Being Faithful: False Self-Denial

Luke 13:31-35     Second Sunday in Lent     March 17, 2019


Jesus is in big trouble.

You can understand why he would be.  Since his first public pronouncements, nearly everything he’s said has made someone upset and angry.  Do you want some examples?

Listen to the gospel passage we read in Sunday morning worship, seven weeks ago: When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[1]  And Jesus’ listeners are thinking: What?!  What is this boy claiming for himself?!   Haven’t we known him since he was a baby?!

The next Sunday we read this: And [Jesus] said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  His listeners react: What?!  He’s saying that God favored those filthy gentiles over us, the Chosen People?!  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. [2]

Four Sunday mornings ago, here’s what we read: Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”[3]  That one makes you and me angry, right: that God favors those who are poor over people like us, who have enough money to buy what we need?!

How about another example?  Three Sunday mornings ago, we read these words of Jesus: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again….Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”[4]  Ok, now he has set a standard that no human being can possibly attain.  No wonder he begins that series of sayings with the words, “But I say to you that listen” – because there are a whole lot of folks who simply will not listen.  He’s too radical!  Right?  He’s totally unrealistic in what he’s demanding!  Right?  It’s time to tune him out.

By the time this morning’s reading comes, in Luke’s story of Jesus, it turns out that the danger for Jesus is much greater than simple rejection.  He’s in physical danger now – because the political ruler of the region, the Jewish king, Herod, is angered too.

Jesus never got the memo that he wasn’t supposed to mix politics with religion.  If we read what’s actually in the Bible, we find that Jesus considers himself to be in direct line with every prophet in the Old Testament, and including John the Baptizer in the New Testament: those called by God to speak God’s condemnation of leaders of the nation who anger God because they do not protect those who are vulnerable, and because they favor the rich over the poor, and because they are personally immoral.

King Herod is especially dangerous.  Do you remember he’s the one who massacred all the children two years old and younger when the Wise Men told him a new king had just been born?[5]  Do you remember he’s the one who imprisoned John the Baptizer because John condemned Herod for taking his brother’s wife for his own?[6]  Do you remember that Herod is the one who beheaded John the Baptizer to save face after making a drunken boast?[7]

Four chapters previous, in Luke’s story of Jesus, we read: Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?”  And he tried to see him.[8]  (Somehow, I don’t think Herod wants to see Jesus because he just wants to catch up over a beer or a cup of coffee.)

Do you remember how this morning’s reading begins?  At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  What does Jesus say?  He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”  This is striking.  This is no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”  This is Jesus, strong and defiant, standing up to the leader of the nation who is acting against God’s desires  that are, in fact, made known, revealed in Jesus.  This is Jesus who is determined and fearless in his faithfulness to the Father, and who will be faithful in continuing his work: confronting the forces of evil, and inviting people into citizenship in the kingdom of new life and healing.

This is also Jesus who knows what will happen when he remains faithful  “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”

Still.  Think of how Jesus must be tempted to be unfaithful to the work God has given him to do.  How much easier it would be to evade the necessity of what he must do.  Remember that Jesus is not only fully divine.  He is also fully human.  That is what makes real the story we read last week, of his time in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil to be unfaithful to who he was, and to turn away from his purpose: to be the love of God inhuman flesh and blood, to be a servant to those in need, to confront  the forces of evil, and invite those who will listen into the kingdom of new life and healing.  Those temptations from the devil to turn away from that, and to be unfaithful to who he is, are real!

Isn’t this true, as well, in this morning’s story?  At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  Think of how tempted Jesus is to say, “Whoah!  Thanks for the warning!  I’m out of here!” – and to go off, to lay low until the king’s anger has passed.  But then, wouldn’t Jesus be turning away from his true self, to satisfy his false self: his self-centered self, concerned with self-preservation, and comfort, and safety?

Here is something that has just occurred to me about Lent over the past week or two.  The traditional teaching is that Lent is a season for self-denial, right?  Well, I’ve never seen the point of that!  What good does it do to give something up for Lent?  Deprivation for its own sake?  Well, in this 66th year of my baptism, I have finally realized: Giving up something for Lent does lead to something good when I am denying my false self!  It is not self-denial.  It is a matter of false self-denial: denying the desires of my self-centered false self, who is only concerned for myself, for my self-preservation and comfort and safety.  When I deny my false self, I am denying all that would keep me from being faithful to the person God is creating me to be.

This is simply another way of understanding the significance of baptism, as Luther explains it.  Baptism is the daily drowning of the false self, “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires,” so that “daily a new person [can] come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[9]  This “new person” is our true selves, the persons God is creating us to be, faithful to our purpose.

Blessings to you in your journey through Lent, this season of returning to our baptisms.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Luke 4: 16-21

[2] Luke 4:24-29

[3] Luke 6:20, 24

[4] Luke 6:27-30, 32-35

[5] Read the story in Matthew 2.

[6] Mark 6:17-18

[7] Mark 6:21-29

[8] Luke 9:7-9

[9] Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism”

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!