From the Gospel, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Good morning! It is an absolute pleasure to return to St. Peter’s! Normally when I visit, I’m sitting in the pews, but today I am honored that Father Don has graciously allowed me to serve as the preacher. While I claim no talent nearly as equal to his gift for a turn of phrase, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart will be acceptable not only to God’s sight, but might even edify your heart. As I mention to Father Don when I visit, this is a very special community and I always find myself blessed and refreshed after worshiping here.
We have just ended the season of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. Over the past few weeks, we heard stories about Spirit descending like a dove at Jesus’ baptism, his turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, and about a large catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee. Finally, we were treated to a true mountaintop experience at the Transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. But like all mountaintop experiences, they must eventually end and we must leave that mountain and descend into the valley. After the highs of Epiphany, we are now called to a sojourn into the valley of Lent.
Traditionally, Lent is a season of sacrifice. Many of us give something up. For some, it is a season of taking on extra acts of service and kindness, and even still for others a period of reflection. We all do different things in preparation for the joy that comes with Easter. The Gospels say that Jesus was led, or in one case it says he was driven, into the wilderness for 40 days so that he will be prepared and equipped for his ministry. The wilderness is often seen as a setting for a period of testing, or used to describe a difficult time our in spiritual lives. God sent his people, the Israelites, into the wilderness for 40 years to wander with only the presence of a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them. Noah was on the ark in the wilderness of the floodwaters for 40 days until he was brought to rest on the shores of a mountain.
In many ways, we can say that our world is in its own valley of Lent. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty out there isn’t there?. Hundreds of thousands people have lost their jobs or their homes. The economy, while showing some signs of life, is still in tatters. The rising costs of health care continue to spiral ever upward. The picture, by many accounts, may be best described as “not at bleak as it was.” While things may be “not as bleak,” it seems at times as if there is a cry for a type of all-knowing, all-powerful Superman to come and give us all the answers, to use his great and mighty powers to see things with his x-ray vision that we cannot, to melt the huge snow drifts or take away the cold, and to fly in out of the blue and knock some heads together with his super strength so something good can actually happen.
In Jesus wilderness experience, he encountered the Devil who tempted him to use his power in a Superman-type way. Now, I know that some people take issue with the notion of a Devil, but regardless of what one believes about the nature of the Enemy, there is no denying that in this world there are forces that are in great opposition to love, health, wholeness and peace. If we pay even scant attention to the news, we can see and hear stories of greed which have caused untold ruin to the lives of others. In the New York Times earlier this week, there was an article about a relatively new political movement and the first words of the article struck me. Those words were “Pam Stout has not always lived in fear” and then the article goes on to talk about how her new zeal for change is not motivated not by love or a desire for justice, but by fear and anxiety. When we give into those forces, or to our own most base desires or addictions, we start to lose touch with the gifts that God has given us …. our talents, our skills and even in extreme instances, our friends or loved ones.
So we see that world is in a mess, and along comes the Devil who tries to convince Jesus to use his power as the Messiah to BE that Superman many of us long for … to do a lot of practical, pragmatic things that would leave beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is who he says he is. The Devil asks Jesus to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off the top of the temple to prove his power over death, and to join forces with the Devil to clean things up. But, instead of doing these things and acting like an all-knowing, all-powerful Superman, Jesus insists on being more like Clark Kent. For all his power, this is his method of choice in demonstrating his Messiah-ship. In fact, he was born as Clark Kent, he lived as Clark Kent, and he died as Clark Kent.
“Come on,” the Devil says. “Jump into the phone booth, man! Show me what you got! With my brains and your brawn, we could really go places.” He even uses Psalms full of Messianic imagery to make his point. Instead, Jesus turns to Deuteronomy and God’s basic instructions for human life. “Hey, guy, that’s not what I’m about. YOU might think that what it takes for this place to work properly is some flashy show of power and might, but as far as I’m concerned, just simple faithfulness and obedience to God by simple humanity kind of does it all.”
The Devil, as we said, uses Scripture to try and trip up Jesus. All of us are familiar with ways in which what are meant to be life-giving words from the Bible have been used inappropriately. As a native Southerner, I can say to my own shame and sorrow that it was used by my forebears to justify the enslavement of Africans-Americans, and after their emancipation there were laws that were passed for the sole purpose of keeping anyone who was not white “in their place” and even from voting. Scripture has also been used and is still used in some churches to deny women their God-given gifts and calling to leadership. What on earth can be done to counteract this misuse? How was Jesus able to stand up to Devil and make him flee? We can start with how Jesus got into the wilderness in the first place, and that is by being led by the Holy Spirit.
Now, Luke’s Gospel has an interesting accent on the Spirit’s work in Jesus life. The Spirit was present at Jesus’ conception, his baptism, the Spirit is present here in the wilderness and will be present even later. At the end of the Gospels, we see that same Spirit is not just for Jesus to have, but for the entire Church, the entire Body of Christ. Resisting and thwarting the Devil is not just a simple act of willpower or mental gymnastics on Jesus’ part, but it happens through the presence of God which is made available and offered to us freely. The Holy Spirit doesn’t leave Jesus but is always present. This is why I would even go as to far as to say this is how Jesus was able to counter the Enemy at every turn .. test by test,… blow by blow,… mano a mano. In essence, the response to the temptations and tests thrown his way by the Enemy was a response of faith and a confession of that faith. Even as it says in Romans (as we heard earlier today) “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts.” So it is then, that the presence of God is always with us. When bad things happen, or when calamity strikes, a question we may ask is, “Where is God?” The answer is, “Well, He’s right here, of course! He hasn’t gone anywhere!” A better question though might be, in what way is God here NOW and how or when will we know that He’s hanging about with us.
The ironic thing is that Jesus eventually does everything the Devil asks him to do, but on his own schedule and in his own way. Jesus may not have turned stones to bread, but he did feed at least 5,000 hungry people a meal of bread and fish. Jesus did not merely cheat or escape death, as the Devil suggested he do by throwing himself from the temple, but he willingly and intentionally enters the embrace of death on the cross and rises again as the first fruits of New Life in the Resurrection. Instead of using the Devil’s strong-arm tactics of world conquest, he ascends to the right hand of God the Father and is revealed to be not only greater than the Prince of Powers of this world, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus does everything at the promptings of God through the Holy Spirit, the very same God that moves ordinary people just like you and me to do things that we normally wouldn’t dream we would be capable of doing! It is that same faith that Jesus has, that same trust that God is at work not only in the world, but in our very lives. It is that same love of God, the love of our neighbors, and the love of each other which Jesus showed, even when things are at their darkest, that will bring salvation and peace to the entire world. The Good News of the Temptation of Christ that I have for you today is that we will not be overcome by evil, but that evil will ultimately be overcome by good.
The story of our faith from the fall of Adam until now is not how about we searched and found God, but God reached out and searched for us… and even better, God FOUND us, so that we are all caught up in the reach of his saving embrace.
God is not in the habit of raising up Supermen to bring his message to the world, but God raises up Clark Kents like you and me. As it says in the prayer book, God’s power, working in us, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
The Devil says to Jesus, “If you are who you say you are, turn these stones to bread.” Jesus counters and in another Gospel, he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.” Later, when he does feed the 5,000 and then the religious authorities are asking for Jesus to show THEM a sign that he is this Son of God, he tells them something that gives further clarification to what he told the Devil. He says, “I am the bread of LIFE. The one who comes to me will never hunger, and the one who believes in me will never thirst…all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day ”
Dear People of God, we are now sojourning in the valley of Lent …. but Easter is coming.