Spiritual guidance for anyone seeking a path to God. explorefaith.org


Explore God's Love Explore Your Faith Explore the Church Explore Who We Are  

Rabbi Micah Greenstein's Featured Contributions > "The Bigger God"


Join our mailing list
Join our mailing list
Send this page to a friend

Tell us what you think

More from
Dr. Marcus J. Borg

Reflections for the
Six Weeks of Lent

A Daily Thought for
Lenten Reflection

as a spiritual practice
for Lent

Reflections for Your Journey
Register for a
weekly reflection

Send a free e-card

Voices of Faith

March 18, 2003
Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, TN

Three Major Options for Living Our Lives
Dr. Marcus J. Borg

(This sermon is also available in audio)

As I move into the sermon this morning, I want to begin with a moment of prayer, and this prayer is from an Eighth Century British Christian named Alcuin, reflecting that stream of Celtic Christianity that began with St. Patrick and flourished in that part of the world throughout much of the first millennium.

Give us, oh Lord we pray, firm faith, unwavering hope, a passion for justice.
Pour into our hearts the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and spiritual strengths, the spirit of knowledge and true compassion and the spirit of wonder in all of your works.
Light eternal, shine in our hearts.
Power eternal, deliver us from evil.
Wisdom eternal, scatter the darkness of our ignorance. Might eternal, have mercy on us.
Grant that we may ever seek your face with all our heart and soul and strength,
And in your infinite mercy, bring us at last to the fullness of your presence where we shall behold your glory and live your promised joys.
In the name of Jesus, our body and blood, our life and our nourishment, Amen.

My text for today is the story of Jesus' Temptation. Its connection to the season of Lent is that it is the text for the first Sunday in Lent. As I listened to it being read in church two Sundays ago, I was struck by the fact that the season of Lent begins every year with the story of Jesus' Temptation.

I started to reflect on that and I wondered, "Why is that?" And then the connection occurred to me. It's very obvious once you see it, of course. Lent is a season of repentance, and repentance is about, among other things, overcoming temptation. Then I heard this story in a fresh way.

It is a story that the early Christian community told about the temptations that Jesus faced, and the story is found in all three gospels. It's very brief in Mark, and longer in Matthew and Luke; in all three gospels it follows immediately upon Jesus' baptism.

We are told that the spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where Jesus fasted for forty days and was tempted by the devil. It is at the end of these forty days of fasting that Satan, the devil, the tempter, comes to him. I'm going to use Matthew's version of the three temptations. Luke has the same story, but he changes the sequence of the final two temptations.

The first temptation occurs when Jesus is hungry after those forty days of being in the wilderness. Satan says to him, "Turn these stones into bread." Jesus responds by saying, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."

Then we are told that Jesus and Satan travel in the spirit to Jerusalem, and Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple. (What that refers to is the southeast corner of the Temple where, because the land is dropping away into the Kidron Valley, it's a drop of slightly over three hundred feet from the pinnacle of the Temple to ground level.) Satan says to Jesus, "Throw yourself down. God will bear you up. God will protect you." This time Jesus responds with the words, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

In the third and final temptation, Jesus and the devil travel in the spirit to a very high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the Earth can be seen in their splendor, their wealth and their glory. (By the way, it's clear this story can't be taken literally, right? Text originating as early as the Second Century said, "There is no such mountain from which all the kingdoms of the Earth can be seen." This is not a story about geography, okay?) The devil says to Jesus, "All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me." And this time Jesus responds with the words, "You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only God."

As I listened to this familiar story again two Sundays ago on the first Sunday in Lent, I heard it not only as the story of Jesus' Temptations, but of ours. For the story names three of the major options for living our lives, and it labels them as temptations, as "of the devil."

The first major option for living our life is the bread temptation--bread, of course, in this story is more than bread. It is the material basis of our lives. I see this as the materialist option for living one's life--that what life is about is bread--acquisition and consumption.

I see this as being like the Buddhist notion of grasping and also as the central value of contemporary American culture. The good life is about having and consuming. We've all heard the litany of what that life is like often enough that we don't need to hear it again.

Let me simply say, this temptation is very real, very powerful and it is of the devil. "But we are not to live by bread alone, but by what comes from the mouth of God."

Now, we need to be careful here. The kingdom of God is also about bread. In the Lord's Prayer we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." The kingdom that Jesus spoke about is about bread. We can't spiritualize the gospel so much that we forget that. But it's also not just about bread. It's about God. It's about both.

Then there's the second temptation. Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple; test God. What kind of option does that represent in our lives? Well, let me put it in two ways. They are slightly different, but recognizably the same temptation.

One is the feeling that we need to do something spectacular with our lives--that we need to stand out. Another way of putting this temptation is that it's the temptation to live stupidly--to think you can jump off high buildings without getting hurt.

You might want to ask yourself if you're living in such a way as to imply that you can jump off high buildings without getting hurt. Superman can leap over them, but we can't jump off them. That's testing God. That's being kind of dumb.

Then there's the third temptation. "You can have all the kingdoms of the Earth if you will fall down and worship me," the devil says to Jesus. "You can have all the kingdoms of the Earth."

On a personal level, I suppose this is the temptation to power; perhaps even to wealth; to standing out, if you will. But it's also the imperial temptation--the temptation to rule the world.

This is the temptation that we as a nation face in our time, for we are the imperial power of our time. Ever since the end of the Cold War, we are the world's only superpower, and that power is made up of two elements: military power and economic power. Those are the two classical marks of empire.

Empire is not simply about geographical expansion. Empire is possessing military and economic power to such a degree that you can shape the world in your own interest. We, the United States, are the imperial power of our time, and how we use that matters greatly.

I leave it to your own discernment, your own conscience, as to what you should think about the war that now seems imminent. But I do want to tell you about the Bible's perception of empire and imperial power so that that also is part of your thinking through this difficult time.

The Bible's perception of empire is very negative. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in a sense came into existence as a response to the oppressive experience of two empires.

Much of the Hebrew Bible is about the liberation from imperial Egypt, and much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is about the experience of exile under imperial Babylon and the return from Babylon. Egypt and Babylon are not who you want to be, according to the Old Testament. Of course the New Testament comes into existence in the time of the Roman Empire.

As I suggest some Biblical reflections on empire, I'm going to focus on the New Testament in particular. I'm going to develop this with three main points. The first of these is the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is utterly central to the message of Jesus. Twenty years ago a New Testament scholar wrote, "Ask any one hundred Biblical scholars what was most central to the message of and activity of Jesus, and all one hundred of them would respond, 'The kingdom of God.'"

It's very important to realize that in the First Century, the phrase "Kingdom of God" was a political metaphor, and it was also a religious metaphor. Jesus could have talked about the community of God or the family of God, but he talks about the Kingdom of God.

He lived in a world in which there were other kingdoms. When he spoke about the Kingdom of God, his hearers would have thought to themselves, "Well, we know about the kingdom of Herod, and we know about the kingdom of Caesar. Here is this fellow talking about the Kingdom of God. That must be something different."

The Kingdom of God is something for the earth in the teaching of Jesus. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is already in heaven." The Kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not; if God were king and Herod were not; if God were king and Caesar were not.

A second way of seeing this in the New Testament is that very familiar Christian affirmation, "Jesus is Lord." It is utterly central to the New Testament beyond the gospels, utterly central to Paul and all the rest of the New Testament documents. It's the most common, widespread Christian affirmation of who Jesus is.

To see the anti-imperial thrust of this affirmation, we have to realize that one of the titles of Caesar was "lord." It's on coins and inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire, "Caesar is Lord." Not only was lord one of the titles of Caesar, other titles of Caesar included "Son of God," "Savior," "The one who has brought peace on earth," "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." These are all titles of Caesar.

When the early Christian movement says, "Jesus is Lord," they are concretely saying, "Caesar is not. Empire is not." When they say, "Jesus is the Son of God," they're saying, "The empire is not." When they say, "Jesus is the One who brings peace on earth," they're saying, "The empire is not."

It's hard to know what the equivalence of this would be in our time. "Jesus is my president" doesn't really work; sounds like he's been elected. But try this one on for size, "Jesus is my commander-in-chief; the President is not."

I don't mean to stack the deck. There might be times when these two loyalties are in sync with each other, but there might also be times when they are not.

The affirmation, "Jesus is Lord," in the First Century contrasted the lordship of Christ with the lordship of empire. It is the same contrast, the same opposition that we see in the Kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of this world.

The third way I want to develop this from the New Testament is to share with you some early Christian perceptions of empire. The first two come from the book of Revelation.

In Revelations 12 and 13, we have this magnificent vision that includes many elements, but the point I want to stress here is that part of the vision that speaks of the beast rising from the sea--the beast rising from the abyss, this terrible beast, this ancient serpent, this dragon that rules the world.

At the end of the thirteenth chapter of the book of Revelation, the author tells us the number of the beast is 666. Without going into the details, using the First Century rules of decoding a number into a name, 666 decodes into the name Caesar Nero. The great beast is the Roman Empire.

What is fascinating about that chapter is that it makes use of the ancient story of Apollo and Python. Apollo, the god of light, the god of order. Rome styled itself as Apollo. Python, the other figure in that story, is the ancient serpent, the ancient monster that always threatens to throw the world into chaos.

In Revelation 12 and 13, that ancient serpent is actually named as Satan. Rome told the story of Apollo and Python with Rome as Apollo, and Python as all of the chaos that the Roman Empire had managed to bring under control.

But the author of John reverses that story and says, "No, empire is not Apollo. Empire is the ancient serpent. Empire is Python. Empire is the beast from the abyss that rules the world." It's tough language.

In the 17th and 18th chapter of Revelation, we have another picture of empire. This time empire is the great harlot, this beautiful woman riding on the dragon, the serpent of Revelation 13.

Her wealth and her power and her seductiveness are especially emphasized, and the rulers of the world flock to her because of her wealth and power. Then we are told that the great harlot who seduces the world with wealth and power is Rome--the empire of the time.

One last early Christian perception of empire--it's an early Christian acrostic or acronym from 1 Timothy 6:10. An acrostic is a word made up of the first letters of a series of words. I have to do it in Latin for it to work. But let me give you the acrostic to it, translating as I go.

The first word is radics, like the English word radical, but it means root. Omnium, like the English prefix omni, which means all; third word, malorum, like the English word malediction, I suppose, but malorum means evil; and then, finally, avarita, like the English word avarice.

In Latin, it translates into, "Greed is the root of all evil." And what does it spell? Radics, omnium, malorum, avarita? ROMA, the Latin name of Rome. Rome is the embodiment of greed. Empire is the embodiment of greed. That's how the early Christians saw imperial power. It's about greed.

So the Bible and the New Testament and Jesus do not speak kindly about empire. Empire is of the devil. Empire is a Satanic temptation. That's strong language, and I don't think we should soften it, even as we should not literalize it in a wooden way.

We need to take these perceptions very seriously, for if we do as Christians living in this nation, it means serious reflection about what it means to be an imperial power, for we are the imperial power of our time, the Rome of our time. And the perennial temptation of empire is the overuse and misuse of its imperial power.

Just to be very brief about how I perceive what we're about to do, [Go to war against Iraq.] I think what we're about to do is wrong. I think it's impossible to justify from a Christian perspective. The only legitimate Christian positions about war in the history of the church have been pacifism or the "just war."

We are about to launch a preemptive war against a weak and impoverished nation, and I grant that Sadaam Hussein is a terrible tyrant, but I don't really want to argue it. I'm just sort of letting you know where I come out on this. I think it's wrong. I think it's not smart.

But once it begins, as now seems inevitable, I also hope and pray that it works. And by working, I mean I hope it's quick, with a minimal loss of American and Iraqi lives.But I do think it is an unwise use of imperial power.

The imperial temptation is the temptation that we now face as a country. It is a test of loyalty that faces us as Christians. I don't mean that Christians can come out on only one side of the issue of this war. But I do mean that Christian reflection about all of this needs to take seriously the Biblical suspicion of empire and Christian teaching about war and peace.

We need to be as thoughtful, responsible, and creative as possible in the use of our imperial power. I'm not just talking about the impending war, but over the next decade or two or three, for imperial power can be used in two very different ways.

We can use it to control the world in our own self-interest--to structure the system so that it serves us to impose our will on the world. Or imperial power can be used to build up. We can use it with the world's well-being in mind, rather than with primarily our own well-being in mind.

I think of words from the prophet Ezekiel, words with which he indicted the City of Cyrus for its wealth as a center of trade in its time--they're very sobering words. In Ezekiel 26 Ezekiel says this about Tyrus: "You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor."

It's unusual and very difficult for a superpower to be gentle, wise and kind, but that's what we are called to do. We have enormous potential to do good. This is a great country. But our greatness is not about imperial power. Imperial power is the way we risk selling our soul.

Back to the season of Lent and broadening things out. Lent is a season in which we are reminded of the temptations that face us, not just in this hour, but more comprehensively across our lives--a season of repentance in which we need to be discerning about the temptations of our lives.

In this season, we are called to repent, which means to return to God--to reconnect with the one from whom we came and in whom we live and move and have our being. It means to go beyond the mind that we have.

Lent is a season in which we learn once again and learn more deeply: that we do not live by bread alone, that we should not put God to the test, that we are to worship and serve God alone, that God alone is our Lord. Amen.

Copyright 2003 Dr. Marcus J. Borg


(Return to Top)


Send this article to a friend.

Home | Explore God's Love | Explore Your Faith | Explore the Church | Who We Are
Reflections | Stepping Stones | Oasis | Lifelines | Bulletin Board | Search |Contact Us |
Copyright ©1999-2006 explorefaith.org