Year A, Lent 1
March 5, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Good morning everyone! It is very good to be back after a couple of weeks in and out of town. For those of you who could not join us on Wednesday, Welcome to a holy Lent! I don’t know if you have noticed, but each year we kick off Lent on the same note, with this story, the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness.
Not only do we start every Lent with this story, but each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain the Temptation narrative. That means that this is one that A.A. Milne would have capitalized; it is a Very Important Story, and a striking one. It follows the Baptism of our Lord, and the Holy Spirit descending, like a dove, and the voice of God identifing Jesus as “…my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then immediately in each of the Gospels, “Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Now I don’t want to get too far down the Satan rabbit hole, but we need to say something. The Devil is a complicated idea for some of us on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum. Evil exists in the world, and we, human as we are, are subject to it, tempted by it. Satan, Diablos, the devil… one way to think about this religious category is as an anthropomorphism, a metaphors of human-like traits used to describe how evil works. It is a personification of evil so we can better tell (or tell better) stories about it. The connotations are quite specific. The Hebrew word, Satan, means “one who opposes or obstructs, an adversary.” (Makes sense that Jesus sometimes, like in our Rite I mass, is called our Mediator and Advocate). The Greek word, diablos, means one who throws something in your path, an obstructionist. In Job he is called “the Accuser.”
There are things that get in our way, get in the way of us being who we know we should be, who we want to be, try to be. Things get in the way of who we know God and everyone expects us to be. For some of us that comes in a bottle. Or a pretty face. Or a house full of things or our willingness to guarantee our own comfort and security regardless of the expense to others. Things get in the way of us and who we are supposed to be, and that, we call Satan. Not an actual pointy-eared creature like we see on the cover of our bulletin today, but that busy and large voice that screams in all of our heads “Come on in, the water is fine!” just as the shark’s fin breaks the surface. That character, Satan, lives in all of us. It is not out there, it is in here. When it comes to Diablo, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Last week I was in Southern California at an institute of the Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries. It is an organization that brings together what we call the Radical Discipleship movement, a loose network of Christians around the world for whom struggling with the principalities and powers of the world is central to our understanding of Jesus Christ and the practice of the Christian faith. Historic peace churches, Catholic Workers, Gandhian Christians and other assorted Christian activist cats and dogs gather around scripture and the hermeneutic of Ched Meyers, its founder and convening force. It is very serious material, and there are a lot of very serious people involved in this movement. It is not all work, though, it is also feels kind of homey, and is a lot of fun.
The gathering theme of this year’s institute was Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” which was given 50 years ago this April. What we talked about mostly was the intersectionality of the speech, and through that analysis, the intersectionality of so many of the ills we face in our world right now. Intersectionality. That was the word of the week. What that means is that it is never one thing, it is always a complex of issues that makes the world, that makes us what we are. All aspects of our existence intersect, sometimes bringing great good: sun and soil and seed and a bit of water combine and life is possible. Good intersectionality. And then there is the not so good kind, the kind Dr. King spoke about: race, economics and war. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech was monumental because it was the first major statement by an established leader, a Nobel Prize winner even, that linked his initial concern, race, racism, the struggle for civil right, with two other major sites of social sin: economics, poverty or more broadly class and war, most manifesting most brutally in 1967 in our war in Vietnam. What a hermeneutic of intersectionality revealed through Dr. King was that we can’t address race independent of class and poverty, and we can’t begin to address class and poverty without also addressing the systemic moral corruption of the imperial warfare being waged by largely poor, often brown American people against poor, brown Southeast Asian people, and that all together was a threat to the soul of America. Like in our very moment, the budget proposed by the president is taking money directly from society, from the schools, social services, from the very mouths of our most vulnerable, disproportionally people of color, to feed the gaping maw of our imperial war machine which exists to further the cause of the 1%. Their vital interests are not ours. Nothing exists in isolation. Which brings us right back to Jesus in the wilderness.
We spent three days of the conference looking at this story, the temptation of Jesus, because one of the ways we can read this story is through a lens of intersectionality. It is no accident that the devil comes to Jesus with these three specific temptations. No, these are three archetypal temptations that have plagued humanity since we became human (or at least since our mythic progenitors sampled of the forbidden fruit). We spoke of the temptations as the three “Es”: Economics, Entitlement and Empire.
Now some folks have complained that politics have been increasingly present in my preaching these past weeks and months. If you feel that, I am sorry that you are not feeling engaged, but I am not sorry about nor will I change what I am preaching on. Our society is in danger right now, more obviously in danger than in at least two generations. Truly, it doesn’t matter if we are right with God and at peace in ourselves if everyone and everything around us is going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus calls us to look outward as much as we are called to look inward. Another way to say that we get from our sisters in the feminist movement: The personal is political. The political is personal. Nothing exists in isolation, most of all human beings. Abortion is as personal an issue as there can be, and with the forces of patriarchy still in charge, it is a very political one, too. If we really believe we are all children of God, we can’t possibly stand by and let our government kill people, or create policies that diminish the humanity of anyone for any reason. I am not going to waste your time with therapeutic deism while the fire alarms are going off. The personal is political. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is, too, because if our faith matters here (inside), it has to matter here (outside).
“The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread…’” (And to be clear how political the Gospels are, “Son of God” was a title used by Caesar Augustus, and only Caesar Augustus. Jesus’ use of it was a blatant challenge to imperial authority). Besides questioning Jesus’ very nature: “If you are the Son of God…” what is Satan casting doubt upon? Magically making bread from stones, what does that imply or call Jesus to doubt? Sufficiency. Satan calls into question the grace of God in the sufficiency of the creation, the sufficiency of what Wendell Berry calls “The Great Economy.” Satan is saying that God hadn’t provided for Jesus and that He could take that on Himself. Tempting, especially after 40 days of fasting.
Gandhi famously said “there is enough on Earth for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.” It is the very same lesson that God taught (or tried to teach) Israel in the desert. It was a forty year long lesson. What lesson was that? Manna! The lesson was that God would provide, there was enough, have faith. God taught through the gift of Manna that there is enough for everyone provided first, you don’t horde, (or everyone take just what you need), and that everyone practices Sabbath, another way of saying that we need to learn to limit ourselves. This includes all to jubilee stuff, the intentional limitations we need to put on ourselves to make sure that we all have enough. Jesus making bread from stones would call into doubt that God has provided enough for everyone. (That there is scarcity is due to human sin, not due to the nature of the creation). The first temptation.
“Then the Devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of temple, saying to him, ‘If (if again) you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’’”
First off, just a reminder, the devil knows scripture better than we ever could! As Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “The Devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.” It is no coincidence that the devil takes Him to the pinnacle of the Temple. The church occupies a very different place in our lives than the temple would have then, or that the church would have for many in the west until at least the Protestant Reformation (and some it still looms that large). We teach that the church is important, that it is the vessel that carries the sacraments, but that that is just a particular way to access God, we don’t need the church to access God. But that is from a liberal perspective. There are very different ways to understand how God works in the world.
In Jesus’ time, if you did what you were supposed to in the Temple, God would protect you. That was how the covenant was too often understood. It is like so much of the prosperity gospel taught in evangelical and new age churches today, that God wants us to be rich and successful so long as we believe rightly or that in putting positive energy in the world positive energy will return. I don’t know. I know a good man whose good daughter was just diagnosed with cancer. That is not the result of anything but that some cells in her body are tragically disordered. There is no economy of God’s grace that we as humans can affect. God is there to help us prepare for and bear what comes, not shifting the course of human events on divine whim. There is a level of entitlement to the care of God that the devil is offering, an exceptionalism that we best not put to the test, for it is not for us to test God, but for God to test us. We live by grace alone, and when we begin to feel (and act) as if life is ours to give and take, to tamper with natural cycles, to deny the fact of aging and decline and death, then we will find ourselves in a world of hurt, divorced from how it really is. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Good answer. The second temptation.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.’”
The third temptation is about authority here in the world, it is about empire. (Remember, Jesus exerting His authority was taken by Rome as a challenge to their, to Caesar’s authority). Besides the fact that the devil seems to be fascinated by tall, high up places (someday we’ll have to talk about the Tower of Babel… towers are dangerous things in antiquity), the other thing to note in this temptation is that it seems that the empires of the world were the devil’s to give away! He already owns the empires of the world. Just a note of caution.
This temptation is about who we put our trust in, or at the very least, who ultimately do we follow. The proper answer is God. Men, human beings, they may lead us and we may follow, we must follow to some extent, but our hope is in the name of the Lord! It is about right and wrong, truly right and wrong and not just those categories as filtered through humans and our laws. “You have heard it said… But I say unto you…” We owe alliance and obedience to the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ not to temporal authority. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right (as being illegal doesn’t make something wrong). Our ultimate authority is and must be God. In the book of Judges, the people went to Gideon and asked him to become their king. They wanted a king. It is easier, in ways, to have a king than it is to take responsibility for yourself, like some prefer a religion that just tells you what to do rather than equip your to decide that for yourself. That is why our democracy (and perhaps our church) is so shakey, too few of us are involved, too many of us allow others to make decisions for us, not enough of us do the hard work that freedom, religious or political, takes. Gideon knew this. He said, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” So Jesus answered as of course He would, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Intersectionality. When we are disordered in our relationship to the economy, the material world, AND when we believe that God favors us, that we are exceptional, that we are entitled to the movement of fate in our direction for any reason AND when we place our trust in authorities that are not to be trusted… any of these alone would be troubling, combined, intersecting as they have and continue to do so, we have our work cut out for us.
I’ll end with a poem by the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. He died just one year ago.
For every 10,000 words
there’s a deed
head down, unborn
Words can’t make it happen
They only wave it away
Yet Child, necessary one
Unless you come home to my hands
Why hands at all?
Your season your cries
are their skill