5 March 2017
UCC La Jolla – The Rev. Bear Ride
A very Blessed first Sunday in the Season of Lent to you all. We’re in purple now – suggesting repentance and solemnity. Lent is that time in our Church year that begins the long journey to the Cross – a journey we must take if we are to have a true Easter.
There are six Sundays in Lent – around 40 days of sincere and disciplined self-reflection. The word itself – Lent – is a little mysterious in its origin, but it appears to come from Old English and Old German meaning “lengthening” noting that the days are getting longer…
and Spring is beginning to tease us. Six Sundays – about 40 days. This is the beginning of Lent.
As we begin Lent we jump back to the first chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has just been baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and the voice of God has boomed out “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And then no sooner out of the water – still wet from his baptism – Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” … and we should be able to sense what’s going to happen next because the wilderness is almost always a place of struggle, and it is. And it says that there he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
40 days and 40 nights. Does that ring a bell? Noah and the flood, in the boat together with his menagerie for … 40 days and 40 nights. It was 40 days and 40 nights that Moses fasted before he received the 10 commandments from God on the Mountaintop. Elijah fasted for 40 days and 40 nights as he fled to a different mountain, where he, too, encountered God. In the Bible the number 40 is symbolic of a time of transition. Here Jesus is making the transition from life as he knew it – the private life of a small town Galilean – to the public ministry of God’s own “Beloved.” And this morning’s text continues… Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And indeed, the devil worked on him.
Now here we are, literate people, living in the 21st Century. What do you suppose it means that the devil worked on Jesus? Let’s begin with this: the word translated “devil” in these early chapters of Matthew literally means “slanderer or accuser.” And the word translated “Satan” means “adversary.” So, for example, back then “satan” was their term for the prosecuting attorney in a court of law…
The Greek word usually translated “tempted” as in, “Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted…” can also be translated “to be tested, or tried.” So today’s lesson is really about the trying or testing of Jesus’ character, the cementing of his identity. Here Jesus’ character and identity are illuminated:
a bright light shines on what matters in life, what matters in our core commitments.
A test reveals the character of the one being tested. Another translation of the word “devil” is “to throw over” – as in, to toss aside, to mislead, deceive, discredit. So, still wet from his baptism, the tempter comes to Jesus and says… OK: since you’re the son of God, let’s see what we can get away with, shall we?
Welcome to the journey of Lent. Welcome to this time in which we are given to stop, to examine ourselves – and to recommit ourselves to be in solidarity with the One who was led out into the desert to be tried and tested so he could be in solidarity with us as we face our own desert trials.
So – for Jesus, 3 tests by the one who is trying hard to discredit the belovedness of God’s own Beloved. Three fairly simple temptations that are really variations on the same basic theme, as if the devil has a one-track mind. Go for the power. And take the short-cut to get there.
*Since you’re the beloved of God, take these stones and voila! Turn them into bread. Food is good! Especially when you’re hungry, and fasting for 40 days will do that to you. You know you’ll get some food eventually, why not just save some time with this little trick? You have it in you to set aside the laws of nature and override creation if you wanted to. What’s to hurt with an open display of divine omnipotence?
Is there more at stake than food?
*Since you’re the beloved of God, here, at the pinnacle of the Temple for all to see, Throw yourself down! The angels are at your command. Imagine the spectacle. They’ll swoop down and catch you and you’ll be flown safely down, not a bruise, not a worry.
Is there more at stake than safety?
*Since you’re the beloved of God, here! See, there’s the whole world, and it could be yours. Really. What could go wrong? Just sign here on the dotted line, and I’ll give it all to you.
Is there more at stake than prestige?
Yes. There is much more at stake, Jesus replies, quoting scripture back to the devil who was quoting scripture to him. In the testing, in the tempting, Jesus would not misuse his power for personal gain, and he took no shortcuts to get to glory.
He would not misuse his power for his own security.
He would not misuse his power to amass esteem.
Jesus would not misuse his power.
And here, following his baptism, following his 40 days of self-reflection, following his testing, we begin to see this person, Jesus.
Oh, if only the devil had a face! We’d be more clear about the temptations that surround us. C.S. Lewis does a fabulous job of unveiling the devil among us in his classic book Screwtape Letters. Perhaps you remember the plot: Uncle Screwtape – a seasoned old demon, is tutoring his novice demon nephew, Wormwood, in the art of leading individuals to hell in a handbasket. Wormwood’s task is to darken the heart of his victim to train the victim to depend on the things of this world rather than God. Keep the victim navel gazing and self-involved, advises Screwtape. Do things like suggesting he or she become over-sensitive until everything – including his mother – grates on the nerves. The temptations that are most successful in derailing the victim involve pride, vanity, selfishness and apathy. Note here that Screwtape and Wormwood are not trying to create an army of ruthless terrorists; rather they are trying to create a generation of people who are defined by pettiness, fear, insincertity and the need to control things. Now we’re talking! This is the real stuff of temptation.
Temptation – and the resultant sin – is woven into the very fabric of our living – into the structures, the politics, the systems and values we deal with daily – whether we want to or not. It is so easy to be tempted to simply heave a sigh and move on in the face of what’s happening around us: 4 mosques ablaze this week alone, another slew of bomb threats to other siblings of faith in the rash of antisemitism and just downright hatred of our Jewish neighbors and friends. Deception in politics and governance, a certain callousness to those suffering trauma and mental illness and homelessness. Fear and rash judgments we might make regarding strangers we don’t understand. Insecurity as we look around and worry we don’t have enough. It’s all become so mundane, and we are quite capable of succumbing to these temptations with alacrity. And in this process Screwtape is doing his work – the faceless movements of evil that begin to seem mundane and lurk in the recesses of our lives. What desert are you in, this first Sunday in Lent? How is the tempter working on you?
Lent is that time for us to think about our own questions of identity and meaning – 40 days – as it was for Jesus. Both as individuals and as a congregation, it’s important for us to take a look at our lives, to reflect on the gifts God has given us, our relationships and opportunities. This is another lesson on the grace of God. God our Creator, God our Liberator, God our Constant Friend – the triune God brings us the message of a sweet and gracious love and acceptance that longs to cement our identities in lives of faithfulness and gratitude. Use these 40 days.
It is said that when Martin Luther felt the beginnings of satan’s work of identity theft – of doubt, of insecurity, off fear – he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, “Away with you Satan! I am baptized!” Remember then the promise inscribed on your hearts at baptism, in which God has declared you worthy of love, dignity and respect – as is also true of all creation.
The Bible tells about two types of power: the kind that lords it over others and the power that liberates and reconciles. The former takes shortcuts, while the latter: confident that:
the realm of God will come and the will of God will be done, that we will receive daily bread, and will receive forgiveness as we in turn forgive, and that we would be delivered from the tempter and the path of evil – We are confident that this power of God will lead us through our deserts to a better way.
We close with a prayer that is found in the service for Evening Prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship:
“O God, you have called your servants to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go, h
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
—©2017 The Rev. Dr. Bear Ride
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If 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.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.