March 4, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Remember what happens. God hangs up the rainbow in order to remember the covenant with Noah: “Never again shall the earth be destroyed by the flood.” Later after the exodus, the people receive the terms of our relationship with God: “Remember the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:12). “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). In the New Testament, Jesus tells the disciples, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). And one of the men who was being executed alongside Jesus spoke to him on the cross: “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Remembering is a theme that runs through the whole history of our faith.
From the rainbow, to the sabbath, to the table, to the cross, God cries out to the people: “Remember me,” she says. “Do not forget the LORD.” And the people yearn for the LORD and say all that can be uttered out of yearning: “Remember me, O God.” “Remember me” is sent echoing from God, to the earth, to the people, from the people, to the stars, to the LORD…
It is also the case that remembering is a theme running through our lives. Seems like everywhere you turn, there are things to remember. It’s a lot of pressure! We teach the littlest children to remember their address and parents’ phone numbers. Then in the next decade, it’s remember state capitals, and chemistry valences, and the correct word order when writing sentences in German.
Even after graduation, there is more to remember. Still there are car keys, and appointments, and traffic laws, and toothbrushes, and passwords. Remember what you promised to bring. Remember where you left your purse. Remember how you got here.
Now most of the time, we think of remembering as this cognitive ability to retrieve information on command. And this is great when it works. It’s pretty awful when it doesn’t. Look, it’s not like we go and forget things on purpose! But forgetting is unavoidable; it is how we are human. We can lose our memories like we can lose anything.
Go ahead and let God command and insist and thunder through the heavens that we remember, there is something of remembering that we cannot control. This can make the whole thing seem like an unfair test.
But what if remembering is more than a test of our cognitive ability? What if remembering is actually the work of restoring relationship? What if it’s following our human impulse to call out, so God can respond —to initiate the echoing that rings through the universe and points toward greater possibility.
Now this remembering is not about you getting the words right; it’s much more about the Word of God getting you. This remembering is not about avoiding a missed appointment; it’s about feeling the deep hunger for God, recognizing how this hunger is real, then speaking up, joining in the chorus of the cosmos: Remember me, says the LORD. Remember me, is our prayer. It is not a test.
Except it can feel like a test, and it can feel like God is the one giving it. In our Gospel story, what happens is that Jesus got baptized. The heavens open, and he is named Beloved, pronounced the Son of God. Before he can change into dry clothes, he gets plunged into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit so he can be tested by the devil. Sure sounds like the devil is in cahoots with the Holy Spirit!
Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, and this is meant to evoke our memories of the Israelites spending forty years in the wilderness having their faith tested by the LORD our God.
So there’s a debate to be had about whether it’s God who gives the test, or God who subcontracts with the devil to give the test, or life that happens and we take stock of the challenges and interpret them as tests. It’s hard to say who’s responsible. It is a different question to ask: Where is God? Is he watching from a safe distance, sitting behind a judges table, ready to make notes on how we perform? Or could it be that God is getting tested too…
In our story, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. After forty days and nights of fasting, God is exhausted. That’s when the devil approaches Jesus with a series of three temptations.
Oh Jesus, you are so hungry. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread, and eat.
Oh Jesus, you would give your life. Plus anyway, I’m sure the angels would rescue you like it says in the Psalm. If who you are is the Son of God, jump off the top of the temple, and either way, you’ll be fine.
Oh Jesus, look out from the top of this mountain. All those kingdoms will be yours. Just fall down and worship me, says the devil.
You know Jesus thought about each one of these options. It’s not a temptation unless it has a respectable chance of working. You know Jesus had to stand there and consider what to do for a whole long minute. It might not have even been the bread, or the angel rescue, or all the kingdoms of the world that got to him.
It might have been the first thing the devil said to him: “If you are the Son of God.” As though maybe you’re not. As though maybe there’s a part of Jesus that wonders whether he is really claimed and loved by God. Because how could you be human and not wonder this.
Now that you’re here in the wilderness, who are you really?
There was a time when I thought my calling was to work in a college career center helping nineteen and twenty year-olds who were searching for their purpose and trying to write a resume at the same time. I love having the conversations that ask: How does my life’s path meet up with God’s dream for the world? What I have come to learn is that questions about our life’s path and God’s dream are not just for nineteen and twenty-year-olds. They are questions that come up again and again, and they rise up, especially, in times of crisis.
When a person loses the job she’s had for fifteen years…
When a person who has always been on the go suddenly becomes unable to walk…
When a person loses his home…
When a person has given his life to caring for his partner, and then his partner dies…
When a person comes back after a tour of active duty only to find that even though she’s come home, things will never be back to “normal”…
This is the wilderness. In these situations, it might seem like the pressing question is, “Now what am I going to do?” Exactly. But lurking underneath that question is the one that goes:
“Now that I’m here, who am I really? I don’t even know myself anymore.”
This is what Jesus was up against in the wilderness. Let the devil come and do his worst; because is there anything more terrifying than doubting your own truth… Who am I really?
Imagining Jesus wrestling with this question of identity makes his response to the devil all the more clever and hopeful for us. You see, it looks like Jesus is methodically working his way through these temptations, answering each test correctly, plucking the perfect Bible verse to quote to the devil and get that A plus.
But I’ve got to tell you, I think Jesus was up to something else. Remember, the original audience hearing the Gospel story would be familiar with the scriptures Jesus was quoting. Hearing him give these answers would trigger their association, like if we heard a snippet of Amazing Grace or Psalm Twenty-Three.
Now in answering the devil, it’s as though Jesus is speaking in code to us. What matters is not that Jesus is getting the words exactly right. It’s that he’s getting the Word exactly right, and the Word is the foundation of the covenant: Remember the LORD your God.
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Take care that you do not forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Hear O Israel, and remember. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
This teaching from Deuteronomy is the hymn that filled Jesus’ being when the devil said to him, “If you are really the Son of God…” As though even when we lose ourselves, we can remember the LORD. We can remember the songs that remember the LORD.
This kind of remembering is creative work. It’s following our human impulse to call out, so God can respond —to initiate the echoing that rings through the universe and points toward greater possibility. It’s not about you getting the words right; it’s much more about the Word of God getting you.
So when this happens, when you find yourself in the wilderness asking: “Now that I’m here, who am I really?” May you begin remembering God. Then get ready. There’s a whole band of angels coming to find you. Amen.