Making the Good Confession
Lent has begun, and for the next forty days and forty nights we will receive reminders to look inwardly and discern the nature of our faith. To whom do we give our trust? Who is it that defines for us the right course in life? What does it mean to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus? On Ash Wednesday we began the journey by making confession of sin and receiving the mark of mourning (ash) on our foreheads. We don’t do this to wallow in self-pity, but as to remind ourselves that the path forward requires a companion, a guide, so that we might experience a hopeful present and future. And who is this guide, it is the Holy Spirit, who leads Jesus in to the wilderness, but doesn’t abandon him there.
The story from the gospel reading, as is true on all first Sunday’s of Lent, tells the story of Jesus’ Wilderness Ordeal. It defines for us the parameters of the season, but in this cycle we also attend to texts that call upon us to make confession of faith. They ask us to entrust our lives to God and pursue that calling in ways that transform us into the people of God.
We begin with Deuteronomy 26, which offers instructions to the people of God. Our text calls for the people to make offerings of thanksgiving because they have received their inheritance. They have entered the Promised Land – though the passage is written in a way that suggests that this takes place in the future. Instructions are given for how to give thanks, once one crosses the river. This offering is a confession of faith. It serves to announce that they have arrived in the Land the Lord promised them. The confession of faith that accompanies the offering is a recital of the story of a people who live in covenant relationship with God.
And so as the offering is made, the worshiper declares: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor . . .” (NRSV). That reference to Abraham sets the beginning of the story. The ancestor is a wanderer, a nomad, a family without a place to call their own. A promise is made – a home will be provided – but until that point, this was a wandering people – dependent on God (and neighbor). The idea that the Hebrews were a nomadic people is well-known, but I’m intrigued, by the rending in the Common English Bible. It reads: “My father was a starving Aramean.” Like Jesus, wandering in the wilderness, Abraham was starving, but not only Abraham, but his descendants face the same fate. Remember that the progeny of Abraham and Sarah, specifically the family of Jacob moves to Egypt due to famine, but in the course of time, they become enslaved, and are oppressed and forced to perform hard labor. It’s from that enslavement they have now been freed. They no longer must wander (and starve), for they have found a home. They can bring an offering from the produce of that Promised Land, and in bringing this offering the worshiper celebrates God’s provision.
There is something in this passage that needs highlighting, because it speaks directly to issues at hand – at this moment in time -- in the land of my birth and my residence. In the confession the worshiper remembers that the ancestors were immigrants, but became a great nation. It was for this reason that they were eventually enslaved and oppressed – there was fear of the immigrant present in Egypt. At this moment there is much conversation in political circles, concerning comprehensive immigration reform. The President called for action to be taken in his State of the Union Address. Groups are meeting on Capitol Hill to discuss it. I don’t know what the final bill will look like. There’s a lot of give and take going on, with many opponents, who fear that immigration will “change” the nation. We (Euro-Americans) will, some say, soon be outnumbered. Our way of life is threatened, and so we must put a stop to this inflow of undesirables. This reading, therefore, is an apt one. The people of God are reminded that they are descendents of immigrants, and therefore, they should include the immigrants (resident aliens) in their worship. If we are to be faithful in our confession of faith, then surely we must act justly regarding those who wander, those who starve, those who are oppressed. That is the vision of God, and it is the confession of faith made before God we’re asked to make.
Paul offers us a different form of the confession of faith. It’s briefer than the one found in Deuteronomy, and it’s focused on Jesus. The message that Paul preaches is this: If we wish to be saved, made whole, experience the restoration of our relationship with God; then we must verbally confess “Jesus is Lord,” was well as believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead. This seems to be is a pretty straightforward evangelical definition of the way of salvation. Trust in Jesus and you will be saved. Although seemingly different from the Deuteronomy passage, both declare that salvation or deliverance will come from God. Although it’s easy to miss, there’s another element of similarity between these two passages. Even as Deuteronomy makes provision for the immigrant or resident alien, Paul makes it clear that there’s no distinction to be made between Jew and Greek. In Christ, nationalism is put aside. As Nicole Johnson warns us, we should take care “lest we fall prey to nationalisms, racisms, or other forms of distinction inappropriate for the community called ‘church,’ contemporary Christians must heed Paul’s injunction not to distinguish between ‘Jew’ and ‘Greek’.” Of course we do make these distinctions. We seem unable to stop ourselves from dividing everyone up according to this stereotype or another. Still, that is not the way it should be. And so Johnson, continues her challenge, rephrasing Paul’s message for us.
We could substitute our own current word pairs to bring Paul’s point home to our own contexts: ‘For there is no distinction between [black and white, male and female, gay and straight, American and immigrant, rich and poor, old and young}; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone [indeed, EVERYONE!} who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (vv. 12-13). [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year C, p. 126]
Having heard these two confessions of faith and hearing in them calls to engage in works of justice as an expression of faith, we come to the story of Jesus’ wilderness ordeal. He’s been baptized by John, heard God’s claim upon him, and now that he is “full of the Holy Spirit,” that same Spirit leads him into that wilderness. For many of us the wilderness connotes a remote forested area, but for Luke it is a deserted and barren space. There is nothing to sustain life – no water, no food. Like the Hebrews wandering in the desert of Sinai, Jesus finds himself in a truly deserted place. And for forty days and forty nights he eats nothing. By the end of this sojourn he’s starving. I find it difficult to fast for a couple of meals, but Jesus goes weeks without any sustenance. Surely he is as weak in spirit as he is in body. But such is not the case.
Jesus faces three tests or temptations. 1) Make bread from stones; 2) exchange worship for a crown; 3) and show off a bit by jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple – knowing all the time that the angels will rescue him. The tests are put to him by the devil. Each of the tests either quotes from or makes an assumption based on words of Scripture, but Jesus doesn’t bite. He’s not a proof-texter of that sort. He knows that Scripture can be abused and used. So he doesn’t give in. He won’t make bread from stones, because “People don’t live only by bread – instead the unspoken message is that one leaves by “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He will continue to trust God, not self-serving abilities.
Luke ends this encounter with these words: ‘the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.” Whatever your theology of the devil, Luke makes it clear that this is only the first of many encounters that Jesus will face in life to forgo his calling. Remember that in the Garden, Jesus prays: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” The temptation to turn back is there, but then Jesus goes on – “by not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
So, as we begin the journey of Lent, what is God’s call? What is God’s desire? And what will be our profession of faith? Will we continue to follow the Spirit, even through the Wilderness?