Last Sunday, as Christians gathered for the first Sunday in Lent, many read the Gospel of Matthew account of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. This was a time for Jesus to prepare for three years of ministry, but it is also an account of some temptations he faced.
For worship at the church I serve as pastor and teacher, this was the Call to Worship:
Leader: Temptation surrounds us at every turn, inviting us to take just a little more:
People: More food, more money, more power, more life.
Leader: "What could it hurt?" we hear, on television, from friends, in our own souls:
People: More suffering, more hunger, more need, more fear and more anger.
Leader: So we gather today in worship to hear the consequences of "more."
People: And to celebrate that we do not need "more" when we have everything in Christ.
Persons of every faith tradition recognize the struggle between devotion to God and the ever present temptation to "serve other gods" (intentionally spelled with a little "g"). Many of us recognize how this echoes the first commandment found in the 20th chapter of Exodus: "you shall have no other gods before me." The mandate is mirrored in the Qur'an 17:22: "Do not associate another deity with God."
As the Tempter put Jesus to the test in the wilderness, questioning Jesus' devotion to the visions and dreams of God, so we are tested every day and often find it difficult to shut out the clamor to have "more."
As one with enough earthly possessions, who is blessed with family, a loving congregation and vocations I so enjoy, it was humbling to stand in the pulpit this past Sunday intending to grapple with the themes of Lent while struggling with the last line in the Call to Worship printed above and in the worship bulletin for that day.
The reality if not truth of the words "When we have everything in Christ" stood in such sharp contrast to the distressing news of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanishing the day before with 239 people on board, the reality of millions of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, the ongoing political crisis in the Ukraine, to say and write nothing of the myriad of needs of people in our own nation and communities born of hunger, homelessness, discrimination, job loss, etc.
It was tempting to be in a sanctuary and block out the cries of so many who do not have everything or who have nothing at all.
However, the reality of so much unpleasantness experienced around the globe served as a humbling reminder of how much we do have and to appreciate it all the more.
In addition, there was a sense of helplessness, that apart from thoughts and prayers, there was little we could do for people waiting at an airport in Beijing for loved ones who were never going to arrive, for victims of the seemingly endless civil strife in Syria - or for those suffering from other economic, political and social crises. Therein lay a temptation to believe that because we can do little to help the millions who are in need, there is nothing we can do at all. That is clearly wrong and we as people of faith - no matter our "brand" - can and must work together to tend to the wants of the truly needy in our communities - and with our gifts help those beyond.
Last Sunday's reading from Matthew reminds us that after 40 days in the wilderness, "angels came and waited on [Jesus]." Perhaps therein lay the greatest temptation of all: If angels were waiting on Him and His needs were met, why leave a peaceful "sanctuary?"
Why go from that place and face the obstinacy, shallowness and stubbornness of people he knew he would encounter for the next three years?
Jesus was not about to succumb to that temptation any more than to the three he had already faced. Jesus of Nazareth knew his calling was to bring good news and healing to people who needed it so desperately. As people of faith, we hear the call to mirror that.
May grace and peace abound.
The Rev. Ralph S. English is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Gloversville.