Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympian heights and humble paths, Feb 21, 2010

Text: Luke 4:1-13

The church always marks the first Sunday in Lent by reading one of the three accounts of Jesus' temptation in the desert. Now this might seem a little out of place because the story of Jesus in the desert happens at the start of his ministry, immediately after his baptism. In contrast, during Lent we metaphorically travel with Jesus during the last weeks of his ministry. In these last weeks, Jesus journeys with his friends to Jerusalem where he confronts the authorities; where he is arrested; and where he is put to death.

Nevertheless, there are many connections between Jesus in the desert and Lent: Jesus' retreat to the wilderness lasts 40 days; and the church has designed Lent to last 40 days. In the desert, Jesus fasts and meditates on his baptism; and for us, Lent is a time to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism into Christ's death and into a new risen life with Christ. During the 40 days in the desert, Jesus is tempted by the Devil; and for us, Lent is a time to reflect on the temptations we face as individuals and as a community.

But why does the Holy Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted by the Devil in the desert? Jesus has just had one of the key experiences of his life. John has baptized him in the Jordan. God's voice has named him as his beloved Son. The Holy Spirit has descended on him as a dove thus anointing him as the Messiah, Christ, or King of Israel. For Jesus, it is a moment of great power and promise, and yet the Spirit immediately sends him on a 40-day fast and an encounter with the Devil.

The temptations that the Devil presents to Jesus are ones of spiritual power: turning stone into bread; having dominion over all the kingdoms on earth; and relying on his status as God's beloved son to do amazing feats that rely on divine intervention.

These temptations are similar to those facing any of us when we are filled with spiritual enthusiasm. Having been baptized by the power of the Spirit, we might think that we are better than other people. We might try to gain political power or achieve worldly success because we have been anointed as one of God's children. We might think that our life will be an easy one, with angels delivering us from all harm. And we might decide that our religion, our church, or our nation are better than others.

This week in thinking about spiritual temptation, my mind turned to the Olympics. I have a confession to make. I really love the Olympic Games, and sometimes watching the events on TV gets in the way of the rest of my life.

Sports are very spirited endeavors. They are full of idealism, sacrifice, risk, and dedication; and they often result in amazing feats of beauty, power and glory. Then when you add in nationalism as with the Games, you can end up with tempting stew of spiritual dangers!

I look upon the Olympic Games as an interesting snapshot both of what we like and  dislike about the world today. The Games bring all the people of the world together and help us to know one another better. For instance, I love that at the Closing Ceremonies, the athletes pour into the stadium as one group. Unlike in the Opening Ceremonies, they are there purely as comrades and not as representatives of their countries.

But the Games bring athletes together not just to compete against each other, but to compete as representatives of their various nations. The media keep obsessive track of the national results based upon numbers of medals won. Being fourth-best in the world counts for nothing in this calculus. If you come fourth or fifth, you might as well have stayed at home. But consider this: if the three top finishers had come down with food poisoning the night before an event, then the fourth place finisher would instead have won the gold.

Perhaps the Canadian government's expensive "Own the Podium" campaign should spend half of its money not on training facilities, coaching, and money for the athletes but on ensuring that those nasty competitors from other countries who keep getting to the podium instead of the Canadians come down with food poisoning instead!

The Olympic events are full of excitement, beauty and power. A key factor in producing such memorable moments is competition. Without the lure of Olympic gold and glory, it seems unlikely that athletes and countries would spend vast amounts of time, effort and money in raising the bar. It is one thing to enjoy a thrilling run down a ski hill and another to devote thousands of hours of painful and scary training to achieve death-defying speeds on the slopes -- all in the slim hope that this will lead to personal or national glory. It is one thing to spend a fun and exhausting evening playing pick-up hockey at the local rink with one's friends, and another to be watched by 10s of millions of crazed countrymen whose sense of personal and national identity rests on whether your team wins a hockey medal or not.

But I will admit again that I do love watching the exciting events that result.

Competition plays a similar role in our economy. An innovation in steel-making in a company in Asia gives that company an advantage. All the other steel makers in the world must match the innovation or be priced out of the market. Over the last 400 years with the rise of a world market and freer trade, the competitive race has sharpened. This race has resulted in enormous leaps in productivity. The entrepreneurial, scientific and competitive genius unleashed by open market has completely transformed social life and the physical environment. And the wealth that results permeates our daily life.

But as with the Olympics, I worry about other results of this competitive frenzy. When the result of sports competition is excitement, beauty and power, I love it. But when the result is danger, injury, or personal imbalance or humiliation for athletes, I question it. And on the social front, when economic competition leads to growth without regard for human or environmental health, I question that too.

Part of the problem flows, I think, from how we compete. The Olympic Games brings all the best athletes of the world together, and we love the resulting spectacle. The world market brings all the people's of the world together, and we enjoy great benefits because of the resulting innovation. But while we are united in one respect, in other ways we continue to be separated.

Our economies are not regulated at the human or world level. Instead, they are regulated by national states that protect the interests of their own small territory and their own national citizens. As a result, no one is looking out for the interests of the world as a whole.

So what to do? The story of Jesus in the desert reminds us both that baptism is powerful and also that this power can tempt us into misusing it. Jesus after fasting and meditating for 40 days is able to refuse the temptations of the Devil. He does so by relying on his loyalty to God. As with the Transfiguration, Jesus comes down from the mountain top where the Devil tempts him and begins a ministry that is humble and grounded. Jesus' path to Jerusalem is not the usual one of a conquering hero. Instead, it is a path of service, suffering, and death. The surprising paradox is that this tragic yet ordinary path contains the promise and reality of new life. By embracing his full humanity, which includes suffering and death as it does for all of us, Jesus shows us a route out of anxiety and towards new life.

Jesus call his followers -- all of us who have been baptized in his name and in the name of the Father and Holy Spirit -- to take up our own cross and follow him on this difficult path of suffering and sacrifice. The reality is that none of us are going to win the gold medal; and even those who do win a medal still have to eventually confront their own  fragility and death. We might think that death-defying glory can be ours if we only become fanatically dedicated to a worldly path. Jesus, by refusing the temptations of the mountaintops, show us a simpler and better way -- a way that ascribes the glory to God and not our human efforts. On this path, we need no longer worry about getting to the top of the podium and instead embrace life with Christ and our fellow pilgrims in the ordinary wonders of daily life . . .

The Vancouver Olympic Games have been the occasion for another round of the perennial Canadian obsession: who are we, and what kind of country are we? Are we humble and polite, or proud and fierce. Do we just enjoy participating, or do we have the same lust to win that the Americans, Chinese, and Germans display?

Living in Alberta these past six months has given me a new perspective on Canada for Alberta seems a lot less bound by tradition than Eastern Canada. Quebec was originally colonized by the French Empire, which was defeated by the British in 1763. Ontario and the Maritimes were originally colonized by defeated English settlers. They were the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States after it won its War of Independence against Britain in 1783. But Alberta is different. As the last province to be settled by Europeans, it has been built not on defeat, but by people looking for cheap land, wide open spaces, and lots of freedom.

But you can see the difficulties for Canada as country compared to many others. Both of Canada's founding European peoples have a history of defeat. Canada began with two sometimes warring languages and religions, with the positive paradox that there has been a lot of space for people from other languages, cultures, religions, and continents to come to Canada in the last 50 years. Personally, I like the lack of bravado and solid identity to Canada. What does it take to be a Canadian? Well basically, you just have to be human. And so I see a gracious and democratic kernel to Canada's humility that we can build upon.

But then another Olympic Games comes along, and I want to see the Maple Leaf fly, hear "O Canada" sung, and the other guys defeated. And while I think this temptation of national pride is understandable, I also think it may be a Lenten moment for me to reflect on what is truly important.

Whether Team Canada wins the men's hockey gold medal or not; and whether Canada comes first in the medal count or 15th, Jesus as the Christ still calls to us. He does not call from the mountain top of the Transfiguration where Peter wants to build a shrine. He does not call from the high place where the Devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Nor does he call from the height of Mount Olympus where athletic victors reign. Instead, he call to us from the valley, walking humbly with his poor and outcast friends. They are heading to Jerusalem to resist oppression and prejudice with no weapons other than truth and love. Jesus says that this is a path for all of us, both those of us who are strong and swift and those of us who are weak and slow. The Grace available here is that in loving one another on this path, we die to our anxious old way of life and rise to a new life of trusting faith.

Now I'm not planning to give up watching the Olympic Games for Lent. But in this final week of the Games, I hope to tone down some of my national fervor and some of my over-identification with the hopes and fears of individual athletes. In place of that passion, I will try to listen as well to the still small voice of Jesus. As he always does, he will remind us that there is a new life of hope and glory for all -- the gold medal winners, and the last place finishers alike. And with God's help, this hope and glory is found on the humble path to Jerusalem and Good Friday and not in the heights of human accomplishment or national pride.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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