Sermon delivered on Lent 1C, Sunday, March 10, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio podcast for today’s sermon.
Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and our assigned gospel lesson always deals with the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. If you saw the title of this sermon and wondered if I were going to have us sing some good old Motown music in the name of Jesus (apologies to those of you too young to remember or even know about the Temptations), you will be sadly disappointed. I’m not. Rather I want us to reflect seriously this morning on what it takes to observe a truly holy Lent (and beyond).
The way to observe a truly holy Lent is to start with Jesus and this leads us to our gospel lesson this morning. We note that just before today’s lesson on our Lord’s temptations, St. Luke has given us another one of those strange genealogies that are interspersed throughout the OT (Luke 3.23-38). In this particular genealogy, by its arrangement he tells us that Jesus is the Son of God who is descended from Adam, our first human ancestor. In arranging his material this way, the evangelist surely wants us to see that where our first ancestors failed when tempted by Satan, thereby allowing Evil and Sin to enter and corrupt God’s good creation and creatures, our Lord succeeded in resisting Satan’s wiles; the tide is turning. Evil has met its match.
Put another way, St. Luke does not want us to separate the cross of Jesus Christ, which signaled the defeat of Evil, from his initial temptations because it is in the wilderness that our Lord begins to successfully engage the power of Evil to defeat and ultimately destroy it when God’s new creation comes in full. The challenge for us is to recognize what Jesus does as success instead of failure. While that is easy to do when we read about Christ’s exorcisms and healings of possessed and sick people, possession and sickness being two manifestations of the power of Evil, it is less intuitive for us to look at Christ’s passion and death and see the Victory won over Evil by the Son of God. Our Lord’s victory over Satan in the wilderness matters because we too are subjected to the devil and his minions’ power, i.e., Evil, every day of our lives the same way he was. Take a look around you. Look at the increasing vitriol and polarization in politics and on social media. Every day we are bombarded with all kinds of bad news from murder to abuse to addiction to you name it, and it wears us out. Much of this happens because we give in to the temptations our Lord resisted. If we are ever to have any real hope of rescue from Evil, we need to know from where our help comes (more about that in a bit).
Before we look at what else St. Luke has to tell us in our lesson, we need to say a word about the devil. In our day and age with all its “sophistication” and other forms of human-invented baloney, it can be pretty dangerous for us as Christians to acknowledge we believe in the existence of Satan and his minions (the dark powers and principalities). We’re liable to be mocked as fundies for starters and it will go downhill from there. While we should not look for Satan under every rock, if you are one of those poor souls who steadfastly refuses to believe in the devil, you are to be pitied, because Evil is real and it’s personal, and your refusal to believe in the reality of Evil personified as the devil assures that you will ultimately succumb to his power and he will eventually destroy you because of your delusions. If you are one of those folks, I would humbly suggest that the starting point for you to observe a holy Lent is to repent of your foolishness and acknowledge the terrifying reality of Evil in this world and our lives.
Having dispensed with the background info needed for us to look at our Lord’s wilderness temptations, it is time to look at each temptation to see what St. Luke is inviting us to learn. We begin by noting that faithfulness to God does not always involve taking the easiest road; in fact, it usually is quite the opposite. The devil and his minions will come after us with a vengeance as they do not want us to live godly lives. The only way for us not to be overcome by Evil, and our only hope to be healed and made whole by the love of God, is for us to have the Holy Spirit living in us, just like Jesus had in the wilderness, to give us the power to trust in God’s power, not our own, and to heal us one inch at a time.
We see this issue emerge in the first temptation because it questions God’s care and provision for us. Satan’s declaration to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…,” which assumes he is, subtly appeals to Jesus to use his power to end his famished state. We all get this because most of the time when we are in dire straights we frantically try to meet our own needs. We plot, devise schemes, threaten, bully, etc., to make sure we get what we think we need. The assumption behind our behavior, of course, is that God is either incapable or unwilling to provide for us, which makes our good words about God look like a farce. What good Father will let his children go in need? So here Satan tempts Jesus by appealing to him to act to provide for himself rather than relying on God. Jesus responds by telling Satan that humans don’t live by bread alone. Here our Lord demonstrates his understanding that our well-being depends on much more than us being well-fed. If we do not stop trying to be God, no matter how well- fed we are, we will still be desperately broken, lonely, alienated, and under God’s terrible judgment.
In the second temptation, we see Satan inviting Jesus to engage in false worship by appealing to the natural human tendency to grab power to achieve our selfish needs and ends. Here we see how Satan’s half-lies work. Satan tells our Lord that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him to give to anyone he pleases. We look around at the wreckage of human leadership from Hitler to Pol Pot to Stalin and other mass murderers and we are tempted to believe Satan is telling the truth. But it’s a half-lie because only God is sovereign over the nations and only God does with nations what God is gonna do with them, not the devil. The latter has power only to the extent God allows, mysterious and enigmatic as that is for us to contemplate. The point here, though, is for Jesus to worship the means of the world like we do: power, coercion, force, brutality, threats, tyranny, injustice, corruption (and the Evil behind them), to name just a few, to achieve his calling as Lord of the world. But Christ would have none of it. He would become Lord and Savior of the world by obeying God and going to the cross to defeat the power of Evil and our slavery to Sin. If you don’t get this point, you’ll never get Jesus at all.
The third temptation is similar to the first one. Here the devil seems to be saying to Jesus, before you begin your work as God’s Son and Messiah, you’d better make sure God will take care of you by clearing the way to protect you. Right. The way of the Son is the way of the cross. In his death we find life and freedom, forgiveness and health. We see this temptation echoed at Calvary when the mocking bystanders challenged Christ to come down from the cross to save himself. As St. Luke subtly reminds us, although beaten in this first round, the devil would continue to show up to tempt Jesus all the way to the cross. In defeating the devil by not succumbing to these temptations, our Lord shows us that while he is fully God, he is also fully human. Each one of us has been tempted likewise and each of us has failed. This realization reminds us that contrary to popular belief, Jesus didn’t just waltz through life with no afflictions because he was and is the Son of God. Instead, this reminds us that our Lord probably experienced afflictions with temptations to a degree none of us could ever really imagine.
And now we are ready to get to the point of how to keep a holy Lent. If you are expecting me to say that if you want to observe a holy Lent, do like Jesus did, you are going to be disappointed even more with this sermon than you already are because I am not going to tell you that. I have learned over the years that it really is quite unsporting of preachers to tell their peeps to do something that is impossible for them to do. The gospels don’t tell us the story of our Lord’s wilderness temptations so that we can copy him and find his success. While it is always good to copy our Lord, we will not be able to do what he did. If we were able to overcome temptations as he did, Christ would not have had to die for us as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Jesus is our Savior precisely because he accomplished what we could never do, even on our best, holiest days, and if you don’t really believe that, you’ll never have a holy Lent, no matter what stuff you give up and other disciplines you establish. So we shouldn’t read this story with the delusional thinking that we can successfully imitate our Lord and resist every temptation that afflicts us the way he did. We can’t. We are too corrupt, too sick, too power hungry, too selfish, too hostile and alienated from God and each other for that to happen. In other words, we are too infected by the power of Sin to fix ourselves. So trying to observe a holy Lent by doing like Jesus did to overcome temptation is an exercise in futility. Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we should shrug our shoulders, give up, and wallow in our slavery to Sin. Doing so would be celebrating our eternal damnation and that’s never a smart thing for us to do. Nor am I suggesting we shouldn’t try to imitate Jesus. We absolutely should, always relying on the power of the Spirit. Just don’t expect to achieve the results Christ did! Neither should you hear me telling you that because of all our hopeless brokenness you are beyond hope and such a wretch that you are beyond salvation and cannot become Christlike in your behavior. While we all are wretches, none of us is without hope because it has pleased God to rescue us by sending his Son to die on our behalf so that when God sees us, he sees a five star beloved child in a five star evaluation system, despite our sins and wickedness. He sees us this way because we are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, who died for us to break our slavery to Sin, albeit incompletely in this mortal life. So let’s stop kidding ourselves about our ability to overcome the power of Sin. None of us can on our own and that’s the point.
The place to start in observing a holy Lent is on our knees at the foot of the cross, lamenting that we helped nail Christ to it but also, and equally important, to rejoice and give thanks to God for his great and undeserved love for us made known in Christ Jesus. When by God’s grace we realize that we are so hopelessly broken and beyond rescue except by the love and mercy of God the Father made known in the death and resurrection of God the Son and affirmed in our hearts and minds by God the Holy Spirit, we must have a heart bursting with joy, gratitude, and thanksgiving that God has rescued us forever from his right and terrible judgment on our sins and made us worthy to live with him forever starting right now. Our thanksgiving for this precious and profound gift will have at least a two-fold effect on us. First, it will lead to genuine sorrow on our part for responding to such great love so selfishly and corruptly. True thanksgiving will help motivate us to want to become more like Christ, not because we are told to or think we are supposed to, but because we want to become like our Savior who is the epitome of life. After all, if we are grateful to surgeons who by their skill have alleviated our illness, why would we not be grateful to God for rescuing us from his terrible judgment on our evil and eternal death? This, in turn, tends to help create in us generous hearts in the manner of our OT lesson, although generosity certainly isn’t restricted to just giving money. It involves giving ourselves in ways that reject the systems of the world that are controlled by the dark powers, i.e., by our rejecting power and domination as a means to achieve our ends, and by having a completely different set of ends in the first place.
If you really want to observe a holy Lent (and beyond), start at the foot of the cross with a thankful heart for God the Father who loves you enough and has the power to overcome your unlovability. God rescued you in and through Christ, not because of your good deeds or because you deserve being rescued or any of that other baloney, but rather because it pleased God to do so as St. Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians 1.18-25. Observing a holy Lent means realizing first and foremost that God is God and we are not, and to rejoice in the gift he freely offers to us. Put another way, it means learning to trust the goodness and mercy of God, not our own clever devices. May we all observe a holy Lent this year (and beyond), my beloved, because when we do, no matter how badly we observe it, we know we truly have Good News and are participating in it, now and for all eternity. We have this Good News, not because of who we are, but because who God is. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.