Mystery of Faith
Today marks the end of our Lenten journey. Some of us have fasted from a particular food item or behavior. Some of us have spent extra time reading scripture, or other texts designed to enhance our understanding of our faith and our faith journey. Some of us have simply lived our lives in expectation of Easter.
Holy Week begins today, and ends with our Easter celebration next week. Each week, in worship, after our prayer of confession and words of assurance, we have extinguished one candle, to represent the ultimate betrayal of our Lord and Savior at the hands of his closest friends and followers. Each week, our altar space has gotten a little bit darker, to represent our own role in the Christ’s betrayal. A mini tenebrae, in the midst of our Sunday worship.
For close to 2000 years, Christians have followed the path of this journey, using Lent to fast in order to focus on Christ’s suffering, or to read in order to be reminded of Christ’s last weeks of ministry, or to perform acts of kindness and charity to honor Christ’s sacrifice.
And while there is a general understanding that following that path is a good thing, tradition and custom tells us so, there is nothing explicitly biblical that tells us what we should do during Lent. It’s the early church’s interpretation of scripture that leads us through our days in Lent.
Scripture tells us that Jesus began his final journey into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Two animals at once? That’s interesting.
All four gospels describe the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem by our Lord and Savior, and all four note that the disciples laid their cloaks on the donkey and colt, and the crowd laid their cloaks on the ground, with some branches from the trees. But palms are never mentioned. That’s interesting.
Custom and culture from those days dictated that a king riding on a horse was riding for battle. A king riding on a donkey was riding in peace. That’s interesting.
2000 years after his entrance into Jerusalem, after his arrest, his torture, after his crucifixion and death, after his resurrection, Jesus continues to remain a most mysterious figure.
A charismatic rabbi, able to perform miracles like turning water into wine, healing people with all kinds of diseases, able to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, all used to illustrate the glory of God.
It feels like the world is losing patience with the mystery of Christ. As scholars and scientists argue about what would have been historically accurate, what would have been ‘true’ about the time Jesus lived among us, it feels like people care less and less about the mystery, the paradox of our Lord and Savior. Does it feel that way to you?
So much about Jesus is incredible: born of a virgin, able to perform miracles, crucified and killed, only to be resurrected…no science can help us understand the implications of these mysteries. Ultimately, we have to wrestle with them ourselves. We believe or we don’t.
But what I believe is that we can never separate the mystery from the person Jesus was, and so there are moments in our faith lives when we must decide whether we believe in Jesus because of what scripture said he did, or because of who he is in our lives.
And if we believe in Jesus because of who he is in our lives, then this next week plays a powerful role in our remembrance of his final days on earth.
If we believe in him because of what scripture says about him, then we can go through this week with a kind of painless detachment, removed from his painful betrayal, his humiliation, his torture, his sacrifice. We can read about his passion, his trials like a story that has no effect on us.
But if we’re on this journey with him, then we’ll feel some of that pain, our cheeks will sting with some of the humiliation he felt. We’ll wash other’s feet, and have our feet washed. We’ll break bread together, and share juice together, like he did, in remembrance of him. Mysterious acts like these can have a profound effect upon our faith lives.
The world wants science to tell us if Jesus really did the things the bible tells us he did. Science can’t do that. The world wants historians to tell us if Jesus was really the way the bible tells us Jesus was. History can’t do that. At some point, the faithful have to move beyond science and history, and move into the mystery of our faith. We have to be ok with not knowing for sure, but knowing in our hearts. And there’s a difference, isn’t there?
I can’t help but mourn the state of the Christian Church in these modern times, and I can’t help but note that the Christian Church’s problems seem to stem from our inability to put into practice the very things Jesus calls us do. If we practiced loving each other as he loves us, as we love ourselves, if we loved our enemies, if we turned the other cheek, if we loved God with all our hearts, and all our minds and all our souls, the world wouldn’t doubt the truth.
But for now, with the advent of Holy Week upon us, we have mystery, and we have hope. We do not have science, or history, or culture, or customs to feed us, we have our own personal faith to lead us into our understanding of the Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
We can shout Hosanna! today because we already know the rest of the story: we won’t be disappointed when the Messiah turns out to be a peace-loving, peace-preaching peacenik.
We can sit at the table with Jesus, and break bread, because we know what he did for us and for our sins, and we know that all are welcome at his table, with no exceptions.
We can take risks in the name of our faith, move outside our comfort zone, share our resources beyond what might be prudent, because we have the reassurance and the joy and mystery of Easter morning to back us up.
At the end of the day, we have to find a way to be comfortable with the mysteries of our Lord and Savior, be comfortable with the things that don’t make sense, the things that get at the heart of our faith. Not because tradition tells us to, or because it’s the custom of Christians to do so. But because we are learning to embrace the mystery of Christ.
At the end of the day, either we have hope in the resurrected Christ, or we do not. Holy Week helps us focus on the paradox of a king, arrested, tortured, humiliated, and crucified, only to triumph over all earthly bounds, and even death itself, in order that you and I might be forgiven. And we are forgiven.
And that is the ultimate mystery. Hosanna in the highest indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
God knows a lot of things. In fact, God knows everything. And God knew that Adam and Eve would give in to temptation, and that Jesus would not.
Adam and Eve really didn’t stand a chance in the Garden of Eden. They were kind of new there, kind of new to life. They had neither the tools nor the life experience to resist the temptation of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Jesus, on the other hand, was rock steady in the face of some pretty powerful temptations. He never wavered. In fact, Jesus already had an answer for each of the devil’s temptations.
Adam and Eve of our Hebrew Scripture reading represent one end of the spectrum for resisting temptation, and Jesus, from our Gospel lesson, represents the other end of the spectrum. And you and I are somewhere on that spectrum. There are rules, there is free will, and there are consequences.
Psychology and the Social Sciences have done countless studies on a person’s ability to ‘delay gratification’. That’s a fancy phrase for ‘resist temptation’. And what science has found is that an inability to resist temptation, or delay gratification, can lead to all kinds of troubles: credit card debt, eating disorders, chemical dependency and addiction, even incarceration.
Those who are able to delay gratification are linked with healthier life outcomes.
Many scientists believe we are born with a base-line ability or inability to resist temptation. But the cool thing is that no matter what your base-line, everybody can learn to delay gratification longer than their base-line. It may not be easy, but one can learn to resist temptation.
Now, it must be obvious by now that we are all closer to Adam and Eve on that spectrum than we are to Jesus! Everyone here has their weakness, the thing they can’t resist. Everyone here struggles with giving in to temptation.
Recent studies have revealed that we possess a finite amount of ‘will power’. If we spend most of our day resisting temptation, we will have a very difficult time resisting in the evening.
And there are rules. There is free will, and there are consequences.
What made Jesus so steady in the face of temptation? Why was he able to stare down the devil offering food after 40 days of not eating? Jesus had the courage of his convictions, his faith, to help him through. Jesus had a goal, and what the devil was offering him wasn’t it. Jesus didn’t need what the devil was trying to give him, so he could resist.
Adam and Eve on the other hand, had little resources to resist the serpent. No faith base, no goal, no confidence, no courage…so they gave in to temptation because they could. There was a rule. Don’t eat the fruit of that tree. They had free will, so they broke the rule. And there were consequences.
Human nature is not inherently evil, it is inherently open to temptation. Humanity is not sinful by nature, but it is inherently open to sinning. There is a difference.
God knew Adam and Eve would not be able to resist temptation. But they needed to make their mistakes and experience the consequences. That is true for each and every one of us, too. We are tempted, sometimes we resist, sometimes we give in. And there are consequences either way. But judgment isn’t one of the consequences. We are not bad people, or evil people, or sinful people because we have difficulty resisting temptation.
But we are sinners. And we are forgiven. Just as Adam and Eve were forgiven, even in the midst of their consequences.
So we’re on the spectrum of resisting temptation between Adam and Eve and Jesus. Between being unable to resist temptation at all, and being able to resist all temptation. And science is telling us that wherever we are on the spectrum, we can learn to lengthen the time we resist temptation.
So how do we do that? If I had an easy answer, I would write a book and make millions of dollars! One way to start is to be prepared. Adam and Eve weren’t prepared.
If we know what some of our temptations are, and we know that they will be in front of us at some point, we can prepare our heads and our hearts for what that might feel like. And if we can plan for an alternative instead of grabbing the temptation, we also might be better prepared.
It doesn’t matter what our weakness is, they are all the same. Some may have more dire consequences: eating all the Girl Scout cookies is not the same as taking all the heroin.
God knows we will be tempted, and God knows we will give in to temptation during our lifetimes. That does not make us bad, or evil, sinful. But there are some basic rules to the universe, to the world, and to our lives. And we all have free will to follow those rules or break them. And the universe and world and life are really good at applying the consequences to our actions!
So it makes sense for us to familiarize ourselves with the rules. To try and understand the power of the gift of free will. And to anticipate the consequences of our actions when it comes to resisting or giving in to temptation.
And let’s not kid ourselves: we all give in to temptation at some point. Nobody is as solid as Jesus was in the wilderness.
But we can be so much more prepared for the challenges ahead, the temptations ahead, if we were to take some time to reflect on the things that tempt us, the reasons why we find them tempting, and the consequences of giving in to them.
I would invite each of you to take some time this week to do just that: reflect on the role of temptation in your lives, how well you resist temptation, and the consequences of resisting, or giving in. The details don’t really matter. And we are not bad people, or evil people if we do give in. But we know some of the consequences that will come from giving in to temptation.
Jesus resisted temptation so that he could fulfill his role as our Savior. We are forgiven our sins, our failures, our giving in to temptation, because he did not give in.
And the closer we can move to Jesus on the spectrum of resisting temptation, the more solid we will be when those tempting moments come up. And they will come up!
May this week’s Lenten Journey include reflecting our own temptations. Amen.
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