A bestselling Christian author captures our American Civil religion promising: “You have the favor of Almighty God. He has lined up the perfect people and circumstances for your future. His favor is taking you where you could never have gone on your own.” How does prosperity fit into a season of self-denial and sacrifice? Will we look toward the cross? It is easy to feel a bit smugly superior when considering prosperity Gospel, but perhaps in so doing, we ignore our own transactional altars. American Civil Religion is sick with a spiritualized materialism. We are always asking “what can my country, my community, my church, my friends and my faith do for me?” We absorb so much marketing. Consumerism creeps into our newsfeed, entertainment, and churches. When markets peddle fulfillment through things, and churches preach fulfillment through meager belief, Lent’s language jars our sensibilities. Lent names fasting, forty days, focus, devils, disquiet, sacrifice, suffering, and starving.
Lent begins with these words: “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, Jesus was starving.”
When do we wrestle with life’s deeper questions? Come, take a forty day reset! Tune into that still small voice, that Spirit of Truth, pulling you away from pleasant distractions. Take forty days to face temptations and spot adversaries to God’s purpose for our living. Have you identified those pleasant devils who woo you off Christ’s mission? Remember, the Spirit led Jesus into the disquiet, discomfort, discontent. Perhaps, it is in the struggle that we discern our purpose. Let us join Jeus in the wilderness and wrestle with: how we will live, who we will live for, how we will use our power.
In the wilderness did Jesus first frame: “All who want to say yes to God must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow God. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of the Gospel will find a significant life.” (adapted Matthew 16:24) Does God still lead us into places scarcity, sacrifice and suffering so that God might us to heal and save the world?
Stride to Freedom opens with Martin Luther King Jr., recounting a drive along the Alabama River on a cold Saturday. Having just completed the coursework for a Phd at Boston Theological Martin considered his employment options. Churches in Michigan, Massachusetts and New York and three northern colleges offered Martin jobs. Martin’s father, who pastored the largest church in Atlanta, passed Junior’s name along to the search committee at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. So right after Christmas, Martin drove listening to the Metropolitan Opera. He considered his life: what was next, who would they serve, who would they be. Martin considered two career paths: the academia or the church and two very different places to live and serve: the north or the south? These decisions are spiritual ones, that shape who we become!
Martin looked over Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Montgomery. Dexter was a fine church. From it’s steps you could see the state capital,where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederacy. In 1954, Montgomery was still the cradle of the confederacy.
The year before Martin married Coretta Scott. Coretta grew up in Alabama, but she had grown accustomed to the North with college in Ohio and then the New England Conservatory of Music. Coretta knew desegregation. On tour she stayed in the homes of northern white friends, sat where she pleased on buses, and was not ordered to watch movies from the rarely cleaned cinema balconies. She and Martin worried about raising children in the segregated South.
Flying back North King recounts how: “As a teenager I never had been able to accept the fact of having to go to the back of a bus or sit in the segregated section of a train. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate restrooms, partly because the ‘separate’ was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect. Now I thought as the plane carried me towards (Boston), I have a chance to escape from the long night of segregation. Can I return to a society that condones the system I have abhorred since childhood?”
Why go back? Why stick with broken places, people and institutions? King pondered who they would serve with their lives? What will we do with power? Will we enter the suffering of others in order to bring about justice, community and Love? How might our world be different if Martin had decided to take a more favorable position in the north?
When did the church stop teaching: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? Friends, that is non-transaction language! Love never is! Denying oneself breaks the consumer gospel!
Now Jesus never told those pushed down by evil, injustice and oppression to silently suffer, or accept their plight. The crowds scolded Bartimenous for speaking up, trying to shame him into silence. Jesus heard the woman at the well and Bartimaeus and included them within the Blessed Community. ( John 4 or Matt 22, Mark 8, Luke 18 or John 9) Jesus feeds hungry crowds, flips over money changing tables, opens free healthcare clinics, and welcomes all to God’s Table. However, Jesus says to all of us with power, privilege and position, who will you live for, what kind of church will you be, how will you live?
Dr King continues “Finally we agreed that in spite of the disadvantages and inevitable sacrifices, our greatest service could be rendered in our native South. … We had something of a moral obligation to return- at least for a few years. …(we) had a desire to do something about the problems that we felt so keenly as youngsters.”
Lent begins with the words: “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.”
Every day, the marketing gods woos us to self-service altars of personal comfort and glorification. . The devil micro-targeted messages preach: hold onto power, shore up privilege, play it safe, don’t mention that, and that’s just how it is! The wilderness asks deeper questions. Lent invites us to face the temptation to live for less than faith, hope, love, and justice. Will we linger for forty days with questions? Will we work to maximize our paychecks or to do the most good? Will we sacrifice to care for our planet or live to consume it? Will we give enough away to miss it? Will we vote in our self-interest or for the greater good? Will we forgive because people need to feel forgiveness? Will we feed the hungry simply because people are hungry? Will we cross the boundaries and include the voices on the margins within God’s Blessed Community? Will we provide healthcare simply because people are sicK? Will we speak blessings, not so we might know inner peace, but because who needs to endure more curses?
Will we step back, retreat sabbath enough, to consider what temptations woo us off mission? Oh, if we want to taste Easter’s Joys, if we long for the Spirit to fall on us like Pentecost’s rains, then perhaps we must wrestle in the wilderness with how we will live, who we will serve, and how we will use our power. Let us enter the wilderness, so that we might face the temptations to live with less than Christ, clarity, and community. Amen.