Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Major Options for Living Our Lives
Marcus J. Borg
sermon is also available in audio)
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.
us, oh Lord we pray, firm faith, unwavering hope, a passion
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
as "of the devil."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
is the feeling that we need to do something spectacular with
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.
might want to ask yourself if you're living in such a way as
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.
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."
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.
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.
is not simply about geographical expansion. Empire is possessing
military and economic power to such a degree that you can
the world in your own interest. We, the United States,
imperial power of our time, and how we use that matters
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.
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.
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
be, according to the Old Testament. Of course the New Testament
comes into existence in the time of the Roman Empire.
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
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.'"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
Revelations 12 and 13, we have this magnificent vision that includes
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.
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
the name Caesar Nero. The great beast is the Roman Empire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
need to take these perceptions very seriously, for if we do as
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.
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."
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.
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
I do think it is an unwise use of imperial power.
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.
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.
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.
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
sobering words. In Ezekiel 26 Ezekiel says this about Tyrus: "You
corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor."
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.
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.
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.
is a season in which we learn once again and learn more
deeply: that we do not live by bread alone, that
not put God to the test, that we are to worship
and serve God alone,
that God alone is our Lord. Amen.
2003 Dr. Marcus J. Borg