Remember 2

March 10, 2019

Series: March 2019

Category: Lent

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 4:1-13

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.3The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 12Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 


          I have this habit when I go up the stairs of taking two at a time.  I don’t think I do it here in worship, and I may not do it if I’m walking alongside you.  I have no idea why I started it, but I do know why I continue it.  Once when I was growing up, my dad was walking behind me and said, “Just like your grandfather.”  I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he had just seen me go up a set of stairs two at a time and he said, “Your grandfather did that.”  That was it.  From then on, almost always two at a time.  It’s interesting the things we do to remind ourselves from where we come. 

          On the cover of your bulletin is the quote, “Remember where you came from.”  It’s from the pop singer Katy Perry.  It’s not that I have stopped reading theologians.  I know it’s not even that novel of a quote.  I just happen to like the particular reason Perry said it.  She was describing a tattoo she got on her wrist at 18 so she can see it whenever she’s playing guitar and performing.  It’s one word: Jesus.   She wanted to remember where she came from when she was confronted with all the temptations that came with fame in the moments when it must have been most alluring.[1] 

          It’s pretty wise for an 18-year-old to connect memory, identity, and temptation.  It’s the same connection those who put together the lectionary made.  Each week, the church is given four readings to consider and if you read closely there is often a thread that connects them.  With today’s readings, I believed they were channeling their inner Katy Perry.  Notice the two readings you heard today.  Taken separately they have one set of meanings:  The first is a tale about land acquisition that feels strange to our sensibilities if not downright objectionable.  The second is a story about Jesus refusing to be outwitted by the devil, also a little strange for us I gather. 

Taken together they weave a deeper narrative, one that certainly has wisdom for us today.  At the heart of God’s instructions in Deuteronomy about settling into a new homeland is a reminder for the people to remember who they are.  Don’t just remember it, say it aloud as an act of worship: “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, mighty and populous” (Deut. 26:5-6).”  We recently did a three-week Bible study series on migrants in which we identified every biblical allusion to one’s responsibility to care for the alien and if I were to read every one of them it would take the rest of the hour. perhaps and then some.  The experience of being alien is central to their collective memory and therefore identity.

Why is that important in light of today’s gospel reading?  Jesus, as a good Jew, would have carried this collective memory of his people deep within him.  It would have been a part of his religious instruction and worship.  He would have been taught the experience of being on the other side of power and so when the devil came to tempt him with it, Jesus would have known better.  He had such a strong sense of who he was that he was able to avoid losing himself in the promises of the devil.  Jesus was able because Jesus remembered.

Do we remember who we are?  Do we know our history?  How deeply are we connected to our roots?  There is a yearning in people to know from where they have come, to know who their people are.  Especially as our institutional attachments have faded in this culture, and as geographic mobility has grown particularly for those of means, there is a deep desire to be connected to something bigger.  We want to know who we are in this world and where we fit.  How many of us have taken one of the genealogy tests, or 23 and Me?  I have.  Where do you think that impulse comes from?

Part of what we aim to do here, in spiritual community, is remind ourselves where we come from, who we are, and therefore how we are to be in the world.  Part of the challenge of today is learning how to do this in ways that make sense because some of the old tools of the church no longer work for many people.  Just last week we were doing officer training for our new elders and deacons and one of the things we talked about was the Book of Confessions, one half of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s constitution.  When I say, “confession,” think, “profession,” because it is a collection of statements, some brief, some very long, of orthodox beliefs, though these unfold over time.  I wonder how many of you aren’t familiar with our confessions or even that we had a book of them.  I wouldn’t expect you to.  Many have come to a place such as Westminster precisely because they don’t want to feel pressured to follow some prescription of what to believe. 

I actually heard a wonderful defense of creeds from a scholar named Jaroslav Pelikan.  Pelikan, who was at Yale and University of Chicago, spoke beautifully about the way creeds connect us across time and place, anchoring us in a shared memory.[2]  Remember, as someone once put it, tradition to a people is simply what memory is to an individual.  The interview with Pelikan is well worth it, and yet I know the creeds just don’t work for many of you and so you’re not about to witness my attempt to force them upon you. 

Instead I will wonder alongside you if there might be invitation in this moment for us to hold in common something else on this front.  What if we learned to proclaim together not ontological convictions about Jesus—son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, begotten not made, of one substance with the father…and so on and so forth?  Rather, what if we sought to hold in common our shared inheritance, the same inheritance we share with Jesus as former captives, former exiles, former slaves, former migrants and refugees?  Remember, in Christ, we are grafted onto this lineage, as Paul puts it so beautifully in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 11:17). 

One of the assertions we made in the Bible Study about migrants was that recalling our past as refugees is that keeping at the forefront this experience grounds our identity in compassion.  We know what it was like to live where there isn’t safety, where there isn’t freedom, where we don’t have control, and where and when we must leave home, even if we as individuals haven’t had that experience.  Now this is particularly difficult for those of us who are of European descent, living here, because our more immediate inheritance is one of colonialism, of conquest, even of being slave-owners.  I don’t say that to inspire guilt, offer insult or put anyone or anyone’s culture down.  I say it to raise awareness, that for many of us, through no choice of our own, have come from those who understood power as power-over, the notion that life is about extracting what you can and using whatever and whomever you need in the process.  If that’s the story you grow up with, even subconsciously, imagine how it plays out in your relationships, in your work life, in our communal public life?  The world is about competition and competition is about domination, or it can be.  The invitation is to excavate beneath that until we dig far enough into our fast to uncover our captive history, of slave history, our alien history.  Then life becomes about compassion and the goal liberation.

          Jesus had the luxury, if you can call it that, of knowing his peoples’ captivity and refugee past and the first-hand experience of being an alien himself.  Just read the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  All children below two are to be killed and so his family does what any family would do.  They take their child to a safer place, ironically here Egypt.   Childhood specialists tell us how much we are affected our whole lives by what happens to us when we are such young children, and so perhaps we can see the lasting impact when the devil comes “atesting.”  The devil says, “Don’t you want all this,” pointing to everything as far as the eye can see.  He is offering him the ultimate human temptation, unfettered power, the chance to be adored by all the people, or really feared by all the people so much they feign adoring him. 

“Make these stones bread.”

“One doesn’t live by bread alone.”

“I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world.”

“It’s written to worship only God.  Throw yourself off this building and let the angels catch you.”

 Don’t put God to the test.

 Jesus is basically given three chances to become Pharaoh, to become Herod, but Jesus knows what it’s like to live under each and thus to these questions he answers, “No. No. No.”  To know anything of Jesus is to know that he has no interest in power over, in glory, in holding himself up.  In fact, the only way they can get Jesus to be lifted up high for all to see is to nail him to the cross and place him on a hill.  That symbol, incidentally, is how we remember who we are and where we come from.  The one we claim to follow was put to death by those who sought the very kinds of power Jesus resisted at all costs, literally at all costs. 

Jesus is able to stay true because he knows who he is, and he knows who he is because he remember where he and his people come from:

“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, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm…” 

What if that became our new creed?  How might the world we are building look differently?  What might we do to remind ourselves daily?

(walk up steps two at a time).