First Sunday in Lent
I was ordained over 30 years ago by a small, rural Texas Baptist church who had called me as their new young pastor a couple of months before. I invited to preach my ordination service a retired preacher whom I knew from my college church. He was in his mid-80’s, gentle and kind, as attentive to others as anyone I’d ever known, had a deep prayer life, and rumor had it that he had memorized the entire King James Bible. He preached a fine sermon on loving God, loving the Bible, and loving God’s people. After the service, of course, we all joined in a country church dinner on the grounds of which legends are made. Soon thereafter, I escorted the old preacher to his car. He laid his Bible on the roof of the car as he opened the door and turned to me, “There are two more things you need to know about being a pastor. You’ll need to learn to say ‘No!’ and ‘Hell no!’” With that parting word he got in his car and drove away.
Luke tells us that immediately after his baptism Jesus goes into the wilderness and learns to say, “No!” He said “Yes” to God in baptism but in order to pursue his God-given vocation he had to struggle through what his vocation wasn’t. We will discover shortly what Jesus’ ministry will be when Jesus returns to Nazareth and preaches in his hometown synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …” Yet first, Luke shows us what Jesus will not do; who he will not be. And Luke tells that resistance is part of this vocation. Jesus learns, and so do we, that saying “No!” or resisting the devil, or Satan, whom Walter Wink calls the “spirit of the Domination System,” is a fundamental part of ministry.
Many years ago, I was in Nashville and ended up hearing Will Campbell and William Stringfellow speak at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Stringfellow’s lecture/address was very simple; he sat behind a desk and after being introduced, said, “The vocation of a Christian at this time in this country is resistance.” With that he stepped down. Chaos ensued as people stood up angry, some even shouting and shaking their fists over Stringfellow’s simple and too short address. Will Campbell was bemused, took it all in, and said, “I don’t know who Bill Stringfellow is but he sounds like a prophet to me.”
For prophet and theologian William Stringfellow, the devil was the incarnation of the Power of Death, a power pervasive in our world. In the wilderness Jesus confronts directly the Power of Death that seeks to destroy and diminish all creation and all that is truly human. Jesus resisted. And like Jesus we are called to resist.
Yet for Stringfellow, the ability to resist is predicated, like Jesus, upon baptism. In baptism we submit to the God of all Life. Episcopalian Stringfellow used the language of immersion when describing our submission to God. No mere dabbling will do, only a full and complete immersion in the God we know in Jesus will suffice for us to be able to resist the Power of Death. And only immersion in God will allow us to discern what to resist, as well as how and when. In other words, saying a full and complete “Yes!” to God empowers us to say a firm “No!”
During the 1950’s A. J. Muste, long-time organizer and leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, stood outside the gate of a Strategic Air Command base alone holding a sign that read, “Ban the Bomb.” Each day he stood in silent vigil, all by himself. A reporter watched him and after a week or so approached Muste and said, “You know you’re not going to change anyone doing this.” To which Muste replied, “I know. But I can keep them from changing me.”
We all know there is much more to the Gospel than saying “No!” But this first Sunday in Lent, with Jesus in the wilderness, it is a good place to begin.