Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
Originally given at United Presbyterian Church of Amsterdam, NY on 02/17/2013
I have a confession to make. This is my favorite season in all the Christian calendar. I love Lent. I love this time before Good Friday and Easter, this time that starts with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, this time that plunges the whole world in darkness to bring to the forefront that which we pretend doesn’t exist for ourselves and others. I love Lent because it is the one time of year when it is ok to think about your faults and shortcomings, your mistakes and your missteps. It is ok. I love Lent because at its best, it is a time to strip away everything from your life that lacks sufficient meaning. Everything that distracts you from God. Everything that causes you to stumble while trying to walk the path that Jesus walked some 2,000 years ago. I love it because it forces us to confront demons that we would just as soon leave in the recesses of our minds to continue to torment us in the darkness because Lent asks us to dive deep into the darkness. To spend time each day with God, with God’s word, with God’s people. To spend time each day pondering the universe and our place within it. I love Lent. And moreover, I love this story we find in the gospel of Luke for this morning. It is my favorite story in all the Bible to preach because I think it so perfectly captures the human predicament. But let’s first locate our story for today in the narrative of Jesus.
The story of Jesus in the wilderness comes immediately after Jesus is baptized by his cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan river. John plunges Jesus into the water and as Jesus is coming out of the water, the heavens rip apart and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and a voice booms from the sky, “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Jesus began to try and work out for himself this new understanding of himself. This new realization. God’s son, the beloved. Well pleased. Jesus couldn’t take it anymore. The baptism, the spirit like a dove, the voice of God saying such incredibly kind and accepting words. It was all more than he could make sense of and so he left the town, he left his friends and family and he went to be with his thoughts, in the wilderness, filled with the Holy Spirit. And this is where we pick up the story this morning.
We are told that Jesus left from his baptism and was drawn by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to take time to take an accounting of his life. His life, which as far as we know, was relatively normal. He was a 30 year old Jewish man. He worked with his father, Joseph, as a carpenter. Probably in the same shop. But that was done now. How could he go back to his normal life? How could he go back to hammers and saws? He was God’s son, the beloved. In him God was pleased. He had to be filled with a mixture of nervousness and fear, of excitement and hope. Behind him was a life lived as a normal Jewish man. In front of him was the unknown, the yet-to-be, the darkness. And so we are told that he was drawn out into the wilderness to begin to sort all of this out.
At some point, while Jesus was out in the wilderness, praying, meditating, fasting trying to understand what had just happened, a spare thought began to creep into his mind. This broke the peace that Jesus had been experiencing. You know, the peace you get when you have sat in silence for sometime. That peace that you have reading a book in the silence of the early morning. Or the peace that you get when sitting in a rocking chair looking out over the valley as the sun sets. You know, that peace. Jesus, sitting in peace, had a spare thought creeping into his mind. He was hungry. His fast had gone on for sometime, his prayers and meditation had lasted awhile and for the first time he was tempted to turn his back on his new life, on his new awareness, and the draw of the old order became stronger and stronger. Sitting just to his side was a stone. A stone that resembled a loaf of fresh bread from the baker’s shop in Nazareth. Ah, Nazareth. He could almost take the bread as he thought about his home. If I am the son of God, surely I can take this stone and turn it into bread. That would be so easy and just like that my hunger would be gone. And like a fire rushing out of control in his own mind burst the words, “It is written, “One does not live on bread alone.” Ah, relief. Jesus no longer needed his hunger to be satiated, no longer needed that stone to be anything but a stone. He had faced the temptation of the old order, the order that told him that if he was the son of God, he could satisfy his needs as he so chose. Not God’s will, but his. But that voice no longer spoke. And then a second voice, a second spare thought crept in his head. “I am the son of God. All the world could bow to me and I could possess all the stuff of this world. All the riches, all the land, every kingdom could be mine, all mine. All I have to do is turn my back on God and all this is mine.” And it had to be tempting. It had to be tempting that with all that power came the ability to make kings and queens bow before him. It had to be tempting that with all that power came the ability to command whole armies to do whatever he likes, invade whoever he liked, kill anyone who got in his way, all he had to do was turn his back on God. Not God’s will, but mine. But once again, the fire coursed through his body, completely unhindered, almost like it was not he but something deep in himself speaking, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.” And just like that, the temptation left. Just like that he was back in the wilderness, the sights and sounds of all those countries were now a million miles away. He knew what he must do and he prepared to do it until… One last temptation. One last choice. The old order crept in once again, the old order that says, don’t do anything in faith, don’t take any chances, don’t take one single step into the unknown because the results could be devastating. And just like that he finds himself on top of the Temple in Jerusalem, staring down at all the folks milling back and forth, coming to pray, to give their offering. Jesus saw all of them from his high perch and he thought, “I am the son of God. They need me. God needs me. If I throw myself off this temple God will send angels to catch me. That was it, he had to test God’s love, God’s presence in his life. He inched closer to the edge until a third time the fire coursed through his body and something deep in him proclaimed, “Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” And just like that, silence. Jesus was back in the wilderness, back in the place in which he had been dwelling, back in his body. And the temptations of the world were gone. The old order of the world had tempted Jesus with everything the order has and Jesus had faced it. Now his ministry could begin.
Earlier, I said that this story was my favorite story in all scriptures because it captures the whole of the human predicament in one 13 verse story and it does. We are forever trapped, as Jesus found himself, in between two worlds. The one is the old order of the world. And its pull is strong. Its music lulls. It brings complacency and greed and an apathy towards anyone else whom you may encounter. It deems yourself the most important thing, the most important person in the world at any given time. All the world revolves around you, all the world is there to serve you, all the world is at your command. The other, more difficult, more elusive, more quiet is the new order of the world. The new order is more difficult because it requires that one often go against the prevailing tide of the world. The new order is more elusive because it requires that one before forever aware of one’s place in the world. In a world often dominated by streams of racism and sexism, of the struggle just to survive by some while other live lives of decadence and abundance, of the abuse of the world as an ecosystem and a great many of the species of the planet, into that world those wanting to live into the new order must always, always be aware of their place within it. And the new order is quiet. The new order is quiet because it is the still small voice that speaks over the din of the noise of the old order. It is quiet because it is peace in the midst of chaos. It is quiet because it is the breath of the Spirit of God passing over the waters at creation and continuing to pass over us today.
In the story, Jesus faced three temptations, three temptations to step out of the world as it could be and to live into his status, his position, his will to power. The temptation to live as if no one else existed. And we are faced with the same challenge. In the first, Jesus is tempted to turn a stone into bread, to address his hunger in the midst of religious devotion, in the midst of fasting in order to gain clarity and aren’t we too often tempted to do the same thing? I try to spend time each day in some form of prayer and meditation and one of the first things that I notice whenever I begin to sit, as my heart rate and breathing both begin to settle, as I feel myself beginning to quiet down, is the temptation to stop because there is too much to do. I don’t feel like I have time to devote to my relationship to God because the temptations of the old order of the world to spend every waking hour doing something productive are simply too great. And I feel it even as I am settling in. For Jesus, it was hunger, for me an obsession with squeezing every last drop of productivity out of the day. I can’t pray right now, I can’t meditate, I can’t study, I’ve got too much to do. This is why we need Lent.
Then Jesus is tempted with possessing all the kingdoms of the world. In having all the people of the world worshipping him. In having all the armies of the world at his command. In having everything. The old order of the world was creeping in his thoughts again. And we face the same struggles everyday even when we aren’t fully aware of them. Last week, I spent a few days in Mexico, on the border town of Reynosa just across from McAllen. I have been going down there since I was in college and in truth, that is where I heard my call to the ministry at its loudest. While I was there, I heard the founder of the ministry that I was working with say something that I had heard him say before but always sticks with me when we I hear it. “This ministry was founded,” he says, “because I don’t understand why one’s chance of survival depends solely on which side of the river you are born on.” Think about it, we have set up a world in which to be born in the United States is to give you untold advantages over someone born 15 miles south in another country. Where there is plenty on one side of the river, on the other is found only poverty, only disease, only struggle to scrape out survival against all odds. 15 miles, but it might as well be a million. The old order of the world tempts us to get and possess all we can. To acquire and hoard and take and steal to ensure our survival, never knowing, never realizing that to do so ensures that others will not. Whatever else we know about the world, we know that there are a finite amount of resources and that about 98% of the world lives in want so that 2% can live in splendor. The old order. This is why we need Lent.
Finally Jesus is tempted with testing God’s call for him. With testing whether God will truly be there when he falls. With looking down from such heights as to make him dizzy and wondering whether God will be there at all. Security. Safety. Protection. The old order demands that we seek these. The old order demands that we never live in uncertainty, never live into the unknown, never live into the darkness. But that’s not what faith is about. We are called, each of us, to step out into the unknown. To move outside of our comfort zone, just an inch, to trust that the Spirit of God that dwells in each of us is calling us to do better things, to give of our resources freely, to reach out to the person in our midst for whom no one cares, with whom no one sits, to whom no one talks and be as Jesus for that person. To dream big and then to work to make those dreams a reality. To see a thriving Amsterdam not by the terms set forth by the old order of the world in which we are all individuals working on our own survival but as a community, a collective, each one taking care of the other, and lifting all people up together. Driving down Market St the other day, I was struck by the opulence of a foregone era that continues to dot the town. Opulence that tells the story of a thriving factory town in which folks were well off, until they weren’t. Until the factories left, leaving shells of the town’s former self dotting the landscape. Large houses, many of them crumbling away, tell a story of sadness, of lost dreams and security. But we get to tell a new story. A story of hope in the midst of struggle, sustenance in the midst of want, and security in the midst of instability. But we have to do it together. As a community. As a people. Regardless of race or creed. One people. One community. One love. All are invited, all are welcome. The new order. This is why we need Lent.
We are on a journey together, you and I. A journey in which eventually we will watch the old order of the world arrest, beat, and kill the one whom we seek to follow. The one whom we love. And because of that we will sit in sackcloth and ash, we will drape the sanctuary in black. We will, at times, be sad. And it will seem to some as if this only confirms that in the end, the pull of the old order is simply too strong to fight against. But we know that no matter how dark it gets, there remains light, that no matter how much we may despair, hope remains, no matter how hard Good Friday is, we can make it, because Easter is coming. This is why we need Lent. Amen.