“For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
I speak with you today in the Name of the righteous life giving one. Amen!
As I have been meditating with our readings this week, I have been thinking a lot about righteousness. What does that word righteous mean? What does it mean to be righteous? What does it mean to possess the quality of righteousness?
Now, as any of y’all who have seen my office know I Love books. My wife and I are house shopping right now, and it drives her nuts that I ask how far it is to the nearest bookstore from every house that we consider. So, I figured I would put these books to some use, and I went searching for answers to my questions about righteousness. As near as I can tell, and I am probably over simplifying here, but righteous, or being righteous, or having righteousness, is the ability to keep promises. Specifically, in the realm of God stuff, God is the righteous one. God is the one who can and always keeps the promises God makes. Even more specifically, God promises to give life. God promises to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, their lives will extend through their offspring. That they will have land, that is to say they will have the means to sustain their life, and they will foster a great nation. God has not only the power to deliver on these promises, God has the will. God is righteous. Righteousness so permeates our relationship with God we can even say: the essence of God’s Godness is God’s righteousness. That is to say God promises life and God delivers. God has the power to give life and does so—not merely a functional, heart beating, lungs breathing, mechanical life, but a conscious, empowered, freedom toting life; the life Jesus called the life more abundant.
At times in human history we mark God’s righteousness. Our reading from Deuteronomy is a story of such a marking. The people of Israel have made it from the death sentence of slavery in Egypt to the God given life of the Promised Land. They are called to remember God’s righteousness by their offerings and saying, “The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The people of Israel are to say this, not to remind God of God’s righteous acts, but to remind themselves of God’s righteous acts. In this remembrance God hopes the people of Israel will in turn pass on God’s righteous life giving acts to others. This pattern of delivered promise, remembrance, and charge to pay it forward, if you will, continues on through history to us today. We are to be righteous like God is righteous.
That was an appropriately "churchy" thing to say. I say things like that all the time. Love as God loves, forgive as we are forgiven, do justice because God is just. We say things like this with such frequency; that I have to ask what’s the catch? Well here it is: We don’t get to control God’s righteousness. We can and should be righteous like God. We can give life. We can set the oppressed free, we can remove the shackles of poverty and ignorance. We can alleviate the burdens of injustice and inequality. But we do not however get to control God’s Righteousness. We don't get to control who God wishes to give the abundant life to. We don't even get to control what the nature of the life God wishes to give us. But boy we are tempted to. Boy, I am tempted to.
In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus being tempted after forty days in the desert. In the last temptation Jesus is asked to test God’s righteousness, God’s Promise. The devil whisks Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, and challenges him to hurl himself to the ground. He issues the challenge using psalm 91 which we also read today, “For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus is tempted to test God’s righteous instead of having faith, tempted to take God’s promise and control it himself. As one commentator put it, “The temptation was to take the promised protection of God into the control of his own will and act. That would have shifted the power of the promise from the free sovereignty of God to individual willfulness.”
Now y’all, I might be over simplifying again, but if Jesus doesn’t get to control God’s righteousness, we certainly are not allowed to. Admittedly, none of us is going to be whisked in an instant to the top of the temple by the devil and challenged to jump, especially since, as our confirmands should know the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. However, what about our prayer lives? How many times do we pray trying to get what we want instead of what God wants? How many times do we pray trying to control God’s righteousness, trying to control the life God wants to give us?
We have entered the season of Lent, and many of us have taken on Lenten disciplines as part of our devotional practices. But I ask today, did we take on these disciplines for our reasons or for Gods. Did we give up chocolate because we want to lose a few pounds? Did we receive the imposition of ashes this past Wednesday so we can walk around town with smudged foreheads letting everyone know we are in the Christ crowd? Did we decide to try and live the Golden rule with our families hoping it will improve our relationships? Did we give up shopping because we want to save a little money? Deciding to do these things is not bad in and of itself, but the fault comes when we try to control the outcome. All these acts of devotion are prayerful actions, basically they are prayers. But as a mentor of mine, and son of this parish, Fr. Scott Barker recently wrote on his blog, “…praying is not about getting what we want. Praying is about getting what God wants.” So this lent I invite you, even challenge you to take on a prayerful discipline, but not with a desired outcome. I challenge you to enter into a journey with Christ not knowing where it will take you. I challenge you to let God be God, to let God be free to be righteous, to give you the God intended life God wants to give you. This Lent do not pray for what you want, do not pray for what I want or Father Tom wants or anybody else. This Lent pray for what God wants. Amen!