Year C, Lent 1 February 14, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…Jesus… was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil…”
Good morning everyone! It is Lent! Well, not today, exactly. From Ash Wednesday to Easter there are 46 days and only 40 of them are fast days. Today is the first of six Sundays in Lent, not of Lent; meaning that we’re in a little bubble of the Feast of Our Lord in the midst of a season of fasting; meaning that technically the fast can be put aside today. The monks we lived with served wine with Sunday dinner in honor of that liturgical loophole. Do what you will with that, I’m keeping my fast through the whole thing, but there is that historic dispensation if you need it. Really, though, whatever it takes to keep your eyes on the prize of a closer relationship with God. I do hope that your forty days are as fruitful and less full of temptation than Jesus’ 40 days were.
It is quite a story, Our Lord’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness. It is amazing not only for what He went through, but that He intentionally put Himself in such a precarious position: alone, hungry, in a weakened state knowing that that is exactly when the devil rears his ugly head, or maybe more likely, raises his beautiful and charming and oh so tempting head. Remember the devil won’t be repulsive, but will be alluring, “A man of wealth and taste,” as Mr. Jaggers observed. It is sort of like chemical weapons, they aren’t made to smell bad, but to smell good like geraniums or hay so you take a deeper breath. Tempting.
Temptation is not a word we use in polite company, particularly here in South Eugene, but oh, temptation is everywhere. Truly, it is the basis of our economy, right? Temptation is the animating force of capitalism. It is all about indulgence. Over-doing it, craving and lust sell. Visions of power and grandeur, sell. Immortality, perpetual youth, sell. The desire to become wealthy and powerful tempts us to take unreasonable risks, and to dispense with very reasonable ethics. That is the foundation that this society is built upon. Temptation is everywhere, just look at the cover of the magazines in the grocery line or listen to some of the political rhetoric or the latest financial news being spouted all over the airwaves. Temptation.
Someone knocks on your door offering something too good to be true. “I have all of the answers, vote for me!” “This one little pill will cure everything that ails you!” “Use this one trick and you can eat anything you want, never lift a finger exercising AND lose weight!” Temptation. Now, at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning, when you are at the top of your game, rested, ready, fed, maybe you and your love had a lovely evening together… you are practically impervious to the temptation of the easy path, the simple way. “Get behind me, Satan!” just rolls off the lips. But at 2:00 AM, or after that second bottle of wine, or following another bad argument with the spouse, or while balancing your checkbook and you are not sure which bill to skip… or after being in the wilderness forty days, or like Israel, forty years, things can look a bit different, can’t they? You might not feel quite as strong, would you?
We don’t find ourselves having an affair if everything is hunky-dory in our lives and our relationships, do we? Folks who embezzle from their work-place aren’t doing that from a warm and fuzzy place, are they? We don’t suppress a people, bomb a village, or plunder an economy when things are good on the home front, do we? Not usually. Like disease, temptation has traction when we are weak, or weakened by the vicissitudes of life, be it by bad choices or bad circumstances. You know what I mean, right?
Jesus put himself right in the path of the devil in His retreat to the wilderness. Is that why He went out there, to be tempted? We don’t know, but that is what He got. He was famished: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread!” He was a poor peasant: “If you worship me, it (all of the kingdoms of the earth, all the worldly authority the world has to give) will all be yours.” He knew that He was the Son of God, but no one else did, yet: the devil takes Him to the pinnacle of the temple, the highest point of the very heart of His people, Israel, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for…” angels will protect you; you will not even stub your toe. He was famished, powerless, called but not believed… How precarious! And those offers, those temptations… Could you resist?
You’ve been there, right? Famished for food, affection, attention, success, just being noticed by him? You have felt powerless, had no say in where you live, or work, or if you can afford something you need. Maybe you have had to ask yourself if your child is going to make it through this or whether the hitting will ever stop, or the grief or the pain or the sadness. You know what it means to have no one believe you, no one see what you see, no one know, really know what you have to offer them and the world if you only had the chance to show them? I know some of those feelings very intimately. We all do, to some extent. Those are our weak points, that is where we feel temptation most keenly, when we are most likely to stumble.
Jesus didn’t stumble. Well of course, He is the Son of God. He is God, right? Of course, and He was fully human, too. Born of a woman, just like us. Living and breathing and having so many of the same feelings as we do, so He is in fact more than a super-human ideal, He is a human ideal and we can, we must learn from Him.
That is our first lesson for today, the First Sunday in Lent, that temptation is most powerful when we are alone, when we feel alone, when we are weakened, sick and tired and depressed and feel that we are just dangling out there in the wind, adrift on a sea of murky chaos and watery depths waiting to swallow us whole. That is when we are at risk, like Jesus was, which is why the devil chose to visit Him there, before withdrawing “…from him until a more opportune time.”
This was not an opportune time for the devil, though. It was not opportune because Jesus was strong. Maybe not strong in body or mind or spirit, 40 days of fasting is pretty hard core, but Jesus was strong because He was not alone. That is our second lesson for today. He had solid rocks on which to stand; we need such rocks in our lives, too.
So how does Jesus answer each of the temptations the devil throws in His path? With scripture, right? Hungry? “One does not live on bread alone.” Got power? “Worship the Lord and serve only Him.” Want to live forever? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus refutes temptation by falling back on, by relying on God’s word – rock solid truth in a tumultuous world.
That is the first rock, the Word of God. Scripture is always there for us. And some of us, find deep solace, find true refuge in the word of God. For some it is the content; the wisdom that the Word conveys. For some, it is more the form; inspired writing prayed upon constantly for thousands of years and bequeathed to us by our ancestors. That weight of tradition we spoke of last week is very present in our relationship with scripture. In either case, Holy Scripture is a point of reference, a known point in the ether from which we can begin to understand and make meaning of the world.
You all heard about the big discovery this week, the confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves that Albert Einstein had theorized a hundred years ago. I am no physicist, Algebra II kind of stymied any scientific aspirations, but my understanding is that detecting these waves tells us that this one thing is true. I am not exactly sure what that thing is, something about gravity which confirms a segment of the General Theory of Relativity. But the implication is that if that is true, then this, this and that are true. And from there, more pieces fall into place and we begin to have a more clear vision and understanding of it all. The waves are a reference point in the cloud of unknowing.
Scripture can be that. Reference points that we can come back to when we are in less than ideal situations, when we are weak, in the dark nights of our soul and we need a hand, we cannot get through it on our own.
We have other rocks to stand on when temptation arises, other points of reference too, and Jesus used them as well. From the wilderness, where did He go? Home. He went to Nazareth, to His hometown, to His own people, teaching in the synagogues along the way. It didn’t go so well. He made a bit of a scene, shaming His family and neighbors with what He was learning. Some of us struggle with that on trips home, but home can really be another place to go in times that temptations bear down on us. Now home can be home, where you live, where you grew up. Home can be that special chair, that special cup of tea, that special cat snuggled on your lap and you are impervious to all the assaults of the devil. Home can be your mom’s kitchen table. Or your husband’s arms. Or over coffee with your best friend. That pew you are sitting in right now. Your therapist’s, or, gasp, your priest’s office. Home, others… this is, like Scripture a key reference point we have, a confirmation that you are not alone and that the world isn’t quite as fluid as it looks (or it is that fluid but those who love us remind us that we are as buoyant as a duck).
And there is another place we can go in times of troubles, darkness and temptation a home of sorts: God. Jesus certainly leaned in to God. And we can certainly lean into Jesus. One commentator writes, “The good news is… that the one who was tempted in the wilderness is also the crucified and resurrected one, in whom God’s new life is made available to those who cannot by their own resources, withstand temptation.” We certainly can’t withstand them all, not alone. And then when we do stumble, the Good News is that God forgives us, always.
Jesus was tested in the wilderness and He triumphed! He did not turn stone to bread, but He did feed the hungry. He refused earthly, political power, but He made real the kingdom of God. He didn’t leap off the pinnacle of the temple, but He trusted God all the way to the Cross and broke the bonds of suffering and death. As you encounter temptations such as these in our own 40 days of Lenten fasting, may you go and do likewise. AMEN