In the issue of The New Yorker currently out on the stands there is a photo essay by the photographer Platon called “The Promise: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement”. These portraits show us some members of the “Moses Generation” of Civil Rights leaders who are still very much alive and with us: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the Little Rock Nine, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis to name some of them. It is a compelling collection of photographs that helps us remember the generation of Civil Rights leaders who helped all Americans face into the injustices of slavery and segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
I am always affected by memories of that moment in American history. I am a Christian largely because of the Civil Rights movement. As an unchurched high school student in Los Angeles, I became politically active in the election of 1964 when there was a proposition on the California ballot to repeal the state’s fair housing legislation. It was through the “No on 14” campaign that I first met Christian clergy, and it was my encounter with ministers opposed to segregation that marked my first engagement with Christianity in action. So in some sense I am here in this pulpit because of the work of that “Moses generation” of Civil Rights leaders.
One of my heroes in those days was The Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There is a picture of Lowery in the New Yorker photo essay, and seeing it reminded me of remarks he made at an event in Selma, Alabama two years ago. Joe Lowery began by talking about his cholesterol and ended up discussing the Civil Rights movement. Here’s what he said:
I'm glad [the doctor] reminded me that there's good cholesterol and there's bad cholesterol. Everybody in the movement was a little crazy. But like cholesterol, there's a good crazy and a bad crazy. When Harriet Tubman was running up and down the Underground Railroad, she was as crazy as she could be, but it was a good crazy! And when Paul preached to Agrippa, they said, 'Paul, you're crazy,' but it was a good crazy! I’m saying today we need more folks in this country who’ve got a good crazy. . . . God takes care of folks who are good crazy.—The Reverend Joseph Lowery, Selma, Alabama March 4, 2007.
As with cholesterol, there’s “good crazy” and “bad crazy”. In 21st century America we are all too familiar with “bad crazy”—professors shooting faculty colleagues, angry taxpayers flying their planes into IRS offices, and all kinds of public and private actings-out of violent pointless rage. You don’t have to go very far to look for examples of “bad crazy.” They’re all over the place.
But what about “good crazy”? Isn’t that, in a sense, how Jesus was acting in today’s Gospel? Our passage from Luke [Luke 4.1-13] takes up from where the chronology of the Jesus story last left off: earlier, Jesus appeared at the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing and submitted to John’s baptism. Immediately thereafter, in today’s reading, Jesus (as Luke puts it) “full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Luke tells us Jesus “ate nothing at all during those days.” You’d have to be crazy to do something like that, but it’s a good crazy.
These 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness have always been taken by Christians as our pattern for Lent. As often happens, though, we focus too much on the season’s deprivations themselves and neglect to attend to the prequel and the sequel. Jesus left his Baptism “full of the Holy Spirit”, and he emerged from the temptations in the wilderness ready to begin his public ministry. He came to his wilderness experience fresh from hearing God call him God’s beloved. He left that temptation time once again “filled with the Spirit”, [Luke 4.14] ready to preach and teach and heal in his native region of Galilee. The temptation period did not stand on its own. It came from someplace and it led to someplace. And so for us: Lent does not exist for its own sake. Lent is not just a 40 day period to feel bad. We take it on not because we’re worthless, but because we are loved. And when it’s over we emerge into the grace and power of the Resurrection at Easter. The whole enterprise may sound crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
When Jesus was in the wilderness, Luke tells us that he was tempted in three ways. First, he was tempted to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Second, he was tempted to worship the devil and so receive all the glory and all the authority of the kingdoms of the world. Third, he was tempted to test God and God’s promises by throwing himself from the highest point of the Jerusalem temple. The menu spread before Jesus tempted him physically (bread for a hungry man), psychologically (set yourself up as king of the universe), and spiritually (take matters into your own hands and make God reveal himself.) How could you say no to any of those things? To reject food, power, and spiritual certainty, you’d have to be crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
These three temptations tell us as much about Jesus as they do about the one who tempts him. Jesus responds to each temptation with a verse from scripture. To the first temptation of bread, Jesus replies, “One does not live by bread alone.” To the second, worldly wealth and political power, Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” To the third, a quick experiment to see if God is actually trustworthy, Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test." In some ways, these are images of the things that tempt us physically, psychologically, spiritually. Some of us are driven by fear, and so will do anything for security. The bread here is more than bread. It symbolizes safety. Just leave me alone and let me have my three squares and a flop and I won’t cause you any trouble. Some of us are driven by our ego needs, and we’ll do anything to get power over or attention from others. So the kingdoms of the world are more than political authority. They stand for power over others in both behavior and esteem. Some of us cannot stand the ambiguity which seems to be a given of human existence. We want to know for certain who God is, where God is, and what the rules are. So we will do anything just to be freed from anxiety. Throwing yourself off a building symbolizes the desire for certainty at the expense of faithfulness. Jesus says no to all three, and you and I may think him crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
If Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness is the pattern for your and my 40 day observance of Lent, then the question this morning can be put this way: how do these three kinds of temptations speak to you, and how might you use these days to take stock of your relation to them? What will you do, how will you compromise yourself, for the promise of safety and security? What will you do to get enough money, prestige, and power to make other people like you and do what you tell them to? What will you do to get God to answer the questions that keep you up at night and give you an absolutely reliable metaphysical snapshot of how things really are? These three temptations may not come toward you in the form in which they assaulted Jesus, but they represent the three spiritual problems with which all of us wrestle.
What’s important about this story is who Jesus became at the other end of it. After resisting these temptations of security, power, and certainty, Jesus launched himself into a loving, open, fearless ministry of compassion, justice, and hope. By passing the first temptation, he was able to live his life trusting that he was secure already, and that the bread of life would be there to sustain him in all the triumphs and trials of life. By passing the second temptation he was able to see beyond earthly, human distinctions and gather around himself a diverse group of companions who were both powerful and powerless, esteemed and outcast. By passing the third temptation, Jesus was able to live into an uncertain future with hope, even when being faithful to the logic of that hope took him to the cross. These forty days in the wilderness helped Jesus live a life that many called crazy. But you and I know it was a good crazy.
No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, the temptations always come at you in these three ways. They ask that you and I betray others or ourselves in order to meet our primal needs for security, for power, and for certainty. What Jesus knew as he went in to the wilderness was the thing that sustained him through it to the end. He knew that he was God’s beloved, that God was well-pleased with him, and that no matter what came at him he would be sustained by the One whose Spirit filled him to live his life in love and compassion with others. Jesus knew that, hungry or not, he was safe in God’s love. He knew that, powerful or not, he was approved by God in his life and work. He knew that, without being certain about the outcome, he would be able to trust in the One who called him forward as a blessing to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the oppressed.
Jesus used these forty days to take hold of those three great truths, and in so doing was empowered to be the person God had made him to be and live the life God had called him to live. You and I have been given these forty days to take on and take in the same three great truths. You are secure in God’s love. You are approved by God. And you can trust the One who promises to make you safe. Knowing these truths and acting on them can make you a little crazy. But it’s a good crazy. Amen.