Monday, February 22, 2010

Strength in the Wilderness

Sermon for 2.21.10 (First Week of Lent)

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

Have you ever felt that things were going really well, that all your ducks were in a row, and then suddenly, everything starts to fall apart? You lose a job or don’t get the one you wanted; there are family problems, health problems you hadn’t expected; you begin to wonder what you are doing with your life. You may have achieved all your goals and yet still feel something is missing. And so you enter your own wilderness, you find yourself walking through a period so dry that you can feel the sand in your mouth and the horizon keeps receding. If you have ever experienced this, then our Lenten readings are probably for you.

One could say this is what happens to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel from Luke. Just after he has been baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John, the Holy Spirit in a visible form has descended on him and identified him as God’s beloved son! We don’t know whether anyone else was aware of what happened, but clearly Jesus has had a visionary experience. And Luke reports that Jesus feels “full of the Holy Spirit,” as well he might. But then the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness and that is a very different experience. When we are told that it lasts for 40 days, Luke means that it went on for a long time, reminding us of the 40 years that the children of Israel spent in their wilderness trying to create a new life after their slavery in Egypt. Unlike them, however, Jesus is not fed by manna and he is understandably famished and weak. Were he not, he would not be human. His humanness is important here.

During this period, Luke tells us that the Devil tempts him. That may be a stumbling block for many of us. Who is this Devil? Do we want to believe in him? Luke probably thinks of him as the Lord—a kind of head honcho—of the demons and unclean spirits that Jesus will encounter in so many of his crowd scenes. We encounter them ourselves and in ourselves—not only in the mentally ill. This unsavory figure pretends to have power, people give power to him, and mischief is certainly caused as a result, and he is meant to personify evil. He is a symbol of what Jesus will have to confront in his ministry. Some Bible scholars argue that these temptations didn’t even happen. After all, Jesus doesn’t report the event himself and there are no other eyewitnesses. The story may have been created through combining the well-known testing of Job with a series of actual verbal challenges that are recorded throughout the Gospel of John. The story also has the same kind of power that our Westerns do: good guy vs. bad.

I’m not trying to question Scripture. But I do want to suggest that this is not a story about temptations as we often understand the word: “My, that second piece of cake is tempting.” What matters here, I think, is that Luke is using materials legitimate for his time to show us his portrait of Jesus, to show us Jesus sorting out the words that he heard at his baptism and even his inner struggle over the implications of these words: What does it mean to be God’s chosen? It also helps to remember that the Spirit led him into this time of retreat. This is necessary prayer work. And in fact the devil or—if you’ll permit me—the inner voice actually proposes some fairly legitimate scenarios.

If Jesus is hungry; why not use some of his own power to feed himself? Moreover, if he can turn stones into bread, he will be able to feed all those poor hungry people who will soon be thronging around him. Moses fed his people. Isn’t Jesus at least as responsible a leader? As for the kingdoms of the world: Most of the known world was cruelly oppressed by Rome. Why shouldn’t Jesus use his power for good by overthrowing that kingdom as many hoped the Messiah would do? Finally, that inner voice reminds him of the very 91st Psalm that we prayed this morning. Go to the temple in Jerusalem, the tempter says, and by flinging yourself down right before the priests show everyone what God’s Chosen can do. The Psalm says that the angels will catch you.

Jesus says no to each suggestion and finds strength in his wilderness because he is unwilling to test God, is unwilling to trust God only if God performs certain tricks on demand, like changing stones into bread or rescuing someone from a gratuitously rash action. Nor can Jesus take on Rome by entering its political arena. Ultimately Jesus will say yes to each of these suggestions, but in God’s way: He will feed the 5,000; he will challenge all political systems that are not modeled on justice and peace; and he will climb the cross and empty the tomb to show God’s high regard for saving life.

Luke ends his account on a true reality-series note by telling us that the devil departed from him but only “until an opportune time.” These impulses to test God, to put one’s own ambitions or abilities first, or to shut down when the demands get too great will become evident again at the end of Luke when Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and urges his disciples to “pray that you may not enter into temptation.” He himself initially prays to be delivered from the crucifixion.

But what happens in the Garden, like what happens in our passage this morning, is really about the responses that Jesus gives under pressure. If Jesus uses this time, at the beginning of his ministry, to decide what kind of responses he is going to offer to God, we can also use our reading of this passage to decide what kind of responses we will offer as followers of Jesus. We too have been baptized and on the second Sunday after Epiphany had the chance to reaffirm our baptismal vows. Like Jesus, we have very human needs and wants. But we often turn most whole-heartedly to God when we are in our own wildernesses.

Maybe that is just as well, even though such behavior could be described as mercenary—we’re in it for what we can get. When we’re in trouble, we sometimes have to relinquish our whole way of looking at things. We must let go of all of our need to be in control, of all of our presences, even what we consider our accomplishments. We must take seriously our petition, “Thy will be done,” just as Jesus remembers the teachings from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone”; “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”; and “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Our story this morning and the three challenges presented to Jesus uncover the way in which evil thrives on distortions and lies: wants are seen as needs (one can turn stones into bread), falsehoods claim to be truths (one can gain influence through power), and our faith is presented as something that we challenge God to earn. We encounter such distortions and lies all the time. But Jesus trusts God’s word alone and God’s unfolding directions; he worships and serves only Him. For us to do that may well take the rest of our earthly lives and beyond. But Jesus’ responses to the questions that tempted him can strengthen us in our dry times here and now. As we return again and again to the Lord our God, evil—by whatever name we call it—does not have charge over us.

Let us pray: Dearest God, You are our refuge and our fortress and your angels have charge over us, to guard us in all our ways. Help us to be more receptive to your grace. Help us turn towards you always and not only during our trials and temptations. Let us remember that you are the strong and faithful God who goes with us into the wilderness and the God who leads us through it. Amen.

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