A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the slanderer.”
We are inclined to look at the wrong things when we think about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Oh wow, forty days of fasting in the wilderness, what self-control!”, we think. And that Devil: We’re pretty sure we know what he’s like, we’ve seen Halloween costumes and even some medieval paintings, this demon with horns and a tail. But it’s a mistake to think of a single demon or even a demonic force opposed to God enticing Jesus and engaging in test of wills with him. In Jesus’ time, the Greek word “diavolos,” which we hear as “Devil” had a straightforward meaning that everyone would have understood, even if they were also thinking of a personified demon. It meant slanderer, or someone who tells falsehoods to damage the reputation of someone else; someone who misleads others.
It’s true that most of us aren’t up to forty days of desert survival on our own with no food and limited water. But it’s not a world record. It’s a serious time of reflection, a serious time of withdrawal from the world. It’s the same amount of time that Moses spent on the mountain when he received the law from the Lord. It’s not trivial, and such a fast achieves something in terms of clarity and spiritual growth, but the fact that Jesus fasted does not distinguish him from other seriously spiritual people.
The real lesson in today’s Gospel comes with the Devil – the slanderer –posing three questions to Jesus. Like all slanderers, he tries to confuse the issues, he seeks to undermine clarity. Each question designed to get Jesus to focus on his own power and concerns, to regard the spiritual as magic. Most important, they’re designed to take the focus off God and onto Jesus. The slanderer wanted Jesus to think it was about having super-powers like Spider Man or one of the X-men, rather than being God’s human child.
After all, Jesus was human, he was hungry. “There’s no reason to go hungry—just do a magic trick—take care of what YOU want in ways that aren’t available to others.” But Jesus remains calmly clear on the source of mercy, the source of Life.
Then, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple, the slanderer tells Jesus to get God to dramatically show off his power. But Jesus is not about power. He is simple. He is about God’s love and mercy. It is not about showing off and taking care of Jesus, it is about God’s love for all of God’s people. And Jesus says: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “
The slanderer isn’t done yet. He offers all power to Jesus, nakedly and grandly: “all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor.” And Jesus sends him away, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
We’ve heard about three kinds of power in today’s Gospel lesson: material, religious and political. Powerful people, and those who desire power, regard these as magic that can take the place of human honesty, compassion, generous work and common sense. Jesus focused on telling the truth and healing people—that was not popular with those who wanted to use power—but that was fine with Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is gained through loyalty to the Lord of Heaven, not in gathering power to ourselves. In that Garden, so long ago, the woman listened to the tempter, picked that unripe fruit and gave it to the man, and from then on, humans have listened to their fear and used falseness to try to fool God. Jesus was not fooled or fearful.
In Lent, we are called to shed our burdens of fear and our inclinations to grasp at ineffectual ways to control the world around us. We are preparing for baptism, where we die to self, and live to real life, the life of Jesus whose life burst the tomb of death.
It’s OK to give up something for Lent. It’s best to give up things that add to your confusion and take your focus away from generous living. It makes no sense to give up Twinkies for Lent and then buy a case of them at Costco to have after Lent is over. That would be a way to continue to focus on Twinkies rather than the Kingdom of God. The discipline of Lent is to focus on where God is leading us, to find the abundance of life in the opportunity to live for others, to give up on self-pity and worry. The time of Lent is not a test of strength, or of our resistance to temptation. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” or another translation, “Do not bring us to the test.” Do not attend to the Slanderer, follow Jesus, in him we receive life as a gift, and that gift is the resurrection from all death.
“By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”