Sermon: March 5, 2017 –
In our Lutheran tradition of worship, the different pieces of our worship each week are connected by the themes in the scripture passages and the season of the church year.
The scriptures we read are from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a 3 year cycle of readings used by many Protestant churches and closely follows the weekly lectionary used by the Roman Catholic church.
Besides the sermon, which is almost always based on one or more of those readings, one of the places where the scriptural themes for the day are expressed is in the hymns.
This year during Lent we’ll be singing “Oh Lord throughout these 40 days” every Sunday, and I will be highlighting a phrase from the hymn that reflects the theme of the scriptures for that week.
This week the phrase comes from the beginning of verse 2: “You strove with Satan, and you won; your faithfulness endured.”
The connection is clear…since we just read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, following his baptism by John. But let’s set the scene a bit before we talk about Jesus’ experience.
First, as simple as it might seem to simply identify “Satan” as the tempter, we need to understand how the gospel writer…and Jesus… would describe “Satan.” There is so much in our popular culture that paints a picture of a devilish figure in red with a pitchfork in hand that it can be hard to get past that. While we might laugh and say that of course we know that’s a cartoon-type figure, it’s a hard one to completely shake.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the Satan is the accuser; the one who exposes our faults and weaknesses and tries to use them to turn us away from God, to convince us that we are strong enough and wise enough to follow our own way without needing God, or that we are so hopelessly inept that God would not want anything to do with us.
The next thing to consider is to ask ourselves: How did the gospel writer come to know about this experience of Jesus? It’s made very clear that Jesus was alone during this time. So the ONLY way we have a report of the experience is because, at some point, Jesus chose to share it with his followers. And since Jesus’ focus was ALWAYS on revealing his Father, the point of sharing this experience had nothing to do with demonstrating his own faithfulness-although it certainly does that!- the point was letting his followers know how devious and clever their adversary could be in trying to lead them away from the Father. Devious enough to even manipulate the scriptures to try to fool them into justifying self-serving actions as though they were supported by God’s word.
“Turn these stones into bread…” as hungry as he was, and certainly with the ability to transform stones into bread to feed himself, Jesus easily sees through Satan’s scheme here.
First of all, Jesus made this journey into the wilderness at the urging of the Holy Spirit. If the journey is to fulfill God’s purpose, then he needs to trust that the entire experience is in God’s hands, including providing food when the time is right. Jesus turns away the temptation by giving first importance to the Word of God. Second, turning stones to bread violates the whole order of creation. Nowhere in his ministry does Jesus ever make such a blatant display. In feeding thousands, he offers food from the earth for God’s blessing…and it is God’s generosity that provides for the multitude.
‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Again, the temptation is to call on God’s power for a self-serving display. Jesus entire ministry was carried out among ordinary people, quietly healing and teaching and affirming God’s love and forgiveness, sometimes even directly asking those who are healed to go quietly about their lives, telling others what God-not Jesus- has done for them.
Jesus rebukes satan by pointing out that he has taken a scripture that is meant to assure God’s protection in times of danger and twisting it into an invitation to manipulate God into a demonstration of power- a temptation that it seems reasonable to believe Jesus would encounter in a world where those in power would reject his claim that he was sent by God. And a temptation that would certainly return to haunt him as he hung on the cross, dying, and hearing the taunts of his torturers: “If you ARE the Son of God, save yourself!”
The final temptation, power over the workings of the world:
‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’
All you need to do, Jesus, is listen to me and follow the urgings of your human side to use your great powers to shape this world as you wish.
Can you hear the echoes of satan in the garden when Eve said they were told to not eat the fruit in the midst of the garden, or they would die?
The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
“God wants you to believe that you can’t do this on your own, Jesus! Let ME show you just how powerful you can be!”
Jesus’ final rebuke is to remind Satan that his power is an arrogant boast…only God is deserving of worship and obedience.
While not always easy to understand, we can recognize what is going on in this experience for Jesus. But why share it?
Because it is a very HUMAN experience, and Jesus is giving us a way to recognize the temptations we face, and a faithful way to reject them.
Our temptations are most certainly different from those Jesus faced, but their essence is the same: to be tempted to choose our path in this world by following human instincts and urgings, rather than God’s.
On Ash Wednesday this past week, I asked worshippers to consider how much time we spend each day listening to news programs, reading newspapers or articles on the internet, and to think about how that influences the way we live in the world;
and then to compare that to how much time we spend reading the scriptures or spiritual writings. If our connection to God’s word is mostly limited to the hour or so once a week on Sunday morning when we come to worship, are we not risking being tempted to let human power and opinion and politics shape our lives?
The model Jesus gives us through his insistence on living only to be a sign of God’s presence is one we need to take seriously if we truly want to follow the Way of Jesus. And how can we be a sign of God’s presence if our thinking and our living are shaped by human wisdom, human standards, human desires rather than on the commands to love God and love our neighbor?
Lent is meant to be a time of spiritual renewal. Instead of following the popular practice of giving something up for Lent, why not take up a new spiritual practice? An hour of reading scripture a day may require giving up doing something else…
But I cannot imagine that any of us can honestly say that there is nothing we spend an hour on each day that is more important than the word of God.
Let’s make it a goal of Lent this year to strengthen ourselves with the Word of God to help us battle the temptations we face…in the hope that, with God’s help, OUR faithfulness will endure.