Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Romans 10: 8b-13 Luke 4:1-13
Jesus’ ministry begins in the desert, the highlands of the Judean desert west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It is probably the same desert where we found John the Baptist. The leading concerns of the texts in this First Sunday in Lent are temptation, sin and the effects of sin. Not what you would call a light menu.
The Deuteronomy passage provides an important perspective on pastoral care. There is the giving of the first fruit of the harvest and an account of the story of deliverance. What happens to a peoples’ sense of self and history when their priorities are organized around material possessions? When our “stuff” takes over who we are. We may no longer know why and to whom we give thanks. These texts help us understand ourselves as human beings who are under God’s continual care and creative love.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he has much to say to us as we begin our Lenten journey. The fact that this reading is paired with Luke’s temptation story offers us much food for thought. These verses wonderfully illustrate the magnitude of Paul’s teachings. Lent asks us to consider what it means for us to live out the faith that we hold in our hearts. We hear that spirituality, helping others, and recognizing God as the source of our being are important to a life of faith. The empty vessels behind the altar remind us that we are to empty ourselves during our Lenten journey to allow more room for God. They represent us – our need and willingness to be filled with God. The broken pieces represent those times in our lives that we have been broken, so God can put us back together and fill us to overflowing with love and hope and compassion and joy. Only then do we learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all our needs in all of life’s seasons.
In Luke’s account of the temptations of Christ, we hear a spiritual depth and power for life and ministry that is made possible as we respond to trials, trouble, temptation and testing. If given a choice, most of us would choose the easy path, not the difficult one.
We, in the Episcopal Church have had our share of trials, troubles, temptation and testing. In the 1960’s as the Civil Rights movement consumed the country, we offered no formal statement until the General Convention of 1967. Surely, individual and groups of Episcopal clergy and members marched and rode, spoke out and stood up. But the statement for the General Convention that we “would take its place humbly and boldly alongside of and in support of all oppressed people” came late. The Church hoped to learn something from that hesitation and failure. It wasn’t until 1970 that women were allowed to be delegates to General Convention. That opened up, the opportunity in local churches, for women to serve on vestries. My mother was the first woman to serve on the vestry in our little church in Waynesboro.
At General Convention in 1976, the statement was put forth that “homosexual persons were children of God.” 1976, before the first official ordination of women in 1977. The Philadelphia 11 were unofficially ordained in 1974, and were made official later by the church. The General Convention of 1994, amended the canons for ordination that sexual orientation be added to the non-discriminating factors for ordination. Then in 2003, we elected Gene Robinson, the first openly gay, priest elected as bishop. Following in 2006, the election of the first female Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schorri. In 2009, the General Convention passed a resolution for a committee to begin gathering resources and liturgies for the blessing of same-sex couples. And in 2009, General Convention opened ordained ministry to gay men and women. And in 2015, General Convention voted on marriage equality and elected the first African-American Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
We have had our share of trials, troubles, temptation and testing. We have had our share of wilderness experiences. People being tempted to cut their losses and run. People who stick their heads in the sand and wait for things to blow over. People who have pledged to try and better understand someone “other” than themselves. We have had our share of trials, troubles, temptation and testing.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to embrace an intentional way of life. In some traditions, Lent is referred to as the “Season of Bright Sadness,” a beautiful illustration of what these forty days represent. The bright hope of the Resurrection is overcast with a cloud of sadness, anticipating the betrayal and death of Christ. This season teaches us to hold in our hands both the celebration of life and the reality of death.
It’s not just the death and resurrection of Christ, but the undeserved grace and deliverance from death that we must come to terms with. For the forty days of Lent (not including Sundays), we follow the example of Jesus who was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil”. The Spirit doesn’t just drop him off in the wilderness to fend for himself. The Spirit continues to abide with him, enabling him to grow stronger through this season.
Christians have always found comfort in the idea that Jesus was tempted just as we are. But his temptations in this famous story, are not just examples showing us how to resist, but how to resist with the proper tools. Notice how well-prepared Jesus is with the right scriptural responses to each temptation - to come back again and again. They are part of the larger story of how the “kingdom of God” came to earth.
The three temptations here, are like most temptations, they are good things that are being distorted. Bread is good. “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus will later create a huge amount of it from a few loaves, to feed the hungry people. But should he do that just for himself – just to satisfy himself that he really is the ‘Son of God’ as we heard in his baptism? No, Jesus will satisfy himself with what God has said, instead of having to prove it.
So, too, Jesus may already have a sense that his own vocation would end in a horrible death, trusting that God would raise him from the dead. But the devil wants him to sidestep God’s prophetic plan for the Messiah and claim his throne immediately. Again, Jesus refuses – that he would be using God’s power as magic. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.”
Luke stresses Jesus’ relationships with people. He emphasizes prayer, miracles and angels. He records inspired hymns of praise and gives a prominent place for women. Jesus is God’s Son entered into human history. The whole story, God’s story is about the alternative path, the true way by which Jesus comes to embody God’s kingdom on earth.
Once again, we are not simple spectators in this extraordinary drama. We too, are tempted to do the right things in the wrong way or for the wrong reason. Part of the discipline of Lent is about learning to recognize the flickering impulses, the whispering voices, for what they are, and to have the scripture-fueled courage to resist them. We, too, are part of the ongoing battle to establish the kingdom of God here on earth. Every successful fight against temptation is one more step on the road to the ultimate victory.
During this Lenten season, one question rises above all others: “What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?” Frederick Buechner suggests that after his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus, and that during Lent, we are to ask ourselves what it means to be Christians, what it means to follow Jesus. Before we can understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, the Messiah, we must understand what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah.
The idea that the Messiah would deliver the Jews from Roman oppression was common in the first century. Galilee was the hotbed of revolutionary activity. It is not surprising that Jesus’ disciples would have such thoughts. No one expected a suffering and dying Messiah!
“Satan” put three temptations before Jesus: If you are hungry, change stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, leap from the tower and rely on angels to rescue you. If you bow down before me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. These examples that seem archaic and irrelevant, now represent things that are all too familiar to us. Magical powers, helplessness, rescue, control, and power, beckon us every day of our lives. We frequently are tempted with, “Just around the corner lies happiness; a new job will provide satisfaction and fulfillment, if only I had what she has, then I would be…”
What is asked of Jesus is what is asked of us: that we give up illusion – its false promises – and come to our senses. The devil offered the whole world to Jesus, if Jesus would bow down and worship him. Today, we are frequently offered worldly possessions that entice us with power and materialism. From deep within Jesus emerges his refusal of the way of power, a refusal he will have to repeat again and again on the way to the cross. Jesus will be doggedly and passionately one with God’s struggling and needy children. To stand with them means that he can never stand over them.
Later in his ministry, Jesus would accomplish each one of these “temptations,” but in a reversal of those days in the desert. He would change stones into bread – a few loaves of bread and five small fish would feed the five thousand. He would “hurl himself from a tower” and “be caught by angels,” by giving up his life on the cross. He would be worshipped, by humbling himself as a servant.
For us, what if, instead of waiting for the stones to be changed to bread, we share the food we have, the gifts we have - in giving to the Sacks for Saturday or making sandwiches for the folks at Mary Street Mission. What if, rather than waiting for the fantasy job, we take on with joy and determination the people and work of our lives, by showing up early and staying late, by loving and accepting all our coworkers, even those difficult to love. What if, rather than waiting to be rescued, we lay down our lives for our friends by sharing time, attention and intention – then we shatter the deadly illusion and embrace the living reality. In loving others, that is what we are doing with the example of our lives. What if during these forty days of Lent, we become actively engaged in our own lives, our families, our work, our church, our community, our world? What if we live more, show up more, do more, speak out more, love more for these forty days of Lent?
We, in the Episcopal Church have had our share of trials, troubles, temptation and testing. It has been during these times that we learn and grow in who God is for us. It is during these times that we rely more on God to give us direction and support and on our fellow sojourners to share their gifts and give us hope and comfort. God wants us to live by faith, not by magic. Where is God leading you during this Holy Lent? Amen.