Sermon for Sunday, March 9th, 2014 || First Sunday in Lent, Year A || Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11 || The Rev. Margot D Critchfield
“After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
It’s such a disturbing slap across the face. No sooner does Jesus have this amazing spiritual high –emerging from the waters of baptism to hear God’s loving voice say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” than the same Spirit of God that just moments ago descended on him as gently as a dove, now leads him deep into the wilderness and leaves him there, hungry and alone, to face his demons.
He hasn’t even begun his ministry yet, and Jesus– God’s Beloved Son– is compelled by God to leave behind a place of great spiritual consolation and to enter instead a space of deathly desolation; Jesus is compelled by the very same Father who loves him, to walk away from the clear, comforting voice of affirmation, and to become vulnerable instead to the enticing, inviting voice of temptation, trial, and testing.
And what a seductive, sinister temptation it is: Here, on the heels of having his divine nature affirmed, Jesus is tempted to forego his human one by performing miracles and marvels beyond human capability.
One poet imagines Jesus awake in the wilderness, “in the empty time just before morning…blankets clutched to keep out the cold.” Jesus, “sits and watches stars fade in the spreading dawn,” writes Andrew King, and “hunger gnaws at his belly like a dog chewing a bone.”
King imagines Jesus confronting not the caricature of the devil that is so often depicted in popular culture, but the all too real and very human demons of his own interior life: Jesus sees a stone, and thinks to himself how much like a loaf of bread it looks…how comforting such food would be. He gazes toward the Temple in Jerusalem, pictures himself standing there mighty and proud, instead of in this miserable desert, spent and humble. Finally, Jesus reflects back on all of human history, its powerful and corrupt leaders, all the nations rising and falling. How much better and more justly he could rule the world than any who’ve come before him!
Yet with each of these temptations to rely on his divine nature (and thereby deny his human one) Jesus—in all of his humanity— resists. He is tempted, just as surely as we are, but he does not succumb. Our gospel this morning tells us just exactly how Jesus manages to resist, and it’s not by any superhuman power. Jesus relies on God and on God’s word. That’s all. There’s nothing magic about it. Relying on God and on God’s word, the “human-just-like-you-and-me Jesus” finds the strength, the will, the courage, and the stamina to resist the demons of his own psyche and to live instead into his own humanity.
Listen to this bit of Andrew King’s poem*:
[Jesus] will not bid the stones turn to bread today to ease his pressing hunger:
for the hungry and poor of the world cannot,
and he is in the world to bear their burden.
He will not evade frail humanness today, or deny his utter mortality,
for even the mighty of the world cannot,
and he is in the world to bear their burden.
He will not seek the throne of a kingdom today, selfish wealth, or glory:
for the outcasts and hurting of the world cannot,
and he is in the world to bear their burden.
Jesus stands in solidarity with the hungry and the poor, the frail and the fearful, the powerless and the outcast. This is, after all, his God-given call. And by depending on God, rather than himself, he has the resources to live into that call. He knows now beyond a doubt that God will, “preserve him from trouble and instruct him,” as the psalmist says, “in the way that he should go.” Like angels of assurance, God’s word will surround him and serve him.
If this morning’s gospel were to continue for another verse or two, we would watch as Jesus leaves this desert place and begins his ministry of, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Fully human, fully divine, fully integrated.
We, however, are just entering the wilderness space of Lent. And unlike Jesus, we are all too familiar with our humanness. It’s ironic really, because where Jesus was tempted to deny his human identity, our temptation is to deny our divine identity—our identity as children of God, adopted in Christ. We’re tempted to forget that we are made in God’s image, to forego the reality that we’re baptized into the body of Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever and precious in God’s sight. This too is a seductive and sinister temptation.
Turn stones into bread? It’s a temptation to Jesus, but a challenge to us–a challenge to meet the needs of a hungry world. “It’s survival of the fittest,” our interior demons tell us, “it would take a miracle to feed all the hungry in this world.” “Why bother trying,” other demons pipe in, “you’re powerless to transform an economic system with a heart of stone into one that’s life-giving for the least and the last. Give up. Don’t bother. It’s too overwhelming.”
But what if, like Jesus, we were to rely on God and on God’s word instead of ourselves? What if instead of listening to the nattering negativity of our inner demons, we were to affirm our identity in Christ and remember the words of the prophet Isaiah that we read on Ash Wednesday—the ones that said if we bestow our bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, that light will rise for us in the darkness, and the gloom will become like midday? The passage that says God will always guide us and give us plenty, even in parched places… that He’ll renew our strength, and we’ll be called “Repairer(s) of the breach,” and “Restorer(s) of ruined homesteads.”
Isn’t that the voice God calls us to listen to—the one that speaks to our best selves, resonates with the divine within, and offers hope for a broken world?
I wonder if we might, as Christ’s church, emerge from the wilderness of this Lent with a newfound commitment to ending the economic injustice that is the source of so much homelessness, joblessness, and hunger around us? And I wonder what that new commitment might look like…
Another temptation for Jesus but a challenge for us: Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and see if God’s angels bear you up. “Well that’s just plain crazy,” say the demons within us, “No one in their right mind would take a fool-hearty risk like that!”
But what if, remembering our identity in Christ, we were to take a giant leap of faith off of this holy hill on which we’re perched, and into the world around us? What if, remembering Matthew’s story of Peter miraculously walking on water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, we too dared to step out in faith? I wonder what that would look like for us as a church? I wonder how God might be calling us beyond self-reliance and into the risky business of relying on him? Dare we take an enormous leap of faith into the unknown and trust that God will not let us fall?
And how about that last temptation– to claim all the kingdoms of the world for ourselves, by bowing down and serving things that are not of God? “Do it!” urge the interior demons, “These things will fill the hole. They’ll make you feel happy, secure, attractive and young; healthy, wealthy, powerful and smart…”
But what if we were to remember our identity as God’s children, to remember that the Kingdom of God is within us—within each of us—and that nothing we acquire on the outside will ever come close to the joy of loving and being loved by our Creator? What if we were to remember the story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus saying that, “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him? Or the passage in Chronicles that says, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee?” I wonder what it would look like if, as God’s church, we made a commitment to honoring that reality? What would it look like to put the Kingdom of God above the culture of consumption?
There’s no denying that today’s readings are challenging. They challenge us to accept our divine identity as God’s much beloved and precious children. They challenge us to claim the power that is in us as the Body of Christ, God’s church. And they challenge us to listen not to the nattering voice of negativity but to the divine voice of daring faith, risk-taking hope, and indiscriminate love.
Will we emerge from the wilderness of Lent believing that God can do great work in and through the life of this church? Will we dare to turn stones into bread for the hungry, hurl ourselves off this holy hill and into the broken world beyond, and live into the reality of God’s claim on all that we have and all that we are?
It doesn’t take superhuman power. There’s nothing magic about it. Simply “…worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Amen.
* Do read all of Andrew King’s beautiful poem “Desert Lesson” go to his blog, “A Poetic Kind of Place” at http://earth2earth.wordpress.com/