A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him and the voice came from Heaven: You are my Son the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.
That is who Jesus is. The rest of that chapter in the Gospel of Luke is never read in the lectionary—it continues to tell who Jesus was: He was thirty years old when he began his work, that is to say, a fully adult man, no longer a youth. It then gives his genealogy from the one who was called his father all the way back through the history of Israel to the first human being. Then we get our Gospel lesson for today, it defines further who Jesus is, what it means to be the Son of God, the Chosen One.
The spirit led him into the wilderness and he was tempted by the devil. There are three temptations here. In each, Satan wants Jesus to do something that would make him different from other human beings. “You’re hungry—wave your hand and make the rocks into bread; you want to fix things, I’ll give you power over all the whole world; you’re God’s chosen Son?—jump off the top of this building and God will save you…” But Jesus doesn’t. Those things were not even close to his identity. For lots of people, the idea of the Son of God means just these things: being able to have whatever you want, whenever you want it; having the power to move people around and make them do things and to be perfectly protected by God all the time and even be able to flaunt it. And plenty of people will tell God to do it that way, and tell others that Jesus was that way.
But he wasn’t.
The beloved Son, was among God’s people as one of them. The lectionary does some odd things with the order of the Gospel text—the section of Luke’s Gospel that immediately follows this section was what I preached on three weeks ago, the day after the blizzard: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” THAT is the meaning of the Son of God, that is who Jesus is. Jesus lives a life that is what God wants in a human life, not the life that human beings think they would like if they were God.
“Turn this stone into bread!” Take the way out that only someone with the privilege of a godlike sorcerer could take. Be comfortable, when anyone else would be hungry. It is not that Jesus did not eat, or that he did not enjoy life… but out there in the desert, in that time alone and fasting, what would it mean for Jesus to just snap his fingers and have a six-course meal appear? Would that be good news to the poor? Would it accomplish any of the things which God chose to do by sending his son among us? “One does not live by bread alone”—Jesus is about life, and that life is for and with others.
“I will give you authority over all the kingdoms of this world.” How often do we think that we could solve all problems if we just had enough political power? Just put me in power—I wouldn’t do all these selfish things or make all those mistakes? How often have we been disappointed in our leaders? The levers of power manipulate and change those who look to wield them—it takes great realism and humility to accept positions of power and to do any good. Systems of power have a life of their own, and they quickly become idols. Those that believe that “just a little more power and it will work” are addicted. The devil said to Jesus, “Just worship me and it will all be yours.” Jesus’ response is straight from the Ten Commandments: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Only him. That’s not so easy—others get ahead by taking shortcuts, grabbing power, they become the privileged, maybe it even becomes hereditary. But that. Is not Good News for the Poor.
Yesterday was the day on the church calendar when we remember Absalom Jones. Absalom Jones was an African-American who had been a slave in Philadelphia and had purchased the freedom of his wife and himself. He was a lay preacher at a Methodist Church along with Richard Allen, and when those who had power in the congregation decided that the African-American members had to be segregated up in the gallery during worship, Allen and Jones led them out of that church and formed a Free African Society. Absalom Jones founded a congregation within the Episcopal Church where black Christians could worship freely. Eventually, he was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, the first African-American to be ordained. He was an eloquent preacher and leader of the community, a conscience for the church against slavery, though that conscience was much resisted for many years. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas still worships and thrives in Philadelphia today. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” It takes courage to do that, and you can’t wait until you have control of the kingdoms of this world, or for the power over those kingdoms to make it easy. Christ turned from that approach and comes to us, preaching Good News to the Poor.
“So throw yourself down from the temple.” Impress everybody, it will all be easy. Jesus just looked at him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Easy was never part of the deal. Jesus is here among his people, in life with its real difficulties. It is life in its reality that he celebrates. Those angels praise God and minister to his Chosen one as he brings God’s mercy and healing to God’s people. He walked the way of the cross—he was walking that way all through this. The joy of his presence, his feasting with sinners, his comfort of those who grieve, his good news to the poor and all who suffer, and his being killed on a cross by the powers of this world; all of these things are connected, they are the same thing. God is present with us, living, being and bringing us the truth.
As St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans that we read this morning:
The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.