to God be the glory now and always, amen.