"When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable." Madeline L'Engle
So I want you to think for a moment about what people do when they are afraid. How do we respond to our world when we are afraid? Please shout them out. (fight, flight, hide, shut down, organize, try to take control)
Today we begin our Lenten series on Living Unafraid. Basically, how do follow Christ and the way that Jesus lived his life not in these ways that you have listed. He didn't physically fight; he didn't flee, he didn't get snarky at the people around him... Instead he lived in a way that people were amazed by. He didn't get flustered by hard questions, he didn't let himself get pinned in a corner by the politics of his day. And I think a big part of him living unafraid-- not responding out of fear, is because Jesus kept choosing to be vulnerable. Think about that for a moment. Jesus chose time and time again, to be vulnerable.
A lot of what I'm going to share about vulnerability this morning comes from Brene Brown who is a researcher and has studied vulnerability extensively. We often think of vulnerability as being a weakness, which makes us afraid. But it is when we are unafraid, or when we choose not to allow our fears to rule over us, that we are able to be vulnerable. We also often think of vulnerability as over sharing, which is embarrassing-- another one of our fears; but vulnerability isn't over sharing, it's choosing connection. It's choosing to open ourselves up to make connection possible. One of the key ways of living unafraid, is choosing vulnerability.
In our scripture this morning Jesus chooses vulnerability for himself and for us. And he does this repeatedly in a variety of ways. It may seem obvious that as he's being tempted he is vulnerable. Clearly he chooses to be vulnerable when he chooses to fast; he is vulnerable by being out in the wilderness-- which is mainly desert in the Middle East; and he is vulnerable because he is not with his friends or disciples. It's just him with his own thoughts and, of course, the devil. So this is where we first see his vulnerability, as the devil tempts him with things that seem like they would be wonderful to have in that situation-- power for him to change his context to be more comfortable for himself and for his ministry. But instead of being pulled in to that which tempts him, Jesus is able to use his vulnerability as strength. Jesus, of course, had no psychology or sociology to help him, but researchers today say that it is the people who don't know their vulnerabilities that often fall hardest. Leaders who acknowledge where they are tempted, where they are vulnerable, greatly increase their chance of living a healthy life. So just being in the wilderness and being able to hear what tempts him most, to be able to acknowledge his vulnerability, is part of what makes Jesus able to say no to these same temptations all along in his ministry.
But there's an even deeper realm of vulnerability that Jesus chooses in this story, and you can see it in each one of the temptations.
Let's look at the first temptation: to turn stones into bread. We know Jesus is hungry at this point, but I don’t believe that’s what this temptation is really all about. This is a temptation about not only feeding himself, but feeding others as well. Having a humble and faithful heart, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread not just for himself, but for all people. After all, there are a lot of hungry people in the world and many of them lived in Jesus' community. What could be more tempting than being able to feed the whole world right now? How tempting it would be to fix the problem of world hunger. And here's where Jesus continues to choose vulnerability. Because Jesus recognizes in this temptation, that the devil’s suggestion at how to fix this problem, is only a half-truth. To fix the problem of hunger in his world, Jesus will need to do more than just feed everyone, although to be fair, he does do a fair amount of that later on. But when he breaks bread and feeds the five thousand a few chapters later, he does so not by turning rocks into bread, but by taking what people have given him, and sharing it. Someone offers all of what they have, which is in itself a vulnerable act, and he sees it and shares it. He knows that the only way for people to truly not be hungry, is for us to learn to share— to be vulnerable with one another— to work together and desire to live in a community where no one will be hungry; and to trust that God has provided enough resources for everyone to eat. Jesus realizes that the devil’s temptation won’t solve the problem for tomorrow, because the actual problem isn't a problem of scarcity, it's a problem of people being disconnected to one another-- there actually is enough food in the world. So Jesus responds, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He chooses to trust in God-- to be dependent upon God's word-- rather than to use his power for an instant fix to the wrong problem.
In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus up to a high pinnacle and tempts him to throw himself off. You can tell the devil has been needling him, getting him ready to want to prove who he is, because the devil keeps saying, “If you are the Son of God, do this. If you are the Son of God, do that.” If Jesus was unsure of who he was, this would be enough to tempt him to prove it to the devil who is taunting him. The devil is trying to shame him-- to get him to equate his ability to do powerful acts with his own self worth. This is especially tempting if Jesus is concerned that others are not going to believe him or follow him, if he falls into thinking that his success as a Messiah relies on him proving that God exists. How tempting it would be to do a miracle so grand that no one would be able to question whether Jesus was the Son of God and whether God is the God of all creation. But again, this is only a half truth. Instead of choosing to display his power, Jesus chooses the way of vulnerability once again. He chooses to live by example of who God is; to live a way of love instead of armed power; to show a God of compassion and truth rather than might and magic tricks.
And then in the third temptation the devil offers Jesus the chance to rule over all the Kingdoms of the world if Jesus will only worship him. And again, while the power of that ruling may be tempting for many of us, I think the real temptation for Jesus would've been that finally his people could be ruled not be Rome or by Babylon or by any of the other oppressive governments, but by God alone-- which was the original plan back when God chose Abraham. How tempting it would be to think that if you just overthrow the government, then you can instill real justice and compassion. But once again Jesus recognizes the half truth of what the devil is offering him. For what kind of ruler would he be for his people if he worships the devil in return? How could Jesus be the kind of ruler that his people need, if he abuses his power and authority to get there? So once again Jesus chooses the way of vulnerability-- to live humbly; to live authentically; to know who he is as a child of God's first and to live out of that identity.
Daniel Erlander wrote kind of a comic book version of the Bible called Manna and Mercy. When he shows this scene with Jesus and the temptations, he has Jesus sitting on the ground looking up at a man in a power suit. The man has two easels, one on each side of him, and he's pointing to the first one while saying, "If you want to succeed as a messiah, I would suggest that you follow Plan A." On the first sheet it says, "Plan A: Military force, impressive displays, promise rewards, tried political methods, consolidate power and authority." On the other newsprint it says, "Plan B: vulnerable love, compassion, live and teach dignity, mercy, food for all; get in trouble and die on a cross, trust God for vindication." And then it says, "After many days of struggle and prayer, Jesus chose plan B."
Jesus chooses vulnerability over and over and over again. And why does he do that? Because that's who our God is. You can call God mighty and all powerful and King of kings, and all that is true. But this is the same God who keeps trying to make a covenant with us-- a covenant of love. This is the same God who keeps treating us with dignity when we won't even treat each other with dignity and while we go out and kill in God's name. This is the God who, as it says in 1John, loved us first-- not knowing whether we will reject God or not-- which is how we know love at all. That's almost the very definition of vulnerability-- to love first; to put one's self out there not knowing if you will be rejected or loved back. And God continues to love us first even through rejection. That's courageous love. That's vulnerability.
Some of the most holy moments we have had together in worship have been when people have been willing to be vulnerable. Think of the stories we heard last fall when Mette and Adam and so many others stood before us and shared a part of their life. What is the word you would use to describe them in those moments? Brave, courageous, vulnerable? Did that look like weakness to you? Of course not. Many of you have told me that you could never do that. Because it takes courage to be vulnerable; it takes wisdom to want to connect; it takes being centered as a child of God to tell your truth. And that's what it means to live unafraid-- not that we don't have fears; not that we don't screw up; not that we are perfect or invulnerable; but precisely the opposite-- to know who we are and to choose to show up and connect with God and one another. "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage." (Brene Brown)
Which is why communion is so important to me. Because in this time when we share the bread and the juice, we recognize that God keeps choosing to show up in our lives. God keeps choosing to come to us in ordinary everyday ways like through bread, and juice, and water. Because God chooses every moment to be vulnerable to us, to love us first, to connect with us wherever we are so that we will know we are forgiven, we are loved. That's who our God is.
Resources Used: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander Working Preacher, Daniel Lose 2011