|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Mar 10, 2019 2:53 PM|
sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began, I attended the weekly gathering of our Centering Prayer group. These are folks who meet in our Quiet Room in the other building on Tuesday afternoons at 1:15 to sit in silence together. It had been a long time since I had joined them, consumed as I have been with busy-ness. I’m glad I went. I will attend as often as I can during Lent.
For me, sitting in silence is a challenge. I love to run around and check off boxes. I love to be productive. It feels great to be in situations where I feel relevant, safe, and in control. Maybe you can relate.
But Lent is not about busy-ness. It’s about self-knowledge.
When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit alighted on him like a dove and gave him a mission. This mission would require confrontation with powerful forces of opposition. So before Jesus could begin his work, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.
At one of my former congregations, a boy once presented to the rector a work of art that he had created. It was a painting done with great skill for such a young person. But the painting depicted Jesus and Satan engaged in an arm-wrestling match. All I could think was, “This kid can really paint … but we have got to feed him with some better theology!” (I think the rector thought that too, because when I joked with him afterward about the painting, he said, “Yes, I’m going to put that one in a very special place!”)
I’ve seen other paintings of Jesus flexing his muscles and ripping his shirt, or Jesus toting an AK-47. I guess these images are supposed to convince macho men to come to church or something. The problem is that such images promote the worship of a false idol. Was Jesus of Nazareth strong? Absolutely. But not in any of the ways that our culture values.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers faced an important act of civil disobedience, they would engage in acts of self-purification, testing themselves to be sure they would not give into the temptations of violence or cowardice. They needed to stand as an example to the whole country of righteous, non-violent strength. They knew they would suffer harm and that they must not strike back. In preparing for this eventuality, they were following the way of Jesus.
The devil, conventional thinker that he is, operates by coercion and force. His temptations go to work on Jesus precisely by showing him what he can achieve with just a little effort. Are you hungry from fasting, Jesus? No problem! Conjure some bread. Is there bad leadership in the land, Jesus? No problem! Rise to power. Are people unsure about you, Jesus? No problem! Throw yourself off this building and let them see angels catch you. Then there will no longer be any doubt in their minds, and they will do whatever you ask!
Wouldn’t it be a coup if the devil got Jesus to become a celebrity? Power corrupts. How many famous people can we name who worship themselves? How many leaders can we name whose words are first and foremost about how nobody else can do what they do? How many people suffer to serve the broken system that props such people up? Satan’s temptation to Jesus is simply an act of terrorism: “Do what I want, and nobody gets hurt.” Come to think of it, that, too, is a lie.
Now, if I were Jesus, maybe at this point my biggest temptation would be to say, “I see and understand how power corrupts. So I will go back and inherit my father’s carpenter shop, get married, raise a family, and above all, not rock the boat.” This would be no less about staying in control—but it would be cowardly control. The mission has been given. The goal may not yet be clear to Jesus, but the voice of God has spoken. There is no going back: to do so would be a betrayal of God’s call.
Instead, Jesus’ relationship to power will forever be a balancing act. He will earn instant fame through his compelling teachings and his miraculous healings. Again and again he will refuse to benefit from it. He will not settle in one place. He will instruct his followers not to talk him up. He will often steal away and hide himself for a while, frustrating those who have come to depend on him to tell them what to do. Jesus will be given the power and the glory many times, and every time he will divert attention from himself to the God who created us all.
In the wilderness, then, Jesus was on a journey to the center of the self. Who was he? He would need to know this to be able to keep his balance. So Jesus turned down the three biggest temptations that we all face: the temptation of relevance, the temptation of control, and the temptation of safety.
First, let’s talk about relevance. Many features of our lives are designed to make us relevant. We seek out higher education so we can become more employable. We make ourselves very busy so we can show others all the good things we are doing. We nurse a deep-seated fear that if we don’t stay productive, we will have no value in this world.
Jesus could turn stones to bread if we wanted to. Why wouldn’t he just feed the world? Jesus could heal people without even the touch of his hand. Why wouldn’t he just stop everyone from hurting in one fell swoop? We might well ask him this question today: “Jesus, why didn’t you do this then? Why don’t you do it now? What good are you?”
That’s the shameful question of relevance: “Well, what good are you then?”
What good are you when you haven’t yet learned the things others expect you to know? What good are you when you can’t do all the things you used to do? To ask such questions is to challenge God’s judgment. When God made us, God said, “It is very good.” Not one of us is worthless, no matter the circumstances of our lives. The voice of shame is the voice of Satan. Meanwhile, God’s voice speaks more softly and is overflowing with love and forgiveness. So before you take on any Lenten discipline, listen for that voice. You’ll need to hear it every time you fail.
How about the temptation of control? This is the voice that says, very conventionally, “When you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” This is the voice that says, “I am a rock; I am an island.” This is the voice that says, “I’m as free as a bird, and this bird will never change.” When we believe we’ve done enough growing, thank you very much, and when we close ourselves off to those who inconvenience or annoy us, Satan is dangling in front of us the temptation of the little kingdom—or the big kingdom!—we’re building for ourselves, where nobody else ever has a say.
Had Jesus been given the entire world by well-meaning people who wanted him to set him up as their benevolent dictator, his challenge would have been to turn it down, to say, “I don’t want to be in charge of a perfect world. I want you to flourish in an imperfect world.”
Finally, there’s the temptation of safety. And when Satan urges Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple, I wonder indeed whether angels would have caught him, or whether the story of Jesus’ suicide would have been in the headlines the next day. But let’s say Satan is right, and the angels are at the ready. It’s a variation on control, isn’t it? If we can shore ourselves up and make ourselves unhurtable, life will get so much easier.
So this is the voice that says, “My retirement funds will save me.” This is the voice that says, “Never let the kids walk to school alone.” This is the voice that says, “All we need is a good guy with a gun.” Maybe you’ve thought or said these things. Maybe you believe them. They seem perfectly reasonable, don’t they?
Conventional wisdom tells us that we are saved through effort and might. Better yet, conventional wisdom assures us it won’t take that much effort or might—just a little more than we’re demonstrating now. People are lining up around the block to sign us up for the next get-rich-quick scheme. Or maybe if we take on that diet and try just a little harder this time. Or maybe if we take the abuser back, this time will be different. We’ll just dig a little deeper this time.
Friends, our salvation is not assured through effort or might, but through yielding to change and consenting to uncertainty.
Paul writes that when we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God resurrected him, salvation is ours. But many Christians take even this as a list of bullet-point steps to salvation! “Ah, OK, accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior: check. Now life will become a breeze. Easy-peasy!”
But no. God’s love comes with no preconditions. It is just ours. All we can do is choose how to make use of it in a world that is not going to get any less complicated for us.
Life is not going to get any less complicated.
So this Lent, find one or two uncomplicated places and use them as fuel. Embrace silence. Maybe you have the freedom to join us on Tuesday afternoons at 1:15 for forty minutes of Centering Prayer. Or maybe you can make five minutes in your living room with no distractions. Give up a little control to make a space for it.
Make some kind of Lenten practice or Rule of Life, yes, but not for its own sake. The way of love beckons: “Why should your heart not dance?” When we embrace what Lent can be, we will find that it is not easy. But neither is it burdensome. When we yield to change and consent to uncertainty, we may even find the path to be joyful—even the path through the wilderness, into temptation, and into self-knowledge. Amen.