Sermon for March 1, 2020 Lent 1A
Audio will be available here for several weeks.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 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 will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I was recently in the company of people who were using “colorful” language. Noticing that I was there, they felt somewhat apologetic about it — not enough to stop using the language — but enough to feel the need to say something vaguely contrite.
So I told them of an experience I had many years ago. I was listening to a famous Christian author and professor who was speaking to youth workers like me, about global poverty. He told us that according to the World Health Organization, 15,000 children die of hunger every day.
Then he said, “And most of you don’t give a S*#*! about it.” And then he said something I will never forget. He said, “And the fact is that most of you care more that I said S*#! than that all those children will die of hunger today.” And he was right.
I was shocked by that realization. It made me re-examine my whole approach to what was ethically important. Language, I concluded, is trivial. Global poverty, the death of children is not.
Sometimes it helps to step back from the details to get a big picture view of things. The church has had a habit of trivializing temptation.
We have made things like language, meat and chocolate important at Lent, instead of things that actually matter in the world. Let us not do that. There are big issues going on here that we need to look at.
We always begin Lent with the story of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. That is a good place to start our 40 days of preparation for Easter, as long as we keep the big picture in mind and refuse to trivialize what is going on here.
First, let us notice the big picture issue that this whole temptation scene is about desire. As Matthew presents this story, Jesus has been fasting. He is hungry. He is physically weak. He is in the wilderness, which means he is alone, isolated, without any social support. He is experiencing desire on every level.
Let us remember this story in the context of Jesus’ life, as the gospels present it: Jesus has just been baptized, which was a hugely significant moment for him; a spiritual experience; a mystical moment in which he heard the voice of God calling him God’s own beloved son. And immediately he goes from what must have been an exhilarating feeling to being isolated and needy. This seems to be a pattern.
Jesus’ personal life echoes the experience of his people, the Israelites. In the Biblical story, they crossed the Red Sea, set free, liberated from slavery in Egypt, as God’s chosen people, and immediately found themselves in the hungry, empty wilderness of unmet desire.
Why are these two stories told this way? And why are they so much like the creation story in Genesis, in which the first experience of the original man and woman is the Garden of abundance, nevertheless they come to the forbidden tree and experience desire, as if they lacked something?
We call these texts our “wisdom tradition” for a reason. Long ago, people of spiritual insight understood that to be human is to be both a beloved child of the divine, and yet permanently hungry. We live with a sense of being loved and of longing. We have an aching desire at the core of our being for a union that escapes us. We experience it as a lack. Something is missing.
There is an incompleteness, even in our best moments of joy. Intense pleasure can also carry pain. As one poet put it, “tears can sing, and joy shed tears.” (Bruce Cockburn)
The First Temptation
The essential temptation we all live with is to try to fill up that inner empty space with things that cannot possibly satisfy. Like cotton candy, when what you need is a decent meal, the sugar tastes good, but no amount will help. So, the first temptation is to try to fill that lack on the cheap.
This is the first temptation Jesus faced. Make some quick bread out of stones. Self medicate. Keep yourself distracted from feeling your hunger feelings. Keep the TV on. Go shopping. Everyone has their own go-to spiritual junk food. The more we gorge on it the sicker we feel.
Nothing else substitutes when the hunger is for God. Union with God is what we long for, not for empty carbs. So, Jesus says to the tempter,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
The word that Jesus has just heard is that he is God’s beloved Son. That is the word we all need to keep hearing until we believe it.
The late Henri J.M. Nouwen, who wrote and taught on the spiritual life said,
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection….When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
All of those empty carbs seem attractive, until we internalize the word that God says to us: you are beloved, you are my child. With you I am well pleased. Don’t give into the temptation to settle for less.
The Second Temptation
The second temptation is to turn to God, but only as a cheap crutch, a rescue from a bind; a bail out. Throw yourself off the tower and then call for help.
This temptation is seductive, because it comes close to the real thing — after all, the desire is for God, not for phony substitutes and pain-killers.
But the God of the sudden rescue is not the real God at all. God is God, not a dog that responds to the “fetch” command.
This way of looking at God actually set us up for the biggest problem that people of faith confront: the problem of pain and suffering. If God is sitting there watching us go through the wilderness — whatever that wilderness may be for us, depression, addiction, grief, failed relationships, financial hardships, family issues, or being the victim of systemic injustice, just to name a few — if God is sitting on “his” hands doing nothing, even when we cry out for a rescue, then why?
But God is not a being like that at all. God is the Ground of all being. God is like light — not a thing to see, but the means by which we see everything. So God’s presence is real, but not like Superman.
Rather, God is present by the Spirit always and everywhere, luring us to the next right thing, to goodness, even after evil, to love, even after suffering. So the answer Jesus gave is perfect:
“do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The Third Temptation
The third temptation is the cynic’s temptation. Having found no help in the rescue God, the cynic concludes that God is, after all, not on offer. Having not found the version of God he was looking for, he concludes that there is no God at all. So the temptation is to assuage that aching inner desire by pure materialism. All the kingdoms of the world are available if you sell your soul and go after them.
But, as they say, “all that glitters is not gold.” And there is never enough glitter to satisfy. A whole book of the bible is devoted to this insight. Ecclesiastes is the testimony of a person who had it all, and found none of it helpful.
There is no spiritual union possible when the call of the Spirit has been muffled under piles of possessions.
Temptation and Desire
Temptation is not trivial, it is existentially real. What do we desire? Every Sunday I ask you to set your intention for the service. I ask, Why did you come? What do you need from this service? My hope is that at the root of your desire is a quest for a connection with the real God, and nothing less.
And my belief is that a real connection with the real God can be transformative. Jesus walked out of that desert into a life of ministry, a life of meeting human needs, a life of compassion in the face of suffering and oppression. He gave his life to that purpose, because he had learned to overcome the temptations of desire.
He listened to the word of God calling him his beloved child and walked away from cheap substitutes. Let us follow Jesus. The journey begins in wilderness.