Sunday, January 20, 2019
Scripture: Psalm 36:5-10 & Luke 4:1-13
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I am so thankful that my parents raised me to love humor. Back in the dark ages, I can remember driving with my dad to the grocery store to rent movies on VHS. There was a Little Caesars right next door, so we’d pick up a Pizza! Pizza! – two large square pizzas in one glorious long package for less than ten dollars – and then go pick out some movies – 99 cents for five days. Man, those were the days. I’m a child of the 80s, so my tastes are definitely shaped by that era. We’d rent the Police Academy movies or any of the Revenge of the Nerds series. We’d get just about any video starring a Saturday Night Live cast member – Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and especially Eddie Murphy. My parents did do some screening of what we were allowed to watch. I can actually remember my parents kicking us out of the living room when they wanted to watch Beverly Hills Cop. There were folding doors leading to the living room, so they’d close those, thinking we’d just go downstairs to play foosball or pool. Led by my older brother, we’d quietly slip into the kitchen, which was next to the living room. My brother would peek through the crack between the doors and give us a play by play. We’d be right behind him whispering, “What’s going on?” And he’d give us really important details like, “They’re putting bananas in the tailpipe!” I had no idea what that meant or that it actually was what Eddie Murphy’s character, Axel Foley did to escape the cops keeping an eye on him, but we were transfixed with how funny we imagined it to be. By the way, it doesn’t work, so don’t bother trying.
I also loved watching anything with Bill Murray. We devoured Caddyshack and Stripes. I absolutely loved Ghostbusters and What about Bob? He was and is a brilliant performer, having learned his trade at the famous Second City theater in Chicago. His career has kept evolving over the years. Sure, he was hilarious in his early work, but as he aged, his work got more darkly comic and existential, although many of those elements are in his early work – just listen to his totally improvised speech in Caddyshack of how he, Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper of the country club, once caddied the Dalai Lama.
In the last decade or so, Bill Murray stories have cropped up all over the internet. No one knows exactly why, but he has popped up in the strangest of places doing things no one would expect him to do. He’s been photographed passing through a restaurant and randomly stealing someone’s fries. There’s a story about him in Charleston, South Carolina. A couple was getting their engagement pictures taken, when the groom-to-be started getting distracted. Bill Murray had walked up behind his photographer and started patting his own belly. The couple ended up with Bill in some of their engagement photos. He has jumped into a kickball game in New York City. He’s been rumored to sneak up on people in bathrooms, put his hands over their eyes and whisper from behind them, “No one will ever believe you.” They turn around and see Bill Murray there, and he quickly slips out of the bathroom not to be seen again. There’s even a story of him in Scotland at a college party where he slipped into the kitchen, did all the dishes, and then left. Strange and hilarious stuff. Murray is a diehard Chicago Cubs’ fan, and when they were in the World Series in 2016, Murray had a pair of tickets to Game 6 in Cleveland. A woman from Indiana named Karen Michel had gone to the game hoping she could find a ticket at the box office, only to strike out. She was dressed in her Cubs jersey standing outside of the stadium when Bill Murray walked by, invited her to use his other ticket, and she got to watch the game with him from the front row, surrounded by celebrities.
There’s a fun documentary on Netflix now about these Bill Murray stories. The filmmaker never was able to interview Murray about why he does these things, but the speculation is that Murray is using his background in improv to show people that living against the grain of normal expectations can lead to incredible joy and to a deeper engagement in life.
I think there’s some truth in that. We live by routine and habit, which causes us to go through the motions of life, following our own and others’ expectations, but not realizing that there is a fuller life on offer. The writer David Foster Wallace offers a great picture of how this works: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the heck is water?’”
We are swimming in waters that shape us. We take our environment and cultural expectations as givens, but they really aren’t. They’re realities that we’ve accepted as normal, and so we devote most of our lives to going with the flow, not questioning whether the way were are living is best, or even considering whether God has a better reality on offer.
Last week we looked at Jesus’ baptism, and particularly how his identity is wrapped up in God’s love. We considered our loves and how those loves shape us – for good and for ill. Today Luke brings us from the comforts of Jesus’ baptism to the far more difficult part of his ministry preparation. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. This barren place is consistently a place of testing in the Bible. For forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, facing many tests that ultimately made them ready to enter the Promised Land. Like Israel, Jesus now goes into the wilderness. He’s there for forty days – alone and without food – as he gets ready for what is next. In our text, the devil tests Jesus in three different ways. He begins with the low-hanging fruit. Surely Jesus is hungry, so the devil says, “Hey Jesus, you look hungry. How about you turn these stones into bread?” Jesus rebuffs the devil, quoting Scripture, saying, in essence, “I don’t need to make magic bread. I trust in God’s provision.” This is a physical test of Jesus.
So the devil moves to a far grander test. He gives a vision of all the kingdoms of the world and offers another shortcut to Jesus. “You see all of this power, Jesus?” the devil asks. “It’s mine now, but I’ll give it to you. All you have to give me is your worship.” Jesus again responds with Scripture telling the devil that the reality is that only God is worthy of worship, and it drives home how important it is to get our worship – our loves – right.
The devil gives it one more shot. This time the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus. “Hey, Jesus! I read the Bible too. It says that God will protect you. Why don’t you show off that promise by taking a dive off of the top of the temple? Imagine how amazed all the people would be to see the angels flying you safely to the ground. You’ll get their attention pretty fast if you do this.” Undeterred, Jesus corrects the devil’s interpretation and again refuses the shortcut – this time it’s a temptation of autonomy. Could Jesus take matters into his own hands – even if it’s for good results? That would be far easier than the road he’s about to take, a road that leads to the cross.
So, what we have here is a story that pits assumptions versus reality. The devil assumes that Jesus could succumb to his vision of reality – a vision that takes shortcuts to conceivably accomplish good ends. Yet Jesus clings to the reality that what God says about the world in the Word is true. Reason could lead any of us to concede that the devil has a point that Jesus could accomplish his mission a lot more quickly if he takes these shortcuts. But like the older fish in David Foster Wallace’s parable, Jesus actually recognizes the waters he is swimming in. I don’t think the devil actually fully comprehends what God is up to in Jesus. He just knows it’s in his interest to disrupt whatever is going on.
In rejecting the devil, Jesus stays true to his identity and lives faithfully in God-created reality. In a way, he’s like Bill Murray. He’s so confident in his identity that he can go into any situation and be fully who he is without falling to others’ expectations for who they think he should be. In Murray’s case, they think a celebrity would want the center of attention or would act entitled. In Jesus’ case, they assume he should just grab political and religious power as quickly as he can. After all, he’s God’s Son.
We live in a world that is constantly telling us who we are, but we need to be confident enough in our God-given identities that are shaped by Scripture to recognize both that we have a better purpose and that the cultural waters in which we swim are constantly demanding things of us that are not life giving. In that way we’re a lot like Princess Elsa in Disney’s Frozen. She feels the huge weight of others’ expectations of her. When she finally decides to “let it go” – to shed all of those expectations – she begins to be fully who she is, which eventually leads to peace in the kingdom.
Like Elsa, we must learn how to let go of everything that hinders us from living fully into our God-given identities. The cultural waters in which we swim are formative and sometimes deformative. How do we equip ourselves to live fully as God intends for us to live? Well, your presence here this morning is one thing that helps. Worship is a formative practice for us. Here we tell God’s story every week. Here we remind ourselves that God loves us, forgives us, calls us to new life, and sends us into the world. The rhythm of that narrative of worship combats the narrative that we are only consumers, taxpayers, employees, retirees, or students. Worship tunes our inner compass to point towards the God who loves us. But it should also cause us to question our assumptions, since so many other things are demanding our worship, and submitting ourselves to those lesser things is deformative for us. As important as our hour together on Sundays is, it’s only one hour out of 168. Other personal intentional time is essential in forming our hearts to live in God’s way. Without giving more attention to reforming our hearts, we will be like those fish who don’t even know they’re swimming in water.
It struck me this week that what I’m asking you to do is difficult. For example, our nation’s attention is fixated on the border right now. The government has been shut down over it. So, let me try to use this as an example of how we can start naming the waters in which we swim and how we can realize that Christians have a calling to go against the flow. Now, we see the border wall. We hear the debate. We hear the horrific rhetoric, the threats, and the fear. We probably all have our opinions about it and about who has been to blame for the shutdown. I’m not here to have a debate. I know I have my opinions. But! Have we as Christians given first place to thinking about this issue through our faith? Have we sought out the wisdom of Scripture and the message of Jesus in this? That is what our first move should be. What is our response to this as followers of Jesus? I can say positively that Scripture demands that we care for the refugee, the orphan, the widow. I can say that Jesus clearly worked against any narrow understandings of who’s worthy of God’s love and who’s not – just look at the Good Samaritan. When we see this image of the border, our response should be to seek the heart of God. It should not be to align with a political platform. That’s how we begin to point to God’s reality – God’s kingdom – in our midst.
To close today, I’d like to offer you a practice that can help shape our hearts. It’s a pretty simple one, so my hope is that it would be an easy addition to your life. It’s called the examen, and it’s a practice that comes from our Catholic brothers and sisters. Here’s how to do it:
- Step 1 – Quiet your heart to become aware of God’s presence.
- Step 2 – Give thanks to God for the day.
- Step 3 – Review the day, striving to see it through God’s eyes.
- Step 4 – Face your shortcomings.
- Step 5 – Look forward to the next day.
This practice is typically done at the end of the day, but do it when you can. To begin it might take you a few minutes, but as you practice it, I think you’ll find that 15-20 minutes will pass by quickly. The examen is one way to give the Spirit space to shape our hearts. It is a way to see your reality through God’s eyes, which will allow you to check your heart and to let go of all expectations others may have for you, so that you can cling to God’s way for you.
As you do this, I believe you’ll start to see the world differently. Maybe you’ll be a bit more like Bill Murray, who defies expectations and brings joy to so many by just doing things that go against the flow. But more than Bill Murray, I hope you’ll find yourself being more fully the person God created you to be. And of course, I hope others see how Jesus has taken up residence in your life and is leading you in the eternal way of life.