Lent 1 – Jesus as a Holy Troublemaker

“Jesus as a Holy Troublemaker,” Susan Ryder

 This morning we begin a Lenten journey we will be traveling together for the next six weeks. As you know, Lent is the season observed between Ash Wednesday and Easter and is traditionally seen as a time for contemplation and preparation for the events of Holy Week, as well as a time for redemption and renewal. Lent offers a smooth transition from the past two months, where our worship has centered on what it means to be a people of integrity and resilience. As a reminder, the word integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete – integrity requires an inner sense of ‘wholeness’ and consistency of character. The word resilience comes from the Latin re which means “back” – and saliens which means “the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.” Saliens also holds the suggestion of movement; to leap, to flow, to run, to hurry.

These images from the roots of integrity and resilience – back to the beginning – instill a sense of an active effort to return, retain, and hold to that core heart of ourselves. Resilience is not a passive idea, it asks us to take action to sustain that beginning point, that core essential self – or that sense of wholeness that comes from our integrity. We embraced those ideals of integrity and resilience during the month of February we considered a few holy troublemakers as part of Black History Month – and as we begin the season of Lent, we move our focus to reflect on Jesus himself as a person of integrity and resilience, as well as a “Holy Troublemaker.”

Each week we will consider different things Jesus said or did that so challenged the powers that be that it resulted in his death. Next week Bob will look at Jesus’ sabbath breaking habits, and then I’ll invite us to consider his scandalous relationships with women – both of which really got under the Pharisees’ skin. We’ll also explore Jesus’ denouncing and calling out religious leaders, as well as some of his radical parables and teachings about humility and equality, concluding our series with the dangerous events of Holy Week on Palm Sunday that led to Jesus’ execution, and the hope offered in the resurrection of Easter. As we begin our sojourn into Lent from our reading this morning, I invite you to consider what can we find helpful from the familiar story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness before he began his ministry.

 Matthew 4:1-11; 18-24
[After he was baptized] Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Adversary. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the tempter took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the tempter took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the tempter left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Matthew says Jesus was led by the Spirit into “the wilderness” immediately after his baptism by John – just as he was stepping out to begin his ministry. In that wilderness, both his resilience and integrity were tested as he was confronted with options that addressed normal human needs and desires: food, simplistic thinking, and power. It was to be a time of preparation for what was ahead of him, a time to “test his meddle,” so to speak, as well as an opportunity for rest, prayer, and renewal. So, for 40 days, Jesus followed his cousin John the Baptist’s example, retreating to the wilderness to prepare himself for proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. It is interesting to note that while he is there, it is the kingdom of THIS world that draws near to him, tempting him away from his true purpose of God’s kingdom. Satan, the Adversary (the same one who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden) tries to lure him first with bread, sustenance; then he tries to tempt him to put God to the test; and finally he entices him with an offer of great power if Jesus turns away from the core of his beliefs and values. In each case, Jesus refused, and at the end of his time in the wilderness, when his purpose was achieved after the necessary number of days, he was cared for by angels and fortified to set out on his journey.

So perhaps the first lesson we can learn from this is preparation and self-care. To be a people of integrity and resilience, a holy troublemaker, we need to take time to step away from the noise and calamity of everyday life and avoid temptations that impede our resilience and put our integrity into question. Maybe we don’t have the luxury of being able to do this for 40 days – but we could take 40 minutes each day, or even a few minutes several times a day. During these challenging times, we desperately need to find ways to unplug from and avoid those things that steer us off our path. There is so much news right now that is terrifying and very triggering – about political candidates and primaries, the Corona virus and the stock market. This kind of news, all day every day, instills and promotes fear – fear that can lead to increased separation, withdrawal from and blaming of others, hoarding, and worse. So maybe we need to turn off the news once in a while, stay off Facebook or Twitter, and go for a walk, read a book, listen to music, take care of our soul. We need to take care of our bodies as well – eat healthier, exercise, sleep, and avoid the temptations or excesses of food or drink that may feel good for a moment, but numb us to the reality of what’s going on and ultimately do us more harm than good. We need to take time to replenish our bodies and spirits with whatever is lacking, and remove those things that cause us harm.

We also need to surround ourselves with supportive and like-minded people. In the second part of our reading, Jesus calls the first of his disciples – friends who will go on this journey with him. Jesus did not undertake his holy troublemaking alone – he had companions who stood by his side. The lesson here is that we need to do our best to have people in our lives that lift us up instead of dragging us down, who help encourage us to be our true, authentic selves and live our lives with integrity. We need traveling companions to journey with us. When I think of popular stories of life altering journeys – of heroes who change or save the world from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, for example – Luke and Leah and Han – Rey and Finn and Po – Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin. They are friends who band together to achieve their goals, companions who lift one another up, support and care for each other as they resist temptations. So it is worth noting that the first thing Jesus does as he begins his journey is find some companions to travel with him.

Jesus knowingly and boldly put himself in danger with his radical message of peace, inclusivity, and justice, and the more he said and did, the more the establishment plotted ways to silence him. What is most impressive to me is that Jesus was acutely aware of this. It would have been so much easier, and very human of him to stop, keep his head down, and discontinue making a scene – he could have saved his life by keeping quiet. But instead, with integrity and resilience, he chose a course that would ultimately lead him into direct confrontation with the powerful, from whom he did not back down. Along the way, he took time out to unplug and decompress, and he kept like-minded friends close by. In the end, even though it cost him his life, it gave life to a story that has inspired and compelled humanity for centuries. The message seems very timely given our current state of affairs, so perhaps we can learn something from him in the coming weeks to embolden us on our own journeys as holy troublemakers.

As I turn things over to you for a few moments – thinking about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness to stray from his path – what are some things that might tempt you from yours? What worries or fears or needs might lure you away? Or maybe you can share some ways you resist those temptations – what helps keep you on your right path?