When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.
And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
As Lent begins, we look to Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the prototype of our repentance. While Jesus did not enter into the Desert to repent (someone without sin has nothing to repent for,) Jesus did enter into it to teach us, to pray for us, as the hymn says, “Lord, who throughout these forty days for us did fast and pray, teach us with you to mourn our sins and close by you to stay.”
The wilderness was a multifaceted thing in the Ancient World. On one hand, God would often appear to people who lived in the desert as he did to the Israelites and John the Baptist. However, it was also believed that demons were given free rein of the dunes – to ancient Egyptians, this was the domain of Set, God of destruction and chaos, to the ancient Israelites any number of evils may inhabit the dunes, not least of all the demon Azazel. Jesus was sent into the wilderness to pray and fast, but also to make his first earthly contact with the demonic. Surrounded by nothing, Jesus could focus more fully on God, but also had all sorts of opportunity to focus on his human needs and not his divine rights.
When the devil enters the picture, he tempts Jesus with three things which we all might find appealing. Satan promises Jesus food to satiate his hunger, power enough t rule over the world, and finally a chance to demonstrate to all people that he is indeed the Christ. It is hard for most of us to understand what it is to be truly hungry. We live in a world of abundance, and while it is increasingly common for people to struggle to struggle to find food, many of us have more than enough. How tempting though, is power. How much does each and every one of us desire to be in control, not just of our lives, but the lives of others? Power is something all people crave at some point, and power is the one temptation we must never give into.
We as the church are called to serve the entire world. We are to be brothers, sisters, siblings of everyone everywhere. We are to love the community of the faith as the body of Christ we are also a part of and love our neighbors as if they were ourselves. Power is the ultimate block to servanthood. To quote Jesus, “A servant is not greater than their master.” For this reason, we are never to chase after power, to desire to rule over another human being. For this reason, Christians did not take political office for many years. It was only after the church was married to the government with the donation of Constantine that we became infatuated with power.
Now, does this mean a Christian can never have a position of authority? As a seminarian with specified knowledge and who has worked in pastoral capacities, I carry power. If you are a supervisor in your job, you have power. Indeed, every one of us has power over someone or something. The question is, how do we use it. Christ, who after his resurrection was given, “All authority in Heaven and Earth,” did not become a tyrant, but rather continued in service. Christ sent forth the Holy Spirit as a comforter, as a guide, as God within us, that we may live a Godly life.
The Christian, if they find themselves in a place of power, should serve even as Christ served. Not lording ourselves other others, but in all times and in all ways serving as we execute the authority we are given. The Church for too long has blindly sided with power, and it has not been a source of prophetic witness. The Church, the scripture, is not doing its job if people are comfortable, especially those in power. Nathan was always at the ready to show David the way, John the Baptist criticized Herod to the death, and Elijah and Ahab fought as long as both lived. The Church exists to give peace and shelter to the oppressed, to take in all who earnestly repents of their sin, but it always meant to be a thorn in the side of those who are perpetrating evil.
The problem across time is that certain parts of the church become aligned with power in such a way that the Church inevitably finds it more convenient to side with the powerful than to do what is right. When Rome wanted to sack Jerusalem, few stood against it in the name of the Prince of Peace. When Jews were expelled from cities all over Europe, the church was ready to sign off on the pogroms. Even now, today, the church often will support the wishes of the Government, no matter the ethics involved, as long as the sitting president matches the individual Christians political party.
We are in a season in which Republicans have a fairly firm hold on Government, so what is the church supporting out of party loyalty? The building of a border wall, the detention of asylum seekers as though criminals, devotion to those in authority, especially those in uniforms, and as with any politician, but maybe especially now, excusing the sins of an individual because they have taken power, and are offering it to us.
If we had a democratic government, we would have other things to speak prophetically about as a church. It is important to remember that while Christians may choose one party or another, God has no politics outside of God’s own kingdom. God does not care about Democrat or Republican, God cares about righteousness. So, we must discern, is it a good use of power to build barriers that are more about politics than effectiveness, to lock up and separate families who are seeking a better life, to look at the lifeless body of unarmed innocents and say “They got what is coming to them. Above all, perhaps, is it right to support and start conflicts that lead to the deaths of civilians and of service men and women, when they are started not to defend but to assert control. Neo-Colonial exploits to acquire oil rights or to establish new, more pro-us governments.
In all things, we must question how power is used, and critique those who use it poorly. It does not only extend to our votes though. In our day to day, we exert power. Are you a supervisor over someone? How do you treat you, employees? Are you a parent? How do you treat your children? Are you in a relationship? How do you treat your partner? There is always a power dynamic at play, and we choose how we maneuver around it. Do we take advantage of the power we are given, or do we use it to the benefit of those with less power than us? Servant leadership is not a new idea, its as old as the Church.
Christ, king of all creation from the beginning of time, had all the authority of God. Yet, at the moment that Christ was given the chance to save us, to establish a true relationship with us, Christ gave up all that power. Christ, “not taking equality with God as something to be grasped,” gave up all their power. The Greek says that Jesus, hollowed himself, of all the rights of Godhood so that Jesus could become like us. We, in serving others must be prepared to hollow ourselves out, to remove all the power we have accumulated, and serve people with authority, sure, but not by overpowering them.
Sometimes we cannot change what gives us an advantage, I cannot change that I am white or that I am a straight man. These things inevitably make my life easier, not that I will never face trouble, but never face specific troubles. I am not likely to be harassed because of my gender, my race, my sexuality – and all of that is a power in itself. I cannot put aside my power, but I can use it properly. We are called to be servants in a sacrificial way if your Christianity does not ask anything of you, does not make you feel uncomfortable and sometimes weak, then you are not practicing it correctly.
If the king of all creation was willing to die for me, willing to go forty days without food to teach me what it is to draw close to God and deny temptation, then shouldn’t I be willing to give up my rights? Shouldn’t I be willing to take a risk and unashamedly make myself lesser? If we do not use our power to help the oppressed, then we are through our silence aiding in their oppression. Let us never become unclean of lips through silence, but lift our voice against all injustice.
If we look at our reading from Deuteronomy we can see what God would have our world look like. Giving to God the first fruits of our production, showing that we are not afraid of not having enough. Telling those we give it to the story of God’s redemption. “We were once oppressed, but now we have power. We have been given food, land, security by God. God alone truly holds the right to any of it, and now I give some of it back to God.” What are we told then? That our willingness to give away what we have then leads to a celebration.
A celebration of the people, the priests, and the strangers who have moved among them. Asylum seekers, the new neighbors from another country or of another race, from a far away town, from the big city, or perhaps a homeless person who is just wandering through. No matter what makes that person other, your place in the community means you have something they don’t, the question is how you use that power. Do you work to exclude them? Or do you open wide the doors of the church, the community, and put off your perceived rights, your inherited power? The choice is yours, but only one is truly of God. Free us, Lord, of the chains of our privilege, free us for joyful obedience. Amen