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February 29, 2004

God Alone Shall You Serve

(Luke 4:1-13)

The story goes that after Jesus was baptized and heard God call him “My Beloved,” he does something equally extraordinary. Instead of calling attention to himself, he walks off into the desert for forty days to fast and pray. He turns inward, goes into solitude for a time of introspection to reflect and pray for guidance about what it means to be God’s beloved.

Lent is a good time for us to do the same thing. These forty days are a time for prayer, penance, and conversion. It’s a time to repent of the sin of war and violence and turn back to the God of peace and nonviolence, a time to reflect on what it means that we too are God’s beloved. So let’s look at the three things that happen to him.

First, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread.” Jesus is tempted to doubt that he is the beloved of God. “If you really are God’s beloved, then prove it.” That’s what happens to us too. We start thinking we’re not lovable, we’re not God’s beloved, that God does not love us because life is so hard. If God loved us we wouldn’t be hungry or suffer or die or have so much injustice in the world. But Jesus refuses to deny his identity or doubt God or use supernatural powers to satisfy his needs and turn stones to bread. He doesn’t choose the easy way out. Instead he embraces pain and suffering love and becomes like us, and he insists that “One does not live by bread alone but by the Word of God.” The word of God is clear, “You are my beloved.” He is going to be God‘s beloved and call us to live in that way of love, no matter what, and we have to do the same thing. So we can reflect with Jesus in the desert how we too can believe that we are the beloved by God, and live by that great Word. What’s also amazing is that Jesus who fasted and was hungry in the desert, who refused to turn stones into bread, today will turn bread into himself, and feed us and the whole human race at the altar of God.

Second, the tempter shows Jesus all “the kingdoms of the world” (including the USA) and promises to make him all powerful--with one condition, that he must worship false gods, idols, not the living God. This is the great temptation we face too, in our hearts, to be in powerful, successful, to have our own little “kingdom,” to be somebody in everybody else’s eyes, but it comes with a price, the loss of soul, and going along with everyone else by worshiping idols, and we all do that in a variety of ways. Certainly as a nation, we have chosen to be the most powerful people in the world, doing whatever we want--bombing Iraq, overthrowing a democratically elected president in Haiti, threatening humanity with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction--but this comes with a price, the worship of the idols of death, the loss of our souls as a people.

But Jesus issues a new commandment today: “You shall worship the Lord your God and God alone shall your serve.” He refuses to be all powerful or successful or to have all “the kingdoms of the world,” and instead resists the evil of “the kingdoms of the world,” and risks being a failure and powerless because he is determined to be faithful to God no matter what. He ends up on the cross, totally powerless, in charge of nothing, apparently without any “kingdom,” and he invites us to do the same thing, to pursue powerlessness, the cross and fidelity to the God of peace. So we might reflect how we can reject power and idolatry and turn back to God and worship the living God, no matter what.

Finally, the tempter takes him to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down because God will protect you.” So Jesus is tempted to test God, to see if God is really going to protect him, and to hurt himself in the process, and we too are tempted to doubt that God really cares for us and is really going to protect us. We start thinking “If God loved me, then why do I have to suffer, why is there so much suffering and death, why do loved ones die, why can’t I live a comfortable life without any pain?” We want to test God because we can’t quite believe we are God’s beloved in the face of our problems and pains and suffering and death, and the world of war and injustice around us.

But Jesus refused to test God or doubt God. He believed that he was the beloved of God and he was going to be faithful to that vocation, no matter what, and we have to do the same. Not only that, Jesus learned in the desert that being the beloved of God, being human, means not avoiding suffering, but accepting suffering with love, and giving our lives in suffering love for others, so he goes from the desert to the cross and lays down his life knowing that God loves him, that true unearned suffering love in a spirit of truth for humanity is redemptive and saves us all.

I am reminded of the great labor movement hero, Cesar Chavez, who spoke along these lines at the end of his famous 1968 fast. “When we are really honest with ourselves,” he said, “we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of persons we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be human is to suffer for others. God help us to be human.” Just before Cesar’s death, I asked him if he still believed this, and he told me he did.

So Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Instead we are going to trust God, have faith in God, be God’s beloved, and walk forward through life with God from the desert to the cross, accepting suffering as it comes, in a spirit of love, and instead of being superhuman, we will be truly human and live well in love, suffer well with love, and die well with love for others. Lent is a good time to reflect on these things, a good time to get ready to go forward like Jesus with great faith, hope, love and trust as God’s beloved--to the cross.

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