The Character Test – Lent 1

The Character Test – Lent 1

First SUNDAY Of Lent,   February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1: 9-15

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I believe there are two takeaway words from today’s scripture. First, from our Old Testament reading, the word “covenant”. You know in seminary we were taught that when a word repeatedly shows up in the reading then that’s what your sermon is about. Covenant certainly appears quite frequently, and I think that covenant is about how we live our entire life.

The other word that doesn’t appear is “character”.

When we talk about character, we mean that particular individual set of qualities that make people who they are. Or the collective character of a group of people or community.Our basic identity, in other words. We know that the identity of Jesus is a lot of what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

Character matters.

What you know about someone’s character can tell you something about how that person might behave in a situation they’ve never encountered before, a situation that’s unprecedented – that’s the word an investigator used to describe the emergency that US Airways pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, faced when a bird strike took out both his plane’s engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia. If you know anything about LaGuardia you know that it’s surrounded by a New York City neighborhood and right near the Hudson River. It’s not a great place to have to land and take off.

In just three and a half minutes later, Sully put the plane down on the Hudson River, without any loss of life. I remember watching it happen live and being incredulous. Talk about grace under pressure.

We saw character earlier this week in teachers and coaches who gave up their lives in Parkland, FL, saving others.

Character matters.

We get to see a bit of Jesus’ character, believe it or not, in today’s gospel. In Mark, we have something of a flyover of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. All Mark says is that the “Spirit immediately”, there’s that immediately, “drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts”.

Jesus was tempted for forty days in the wilderness and he comes away proclaiming the good news of God. That surely tells us something about Jesus’

I think you could say that the temptations that Jesus faces are reflective of a character test.

So let’s step back for a minute, and put this episode in perspective. The story comes right after Jesus is baptized at the Jordan River, and right before we see him begin his public ministry by calling some disciples and starting to teach and heal.

At his baptism, he hears a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and the next thing that happens is the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tested.

The word that’s used here in the original can mean tested or tempted, and I do think it’s helpful to think of these as tests that show the character of Jesus, his basic identity.

Will he use power for his own comfort, to satisfy his own hunger? We know that later in his life, he will provide bread enough to feed 5,000 hungry people. But here he turns down the devil’s suggestion that he turn stones into bread to feed himself. This is a man who is for others, not for himself.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear more about these temptations. We hear about the devil tempting Jesus to turn stone into bread.

In Matthew, the devil tries to test Jesus’ by suggesting he throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple just to see God’s saving power in action? No, Christ didn’t do that either.

Perhaps the basic question is whether Christ will let power be an end in itself? Will he sell himself out for earthy power? No, he didn’t do that either.

So Jesus had his time of testing – his 40 days in the wilderness – and it called on him to demonstrate his character, his true identity.

These 40 days of Lent are our time of testing.

This is a wilderness time for us in the sense that our Lenten disciplines call on us to put away the usual distractions and concentrate on what really matters in our lives. It’s an opportunity to take a good look at our own basic identity and ask ourselves if there are ways we’ve failed to live up to it.

How have we failed to live up to it? Seventeen people are dead in Florida. We failed them. As part of my Lenten discipline, I will remember these names each day. I will pray for them.                                      

We start with those words of love to Jesus at his baptism, which are to us as well: We, too, are God’s beloved. That is the first source of our identity.

This is how God’s love expresses itself – in us and through us – when we live the promises of our baptism.

These “five marks” demonstrate what kind of people we really are. We are people who are committed:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation, and

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The five points can be summarized as: Tell, teach, tend, transform, treasure.

It’s quite a list, and I’ll be honest, my first reaction was that no one person alone could do all those things. But as I thought more about it, I decided that statement is both true – and not true.

And yet in small ways, I think that even as individuals, we can – and must – tell, teach, tend, transform, and treasure. Because these are the things that show who we are, and what we’re made of.

People should be able to see what we believe by the way we live.

They should see the way we give ourselves to the service of others – not necessarily through formal “service projects,” but even just by the way we respond to people around us – even just by things as seemingly insignificant as how we treat service people.

When we talk politics, people should be able to tell that we’re Christians because the things we care the most about are the things Jesus himself cared about.

They should see that we’re careful stewards of this good earth.

They should know we are Christians because they see it in the way we live. And if that’s true – if they do, then we have passed our test of character.

Tell, teach, tend, transform, treasure: This is who we are. This is the identity we are always working toward – and we do keep working at it, because character isn’t something that’s formed at birth, it’s something we continue to develop with the grace of God throughout our lives.

To quote a line in one of the prayers in the “five marks” program that could be our prayer for all of Lent – and really, for our entire lives:

“We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves.”


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