Year C, Lent 1
March 10, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…for forty days He was tempted by the devil.”
Welcome to the observance of a Holy Lent! As we hear in the Ash Wednesday rite, we are invited to observe it, “…by self‑examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self‑denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” I do hope that you are planning to do something, have some resolve around an aspect of your life that needs amendment. Be it a fast of some kind, from Facebook or meat or maybe from rolling your eyes at the mention of our President’s name; or putting on some practice such as coming to church every Sunday, saying Compline every night, taking morning walks with a rosary in your hand, reading a book on a spiritual topic… something, something to focus your attention on God, on Jesus, on the Holy Spirit in all her subtle glory… ‘tis the season to do something to help you pay attention to where you are in relation to God and everything.
We are already a few days in to this penitential season. I know some of us don’t have our practices all worked out, yet. It is not too late!!! If Jesus teaches us anything, it is never too late to turn it around! Start now! Start when you go to bed tonight and turn to page 127 in the Book of Common Prayer that I am confident all of us have on your bedside table. Or resolve to participate in the entire Triduum cycle (basically go to everything in Holy Week). Or start being more pleasant, sober, attentive, neat, adoring even, towards your spouse, kids, friends, neighbors, fellow congregants today, maybe at the peace! Do something to help you pay attention to yourself, your relationship with God, and any impediments therein. Call me if you want to talk about it!
Lent is a journey. We have witnessed the progressive revelation of His Sonship to the world through Epiphany. Lent carries us on the journey that Jesus made from ordinary time, from His earthly ministry in Galilee to Jerusalem and His long walk up Golgotha to the Cross. This journey is mapped out by the church by _____??? Any guesses? The liturgy! Of course. Specifically, we are led from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday by the narrative trajectory of the lectionary. This trajectory is not geographical, we can’t plot our movement on a map; nor is it is chronological, it jumps around time wise and across Gospels, but it is thematic. And what is going to carry us through this Lent is a series of questions, one posed by each gospel reading. Some of the questions are about the nature of Jesus, like today’s from St. Luke’s story of the temptation in the desert. Other questions are about us, and where we are in relation to Jesus. I am really looking forward to the Prodigal Son on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. The story doesn’t tell us if the good son went to the fatted-calf party for his prodigal brother. Are you going (to the party)? Are we with Jesus and all the fools and foolishness thatentails? It is a journey. I look forward to making it with you.
The first step in our journey is the same each Lent – the Holy Spirit leading Jesus in the wilderness for forty days of temptation by the devil. St. Luke only catalogues the last day, but it was forty days – that’ a long time. If you are looking for a Lenten spiritual read, you might consider Norman Mailer’s little gem of a novel The Gospel According to the Son. It is quite good, especially his treatment of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. (His opening up of the crucifixion is also helpful). In any case, our story today picks up on day 40 with a famished Jesus and the devil with alluring things on offer: that Jesus could take care of Himself, that the devil could give Him power over the earth, and that God would not let bad things happen to Him.
Each of these temptations give light to a specific question, our question for this, the First Sunday of Lent: a crown or the cross? What is the nature of Christ’s Sonship? What is the nature of Christ’s relationship with God? Each of the temptations the devil lays before Him suggests a version, a variation on the type of Son He would or could be. And His sonship, the relationship of Father-God to Son-Christ, as laid out here is a model of all right relationship with God… even ours.
Each situation presented to Jesus by the Tempter are timeless. They are perennial questions about the nature of a right relationship with God the Creator. The context in which they are presented, though, is very specific. We need to understand that to understand the temptation, and also so that we don’t tread into the supersessionist territory we spoke of last week. (That is the notion that Jesus is the completion of Judaism, that Israel is in-complete, is invalid even, without Him. That is not true. For us, for Christians, Jesus isthe fulfillment of God’s promise. Completely. He is the covenant to which we ascribe authority to. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a different understanding of their relationship with God, the first covenant is stillin effect for them – and that has got nothing to do with our understanding of God, nor does our understanding have anything to do with their understanding of God. In the spiritual realm, multiple uncontestable truths can [and do] exist at the same time).
The first temptation is a low blow for one who has just fasted for 40 days: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus’ (correct) answer is “One does not live by bread alone.”
In this answer, Jesus references the words of Moses. In Deuteronomy, Moses recounted the story of manna with the words “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Now this is not a commentary on poverty, but is a commentary on the nature of our relationship with God, the primacy of that relationship. What Moses told his people is what Jesus told the Tempter: the need for bread is less important than it is to understand that bread, that everythingcomes from God. Jesus was not going to take matters into His own hands.
There is a joke to this effect. Some scientists discovered that they could create life from dust, like we say on Ash Wednesday, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And oh, they were impressed with themselves! So they went to God and said, “Hey, check this out, we’re just like you, we can make life out of the dust.” God said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Let me see?” So the scientists gathered up some dust and were about to get to work when God interrupted, “Well, if you are going to be just like me, then you should start with your own dust.” Our lives depend on God. What is the nature of Jesus’ sonship? To live like that is true.
The second temptation regards worldly power. The history of Israel is complicated in that regard. Verna Dozier catalogues this in her fabulous book The Dream of God. In it she posits a three-fold fall, that humanity departed fundamentally with God on three different occasions: first in the garden, The Fall; second, installing a king over Israel (David and his house); and finally the Church’s ascendancy under Emperor Constantine, when the fortunes of the Church became one with the Empire’s. This temptation references fall two, and is played out in fall three as well. Worldly power is not the Godly way. Power, real power, is found in love, in God, not in the ability to coerce someone into doing your will. All power is sourced in God (and that was not the sort of power the devil had on offer). Looking for a shortcut, looking for power from other sources is idolatry, treating as God that which is not, for whatever the reason. Jesus rebuffed the devil’s call for worship and at the same time confesses that the only real power comes from God and God alone.
The final temptation occurs on the pinnacle of the Temple, as the Tempter dared Jesus to test God. By now in the story the Tempter has wised up. Jesus answered the first two temptations with scripture, so this time, the devil started hispitch with scripture. (A sidebar lesson – scripture can be bent for any purpose – like perpetuating slavery, the continuing the subjugation of women or the exclusion of LGBTQ folks… even the devil uses it). But Jesus is solid, quoting again from Moses in Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” This is a confession of what Job heard from the whirlwind – we were not there when the foundations of the universe were laid, when the stars were ignited. We don’t even know where the wild ass has it foal, or where our keys are half the time, and we’re going to test God? No. And Jesus, He was learning that He needed to go to Jerusalem, that He would face trials, trials that would take His life. And His response? “Who am I to question God?” The nature of Jesus’ Sonship is not to test, not to question God, but to trust God.
We don’t live on bread alone (and bread itself comes only from God). The powers of the earth are fleeting, and what power there is, is from God. And God’s ways are not our ways, and we can’t understand them, therefore we must not put God to the test. These tests give us an idea about the kind of Son Jesus is. Well, what kind of son He is not, more accurately. And all of these temptations boil down to a single point: God alone is God. (A lot of hot air to get to this point). God alone is God and the proper response to that fact is submission. Jesus submitted to God in the wilderness and the Tempter departed without satisfaction. And He continued to submit. Coming out of the wilderness He preached and healed and performed miracles, all power gleaned from His perfect submission. “Your will, not mine be done,” He said, and it was. That perfect submission, did lead Him to death, even death on the cross, andit led Him to life, life eternal and life abundant. And that perfect submission, Jesus Christ’s perfect conformation to the reality of where the true power of life and death arises, changed everything.
So a worldly crown or a holy cross? Following our own will or that of God? Jesus’ path was clear. God alone is God. So ponder this this week: Where would you be led if you gave it all up to God? Where would you end up if you followed God’s will as perfectly as Jesus did? Well, until an opportune time, AMEN.