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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sermon from March 13, 2011 + The First Sunday in Lent, ( A)

“Being Truly Human”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Matthew 4:1-11; Romans 5:12-19; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Peter and I enjoy reading comics and watching movies about superheroes. I don’t know if it’s a boy thing, but I have been a fan of Spider-Man since I was a little boy myself, and it’s something my son and I can enjoy together. Just the other week he was asking me about the reason why Kryptonite was so problematic for Superman. I think I got the answer correct – but if not, we’ll figure it out together.

In a time when movies about superheroes are proliferating more than any time I can remember, we’re having some fun. But this week it occurred to me that the superhero mythologies, especially that of Superman, help expose a common problem we have with Jesus. The early church was clear and definite in preserving the paradox of the witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and raised from the dead, was fully God and fully human. Not just God slumming it on earth, appearing to be human – fully human, one of us. And not just a man who somehow had power to heal and was a good teacher, but fully God incarnate. Keeping both in tension is not always easy. And what I’ve found is that in American Christianity there are many who mistake Jesus for Superman – a divine visitor to our planet who isn’t really one of us. Oddly enough, there’s another whole side of the American Christian experience that has difficulty thinking of Jesus as anything but a human teacher and revolutionary prophet.

So when he faces something difficult, we sometimes think, “That was easy for him – he’s God, after all.” Or when we talk about his teaching and leading as a man, we forget he’s the eternal Word and Son of God, part of the Trinity from before creation. But today the connection of these two identities of Jesus is the issue that confronts him as he faces the core of his sense of identity.

In the Gospel readings for the rest of our Sundays in Lent this year we’ll be seeing Jesus in the words of the evangelist John. John paints a picture of Jesus by lifting up and highlighting specific encounters and meetings with Jesus, and invites us as the readers and hearers to see through the eyes of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and from Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and learn what Jesus was and is for them. And John’s whole point, as he states near the end of the Gospel, is to have you and me, the readers and hearers, come to know Jesus ourselves and believe he is the Messiah, God’s Son, and in believing, have life in his name.

But today we have Matthew – the only non-Johannine Gospel of this season. That’s because the Church has long seen a parallel between the forty days of our Lenten journey and the forty days Jesus spent in the desert to begin his ministry. And we need this wilderness story, which John does not tell, to introduce our time with Jesus this Lent. Because as much as we need to know what we think about Jesus, who he is, and whether we believe, at this pivotal point in Jesus’ life, he needs to know the same thing.

It is Jesus’ time of temptation that dominates the account of his forty wilderness days.

And there’s something deep and mysterious going on here that’s fundamental to everything we are asked to believe about Jesus. In many ways, the temptation account highlights what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully human.

John tells us that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, living among us. The other Gospels address that Jesus is the Son of God most clearly right before this episode. In Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, God the Father declares that this is God the Son, well-beloved. And Jesus’ temptations are all focused on what that means for him as a human being. And whether God the Son truly will do what he has come to earth to accomplish. Or whether he won’t be able to. For Jesus, this is the question: does the eternal Son of God want to follow through with this plan to be fully human with us, this plan to save us?

Each temptation tests Jesus at key points of this plan of God, and each foreshadows the cross and his suffering.

Jesus is forty days in the wilderness without food. He’s famished, Matthew says. There’s nothing complicated about Satan’s temptation here – make stones into bread. You’re hungry – so eat.

But here’s the temptation: the eternal Son of God, one of three Persons in One God, has chosen to take on our lot, our full humanity. And that means a willingness to suffer through all the indignities and pains of human life. Including hunger. But also potentially any suffering. Here he has a temptation – don’t see this through. You could, as God’s Son, eliminate any of that human suffering or pain, with a word. You don’t really have to deal with all that messy, humanity stuff, do you?

How often would that have tempted Jesus – to wipe away his pain with a word? It’s the same question he faces in Gethsemane and on the cross – will he save himself? But Jesus chooses to stay the course here, and experience all we experience, without aid or help.

Then Jesus is taken to a high place, the top of the temple, and asked: do you trust God the Father? Jump and see whether you are loved. Here is mystery at its depth for us. How can we understand how the Triune God lives? What does it mean that the eternal Son of God leaves the communion of the Trinity and comes here, joining our flesh, and living among us?

We don’t know. But we do know this – there were times the Son felt deeply isolated. And how could that not be? Fully God, yet fully human – and that human flesh made a deep separation from the joy of life in the Spirit and the Father that the Son had always known. In Gethsemane and on the cross, the Son once again experiences that isolation. Surely now after 40 days of painful wandering and fasting, Jesus must have wondered “is it worth it? “How do I know that I’ve not been abandoned here?” So Satan says, test it out – see if you can be pulled out of this existence back to the existence you loved. But Jesus chooses to trust that he is not alone.

Lastly, Jesus is offered the whole war in one moment. Satan offers to give up the rebellion. Think of it – the Son of God comes here, knowing it will likely end in suffering and death, to win us back from evil, to bring us back to God in love, to defeat death and the devil. If he thought of anything in these forty days it must have been – can I do this? Will I accomplish my mission? And now Satan is offering to give, to concede the whole battle. With one small complication – the Son of God bows down and worships the Rebel.

And Jesus decides the end isn’t worth those means – how we are brought back is as important as whether we are. He doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be faithful to his mission and accomplish it. But he knows that if he accepts this offer, while it looks as if he’s gained the world, he’s lost everything. That there are worse things than self-sacrifice and death. And that bringing us back into love of God and love of neighbor is not going to be accomplished by power and might.

So what are we to do with this story? Jesus overcomes the temptations and so is able to save us, do his mission. Is there anything else we can take from this?

I think the key is that we begin to recognize that Jesus is the true human being, the one the Son had in mind when he was creating us. Back in the beginning, when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were creating, this was the human being God had in mind.

First, a human being who would live in the flesh, and know that though suffering and pain were part of that existence, that true happiness was not necessarily found in removing suffering and pain as much as in trusting in the Word of God who is the source of life. And so we learn from Jesus not to expect God to magically fix all suffering – rather to trust in God’s amazing presence to redeem all our human experiences and make them holy and healing.

And second, a human being who would live with the reality that sometimes the presence of God’s love would seem far distant, would live with the experience of God’s absence, and yet trust God’s love without putting it to the test. And so we learn from Jesus not to unreasonably stake our faith on whether we “feel” God near us – that is, not to expect that if we don’t have the sense of God we want we’ll just reject God, but rather that we learn to live in trust of God’s abiding and ever-present love, even when we can’t sense it.

And third, a human being who will always keep almighty God at the center of worship and existence, who will not see any means as worthy of even good ends, godly ends. And so we learn from Jesus not to do whatever it takes to accomplish what we think God has in mind for us, but rather to focus our lives on God’s priorities, God’s call to us, and stay that course, no matter how difficult it is.

This is why Paul takes such great pains today to parallel Adam – who stands for all of us – and Jesus. Only Jesus, ironically the one who is fully God, ever lives out fully what it is to be fully human. And it isn’t because he had all these divine attributes that helped him. In this temptation story he’s left only to his humanity. And his trust and faith. No miracles save him, no fancy rescues. And so he shows us our destiny, and becomes our leader in our pilgrimage.

The rest of this Lent we’ll now begin to see and understand even more about this Jesus, this Son of God. And see if we believe that for ourselves.

For today we simply look at this One who lived and experienced all we live and experience, and showed us it was actually possible to live fully in this human life. Because Jesus was truly human, he can be for us a model and guide, someone we can learn to follow and copy.

But because he was also truly God he can make this happen in us. That will become clear in the light of the Resurrection. And that’s the other thing we want to learn this Lent, if we believe he is truly God’s Son. Because if we come to believe that, then we will find incredible, rich, abundant life in his name. And the power of the Spirit of God to also become truly human ourselves, just like Jesus.

Let’s take this journey together. Let’s see Jesus and see what we can see. Let’s see what we come to know about him. What we come to believe about him. Will it change your life? Come and see.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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