Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent

All Saints' Church, Rehoboth, Delaware. February 25, 2007

Readings for Lent I: Deut. 26.1-11; Rom. 10.5-13; Luke 4.1-13

We don’t often get a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy: even its name was a sort of conundrum until T.S Eliot’s poems appeared in a musical featuring one of his favorite feline friends. The name comes from two Greek words, “second” and “law”, and biblical scholars since the middle of the nineteenth century have understood it to be a reissuing of many older traditions, not only laws but summaries of Israel’s history and exhortations to a full acceptance of the religion of the One God, Yahweh. The book is in many ways different from the first four books of the Torah because it was produced under the influence, not of the scribal, priestly group, but by the followers of the Prophets, therefore emphasizing the need for social responsibility, and downplaying sacrificial rituals.

Its interest in the nation's history is well illustrated in today’s snippet, where the Book’s authors assume that Moses is speaking; this, by the way, was not regarded as forgery, for in ancient literature it was legitimate to say for someone centuries later what they might or ought to have said. The putative Moses speaks: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation.” Then follows one of several potted histories that we find in Deuteronomy and the book of Joshua, more or less, its companion volume. From this passage and from a myriad others in the O.T. it is clear that the recalling of their history was central to the existence of Israel, and central to that story was a faith in the God who had brought them into existence.

As their history progressed, however, all did not go well. More and more they related how God had made them a chosen people, with the increasingly clear corollary that God was not interested in the other 99% of the world. They listened to part of their history and they ignored voices which reminded them that God had chosen them to be “a light to the nations”. Perhaps their exclusiveness is understandable, because their history showed them the implacable evil of the power of the great as they were, time and again, subjugated to powerful empires. At the same time, their prophets had to remind them that within their own society, the power of the rich and great caused immense suffering within their own nation. The frequently quoted wisdom that “those who do not take note of their history, are condemned to repeat it”, is not entirely true of Israel. They repeatedly took note, in many passages like today’s first lesson, and in many of the Psalms; the problem was not a failure to read, but a misreading of their history. There is much more that can be said, but we need to turn to today’s gospel and consider Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke is more interested in what he takes to be a precise historical setting than any other Evangelist, indeed, of any other N.T. writer. At the very beginning he places the narrative of John the Baptist’s father “[i]n the days of Herod, king of Judea”; when Joseph and Mary have to go to Bethlehem for the census, he very precisely notes who was the Emperor and who the governor of Syria, and he carefully places the beginning of the Baptist’s work: “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius” when Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod [not “the Great”] tetrarch of Galilee. After the story of the baptism that follows today’s reading Luke notes that Jesus “was about thirty years of age”, and then gives one of the two (differing) genealogies, family histories of Jesus; the other one is at the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel. These passages are totally ignored by the Lectionary, and so only bible students tend to know even of their existence. They are however of immense and primary importance for understanding the objectives of the two writers. Matthew begins with Abraham, and comes, interestingly to Joseph. Jesus is clearly a Jewish Messiah. Luke, on the other hand begins with Jesus, supposedly the son of Joseph, and goes back 76 generations to Adam, noting David and Abraham on the way, and ending, “son of Adam, the son of God”. So Luke looks back on the history of Israel and sees Jesus as the son of Adam, that is human kind, and via humankind, the son of God.

There is continuity here, but also a startling break. Jesus, Luke seems to suggest, gives us an opportunity for a new history. He is a new Adam, a new humanity a new son of God. It is clear that this not an eccentric idea peculiar to Luke: Paul calls Jesus a second Adam in the letters to Rome and Corinth (Ro. 5.14; I Cor 15, 22 & 45), and even more strikingly proposes a new creation brought about by Jesus, the Messiah (II Cor. 5.17).

Such a view of Jesus disallows the reading of Israel’s history as an inclusive chosen race; it embraces, on the other hand, the Prophetic vision of Israel as a “light to the nations", and with this in mind we might take a new look at the temptation story given us by Luke. The context is vital. We have seen what immediately precedes this story (the lineage of Jesus) and we should note what immediately follows when Jesus emerges from his desert retreat. Luke says he came out “in the power of the Spirit”, went to the Synagogue in Nazareth, read from the Prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the work of the Servant of Yahweh to bring good news to the oppressed and freedom to those who are enslaved (Isa. 61. 1-2). Then the dramatic statement, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears” (Lk. 4.20).

The testing in the desert has a triple thrust. Considered as ways to start a new history they might look something like this: start the new history so that it will be a record of social action, feeding the poor. Or, secondly, begin a new history where power can be used for good and you will not repeat the errors of the past. Then finally, establish yourself as the king who has within himself the divine power to write a theocratic history.

For Luke, the issue is not whether Jesus is the Son of God, but what kind of son. The Devil in these scenes is much more like the Satan of the Book of Job. There, Satan is a rather shady character on Yahweh’s Council of Advisors: rather like the Head of MI5 or the CIA. So the Devil’s function is not so much to tempt (in our contemporary usage) to sin, but to test the character and the will of God’s servant. The answers that Jesus gives tell us both how Luke thinks of Jesus and how he as the new Man will inaugurate a new trajectory for history.
Can it be an accident that all the answers are quotations of or allusions to the Book of Deuteronomy? They point to the divine plan that Israel has not yet managed to put into action. God, and God only must be at the center. Social action is required and is noble, but it must be subordinate to perpetual awareness of our absolute dependence on the gracious God and we must have a conviction that life has a spiritual dimension as well as a material. [That is to say, ‘we cannot love by bread alone’].

The answer to the second test is a refusal to embrace political solutions and to engage in power plays, but it is the final test and answer that clinch for us who Luke thinks Jesus was and what Luke thinks Jesus’ mission is.

The third answer is based on Deuteronomy 6.16, which refers to Israel’s rebellion while in the Wilderness. It underlines the obedience of the new Son, the new Adam, in contrast to the disobedience of Israel. It also suggests, again, the centrality of God: Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Jesus. To put it another way, Jesus is to be the author of the new history: he is not to be its central theme.

As we look back at the history that actually evolved, we have to wonder whether not heeding our history is condemning us to repeat it. The church has had an irresistible itch to get into power plays; the church has had the conviction that it alone has access to truth, and, thus, the right to decree who is in and who is out, and the wrangles of theologians over who exactly Jesus is, have obscured the centrality of God and the work of God’s Servant.

Yet, there is also cause for rejoicing that renewal does happen, that reformation is possible and Easter, for which this Lent is a preparation, declares that Resurrection, life from death, is part of God’s plan, bringing order from chaos, and the continued possibility of a new history.

No comments: