After starting on Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent comes to Sundays with the story of Jesus facing temptations or testing in the wilderness.  These accounts from three of the four gospels, plus the opening chapters of the Book of Job and a few other mentions of the satan (or in some cases the diabolos) have been mined extensively over the years to develop conjectured details of interactions between heaven and hell, how God permits Satan a certain amount of agency (but never so that Satan is fully equal with God … close, but not quite), and other forms of poor theology and bad teaching.  It’s long past time for this to stop and to return to the stories themselves and what they can do to shape and form us.

Although it has become custom now to translate the Greek and Hebrew words, os diabolos or ha satan, as proper names, nothing in the text requires them to be read that way.  They can simply be taken as nouns, much as we might ponder if the theophilus to whom the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are addressed is a particular patron of the author by the name of Theophilus or simply any lover of God (what the word theophilus means).  Taken simply as nouns, not names, the word ha satan means the accuser or adversary.  Over time in the writings, this word seems to have taken on the meaning of a particular adversary or accuser of God and God’s people; however, it could apply to any entity bringing the accusations against God or God’s people or otherwise standing as an opponent to God’s intentions.  Likewise, the Greek os diabolos refers to a slanderer or a treacherous informant.  Some more contemporary examples of these types of figures would be Inspector Javert from Les Misérables, always seeking to accuse Jean Val Jean of being ever and only a thief, and the figure of the Grand Inquisitor from Ivan’s fable in The Brothers Karamazov.

When viewed from this angle, the opening story of the Lenten season is not about a shadowy figure of evil trying to lure the righteous into bad actions.  Instead, it is a scene of testing.  Fresh from the water of the Jordan and his baptism, when the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice proclaimed Jesus to be the beloved son, Jesus is driven, thrown, or led (depending on which gospel) into the wilderness, which is always a place of testing and purification.  Indeed, the word we so often read as tempting can also (and maybe better) be read as testing or putting to proof.  Things make a lot more sense from a framework in which an aggressively accusing agent (or a treacherous informant out for juicy details to carry away) puts Jesus through his paces to test just how committed this beloved one is to the ways of God and God’s Reign and Realm … which Jesus, like John before him, is about to proclaim is at hand.

All the tests (or temptations), no matter the order or specific details, come down to one thing: an invitation for Jesus to admit that way the world has been operating is the only way that the world can work.  Want people to follow you?  Give them free food.  The one miracle in all four gospels is the feeding of the multitude.  In some accounts, Jesus slips away right after because the crowd wants to make him king.  In John’s account, the crowd chases after him to the other side of the lake because they want more food.  In every account, the mention of women and children demonstrates Jesus is not in the process of raising an army by feeding a multitude.

The same is true of the suggestions toward a dramatic public action, like jumping off the pinnacle of the temple to be caught by angels.  Jesus does miracles, sure – but tries to keep them secret, not public displays to gather admirers.  As for the offer of all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for bowing down in worship to the tester, the tester claims they have been given to him – but never says by whom.  These places and their rulers have power because they’ve agreed to do things the only way the world really works: competition and power-over … the king rules from the high place until someone more powerful comes along and pushes him down in order to take his place.  This is the way of Caesar and the Roman Empire, like all emperors and their empires before and since.  Jesus is being invited to take the way of power-over rather than the way of the cross and power-under (which is the only way to subvert the way of the world).

So throughout this time of testing, Jesus shows an unwavering commitment to the way of God, a way that is counter intuitive to the way of the world.  (And it is to this way, that Christians have been called to commit their lives in baptism — more on that later.)  After enduring the trial and passing the tests, Jesus returns and begins his ministry among the people, attracting followers … disciples (students) … proclaiming that the reign of God is at hand … showing and teaching what the ways of God’s reign are like.  Eventually, this leads to the cross.

The drama of the crucifixion takes place against the backdrop of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, an annual rite of remembrance by the Jewish people their deliverance from slavery by the mighty act of God.  Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God and there are connections to the Passover lambs.  If the chronology in the Gospel of John is correct, Jesus is dying as the lambs for the Passover observance are being ritually slaughtered in the Temple.

It should be noted that the Passover lamb was never regarded as an offering for sin.  In the Exodus story, the blood of the lamb was used to mark the doorways so that as the angel of death passed through the land to slay the firstborn in every home, it would pass over the houses of the Israelites, sparing those behind the blood-marked doors.  Behind those doors, the families were eating the lamb for dinner, taking in the food that would fuel the journey they were packed for and ready to begin.  The connection of Jesus and the Passover lamb is about deliverance from bondage (slavery to sin) and from death and destruction.  The memorial meal Jesus shares with his disciples the night before his death, eat this bread; it is my body … drink this cup; it is my blood, is much like the Passover Seder, a ritual with food to remember, a remembrance of blood as a sign of deliverance and food to nourish the way forward.

So what about sin?  Christian tradition has always held that the death of Jesus has something to do with sin.  Indeed, in the Gospel of John, the baptizer (also named John) hails Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  In one of my theology classes, we frequently pondered multiple answers to the question: What got Jesus killed?  One of the best, fullest, most basic and clearly true answers was: because sin kills – it kills trust and relationships; it kills love; it kills things; it kills people.  If indeed Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin, then given sin’s history of killing, Jesus is going to get killed.  That’s just what sin does.

We need no angry god seeking payment for a world’s historic accumulation of sin to burden a sinless Jesus with all the sin that ever was and ever would be after so that one perfect human life could be offered up in compensation.  Some of the early understandings of Jesus’ death were framed in terms of the sacrificial system that was a familiar part of life in that time and place.  Much later, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement (“Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay”) was fully rooted in and framed by the feudal system and relations between sovereigns and serfs that was the way of life in Anselm’s time (a millennium after the time of Jesus) and place (what is now England).  Although it made a great deal of sense in that time and place, wrenched from that historic context and transposed to our time and culture, it has been twisted and exaggerated and taken to an extreme that I doubt even Anselm would recognize.

So how does sin get on Jesus? (This was another question pondered in that theology class.)  One answer is the same way mud gets on church campers out on the mud hike.  This was a regular event at the church camp I attended in my growing up years: a trek through the swamp that became increasingly boggier until it transitioned into a muddy creek that eventually emptied into the river. No matter how carefully one stepped, mud kept splattering.  Even if one tried to stay out of the “mud placing” at a particularly mucky point, placing devolved into throwing and mud got everywhere – on the person hit, on the person who threw it, and on everyone standing nearby in range of the splatters.  Sin is in the world like mud is in the swamp.  If you’re in a swamp, you’re going to get muddy; if you are in the world, you are going to get sinny.  Sin gets on Jesus simply because he is in the world.

There is another way sin gets on Jesus, and this one is related to the ancient practices of the Day of Atonement, rituals intended to address sin within the community directly. The sacrificial offering for the Day of Atonement was a goat – actually, not one goat, but two. One goat was ritually slaughtered as an offering to God. The other goat lived … at least for a time. The priest would ceremonially place the sins of the people on the head of the goat. Then the goat was driven out into the wilderness, into the haunt of Azazel, a spirit of destruction and annihilation. This was the escaped-goat, from which our modern concept of the scapegoat derived.  Throughout the various trial sequences, Jesus is subject to false and twisted accusations … and as these things so often do, they say more truth about the accusers than the accused.

Goat Couple Animals (Animals) billy goat,goat,couple,animals,mammals

At the conclusion of the trial sequences, Jesus is condemned to die on a cross by the Roman governor, Pilate. Jesus is paraded through the city and then out the gates to the place of execution, a place apart from civilized society. The verb meaning to kill also carries a sense of to utterly destroy. Much like the escaped-goat, Jesus is driven out of the community to be utterly destroyed, annihilated.

This brings us the scene of the cross and it is from the cross that Jesus speaks the opening line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This has often been taken by various interpreters to be an indication that, however God may have been present in the human Jesus, that divine presence has now separated from the man, how even God must reject the beloved Son because the holy God cannot look on sin. This is wrenching things entirely out of context – both for Jesus’ citation of the psalm and from the psalm itself.

By the time of Jesus, the collected psalms were both hymnbook and prayer book. Few people at the time could read or write; the only way to retain things was to commit them to memory. And even in our widely literate age, songs are still the best tools for remembering. Speaking the first line of a psalm in a group of faithful people was like starting in on the first line of a popular sing-along song today. As soon as one person starts it, everyone else is right there with it.

Taken as a whole, Psalm 22 does describe sufferings on par with those of crucifixion. It also speaks tenderly of God’s care “from my mother’s womb,” invoking the nativity stories and the incarnation.  Through the first 20 or so verses, the psalmist continues to express trust in God, hope (despite all evidence to the contrary) that God will yet act and intervene on the psalmist’s behalf. The psalmist repeatedly cries out for deliverance.  Then, in the middle of verse 21, as most English translations render it, something happens. The psalmist does not say specifically what, but the whole tone changes and the psalmist declares the God has acted and rescued the psalmist from that seemingly forsaken state. The psalmist moves to praise, calling others to hear this testimony to what God has done and promising that the story will be told into the future, to be proclaimed to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.

And here we are, a people long yet-to-be-born when the events of Jesus’ life and death occurred … still telling the story … still celebrating the deliverance … still passing the story on to those who would come after us … proclaiming that God has done this.  Jesus meant the whole of Psalm 22, not just that first line.

For God so loved the world that [God] gave the only begotten son, so that any one who is believing in him would not perish but would have eternal life … John 3:16, of course. And I often wish that 3:17 was at least as well known: For God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order that the world would be saved through him. These words are familiar, maybe too familiar. A translator could scarcely dare alter them because doing so would bring accusations of trying to change scripture. However, as one of the many popularly quoted lines from The Princess Bride has it: “You use that word so often; I do not think it means what you think it does.”

First of all, world in this case means cosmos, the whole of creation … not just the places we know, not just the people on the planet … all of creation. Second, the word belief has come to mean intellectual assent to an unprovable proposition … and more recently, choosing whether to accept or disregard what scientific evidence and facts demonstrate.  Trust would be a much better word than believe in this context; this promise is for any and all who trust it to be so.  And then there’s the phrase eternal life … which has come to be imagined as a mostly spiritual existence in a perpetual state of bliss, maybe having robes and wings and harps and halos, inhabiting a cloud-draped environment. Perhaps a better reading would be a more literal rendering: the life of eternity … which is maybe not just hereafter … maybe it could be here as well as after.

But the whole point in John 3:16, sometimes called the gospel in miniature, is that whatever God was doing through this only begotten son, God was doing it in love for all that God has made. God’s will in this is salvation (which in the ancient languages carries connotations of healing and restoration), not condemnation.  God is not out to damn anyone to any hell. God is out to save, heal, and restore all of creation.

This God accomplishes through Jesus on the cross.  This is power-under instead of power over.  Power-over, we understand: it’s the way the world works … the dog-eat-dog world … nature red in tooth and claw … those who have been cut once cut back on the other twice.  It’s every one for themselves, grabbing as much as you can, defending what you have from those who would take and trying to get more when you can.  This is the gist of all the temptations: an admission this is just how the world works and the only way it can work.  To live this way is to live in constant fear – fear of losing what you have, fear that someone stronger will come to take what you have.  Asa colleague of mine puts it: it’s forgetting that we belong to God and to each other … this is the origin of all sin.

Through Jesus death and resurrection, another way of being is opened: the life of eternity, life the way it is where God reigns in fullness.  It is contrary to the way of the world.  It remembers we are all connected; we are all part of God’s creation; we were created for relationship and mutuality.  By going under, literally, the power of the way the world is – by dying, God in Jesus lets the world do its worst.  And then, like a stubborn dandelion the persists no matter what is done to it, Jesus rises up again to show that life, not death, had the final word. This risen life of Christ gets into the lives of those joined to this death and resurrection, directing them to live in a different way being in the world … so they live in the ways of God and God’s Reign and Realm … remembering always that we belong to God and to each other and orienting our living to those truths … and little by little, like dandelion seeds going everywhere, change the world bit by bit.

Remember, the liturgical season of Lent started out as a time of intensive preparation for baptism.  The death and resurrection of Jesus, the formative power of this story, and worship practices are all tightly connected.  I’ll have a lot more to say about that shortly …