In 1946, Viola Desmond, a teacher and a businesswoman with her husband in Nova Scotia, took her car to New Glasgow on business. On her way there, her car broke down. As it was being fixed, she decided to wait it out by going to the movies. Unaware of the segregation laws in New Glasgow, she bought a ticket for the main floor of the theatre. But the main floor was for whites only and she, a black woman, was told she needed to go to the balcony. Viola decided she could see better on the floor and stayed. The police were called and she was arrested and taken to jail and charged for defrauding the government of Nova Scotia the difference in the tax between a ground floor and a balcony seat (it amounted to one cent!). Viola decided to fight the charges, realizing the incident was not about tax evasion but racial segregation. Because she refused to obey the law, and took it to the courts, she helped raise awareness of Canadian segregation laws and started the public debate about discriminatory practices within Canadian society.
The Oxford English dictionary describes the meaning of “obey” as to “submit to the authority of.” But from its Latin origins “obey” comes from the word, “to hear”.
It is not a word use very often anymore. We used to say it in our marriage vows, now it’s rarely spoken. For valid reasons, as couples were expected to obey even abusive spouses. We used to submit to the laws of the land, but people of good conscience and faith like Viola Desmond, could no longer tolerate certain laws. We used to expect obedience from our children; “Do as I say, not as I do”, but now we tend to teach our children more by role modelling, rather than speaking at them, as we know they learn more from observing us.
A stream of thought within our Western culture teaches us to question, to think critically, to use our own minds, and voices. So our children and our grandchildren, instead of complying with our rules and expectations, question our values, our thinking, our politics, our economic systems, our religion, as they establish their own identities.
Do a google search of the definition of “obey” and you get a line of clothing. One website even has “goose-step” as a synonym.
As people grappled and struggled with the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the question was asked why people did what they did. Why did ordinary people obey? Some came up with the idea of a culture of obedience to authority. You did what you were told.This was especially true in situations where fear ruled the day.
Some controversial studies in social psychology tried to show that obedience to authority was a human trait. In the 1960’s ,the Milgram Obedience Experiment which used electric shocks, which were fake but thought to be real, and were administered to one person by another person under the authority of a third person. The experiment tried to show our tendency to respond to authority even if it harms another human being. Sadly, that harm hasn’t stopped before or since the Second World War.
So “obey” becomes a word that we would rather avoid, and for some very good reasons.
And yet within our own religious tradition, was not Jesus obedient in the wilderness those long days and nights? Every time the devil came at him, every time the devil said, “just give me what I want” – was not Jesus obedient to God who had just claimed him as his Son in the waters of the Jordan?
How difficult it must have been for Jesus those long days and nights out there.
Eat if you are hungry, the tempter said. Turn these stones that lie everywhere out here into bread. You can feed yourself. You can feed all those hungry people. Of course Jesus was hungry. Of course, Jesus knew people were hungry. What harm could come? Putting aside the tempter’s voice, Jesus instead tried to hear the voice that broke open the heavens and claimed him as Beloved not so long ago.
The tempter came at him again, showing Jesus all the nations, all the kingdoms of the world, saying that Jesus could have authority over it all. “I will give it to you, all of it, just worship me.” Think of the good Jesus could do if he had authority over all the nations, all the people of the world. The world would spin on an axis of justice and peace, not oppression and violence. Isn’t that what people were expecting of him, this Messiah, to feed the hungry, to rule the nations? But Jesus obeyed the commandment of God saying, “I will worship God alone.”
Relentlessly, the devil tried again. Jesus hungry, thirsty, tired, and wondering if he had heard that voice at his baptism, wondering if he was alone in this, gets whisked up to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. Since you’re God’s son, says the tempter one last time, see what happens when you throw yourself from here. God will catch you or at least God’s angels will, the tempter quotes from scripture. No harm no foul. But Jesus obeys God’s voice alone, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus is not the only one to have struggled in the wilderness. Knowing the history of his ancestors, Jesus knew that God’s chosen people struggled to understand their own identity, struggled to obey, as they wandered in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where their identity was forged, and where they came to understand their relationship with God. “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm… he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Jesus ancestors had to learn what it meant to be obedient to the One who heard their cries and promised to be their God.
At Beth Jacob synagogue the other week the confirmation class heard Rabbi Zuckerman speak about kosher laws. We sat and listened as he explained that meat and dairy could never be mixed, even in the stomach. If you ate meat first, you would need to wait three hours before eating any dairy. These two food items cannot be mixed on dishes. You need two of everything to keep them separate. Plates, forks, spoons, bowls, even dishwashers. For us, the whole thing seems rather complicated. One parent asked a good question: “Why do you do it?” Rabbi Zuckerman answered very clearly, “Because God says so.”
On a previous visit to the same synagogue with another class, the former rabbi, Rabbi Rosensweig, was asked the same kind of question: “what would you do if someone held a gun to your head and told you to eat a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich?” That question obviously came from a student this time. Without missing a beat, Rabbi Rosensweig said, “I would say pass the mayo.” Rabbi explained that keeping covenant with God and being obedient to God’s word is always about life. God’s word is always a word of life.
We too struggle to hear God’s voice, we struggle to obey that word of life. The tempter tries to make God’s voice disappear. Instead of a word of life, we hear empty promises, messages that tell us we have infinite power on our own. Popular literature tells us it is simply a matter of putting positive thoughts out to the universe and the universe will send you positivity back. Whatever that is for you: money, fame, status, goodness, righteousness. Popular shows tell us that we can have it all, do it all, health, kids, work, home, if we only think it and believe it.
Then the wilderness comes. We lose our jobs, or we lose a child, or we can’t kick an addiction, or we relive the past in a loop that we ourselves can’t break, or we cannot love ourselves, we cannot love others, or, even worse, our minds tell us that life isn’t worth living. And then the tempter says to us, “there is no one there. You’re all on your own, kid.”
Whose voice will you hear? Whom will you obey?
Will you hear again God’s word of life spoken at your baptism: through water and the Holy Spirit you have been given a new birth, have been cleansed from sin, and raised to eternal life? That you are sustained with the gift of the Holy Spirit; the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever?
Will you obey the voice of love and freedom? That same voice who opened the heavens and said this is my Son. That same voice that says to us, you are my child, my daughter, my son.
In our profession of faith in baptism, we are asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” We answer, “I renounce them.” And of course, we mean it. But the reality is that we don’t always live up to our words. We mess up. We hear and obey another voice.
But remember that we are children of God and the same Spirit that was with Jesus in the wilderness to help him through it lives in you and in me. This is our baptismal promise in God.
Today, the words from the Letter to the Hebrews come as a word of life:
“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 14-16).
Pr. Katherine Altenburg