Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon for Lent I

St Paul’s, Pekin--Matthew 4:1-11

On the first Sunday after the Epiphany each year, we are with Jesus as he meets John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River and is baptized. Then we follow him around Galilee as he begins to go public with his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, and attracts a band of followers. But we have skipped over something very important, something quite significant. The first Sunday in Lent each year offers us an opportunity to go back and pick up that missing piece. Right after he was baptized, and before he began his public ministry, the gospels tell us, Jesus was “driven by the Spirit” into the Judean wilderness, for the express purpose, it appears, of being tempted by Satan.

Actually, the temptations take place not all throughout our Lord’s retreat in the desert, but at the very end, just as he’s about to re-enter the real world. The Evil One tries to capitalize on the acute sense of need that anyone who had been alone in the wilderness for that length of time would undoubtedly feel.

The first of these needs is pretty low on the hierarchy—if you think of “low” being the “most basic”—of human needs, right above the need for oxygen, the need for immediate personal safety, and the need for water. I’m talking about the need for food, the need—well, at this point, we can probably call it a desire—the desire for a good meal, for a warm loaf of freshly baked bread. “You’re hungry? Just turn these stones into bread.” The devil tempts Jesus to meet that need, to satisfy that desire, in a gratuitously inappropriate way.

The second temptation is more psychological in nature. It appeals to the innate human desire for recognition. “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you. Everyone will see you! You’ll be famous overnight!” How we long to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be known.

The third temptation is almost spiritual. “Fall down and worship me and all the kingdoms of the earth will be yours.” We may not all aspire to world domination, but we do all want some measure of control over our lives, some power to influence our own future.

Satan is a smart cookie in the way he goes after Jesus, and in the way he goes after you and me. He appeals to our sense of need, our perception of desire and longing. Indeed, the very way we think of God and the place where God dwells is couched in terms of our felt needs. What does the expression “Heaven on earth” or “earthly paradise” conjure up for you? Probably some tropical resort where the weather is always perfect and we are constantly waited on hand and foot by a staff of very attractive servants whose only desire is to satisfy our every whim.

There was once a poor working man who took his young son to the wealthy part of town on a Saturday morning, set him down, and said, “Look around you, son. This is the only heaven there is. Do whatever it takes so that you can someday live here.” This man was utterly consumed by his sense of need, his perception of being deprived, his experience of unfulfilled desire. And he was doing his best to pass all the baggage of discontent on to the next generation. That much in itself is reason enough to pity the boy. The really ironic and profound—almost tragic—element in this story, is the limited vision it communicates. The fact is, there are probably countless hundreds of places on this earth that are many times more appealing and attractive and wonderful than the wealthy residential neighborhood to which the man took his son that Saturday morning. So not only was he encouraging the boy to define himself according to his felt needs, he was defining the needs way too narrowly!

The fact is, our vision is woefully limited. We are prisoners of our own finitude. What we would consider heaven-on-earth would not even qualify as a waiting room for the real thing. When I was 19, having been born in South America, raised in the Chicago area, traveled to Europe only a year earlier, gone to college for a year in southern California, and about to embark on a month-long visit back to Brazil, I was with my family visiting some old friends of my parents in the borough of Queens, New York City. These people had a son who was about my age. He and I started to compare notes about travel experiences. His notes were very short: “I went to Connecticut once.” Now, the truth is, living in New York City, he didn’t feel at all deprived by never having been out of the metropolitan area. But I was stunned by what a limited, constricted vision that gave him.

This is what Satan was counting on in his wilderness confrontation with Jesus. His hopes were pinned on Jesus having a limited vision, a vision limited to his own sense of need. Instead, Jesus’ response to the Tempter challenges us to see our felt needs in the light of God’s plan—God’s plan not only for us individually, but for the entire created order, to understand our desires as threads in an infinitely larger fabric—the fabric of God’s creative and redeeming and sustaining activity in the world he has made.

The essence of the Devil’s strategy with Jesus was to persuade him to take the “cheap and dirty” route to the accomplishment of his mission. In the old Roman empire, it was said that an emperor could stay in power as long as he provided the people with “bread and circuses.” Jesus, in his wilderness temptation, was offered the opportunity to adopt the same strategy. The Jewish people were expecting and waiting for a messiah who would be a popular liberator, a revolutionary leader who would throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus could have gone this route. When he was tempted to turn stones into bread, it was more than the satisfaction of his own hunger that was at stake. It was the hunger of the people for “bread” that gave this temptation its appealing edge. Rather than being the messiah he knew he was called to be, Jesus could have been the messiah the people thought they wanted. The odds of success were higher, and it was a lot easier than getting crucified. But he said No to this temptation.

Jesus could also have descended even further, and pandered to the basest instincts of the people—in other words, “circuses.”  The temptation to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, only to have the angels catch him at the last second, offered a route to instant celebrity. He would have been the Jerry Springer of first century Palestine! Again, it beats dying on a cross, any day of the week. Jesus said No to this temptation.

The third temptation is the most subtle. It employs the nearly irresistible logic of  “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Instead of standing in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who criticized the establishment from the position of outsiders, Jesus is tempted to sell out to the system, to go over to the dark side, to become part of the social and political structures it was his job to challenge. It would be a very smooth career path, there would be a great many personal rewards along the way, and—who knows?—maybe he could even use his power and influence to accomplish something positive before the end of his days on earth. But Jesus said No to this temptation.

Jesus said No to all three of these wilderness temptations because he realized that the whole messiah business was not about his needs, or even about visible success. It was about humility, and obedience, and suffering, and—eventually—death, in order to accomplish God’s purpose of rescuing mankind from the iron grip of Sin and Death. There was no nobler purpose, there was no higher calling, than this. To allow his own sense of need to distract him from this vocation would have led to the ultimate tragedy of human history.

As baptized Christians, you and I have embraced the holy vocation of discipleship. We are followers of Jesus. His destiny becomes our destiny. And his life is an example for us. It is our calling to participate in his redeeming work, to share his sufferings that we may also share the power of his resurrection, to be the Lord’s faithful servants as He carries out the plan of salvation. When we understand the life of faith, the life of relationship with the living God, as primarily about getting our needs met, we will be tempted to take the quick and dirty route to success, to pander to the felt needs of others, to enslave ourselves to human social structures. We will be tempted to interpret our unmet needs and our unanswered prayers as evidence that God has abandoned us. This will lead to irritation, then bitterness, and, ultimately, despair. But we can say No to these temptations. When we understand the life of faith, and our relationship with God, as primarily about vocation and ministry and servanthood and the cosmic purposes of an infinite and loving God, we have access to such grace as will enable us to transcend the limits and constrictions that circumstances seem to impose, and lead lives of patient faith.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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