The Adventurous Lectionary – The First Sunday in Lent – March 10, 2019
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Today’s readings speak of divine deliverance amid the challenges of life. God is on our side, and when the odds are against us, God comes through, making a way when there is no way. While life holds no guarantees, still God is faithful and responds to our cries for help. Life involves the interplay of call and response, and when we call on God, unexpected insights and energies may emerge. Faith in God opens us to new dimensions of reality, and new energies for personal and communal salvation. The external situation may not always change, but we can face uncertainty trusting that God is with us.
If the only prayer you make is “thank you,” that will suffice, so said the German mystic Meister Eckhardt. Gratitude awakens us to the graceful interdependence of life. The reading from Deuteronomy 26 gratefully celebrates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people. Grace alone saved this wandering community taken into captivity. Against the odds, God brought the people out of captivity and thanksgiving is the appropriate response. The first fruits are given not to earn God’s favor, but in response to God’s blessings. Grace leads to gratitude, and gratitude delivers us from isolation and fear. Gratitude leads to generosity toward God the giver and God’s creation. Having received God’s grace, we move to share our largesse with others personally and politically. In our privilege, what graces are we called to share?
The well-known Psalm 91 continues the theme of deliverance and asserts that God responds protectively to the faithful who call upon the divine. Does this mean that the faithful have an advantage? In real life, the answer is ambiguous: faithful persons have the same struggles as those for whom God is unimportant. Job recognizes the arbitrariness of life and the reality that the moral can suffer as much as the immoral. As Jesus notes, the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Still, those who focus on God discover God to be a loving and caring companion. Our fidelity opens us to new possibilities that release new energies and pathways of liberation. A way often opens up for those who believe that a way will be made. In the call and response of life, our openness to God’s blessings enable God’s grace to flow more fully into our lives. God seeks the best for each moment of life and as we open to God’s presence, this releases new energies to transform the world.
The passage from Romans describes the interplay of call and response in the life of faith. God calls all people, Jew and Greek alike. All are “elect” in God’s universal grace. God wants all to be saved, that is, to find meaning and wholeness in this life and the next. God’s saving word is near to all of us, actively moving in the world, eliciting our response. When we respond to God’s call, great things happen. We receive God’s loving and saving energy. We face trial and temptation knowing that we are never alone.
The gospel reading describes Jesus’ retreat in the wilderness. Following his baptism, Jesus retreats to an isolated place to ground his vocation as God’s beloved child and messenger of salvation. No doubt Jesus understands that with great power comes the possibility for great temptation.In solitude, the many inner voices of life often emerge. In this time of retreat, Jesus is visited by temptation. The temptations Jesus experiences involve good things that come between God and ourselves. The is nothing in principle wrong with comfort food, safety, and power for the good. Yet, all of these, when they become the sole focus of our lives, can lead us from our deepest vocation and relationship with God.
We are seldom tempted by “bad” things. Rather good things that divert us from better things are the source of the greatest temptations. Recently I’ve been reading the North
African Desert Fathers and Mothers (abbas and ammas). These mystics believed that the greatest temptation was to have no temptation. As Abba Anthony once asserted, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Moreover, he believed that “without temptation no one can be saved.” In silence, these mystics discovered the many voices of temptation, and found release through calling upon God’s name. In like manner, Jesus is delivered from temptation by turning to God.
Only by turning to the Holy can we gain the perspective and fortitude to use our power wisely. We must look for a higher criteria than self-interest, success, or power. We must, in all our finitude as well as the ambiguities of life, choose for world loyalty rather than self-centeredness. In fact, true self-centeredness is God-centeredness in which divine grace guides our steps and shapes our decisions.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers found strength in following Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing.” (I Thessalonians 5:17) Out of their experiences emerged the “Jesus Prayer,” “Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner,” or simply “Lord have mercy.” When confronted by temptation, we can turn to God prayerfully trusting a love, power, and wisdom greater than our own for our deliverance.
Temptation never ceases, even among the mystics. Luke asserts that the demonic one departed from Jesus until an opportune time. The reality of temptation calls us to self-awareness (mindfulness) and prayerfulness. In turning toward God and invoking Jesus’ name, we discover God to be a “mighty fortress,” able to strengthen us to fight the good fight.
God wants us to be active agents of our destiny. Yet, our agency brings about good only when we trust God’s wisdom and presence to guide us. Knowing that we are in God’s care enables us to act with grace and boldness in seeking justice and wholeness for our community and the planet.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “The Mystic in You: Finding God in Suffering,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom.”