Tuesday, May 08, 2007

“Time to Reset”

Phil. 3:17-4:1; Luke 4:1-13[1]

I don’t know if any of you have ever been lost in the wilderness, but I have. Twice. The first time was when I attended the 1975 Boy Scout World Jamboree in Scandinavia. Our campsite was in Lillehammer, Norway, where the winter Olympics would later be held. Part of the jamboree experience is to mingle with scouts from other countries. Some Scouter got the bright idea that they should have us all go on a hike in the wilderness. Not with our own patrols and troops, but in “international” patrols made up of scouts from different countries. My patrol—like all of them—was led by a Scandinavian scout. There were a couple of us Americans, a German, and I think a couple of French scouts. And none of us all spoke the same language! It’s no wonder we got lost! Obviously, we found our way!

If you’ve never tried the sport called “orienteering,” let me tell you that it’s not as easy as you might think. And when you put it all in the wilderness, and you are forced to find your own way, it’s even more challenging! You may or may not know that all compasses are a little “off.” The reason for this is that magnetic north is not quite the same as “true north.” So if you’re trying to find your way in the wilderness with nothing but a compass and a map, depending on where you are in the world you have to make sure to adjust your compass to the “declination” of that area. It can vary from 0 degrees to as much as 40 degrees. A declination of 1 degree will probably not get you lost in the wilderness—but 10 degrees surely will! Many’s the eager hiker who, forgetting to take that important step to reset the compass, wound up getting lost in some wilderness!

It may seem strange for a protestant congregation in the Reformed tradition to observe Lent. When I grew up as a Methodist kid in a small town in South Texas, Lent meant that we had fish in the cafeteria on Fridays—for some strange reason. John Calvin positively rails against those in his day who sought to imitate Jesus’ 40-day fast. He calls it “a wicked and abominable mockery of Christ,” and “an intolerable outrage” against God, Christ, and the Gospel![2] Of course, what Calvin objected to was not the fasting itself, but the Roman Catholic Church and just about everything it stood for!

Jesus’ temptation gives us some clues as to why we do things like observe Lent. In a very real sense, observing Lent is about reminding ourselves that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” and that we are to “worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The temptations Jesus faced, in and of themselves, don’t seem to be all that bad. What’s wrong with turning stones to bread, especially if you haven’t eaten for over a month! That was the temptation of “do it yourself.” And what is wrong with taking a pragmatic approach to spirituality? Instead of all the mess of the cross and the ambiguity of spirituality, Jesus (supposedly) could have taken a short cut. “Why not set up a real kingdom of God on earth?”[3] That was the temptation of “don’t wait.” And then there was the “leap of faith” that Jesus was to take, citing chapter and verse from Psalm 91 all the way down! What’s wrong with demonstrating to one and all that “the Lord indeed is God” like Elijah did (1 Kg. 18:39)? What does it matter if it really boils down to trying to prove ourselves, not God? In each case, Jesus was presented with something that might in seem harmless. But in each case, what it amounted to was violating God’s purpose.[4]

Lent helps us to make sure that our compasses point toward “true north.” There is a sense in which our discipleship is like a compass—we are all a little off. So we always have to reset our bearings to account for the fact of “drift” in our discipleship! Observing Lent helps us do that. It adjusts our focus. It helps us to see through the temptations that lead us off the path—like the compromises that seem harmless but violate God’s purpose, the lies we want to be true so badly that we believe them, or the gods we have made out of things that cannot give life. Just like a real compass, just a few degrees off can lead us far astray! Abstaining from something that we have become used to is a way of “resetting the compass of our discipleship.”[5]

William Willimon, retired Dean of the Duke University Chapel, says that one of the challenges we face as Christians is to continually orient our lives to the stories and hopes and faith of scripture, rather than the failed ideologies of our time.[6] Lent helps us do that. It helps us to reorient our lives toward the ultimate story that defines us all—the transformation of all things through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ! The Apostle Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Philippians. He reminds the Philippians that we have our citizenship in “heaven,” which means that our lives are oriented in a different direction than the one all the lies and false gods point toward.

The second time I got lost was on a family camping trip about 15 years ago. We were at Bastrop State Park, and we took a path that basically ran out in the middle of nowhere. I had a crude map of the park, but I wished I had a more accurate one. It didn’t take me long to recognize that we were lost. What I did know was my directions (based on the position of the Sun), and that if we kept the Sun to our right we would wind up on a main road not far from our campsite. We had to make our way through some not-so-smooth terrain, but we finally found the road and made it back to camp. Observing Lent reminds us that it is all too easy for us to lose our way, especially if we’re relying on faulty maps or directions. I challenge you all to take the opportunity to reset your compasses over the next few weeks.

[1] A Sermon preached 3/4/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, on Matt. 4:1; accessed at http://www.ccel.org/c/calvin/comment3/comm_vol31/htm/ix.xxxi.htm.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 261.

[4] Barth, CD IV.1, 260-63

[5] Stephen Cottrell, I Thirst: The Cross—The Great Triumph of Love, 12.

[6] William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 99-101.

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