“(Don’t) Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion”
A Sermon on Luke 4:1-2a, 9-13 (with Mt. 23:13-15, 25-26 & Gen. 18:1-15) for the 1st Sunday in Lent, Year C; preached February 14, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Part of a Lent preaching series: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
Earlier this week, I was chatting with a fellow member of the choral group with which I sing over in Hartford, and she asked, “where does Lent come from? Is it the forty days and forty nights?” This woman, professedly not a Christian, nevertheless remembered that old hymn lyric from her Episcopalian childhood. In that very moment, though, the phrase itself was all she remembered—not the story we have just heard from Luke that fills in for us, forty days and forty nights of what(?).
The season of Lent we observe in the church—and that the Christian Church has kept for more than fifteen hundred years—finds the foundation of its pattern in this scene of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And our practice of this season, the things that we do in order to observe it, also purportedly find their roots in that scene, too. As we sang earlier, “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we speak, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, every sense … By watchful prayer our spirits free from scheming of the Enemy.”  Or as that other well-known hymn—the one remembered by my choir friend—puts it, “Shall not we your sorrow share and from worldly joys abstain, fasting with unceasing prayer, strong with you to suffer pain?”
In other words, we take on practices of fasting and self-deprivation—at least many Christians do—supposedly that we might face temptation in solidarity with Christ, who himself was tempted and yet overcame for us. We enter into his struggle in the wilderness as our way to prepare for our remembrance and celebration of the ultimate struggle and victory over the forces of evil and death at Easter.
Except… Jesus’ time in the wilderness, it wasn’t his way of preparing for his crucifixion. The temptations of Christ come not at the end of his ministry, as he nears Jerusalem and Calvary. The temptations come, rather, at the beginning. They are the first thing that happens in the adult Jesus’ story after his being baptized by John the Baptist.
For Jesus, the struggle of the temptations was the struggle of identity. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil says to him, voice taunting. If you are—as in, ‘I don’t think you actually are, and I’m not even sure you yourself do either.’ Such a taunting way to put the question, it’s arguably one of the most passive-aggressive ways to challenge someone. “If you are the Son of God…” Clearly, there’s something very important about the identity of Jesus, just who Jesus is and claims to be.
I actually think that the season of Lent, and all of the ways Christians have journeyed through it over the ages, it too has to do with this foundational question of identity. The journey of Lent, at its best, should root us in who and what we claim ourselves to be as Christian people. After all, that is where the practice of observing Lent got its start, anyway. Back in the earliest centuries of the church, the first 3 or 4 or 5 hundred years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, simply becoming a Christian was not something taken lightly. A person inquiring into becoming a Christian—getting baptized and becoming a member of the church—they would go through a two or three year process of preparation and learning and self-examination to see if they were ready to give themselves and their lives over to the demands of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. In that era, they realized—better than most of us do today—that being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, is in fact a costly and demanding thing. It’s something that can even cost us our lives, and those early Christians saw that one should not take on the covenants of baptism without being fully prepared for that.
Baptisms in those days were performed on Easter itself, and Lent as a season grew out of the final stages of preparation and self-examination that these soon-to-be new converts undertook in the final weeks leading up to their baptism. Or, in other words, Lent began as that time when people were pondering foundational questions of their identity and, in particular, their Christian identity.
Our need to visit the foundations of our identity in Christ never goes away. It isn’t something we get settled in the second decade of life and therefore never need to think about in the second half of life. It isn’t something that was important in the 3rd century but isn’t anymore at the beginning of the 3rd millennium. In fact, it may be all the more important in this era, more so than it has been for over 1,500 years, since now the grand assumptions that united church and society no longer prove true. It’s so important for us to face up in this era to the voices that would tauntingly say to us, “If you are a Christian, then…” or “If you are a follower of Jesus, then…” And let’s be honest: those voices may be just as likely to come from within as from without.
Over these next seven weeks, including today and taking us all the way through Easter Sunday, I want to welcome all of us into a Lenten journey of exploring such identity. Of all things, I want us to ponder together, what’s the least we can believe and still be Christian(?). What are those center points of our faith as Christians around which it all is oriented? What are those core pillars, without which it all starts to crumble?
If Jesus’ own identity struggle in the wilderness with the devil’s temptations is any indication, identifying those core, central things may require at least a little bit of recognizing those things that are not. Part of naming what one has to believe often involves naming some things that one does not believe.
Now, I say that… and it is true… but before I go on, I do want to name the fact that those of us in the more “liberal” or “progressive” wings of the Christian family—especially us here in the United Church of Christ—we’re usually way, way better at identifying the things we don’t believe than we are at naming the ones we do. “Oh, we’re not like those Christians over there; we don’t believe in… we don’t think you have to…” And even when pressed, asked as a follow up, “so, then, what do you believe?” far too often the response comes out something like, “well, we believe you don’t have to…” If people in our world today were spiritually hungry for things not to believe in, then we would surely be bursting at the seams up in here!
Alas, even though it can be such a trap for people from churches like ours, it is nevertheless—in small and right doses—important to name some things you don’t have to believe in. Like Jesus naming the fact that he didn’t have to put God to the test to know God’s power and his own identity as Son of God, sometimes we do get greater clarity about what is important by clearing the clutter of what is not. Such is something Jesus did, is it not? As we heard in the brief passage from Matthew, he went so far as to pronounce “woe” onto religious leaders of his time who cared more about incidentals like outside appearances and how many people were in the temple pews (so to speak) than they did about the core issues of the kingdom of God and purity of the heart.
In fact, the example of the judgmental, obnoxious, and even at times hypocritical people of faith Jesus had to deal with in his time—just as we know all to well of today—brings us to one of those things we don’t have to believe. We can discard that “old time religion” that says it’s O.K. for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious—in whatever form our judgment might take and whatever place our arrogance might find its target. Let’s just say it plain, my friends: “Arrogant, judgmental, obnoxious religion is the exact opposite of the grace-filled spirit of Jesus Christ.” It just is.
There are then some other things that I imagine most of us in a congregation like ours know also to be opposite to that grace-filled spirit of Christ. The “old-time religion” that places women subordinate to men, or that seems to think that “God cares about Saving Souls but not about Saving Trees,” or that believes everyone who is not a professing Christian is necessarily destined for eternal damnation, or that “God loves Straight People but not Gay People”… all of this is clutter that we not only can discard, but should discard. Sure, some of these are claims that people try to use the Bible itself to back up, but as we saw in the temptation scene, even the devil can quote scripture. More to the point, such use of the Bible isn’t true to the Bible itself, and it isn’t true to Jesus and how he himself used scripture. As I said, here in congregation like this one, most of us probably already know these things to be ones we don’t have to believe—and if you don’t either Pastor Nancy or I would be happy to explore together with you.
Even in a congregation like this one, though, we don’t always realize that it’s O.K. to let go of the idea that God causes things like cancer or car wrecks or natural disasters or other catastrophes. Now, we may not be like the notorious right-wingers who claimed that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake were God’s punishment. But nevertheless, out of bewilderment or grief or lack of something else to say, we do sometimes speak of natural disasters as “acts of God” or tragic deaths as “the Lord calling someone home.”
A Methodist preacher tells the story of a woman in his congregation who lost her teenage son, Daniel, in a tragic car wreck. “At first,” he says, “she felt bitter toward God. Overwhelmed by grief, she said, ‘I hate God for taking Daniel away from me.’ Several months later [she] came to realize[, though,] that God did not ‘take’ her son. With keen theological insight,” the preacher says, “she told [him], ‘It’s not God’s fault that Daniel is dead. God did not create cars and highways. Daniel’s death was just a terrible accident. God did not take Daniel. Instead, God received him when he came.’”
Oh, if only all of us could reach places of faith and clarity like Daniel’s mother eventually did. But it’s O.K. even when we don’t, because—to round out what I’ll share today of things we don’t have to believe to be Christian—we don’t have to believe that “Good Christians” never doubt. Questions, quandaries, even quarrels with God are O.K., and even perhaps holy. In the story we heard earlier from Genesis, Sarah sure doubted. She as much as laughed at what she believed to be the absurdity of the promise those angel visitors made. But her doubts didn’t get her cast out of the covenant. Laughter and doubt and all, she stays in our collective heritage as a bearer of faith and of a nation. “Faith,” says that Methodist pastor who tells the story of Daniel’s mother… “Faith is not about having absolute certainty, having all the answers, or seeing everything in black-and-white … Real faith asks hard questions. Real faith struggles. Real faith doubts. And real faith accepts ambiguity, mystery, and unanswered questions.”
All of these things I’ve touched on, they are—you might say—“old time religion” that we are just as well letting go of. But is there still something there? Is there some part of the “old time religion” that we should hold on to? I would say yes. In fact, there’s a core there that is not only “old-time” and not merely religiosity. We can discard many supposedly pious and religious beliefs and still be Christians. But we cannot discard Jesus. To be Christian means being centered around the life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection, and ongoing reign of Jesus. Such is, in fact, very much the “old time religion” because it is that core around which the church has gathered for all these 2,000 years. And, my friends, it is that part of the “old time religion” that remains “good enough for me” and for all the world today, since the whole of who Jesus is and what he does still provide promising paths for life’s most profound journeys: yesterday, today, and forever.
In these coming weeks of Lent, we will journey more fully into some of those promising paths, the paths of Jesus’ identity, his priority, his grace, his work, his example, and yes—as one would expect in Lent—his death and resurrection.
The one in whom God so loved the world as to come and live and teach and work and die and rise, for me and you and all the world… he, Jesus, is the one whose story we gather here gladly to tell, not only in these forty days, but through all our days of our journey.
Blessed be the name of the Lord!
 “Again We Keep This Solemn Fast”, trans. Peter J. Scagnelli from “Ex more docti mystico,” attrib. Gregory the Great. See The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), #187.
 George Hunt Smyttan, “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” 1856; alt. See Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #167; or The New Century Hymnal, #205.
 Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 197.
 Thielen, vii.
 Thielen, viii.