Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 14, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Sitting alone in the desert quickly becomes physically challenging, but it becomes spiritually challenging even more quickly. One of the most powerful spiritual experiences on the pilgrimage was that of praying in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho, all hills and rocks, shortly after dawn. The pilgrims scattered along a path that ran near the top of a ridge, with nothing between us and the distant, parched valley below but the clear, dry air. Praying there for fifteen minutes hardly tested our bodies, but the silent beauty and the sense of remote isolation made it only too easy for my mind to wander. It seemed like no thought was too fleeting to disrupt the unstructured prayers of my thoughts. I gained a new appreciation of the ancient belief that the desert was the preferred abode of evil spirits. In a harsh landscape, good intentions evaporate faster than water.
How Jesus could even stay alive in the desert is difficult to understand without denying the text or invoking a supernatural explanation. Fortunately, the story begins with the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness, which invites a supernatural explanation. But the story is much more about conveying spiritual and symbolic meaning than answering questions of physical endurance. The story is closely connected with the Exodus, particularly the forty years that Israel spent in the desert, and Moses’s time talking to God on the mountain, during which he too ate nothing. Luke’s story also connects Jesus to two of the major themes of Exodus.
The first is the formation of the Hebrew people into the nation, Israel, which parallels the origin of Jesus’s public ministry. Although the lectionary places this story near the beginning of the forty days of Lent, it actually occurs early in Luke’s Gospel, right after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. Only after his time in the desert does Jesus begin his ministry of itinerant teaching and healing. In both cases, the desert experience impresses humility on God’s chosen, showing them that they may be great, but their greatness, like their very sustenance, comes only, entirely, from God.
The second theme, then, is that of trusting God. In Exodus, and really throughout all of Scripture, people struggle to trust God, even after God has blessed them and done miraculous things. Trust is so important that God continues to reach out to the people, as with the gift of the manna, the mysterious food which would appear anew on the desert floor every morning and decay after a day. Since they could not store it up, the people had to trust that God would continue to provide for them. The importance of trusting in God is also reflected in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, where the people are asked to give the very first of their harvest to God, trusting that God would bless their labor and provide enough to sustain them. For Jesus, not only is he trusting God to sustain him physically, but the temptations he endures are attacks on his trust.
The first temptation proceeds obviously enough from the physical reality. The Spirit may have been keeping him alive, but he was still fully human, and famished, more hungry than most of us will ever feel. Jesus’s response to the temptation of a full belly points to the higher stakes of this confrontation. He quotes Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.”
The second temptation is more subtle, easier to rationalize: authority over all the nations of the world. Not only would this make Jesus’s earthly mission of teaching and reform a lot more effective, it’s not so different from his cosmic destiny of ruling all Creation. The devil makes Jesus’s worship of him a condition, but merely accepting the offer could be construed as an act of worship, and certainly a diversion from Jesus’s identity. Consistently, Jesus shows us that his ministry and his very being are based in love, not coercion, and so he consistently rejects other people’s attempts to make him a political or military ruler, even when they mean well.
The third temptation is more subtle still. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy again in his rejection of the second one, so now the devil tries to show off his own command of Scripture. He quotes a psalm and suggests that Jesus show his trust in God and God’s promises by jumping off the Temple and trusting in a divine rescue. Is that so different from Jesus trusting God to sustain him in the desert? What does it matter that one happens more quickly than the other? The difference is that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert, and while she did provide a minimal level of sustenance, the purpose of the excursion was to strengthen Jesus and his imminent public ministry, not to confirm his privileged status. So a stunt like the devil proposed would have been at odds with the will of God and a demonstration of a lack of trust in God’s plan.
Some understand the devil as a completely evil, purely malevolent spiritual entity who is by definition the enemy of God. Others understand him as serving a role like a prosecuting attorney, testing, probing, pushing people to their limits, but ultimately serving God. These two views seem incompatible, but I’m not so sure. It could be that God knows the devil is completely evil, and his will is the opposite of God’s, but God allows him to operate in ways that ultimately glorify God and advance God’s will, just like in today’s Gospel. As a result of his temptation, Jesus is spiritually strengthened, his sense of mission sharpened into a concrete, intentional choice, and his trust in God deepened.Which is all well and good, but a bit abstract. Until we remember that our whole lives are filled with temptation. We are constantly tempted by infinite distractions from deepening our relationship with God, endless opportunities to fall short of Jesus’s call to love everyone, a procession of idols who invite us to trust them instead of God. It was such a nice day, we decided to go for a walk instead of going to church. I’m not saying I’m glad Justice Scalia is dead, but… Wow, that new anti-aging technology sounds promising; I wonder how soon it will become available. We don’t have to go into the desert; temptation will come to us, in our comfortable lives.
Resisting temptation is important, for our sins damage us. As it is written in the warning text on the inside cover of every “Cliffs Notes,” students who forego the actual work of reading “are denying themselves the very education they are presumably giving their most vital years to achieve.” As in most things, when you cut corners, the only person you’re cheating is yourself. Resisting temptation is still worth the effort, despite the fact that we sometimes fail. That’s OK because Jesus didn’t, not in the desert, not as one of his closest disciples betrayed him, not on the cross. Jesus’s spiritual victory means that the devil can’t win, for a simple turning to Jesus at once sets right a lifetime’s worth of mistakes.
We can do wonderful things when we trust God. And even though we are beset with temptations to compromise that trust, just as there were demons in the wilderness, the Holy Spirit was there too, and she is stronger than they are. Just as the Spirit was there to sustain Jesus and guide him to victory, she is there for us, too, and no less mighty to save. Our intentions may fail us, but God never does.