A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Mark 1:9-15. March 9, 2003.
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
- Mark 1:13
When we read the gospel story of the temptations of Jesus, Mark does not give us the details in the way that Matthew and Luke do. Mark simply says that, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” For the details we have to turn to Matthew or Luke, but we also have to be careful, for we can miss the forest for the trees. We can get so preoccupied with the specifics of the temptations that we can miss the big picture.
In fact, if we really want to understand what the temptations of Jesus were about, we have to consider what his life and ministry were about, for the temptations came just before he began his ministry. And yes, his ministry ended in his death, but what was it about his ministry that led to his death? Wasn’t it because he went against the grain? Wasn’t it because he bucked the status quo? Yes, it was.
Jesus undertook a ministry that set him against the status quo – against the way they had always done things, and believe me, those people had very long memories. They had – or thought they had – done things the same way for thousands of years. If Jesus had just gone along with the program, and if he had done what Satan asked in the temptations – things like turning stones into bread, for example, he would have been very popular, but he knew that he would not have been faithful to his calling. So the temptation was for Jesus to go against the best he knew, and to ignore the leading of God because it would make him unpopular.
Let us ask ourselves: is it like that with us too? Are we tempted to be popular by doing things the way we always have when God is calling us to take risks and do things differently or even to do something new altogether? Or to ask it differently, are we sometimes tempted to go against the best we know? I know I am, and I suspect we all are.
And you know, this happens not just to Christians as individuals, but it happens to churches too. God calls us – God is always calling us – to move ahead on the journey, and not to get too comfortable in the way things are. The stories in the Bible referring to the desert all harken back to the Exodus, and it is interesting that when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, things looked pretty grim – for they had to make bricks without straw, and things like that. But when they were being tried by the rigors of the desert, Egypt looked pretty good.
So we see that the desert was the place of temptation, both for Jesus and for the people of the Exodus. But it was also the place of faith – of reliance upon God. And when we are tempted to go back and do things the easy way, the familiar way, the only way we remember, then it is time for us to go to the desert. What I mean is: it is time to move to a place where we rely on God who is doing new things, and calling us to do new things too.
Now I have a secret to share with you: ministers get tempted this way too. Ministers want to be popular with their people – indeed in the United Church of Canada, ministers have virtually no protection if they get out of favour with their congregation. And so the temptation for ministers – whether male or female – is just to be a nice guy, and “go with the flow” – to quit pushing, to quit challenging our congregations to do their best and to take some risks as we discern where is leading us. Congregations may be pleased that they aren’t being challenged so much, but there is something else they need to know. If their minister has become so domesticated that he or she no longer challenges them, then they aren’t getting the best from their minister – they are only getting mediocre. And what happens to the minister is that their calling has become a career, and they simply do the things that are necessary to keep them secure in their career. Whenever I get like that, I may need your reminder that you haven’t heard any challenges for a while.
Today is our Annual Meeting where we will review what we have done in God’s name during the past year. And we will also make one of the most spiritual decisions that a church ever makes, and we all know what that is, don’t we? It is to adopt a budget. Are you surprised that I call it a spiritual decision? Well, it is, you know. For our budget is a measure of our commitment. In our budget, are we committing ourselves to do our best and do new things? Or are we just standing pat?
Well, when we study our budget, we see that mostly we are just standing pat; and even then, we are projecting a large deficit. I want to say that that deficit is a warning to us. And it is a spiritual warning. It is a warning that business as usual isn’t working. It is a wake-up call that continuing to do things the way we always have can soon put us out of business at Trinity United Church.
You know, Trinity has been fortunate. We have had a sizable financial cushion that goes back to the time of amalgamation, and in addition we have had people who remembered the church generously in their wills. And we have had prudent people who have managed that money very well. And for a while we also had a booming stock market, which meant that the interest on our investments just about matched our deficits. But it is not that way now.
The budget we will consider has a projected deficit of $27,000 on a budget of $114,000 means that we plan to spend almost one-fourth more than we plan to raise. It is a matter of concern. It is manageable, for if all our contributors donate two dollars a week more, and if they all do it every week, we will finish the year looking much better. But I’ll tell you something. I have been saying this every year, and we are still posting deficits. It is true that our actual deficit this past year is not as large as we projected, but we were almost $16,000 short. Even though we have done better financially this past year, we still have not closed the gap. We still have a ways to go.
Here again, there is temptation. It is tempting to think that if we just keep going, it will work out all right. And it is tempting to just keep on doing what we are now doing without listening for God’s leading for the future.
In the face of temptation God calls us to do our very best. When we are tempted to do the popular thing – the usual thing, God calls us to take new directions and do things differently because what we are doing isn’t appealing to enough new people, and we’ve been losing old ones at a frightful rate.
How many of us read the article in The Gazette about St. James United Church? You know, there are some important sentences tucked in there. Let me read them for you: “One of the reasons many places of worship suffer from low attendance is, of course, that people don’t find what they offer very pertinent.” And referring to St. James Church, the writer says, “It has been reinventing itself to cater to ordinary people – mostly not church members – living nearby. Because many are disadvantaged, this has meant organizing a drop-in centre for the mentally ill, a lunch and recreation program for seniors, programs for native people and those needing legal advice. The aim is to be socially useful.” Let us ask ourselves what kinds of social usefulness is needed in this part of the city? And what is God speaking to us about it?
As I intimated earlier, the minister’s job is to challenge the people, even when it may not be popular to do so. If I am going to be true to my calling to ministry, then I will keep nudging and prodding and challenging you to be true to your calling as a people of God. And if you want my very best, then you will welcome such challenges, knowing that they are not personal attacks, but they are your minister’s response to our situation as best I can discern it.
When you were looking for a minister, and I read your material and I interviewed with your Search Committee, there was a clear message that Trinity wanted a minister who would give his or her best. That is easy to say in advance. But when it becomes clear to you and to me what that best will mean, then there is a temptation for us to settle for less.
At his temptations, Jesus could have settled for giving less than his best. But he gave it, even when he knew what the cost would be. For you and for me there is a similar temptation. There is a cost to giving our best for God. Will we resist the temptation and pay the price? Or we will we be satisfied with less – with mediocre? That is the choice we all have to make.