WOULD YOU PASS THE TEST?
Mark 1: 9-15
Churches that believe in the Bible acknowledge that Jesus was tempted; today’s passage from Mark is just one of those passages. But what do churches do about it? How might Christians learn from Jesus? Some churches decide, either by tradition, the feelings of the deacons, or the decision of the pastor to hold a revival. In many revivals there are meetings nightly, generally for a week, with the goal of turning around back sliding Christians or saving the perishing. It whips up excitement and gets many back on the right course with Christ. Liturgical churches, that is, ones who follow a stated order of service, have their Roman Catholic roots to thank for the idea of Lent as a sort or “revival” for the rest of us. The Bible tells us about the passion of Christ, and especially how that week coincided with the Jewish feast of Passover. With a fairly clear idea about on what day Christ was crucified, the early Church Fathers in Western Christianity tried to set Easter on the most correct day they could find. They said that Easter was always to be celebrated on “the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal (or spring) equinox.” Our Orthodox Christian friends pick a different date. Counting back from Easter Sunday for this year, which is April 8, we count 40 days, but we do not count Sundays since the church has said forever that it is right for Christians to remember the resurrection of their Lord on the Lord’s Day. So skipping Sundays, counting back from April 8 forty days (which, as we heard in our Gospel text is the time Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness), we land on Ash Wednesday. That day was last Wednesday and this is the first Sunday IN Lent, not of Lent, because remember, Sundays are not counted. Liturgical churches often treat Lent as a time of renewal: a renewal of the Christian disciplines. Some pray more, some fasting, some serve others in new ways, and others have renewed studies of the Scriptures. If we were perfect people we might never need the yearly disciplines that Lent suggests, but since many fall away from their well-intended patterns of life, Lent is a time to get back on track. And what do we use as our guide? For one thing, it is our Lord Jesus himself. In three gospels we learn that after Jesus began his ministry by being baptized, he was tested in a wilderness area for forty days—the length of time waters covered the earth in Genesis, and the length of time Moses was with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus. So we begin with Jesus, and we remember the other times when forty days signaled a significant event. Forty is an important number in Judaism and Christianity. Seven is another important number; Isaiah lists the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit, and 7 is the number of perfection and completeness in Revelation, just as it was in Genesis when God made the world. The text from Mark today says that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Texts in Matthew and Luke describe him specifically tempted with power, protection, and food, but this text does not list his temptations. What other temptations might he have had in the desert? Furthermore, what other temptations might our Lord have had in his daily ministry on the earth for three years? Each of us fails, at times, in our attempts to walk the way Jesus walked and do what Jesus would do, don’t we? Jesus fought against sin as we are called to fight against it; sin trips us up throughout the year, and our personal and Sunday morning prayers of confession address that. But now, for forty days plus the Sundays, we will think about living more lovingly, faithfully, and hopefully. We might even remind ourselves of the fruit of the Spirit that Paul described in Galatians 5:22-23. If you have God’s Holy Spirit in your life, you show “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Last week, right as Lent was starting, I failed to exhibit at least three of those! Do you pass the test? Are you showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all corners of your life? During medieval times, as in Biblical times, people attributed many of their maladies to demons. Some later coined the phrase that faithful people should “name their demons.” So the church, drawing on Scriptural references, decided to name some sins. The list the church came up with is often studied and named during Lent with the idea of making corrections in one’s life. Beyond even Jesus’ forty days of temptation, he had a human lifetime of daily temptations. What are your temptations? What are the things that thwart your following of God? What are actions or attitudes that throw you off the beam of keeping God’s Commandments? The church through the ages has named seven deadly sins. Perhaps these are ones you too need to address over the coming weeks, even as I will seek to address them in my own life. You can write these down if you wish: there will be seven of them, not in any particular order. One sin is gluttony, which occurs when we consume too much either food, or drink, or both. It addresses consuming what our eyes desire beyond what our bodies need. A reaction to gluttony may be abstinence, and some people try that for forty days or longer. But another stand besides gluttony is moderation, and such a stand can keep the sin of gluttony at bay. A second sin is called sloth; even the word sounds descriptive. When we were in Central America for a church cruise last year, we saw a sloth in a tree and were told they sleep for more than 10 hours a day, and sit for the rest of it! Are you a sloth? Well here is where we part company with a sloth: they only come out of their tree once a week for a bathroom break: once a week! So sloth is about being more inactive in a day than your body will allow, and doing less in a day than you are capable of doing; it is dreadful inactivity. The animal with that name has such low metabolism he can do no other. But do you pass the test of not being inactive to the detriment of your body and to those around you? Diligence is considered one of the virtues that can be done in response to sloth. The third sin named today is lust. There is general understanding about lust and several working definitions. Lust is more than admiring another person or another person’s body; it is wishing you had that person, making plans to have the person, or even moving into sexual exploitation or sexism. Looking at a person is one thing; but as Jesus pointed out, looking at a person with lust is committing sin already. Such looks that start as a glance can move into an obsession. Again, lust will move you away from godliness as fast or faster than anything. Letting natural drives go unchecked by appropriate civility leads to a world of anarchy. The traditional correction to lust is chastity, but one can also live within an appropriate relationship that blesses the gift of sexuality, so that love can replace lust. Frederick Buechner one wrote “Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.” It is wanting what may indeed damage or destroy you. The fourth sin to name today is envy. Envy grounds itself in wanting to be someone else instead of the person you are; it is wanting the life your neighbor has instead of working on the life you have; it is narcissistic in that it will drink in the attributes or characteristics of another, denying God and your God-given self. Envy is often described as the “green-eyed monster” a truly unflattering picture of how we look to the world when we wish we were someone else. A correction for it mi
ght be kindness, but it also could be justice and the acceptance of selves and others. Again, although Jesus had the chance to be faced with these sins, so far he did not flinch. But I flinch, and you flinch, don’t you? How are you doing on the sin test? Let’s go on: the next sin is less familiar: avarice. It is the sin of wanting to possess too much; it is the sin of having many more things than you need. Jesus had few possessions of his own and was clear about what God gives: even in the Sermon on the Mount, as he told his listeners to consider the lilies of the field he reminded them that the Heavenly Father knew their needs. His teaching was about having daily bread, not a place to store and hoard it. Avarice is when our homes get too jammed with things we don’t need. It also has been equated, at times, with excessive wealth, but in my study it is about holding onto or hoarding possessions instead of sharing. Even poor people can have the sin of avarice. Sometimes it shows up as hoarding, adding up to fear of the future, which also goes against reassurances from God in the Bible. My brain looks at the things I own, or things I see in a store, and this voice goes off in my head and says “You might need that some day!” So I keep what I have and buy what I see. I too have to work on avarice! Some have called this sin “greed,” but the original meaning of avarice has a broader meaning. Generosity of spirit and action is the balancing action for avarice. There are two final sins on this Lenten list: wrath is the next one. It manifests itself as rageful anger. You might see people in traffic exhibit such anger; you might have a father or a mother who showed such damaging anger when they reached their limit; or you might have seen it in a colleague, a spouse, or a supervisor. Such anger is verbal (or physical) violence and it violates the psyche of the person to whom it is directed. It is debilitating to the recipient and it also harms the one showing such wrath, though at the time they may think they had no other choice, blaming their angry reaction on “a bad temper.” Wrathful anger can and should be controlled and redirected. Psychologists have demonstrated that people who get that angry are clinically insane. That is a dangerous state and it has no place in the kingdom of God. Certainly some might argue that Jesus showed anger when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps so; I wasn’t there, but I’ve read about it as you have. If he did, could it have shown the true humanity of our Savior; that even he had to fight against the temptation to sin?
Finally is the sin of pride. Now having pride in your work is not what this sin means. It has been defined in this way: “Pride is the origin and destiny of sin. Pride is manifest in the areas of knowledge, virtue, and power. ‘Pride goeth before a fall’ the saying goes. Those whose opinion of themselves is so great that they look down on others around them have trouble looking up to see God.” [“The Seven Deadly Sins,” Princeton Theological Seminary Committee for the Great Lent, 1979.] However you experience it, it puts you on the throne of your own life, relegating others, along with God, to the outskirts. A healthy dose of humility is a strong corrective that we may discover as we stumble over our own sureness of ourselves.
Sins come in many forms and are debilitating in our lives. Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. These are the days that we can choose to change from habits that hurt, and devalue, and violate, to ones that lift up, empower, and encourage. Certainly there is much sin in the world, manifested by diabolical regimes and criminals that need strong and protective responses. But our guide will always be Jesus, asking him in prayer, “What would you do?” and then listening for the answer.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 25, 2012