September 17, 2017: Why Hope? (Understanding)
Scriptures Used: Psalm 103:1-14, Matthew 3:13-15, Luke 4:1-12
This feeling of being understood is one of the basic human needs, in my experience. It’s a vulnerable feeling when you want someone to recognize your viewpoint and they don’t seem to grasp it. Folks cope with it differently. Some only speak the necessary minimum so all words and actions count. Others, use every word and phrase they know to get a point across. It’s about more than comprehension – it’s a matter of being recognized by your experiences and point of view in a way that validates who you are.
Understanding matters, in short, because it helps us cultivate relationships.
That is why we often use the word relationship to describe what faith in God is. Relationships take time; love has to grow. Love is more than a feeling, though. It is an action, and part of that is learning to understand and accept that others exist and their experiences matter too. I do not think one can love someone and not try to understand them.
I believe that, because that is what God does for us.
Today’s excerpt from the 103rd Psalm declares God’s goodness of making us whole. The writer exalts God’s mighty acts that have built up and protected the chosen people of Israel. It goes on further than what was read, but I wanted to highlight the middle section in verses 13 and 14. Kevin read in verse 13, “Like a parent feels compassion for their children—that’s how the Lord feels compassion for those who honor him.” If you read further, verse 14 goes on to say, “Because God knows how we’re made, God remembers we’re just dust.”
I wouldn’t say “just dust” elicits great complexity. It sounds like we are too simple to be worth understanding at all. What it is saying is God is our maker, and God knows our significance in the vast expanse of history in this unfathomable universe. It’s like my parents giving me the grace to be more than their child. They are giving up their power and pride so that I can grow. In the same vein, God offers us that same compassion to see us as more than dust, and God does that through the life of Jesus. Let me offer you two examples:
In the Matthew 3 verses 13-15, Jesus, the Incarnate Word, part of God’s own self here on earth, goes to his cousin John who is baptizing people in the Jordan River. The text reads:
13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” 15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” So John agreed to baptize Jesus.
The walk from the Galilee to the Jordan River where John was baptizing would have been a few days’ walk. Jesus went with intention. He wanted to be baptized. He wanted the experience. When John recognizes his cousin, who he knows is the Son of God, he tells Jesus that he John is not fit to baptize Jesus. For those of us familiar with this story, we know why Jesus says that. He’s the son of God. He has no sin. Baptism, in that day, was for the removal of sins. Why would Jesus want to be baptized? How could it be necessary?
When we say “Jesus took on the sins of the world,” we have to really think about what we mean. He took on what makes us imperfect, what makes us a mixture of good and bad. He has the good part of a body created in the Image of God, but with that body and that Image comes the frailty of pain, suffering, and temptation. It does no good to take on sin if it doesn’t have any weight; baptism would be meaningless. It is through that body and through that weight and through that baptism that he understands us as one of us. Jesus didn’t go to be cleansed; he didn’t need to because he was sinless. He went to John so he could understand what it felt like to take on the life of a follower. He would fulfill all righteousness by living a sinless life fully dependent on the grace of God.
That understanding of our experience continues in what happens next. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that Jesus leaves the baptismal scene and goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days, and during that time he was tempted by a mysterious being called “the tempter.” Some call that being the devil, some Satan. The point is, Jesus is tempted by someone with power to do so and mean it.
Again, Jesus wrestles with human feelings. We know it affected him – he is famished when it’s over. The first temptation is for food. If you fasted for 40 days, you would be at an uncontrollable level of hungry. The body is capable of many great things, but it is also subject to causing us to sin. People who suffer from eating disorders know that uncontrollable hunger is not a choice one makes. For others it is, and maybe Jesus is learning about both. Jesus understands the feeling of need. He resists. It had to be difficult.
In the opening chapter of Adam Hamilton’s book The Way, which we are currently reading at Wednesday Bible study, Rev. Hamilton delves into the other two temptations that also speak to the deep nature of God understanding us through the life of Christ.
The third temptation is easier to understand. The tempter says, “Bow to me and all the kingdoms will be yours.” Whether this temptation is about fame and glory and being liked – all real human desires and wants – or if it is about a noble, quick way for Jesus to call the world to his kingdom without having to suffer human death, it is still not the path God intended. It is a temptation for the easy road.
But in the second temptation, when the tempter tests Jesus by saying the angels would save him from a fall from the highest peak of the temple, Hamilton notes that it could be a win-win. If he falls and is saved it proves the angels will save him and he has nothing to fear, no reason for faith. His journey would carry the knowledge of that kind of power. If they didn’t, he would die. It would be quick. It may be a dark thing to mention suicide in a series on hope, but suicide is something the church must address. The temptation to end suffering, to avoid life’s journey, is just as real for some as hunger and wanting to be liked.
When we look at others who suffer from temptations and make mistakes, we must remember that we may not be far removed from them. We just aren’t in their position in a given moment. I imagine Jesus also felt the temptation to judge when life was comfortable. Famously coined in a 1902 newspaper, there are those whose job it is to “…comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
The temptation of Jesus is the penultimate proof to show us that we are understood, second only to his death. Throughout the Jewish history, God hears the people and empathizes. It is in the body of Jesus that such empathy takes a new form.
There is hope to be found in this dark world, because God chose to understand us in a new way. God is powerful; God could have easily devised a way to simply know what human life is like without enduring the pain, suffering, and temptations that came along with the ministry of Jesus. Instead, God took the human experience as something worth knowing firsthand.
Knowing the other is important in Christian ministry. Churches have a sad history of forgetting that truth, at times. I have heard so many stories of people pushed out of their churches for various reasons: mental health, who they love, their skin color, their economic status. Or those who have made mistakes and were encouraged to leave.
I am proud of this church for welcoming people who need God. I like that we can be a church where unwed parents have been welcomed, where those who struggle to pay the bills weren’t pressured. I love that we welcome kids with special needs and learn how to interact with them. I love when this church chooses to understand the other and build relationships. If almighty God can be one of us, we can afford to listen and learn from others before rushing to judgment.
Jesus was baptized like many of us, and he experienced life as a claimed person of God who still will be tempted, will still suffer life’s defeats, will still feel pain and hunger, and will know despair. He also felt friendship and compassion; he felt accomplishment and success. Jesus understood us, and that’s what makes his life all the more important. When you tell your friends and neighbors that you love Jesus, tell them you love him because he gets you. And he loves you all the same, imperfections and all. That should give anyone hope and a reason to come and be a part of community of people who are charged with being like Jesus.