Taking Jesus Seriously AND Literally

Before a couple of months ago, the idea of taking a politician “seriously but not literally,” was a somewhat laughable notion. Yet, because of Donald Trump’s outlandish rhetoric and tendency to say nearly unbelievable things, this has become a legitimate argument for why he has been so popular among some people. People take his anger, his “get things done” style seriously, they just don’t take him at his word on every last crazy thing he says.

We do, however, apply this logic to other relationships. You hope that if your boyfriend proposes to you, he means it literally. But if he says, “I’ll love you for all eternity,” you know he means it seriously but can’t possibly mean it literally. I remember when I was in fifth grade, a boy hit me in the stomach with the leg of his chair. It hurt quite a bit and I was really angry, so to avoid yelling or punching him, I grabbed the nearest thing to me–which happened to be a pair of scissors–to squeeze, and said angrily, “I’m going to kill you.” Now, I did not think about the fact that squeezing a pair of scissors and saying “I’m going to kill you” could be legitimately perceived as a threat, since I’d never even really been in trouble at school. Yet, he told his mother, and later that night my mother sat me down to figure out what had happened. I tried to convince her that I was not to be taken literally, just seriously–I was just angry, not murderous! But of course, if I had continued to exhibit that kind of behavior, it would be irresponsible to presume that I never meant it literally.

At a certain point, failing to take a person’s words, whether for good or bad, literally (as in, “I mean this exactly how it sounds”) ultimately means not taking them seriously either. And that is a recipe for real world consequences.

One of the biggest problems in the church right now is a plethora of Christians who have realized that the best way to deal with the “crazy” things that Jesus says is to take him seriously, but not literally.** Sometimes the literary style of the gospels makes that separation easier because Jesus often tells parables that make use of symbolism or metaphor-rich characters, and therefore have meanings that can be personalized or made so abstract as to have little concrete value. So the parable of the Good Samaritan can be about me being nice to people down on their luck instead of a subversive indictment of xenophobia and exclusion. Jesus couldn’t possibly be saying something about immigrants and refugees! He means this parable seriously (read: don’t be a jerk) not literally (redefine what it means to be a neighbor).

From there, it is easy to “parable-ize” the rest of Jesus’ teachings. The Sermon on the Mount becomes a lesson in our sinfulness and inability to reach the perfection Jesus says awaits us in heaven.We can personalize “love your enemies,” to mean be nice to your boss or that coworker who is always gunning for your promotion, instead of a call to a new kind of community that extends love and hospitality to those who would do them wrong, refusing to hate or fear the people the government says we should. Teachings about wealth (give all you possess to the poor) and violence (do good to those who persecute you) don’t actually mean for us to do them. The description of judgment in Matthew 25 where the just and unjust are divided up based how they took care of the most vulnerable certainly can’t be taken literally because then our eternity would be bound up with our behavior and we know Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door so that we could all pray the “sinner’s prayer” and get the bar code stamped to our hearts that lets us into heaven when we die.

This isn’t to dismiss legitimate differences of interpretation based on careful exegesis and context. But I would argue that most interpretations of Jesus’s hardest teachings absolve Christians from taking Jesus at his word.

We easily forget that Jesus was a kind of politician. He was running a campaign, calling would-be disciples to join a quiet, non-coercive, nonviolent revolution to take over the entire world right now. He invited them to eternal life,  not just in quantity but in quality. He taught how to have an eternal kind of life that is meant to be lived now in order that the world might see the salvation of our God.  He instructed them not only that they should (and actually could!) do things that don’t make worldly sense, but that he himself would do something nobody else had ever done: rise from the dead. At a certain point, if you keep finding ways for Jesus’ teaching to be taken seriously but not literally, you no longer have the resurrection. The resurrection demands us take Jesus seriously AND literally.









**There is a caveat here, which is that sometimes Christians have made the mistake of taking somethings too literally in the OT or in books like Revelation. I’m specifically talking here about the gospels. Of course, there is a legitimate debate about what “literally” means when we talk about the Bible, but that is a conversation for another time.**


Dear Conservative White Evangelicals

To my dear white brothers and sisters (who consider themselves conservative Evangelical Christians),

I want to appeal to you today to help heal some of the wounds fracturing not only the country we live in, but more importantly the church, which has no borders or nationalities except the kingdom of God. I am a white Christian who grew up, in many ways, in the same evangelical culture as many of you. I listened to messages about accepting Jesus into my heart; I listened to Third Day, the Newsboys, DC Talk. I experienced the genuinely loving and heartfelt aspects of this kind of Christianity. I have no baggage or bitterness, even as some of my theological viewpoints have diverged from what my youth group experience was. I learned what it means to be a servant to the world from mission and service trips to rebuild homes with my evangelical youth group.

So I get it. You voted for Donald Trump because you care about unborn children, not because you hate people who support abortion. You worry fiercely about a nation that you feel disregards the most vulnerable: the unborn. You saw a chance to get someone named to the Supreme Court who could make it much harder to get a legal abortion in the U.S.

I get it. You’re concerned about waning biblical authority in church and society when it comes to issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Perhaps you worry that you will be forced to betray your own theological convictions in your workplace or business, or that your children will no longer respect you or the Bible because of what they learn in public school. And I know that you care about poverty, disease, war, treatment of women, fair health care, and God’s creation. You  don’t like being reduced in identity to one or two issues, as important as they may be to you. You genuinely try to teach your children not to judge based on skin color. I may not agree exactly with you on all of the above, but I trust that you believe your convictions are borne out of love for God and the Bible.

And yet, I have a suspicion that many of you don’t like Donald Trump and may now find yourselves with a case of buyer’s remorse. He lies. About small things (crowd sizes) and big things (voter fraud) to protect his own ego. That is not a good example for children and violates one of the ten commandments that many of you still wish were the guiding principles for this country. He has said horrible things about women. He has mocked the disabled. He has not demonstrated the kind of moral character most of us would hope for in a president. And whatever you may hope happens for abortion in the coming years, the very real threat of nuclear war would make life unthinkable for an entire generation of unborn children.

So I have two invitations to extend to you today, from your brothers and sisters who share many of your concerns and beliefs, even if we disagree strongly about what it means to see them lived out: 1) Join the resistance. A “wait and see” mentality is exceptionally dangerous, as the church found out in Adolf Hitler. Worried first and foremost for their own security and safety, Christians in Germany found themselves without a real voice to resist the evil happening to their neighbors.

Secondly, dialogue with us.Your brothers and sisters who disagree on many issues want to dialogue with you. We really do. We want to have conversations about social issues, race, and how we understand Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in our world. We want to be part of healing divisions in our churches. We have theologically grounded view points, arrived at by careful Bible study and conversation, as you do. Trust that we are not disrespectful of the Bible. Come together with us and read the Scriptures anew. But to do that, we all need to get out of the echo chambers on our social media feeds and sit down face to face, open to one another.

I do have one other request: don’t be afraid of protesters and demonstrators. I realize that for some of you, passages like 2 Timothy 2:2-3 make such public dissent distasteful. But many of us believe that the same Jesus who threw out the money changers in the temple is standing with us in the streets. Trust that we have arrived at our convictions with prayer and discernment, even if you don’t find yourself in the same boat.

Let us all work toward the unity our Lord Jesus prayed for before he was crucified.

Peace and all good,




Worship at the Foot of the Cross

The last in a series of 7 Lenten reflections written for Peace Fellowship Church.


Luke 4:9-13

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,

to protect you”,


“On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 23:35-38

35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

When Luke describes Jesus’ temptation in the desert, he includes an important detail: the devil will return “at an opportune time” to tempt Jesus again. As has been mentioned in previous weeks, the first two temptations do arise again in Jesus’ life, albeit more subtly. The first temptation is mirrored in the miracles Jesus performs (impressive power to woo the people); the second temptation during his entry into Jerusalem (take the world by force instead of suffering).

If we read the third temptation alongside the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is hard to miss the parallelism. “Throw yourself from here” sounds a lot like “come down, save yourself.” Of course, this is the moment that the devil tempts Jesus to prove himself. Jesus is alone, weak from physical torment, facing uncertainty about himself and his role. Sound familiar? Jesus is back in the desert!

(Ironically, the scoffers at the cross who want Jesus to prove his kingship by leaving the cross are correct that he is the King of the Jews and that he is about to prove it. But he proves his royal worth by staying on the cross.)

Jesus’ responses are parallel as well.  In the desert, he essentially says, “Trust God, even when it seems scary!” At the cross (skipping down to verse 46), he says the nearly same thing, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke is a masterful story teller. But it doesn’t even end there.

Right after Jesus says his final words and dies, the centurion standing by praises God and proclaims Jesus’ innocence. Why did the Israelites go out to the desert in the first place? To worship God. Jesus, like Moses, has freed his people that they may worship God. The desert has always been, first and foremost, about the worship of God.

We have come full circle during this Lenten season. We entered this time in search of deeper worship of God, knowing that in encountering temptation we are given the chance to declare God’s beauty, truth, and faithfulness. We followed Jesus through his temptation, saw how our lives face similar temptations. We followed Jesus into Jerusalem, and we even followed him to the foot of the cross. But it is here we must leave him, for in our sinfulness and unworthiness we have no option but to let him do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. His cross is different than ours. Today, on Good Friday, we must watch him suffer for us as a church, as a world, and as individuals. We must watch him utter his last breath, fully submissive to the will of God, trusting God to the end.

The only appropriate response is worship.

Jesus’ Crown is Always Made of Thorns

Lent, like Jesus’ ministry, is not a static season, but rather is funneling us towards the cross. Especially in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story intensifies as Jesus enters Jerusalem and confronts both the Roman and Jewish authorities.  Likewise, all of our fasting, prayer, and self-reflection is in preparation for Holy Week, the final days of Lent where we confront face to face our sin and Jesus’ suffering. Jesus’ temptation resurfaces in his last days as well.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey:

Luke 19:28-39
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’

If you ever visit Jerusalem, it is a powerful experience to stand atop the Mount of Olives and look out at Jerusalem and to imagine this scene (and the one following, where Jesus weeps for a city that does not know what makes for peace, a lament which could be stated as powerfully today about Jerusalem). The Mount of Olives is quite steep and near its peak is the most important cemetery in Judaism. Figures from thousands of years of Jewish history are buried here because it is believed that the Messiah will appear at the Mount of Olives first and make his way to the Temple Mount (in the old city). His appearance will mark the beginning of the Resurrection of the Dead, and those who are buried there will be the first raised. So when Jesus appears on the Mount of Olives, entering Jerusalem and making his way to the temple, he is evoking all of the hope and dreams of Israel. Finally, a conquering king!

This is the second temptation all over again for Jesus. Just like the devil took him to a high place to look at all the kingdoms he could have, Jesus is again at a high place looking at a kingdom he could take by force. Knowing the implications of what he is about to do, he could use the crowd’s energy and incite a rebellion. The tempter is there again: will he seek power through violent means?

Yet this entry into Jerusalem flips the entire conquering narrative. Jesus enters on a colt, not a war horse. He proceeds to the temple where he disrupts the temple activities instead of endorsing them. And eventually he is even crowned, though with a crown of thorns. His actions, to use a musical metaphor, are to the tune of victory and conquering but in a different key. In other words, it’s not that Jesus has not come to conquer the evil of the world, or that he is not now king, but rather this is how God conquers in Jesus—through meekness, suffering, and his own death. The kingdom of God comes to earth not through violence done by God, but violence done to God. Jesus refuses to give in to temptation because he knows that God’s way achieves true peace and true justice.

Holy Week invites us to even more careful reflection. As we draw nearer to the cross, we must ask what kind of king do we hope for in Jesus? Do we truly believe that the way of suffering is the means by which the world is saved? Will we acknowledge not only his lordship but the manner in which he rules? Will we be subjects to a king in a kingdom whose quality is of another world?

Will we remember that Jesus’ crown is always a crown of thorns?

Let us fast and pray that we do not fall into temptation.

The Second Temptation

Lent is characterized as a time of self-reflection, a chance to go deeper inwardly, ask hard questions of ourselves, and appreciate in a new way what the cross means for each of us. All this is true. Jesus’s temptation in the desert was deeply personal and confronting that temptation required a wholehearted trust and love of God. Yet the cross, and consequently Lent, is not solely about our individual spiritual conversion. Jesus dies for the whole world out of love for humanity and obedience to God, not just individuals. Especially as a community of witnesses, we can see Lent as a way to ask questions of the faith we practice together.

The temptation story provides a framework for one way of this kind of introspection. In Luke 4:5-8, the devil comes to Jesus a second time:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Here, Jesus is blatantly tempted to worship the devil, though as we have noted previously, all three temptations are about worship. In this second temptation, the payoff is power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. But why is it the devil wants worship? The context here is crucial: the Roman emperor, Caesar, proclaimed himself a god, and a whole cult of emperor worship was common during Jesus’s—and almost more importantly, Luke’s—day, something the Jews rightly despised because they knew only YHWH was God. Therefore, to give allegiance to Caesar also meant idolatry to the one true God. It was impossible to serve Rome and YHWH. The association of worship with imperial authority was quite strong. On the flip side, to declare that worship belonged only to YHWH was to declare the kingdoms—and their rulers—defeated and subservient to God. When Jesus responds this way to the devil, he is not simply spurning an evil idea, but making a declarative and victorious statement: kingdoms of the world take notice, your days of evil are numbered.

But God’s victory looks like Jesus in the wilderness—painful, meek, and vulnerable. Like turning the stones into bread, the “temptation behind the temptation,” so to speak, is a shortcut, a way of bypassing the pain and suffering of the cross. Equally important to what God will do in the world is how God will do it. How Jesus acts is how God acts.

For us, the Western church, a local body of witnesses, this may be the temptation we face most strongly as a body. It is most painfully clear, especially during election years, that we often want to achieve influence and dominion over the kingdoms of the world. We see the name of Jesus used to coerce, to cajole, and to slyly win over voters. On a more subtle level, we give our allegiance to powers and authorities other than God, sometimes directly—as in a pledge of allegiance—and sometimes indirectly, through what we spend our money on. How might our church be more faithful in pledging our sole worship to God?

There is no single answer to the complexities of life’s many situations and demands, and we are called to discern faithfully what it means to be loyal and worship only God. Yet a helpful thought, from a 2nd Century Christian writing call The 2nd Epistle to Diagnetus may remind us that our true home, and our true worship, do not belong to this world:

Christians live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.

The Church has had a long and sad history of collusion with power and dominion over people and nations, from Nazi Germany to slavery to colonialism and back even further to the Inquisition and the Crusades. We must mourn this tragic tendency to succumb to the second temptation of Jesus. As we continue to sit in the darkness of Lent, in our individual and corporate sin, let us confess our past and present yearnings to give in, and pray to be equipped to name our accuser and see his defeat on the cross.

Lenten Devotional: Confronting our Accuser

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’s temptation in Chapter 4, we get a fascinating picture of the struggles Jesus is facing. Unlike Israel’s wandering in the desert, Jesus is confronted with a seemingly physical embodiment of temptation, which Matthew and Luke call diabolos, or devil. In this way, Jesus’s temptation is more like Adam and Eve’s in the garden, and though the writer of Genesis never calls the snake “devil” or “Satan,” it certainly plays the same role as the tempter in Luke.

As was mentioned in a previous devotion, it is helpful to think of temptation primarily as a desire to worship something other than the true God. By this definition, Adam and Eve’s original sin was not simply about disobedience, but giving in to worship of knowledge instead of God. They gave up their vocation as divine image bearers and stewards of creation and instead gave homage to a snake and a tree. They became servants of a different god.

However, the parallel between Jesus and Adam and Eve is important not only because of the nature of their temptation, but because the stories highlight the source of their temptation. Put another way, both Luke and Genesis go out of the way to name the accuser (aka Satan) in contrast to the loving provision of God. There is such a thing as evil and that evil wants our worship and allegiance. We too must learn to name our accusers.

Of course, we must be careful when talking about the source of our temptation. It is easy to shift blame for our actions to someone or something else. “The devil made me do it” or something like that can quickly become a way to avoid responsibility. Often we are our own accuser and tempter. Our sin and pride compete with our true selves. And while sometimes it may be helpful to think of evil as personified in one figure like the devil, we must be careful not to imagine a red, hoofed creature with a pitch fork, essentially making a caricature of evil and thus maybe not taking it seriously. Often, as we all know, evil is cloaked in respectable, civil clothing, and is more a force than an individual person.

Yet with these cautions in mind, we are challenged to name the parts of our life and world that would call us to worship and trust something other than God. It might be money, or sex, or status. It might be a relationship or a job. Individual people or situations can play the role of the Satan without being Satan in the flesh. An “accuser” is simply something that questions God’s faithfulness and worthiness of all our worship. We can see such accusers in positions of government, in schools, and even in churches sometimes—people who would point us toward something other than God alone. We might need help seeing our accusers—certainly Adam and Eve did!—and our community and spiritual friends can be that mirror for us.

When we look at these two stories of temptation—Jesus and Adam and Eve—we see two contrasting ways of responding—fear and mistrust, or sublime trust and confidence in God’s goodness. Lent is the season of darkness, of mourning the lostness of ourselves and the world. We must go deeper into that darkness to discover the Light of the World. Lent provides the context for asking again of ourselves and our world, “To whom shall we give worship?” And as the Bible says over and over, most clearly in Revelation 4 and 5, only the One who “was and is and is to come” and the Lamb who conquers at Easter are worthy.

Lenten Devotional: Confronting our Shadow

The following is the third in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

Throughout the church’s history, the desert has played an important role in spiritual formation. In the Bible, the desert is the proving ground for the Israelites and Jesus. Later, a group of wise Christians, who became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, went to the desert in search of spiritual rebirth in response to disturbing trends in the church’s relationship to the state. They were the founders of monasticism, solely devoted to the worship of God. Their only work at first was praying the entire canon of the Psalms every day.

Something about the bleakness of the desert brings out our deepest demons and presents the chance to confront them, to face our shadow side directly. Just a year out of college, I wanted such formation. So, in 2009, I spent the summer interning for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The CAC had just purchased a 200 acre plot of wild and undeveloped land a couple of hours west of Albuquerque quite literally in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal, miles from the nearest person. At the end of my internship, I took a weekend-long solo, silent retreat there.

I had grand spiritual plans for my excursion into the wilderness. I planned to fast from food, bring only my Bible, journal, and guitar. I’d spend the entire weekend praying, walking, and confronting my own insecurities and demons. I’d emerge a stronger and more faithful disciple, ready to embark on God’s calling on my life. A coworker loaned me an old, steel-pole tent. Upon my arrival, I began to set it, only to find it impossible to do alone. The ground was too dry and sandy to hold in the stakes; I had no hammer or mallet to drive them in far enough. It was not intuitive how to put the poles together, and every time I made some progress, the wind would whip around and knock the whole thing down. I remember getting so angry at myself, at the tent, at the surroundings. Here I was, trying to be holy and prayerful, and instead spent seven hours putting this tent together.

I look back at that weekend with great fondness because even as my impatience and frustration threatened to get the better of me, I knew it was an important part of my desert experience. In the desert, we are alone with God and our own temptation. We do not get to pick and choose the things which will challenge us, the things which will demand our worship. The great majority of my weekend was filled with prayer and song, and I was consistently reminded of the utter beauty of creation, as alone as I will probably ever be. But that first day brought out the worst in me.

While I do believe there is something unique and mystical about the actual desert, we can seek out the kind of formation the desert offers in other ways. We can create regular space in our lives to be alone and in prayer; we can fast; we can take a day or weekend of silent retreat. Many people use Holy Week (the days leading up to Easter) as a time of more intentional fasting and prayer. If we enter into the kind of space the desert symbolizes, then we can be assured of two things: 1) The Satan, the accuser and tempter, will meet us there to tempt us and cause us to confront our shadow; 2) God will meet us there to remind us of our true selves, created in God’s image to worship God alone.

Like Jesus and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of our most profound formation will come when we encounter our deepest temptations alone with God. There is no end to the importance of community in Christian formation, but there are some thing we must choose to face on our own. Let us take Lent as a challenge to go deeper into the darkness, knowing that the Light of Resurrection awaits us at Easter.

Lenten Devotional: Stones into Bread

The following is the second in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

Stones into Bread

The call to the desert was a call to worship, just like our call during Lent is first and foremost to true worship. As God’s beloved creations, we are charged with reflecting his image into the world, caring for creation, and returning to God the glory and praise due our creator in the form of worship. This is why the first commandment is to love God above all else. In Hebrew, this command is called the Shema, and Jews are expected to recite it at least twice a day. It is central to our faith.

If worship of God is our true vocation, then temptation is not about wanting to do things we shouldn’t. Instead, it is a desire to offer worship to something other than our creator God, whether that is sex, power, fame, status, or even our physical needs. When we willingly enter the wilderness, desiring to encounter God, the Satan will undoubtedly give us opportunities to worship these other things.

The temptation to turn stones into bread is not a way of saying that our physical needs do not matter, but rather that they need to be properly ordered. Jesus’s response quotes Deuteronomy 8:3—just a handful of verses after the Shema—which reminds us all that we do not live on bread alone, but by the breath and word of God. Yet we need bread as well, and God’s desire to provide bread ought to help us want to know our Creator.

Bread is significant in Jesus’s life as well, as he feeds the 5000 with just a few loaves of bread. Implicit in this miracle is a temptation to win the people over by addressing their physical hunger. Perhaps the cross isn’t necessary if Jesus can simply gain enough popular support and overthrow the Romans? Yet, we know Jesus resists that temptation as well. And at the end of Luke’s gospel, perhaps most fittingly, Jesus is known by the disciples in the breaking of bread. We see clearly here that bread is not the problem, but in fact can be the instrument of revelation. Jesus, in the desert, knows that bread has a more noble purpose than simply meeting his physical needs.

For us, we can take courage from Jesus’s example. As we fast during Lent, whether it is from chocolate, television, or other material things—not bad in themselves—we remember their proper order in our lives. Hopefully, the twinges of desire for them spur us to worship and prayer, as a kind of training ground to face our deeper temptations, those things which demand our allegiance and ultimately our worship.

Lenten Devotional: Worship in the Desert

The following is the first in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

Like many of the stories in the gospels, Jesus’s temptation is thick with meaning. Luke, like the other evangelists, is laying Jesus’s story on top of Israel’s story, as if Jesus is continuing her story, but in a new, more faithful way. Readers of Luke’s account would not have missed the parallel between the 40 days Jesus wanders in the desert and the 40 years of their Israelite ancestors. For the Israelites, their wandering ended at the Jordan River, as they crossed into the Promised Land. For Jesus (if you jump back to Chapter 3), his journey into the wilderness begins at the Jordan with his baptism and affirmation. Indeed, the very temptations mirror Israel’s: provision (Luke 4:3, Exodus 16), worship (Luke 4:6, Exodus 32), and trust (Luke 4:9, Exodus 17).

Israel entered into the desert after years in slavery to Egypt. Yet, Moses’s original plea with Pharaoh was about not about freedom, but worship. The people needed be allowed to leave in order to properly worship God in the wilderness. That is striking: the God of Israel is found in the wilderness, not among the injustice, power, and might of Egypt, but in the abandoned places. Yet, when the Israelites did finally get to the wilderness, they longed for their chains, remembering bountiful feasts and plenty (neither of which were true). They worshiped not God, but a golden calf. They found the wilderness to be difficult, and they succumbed to temptation. Story after story in Israel’s history shows them getting it wrong, refusing to worship God alone and ultimately seeing their temple destroyed and the presence of God gone from their midst. Who, then, can redeem them?

Jesus. Jesus demonstrates the faithful way through the wilderness. He trusts God to provide; worships God alone; and he refuses to put God to the test, knowing God is above all.

As we enter these 40 days in the wilderness, let us remember that this season is not simply about fasting, or remembering, or hoping, though it is these as well. It is fundamentally about worship. We can find God in the wilderness and abandoned places, whether that is among the forgotten and lonely, the hurt, or the imprisoned. When we worship God in the desert, we leave behind our control, our dependence on material possessions, and the lure of Egypt, whatever that is for each of us. Instead, we wholly trust God to provide, no matter what temptations come.

Beloved: A New Song for Ash Wednesday

In the spirit of Lent, I have composed a new song. It is a sort of adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Regained, where Milton sees Jesus’ temptation as the defining moment in his own self-knowledge. Filled with the certainty of vocation, Jesus is able to live his life and ultimately go to the cross trusting God.

It also an attempt to integrate some of NT Wright’s work into song. Without going into too much nitty gritty detail, I would sum Wright up like this:  Wright advocates for a more nuanced definition of the word “divine” in regards to Jesus–that Jesus, like all of us, had to come to an understanding of his own role–vocation– and trust God,  as opposed to a super-hero Jesus for whom the cross was a mere inconvenience and not a true test of suffering, endurance, and trust. Moreover, Wright wants a Christian picture of Jesus to incorporate the whole of Israel’s story with it. We can’t know Jesus without knowing Israel as well. Lastly, Wright argues that Jesus’ “coronation” as king is completed on the cross itself. Jesus’s life is establishing bits and pieces of what it will look like for God to be king, but the cross is where, ironically with a crown of thorns,  Jesus becomes king.

These themes were running through my head as I tried to imagine Jesus facing true temptation, uncertainty, and doubt. I would put myself in the story as well–hence the final chorus–lest we be tempted to view Jesus’s life simply from an outside perspective.

If you are interested in the score, feel free to contact me for it. I’m happy to give it away. Images of the score are below, but they won’t be the easiest to play from.

Jesus came to River Jordan
To be cleansed with holy water,
But as he rose and saw the crowds,
His steps began to falter.
And like a dove the Spirit came
To comfort and assure
That when the seeds of doubt arise
These words will still endure.

This is my beloved son,
With him I am well pleased.
And by his life and saving death,
My own shall be released.
Wandering the desert bleak
Our Lord began to hunger.
Knowing of his weakened state,
The Satan did not slumber.
Instead he offered power and might
And how to win the people.
Tempting Jesus to despair
He questioned from the steeple

Are you the be-loved,
Fit to take the throne?
Just like Israel in the wild,
You too shall be my own.

Looking at what lay before him
The world from up above
Jesus, faint but standing firm
Recalled the gentle dove.
(Chorus 1)
Whipped and beaten, bruised and scarred,
Our Lord was made to suffer.
And though a king, he more did seem,
A lamb led to the slaughter.
Forsaken now by God and friend,
He let a cry resound.
But by the words the dove once spoke.
He knew himself now crowned.
I am the beloved Son,
My life has made God pleased.
And by my death the world redeemed
All slaves are now released.
All slaves are now released.

He is the beloved Son,
His life has made God pleased.
And by his death we are redeemed
We slaves are now released.