Sunday, February 25, 2007

SERMON, LENT 1C, Luke 4:1-13

After Jesus was baptized, he was led out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.

Think about that for a minute, and think about its implications.

Jesus, Son of God, second person of the Trinity, is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days where he was tempted by the devil. Everyone has a desert experience where we see the devil at every turn, or are struggling to find purpose to our life; including Jesus. Being a Christian doesn't negate those experiences, but we should always remember that we are led by the Holy Spirit. We will not be abandoned out there.

But that's only the beginning. What else is going on in this highly symbolic passage? Let's start with how long Jesus was in the wilderness. Forty days. Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness without food. And that's the point. It may not have been an actual 40 days, but it was a long time. And it immediately calls to mind the 40 days and nights of the flood, the 40 days Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law, the 40 years of wandering during the Exodus, and, for us, the 40 days of Lent.

The three temptations, which are geared towards a self-serving interest, also call to mind the three questions to Peter. Whereas in that instance Peter was focused on self-preservation and failed to stand up for God, Jesus allowed his self to be subservient to God and succeeded. Three times Peter failed, three times Jesus succeeded.

This contrast between failure and success can also be reflected between Adam and Jesus. Luke's geneaology goes back to Adam; and Adam, remember, is referred to as "son of God." Jesus and Adam, both called son of God, are tempted. Adam is tempted by good food that helps him gain the knowledge of good and evil. Jesus is tempted by the ability to do good and to prove who he is. One fails, one succeeds.

But let's look beyond the symbolism at the specific temptations that Jesus endured.

Jesus hadn't eaten for 40 days and the devil is there at his first opportune time. So tempting him with food, power and proof-positive that he was indeed God's chosen are good choices all in all. And this is where temptation gets sneaky.

Imagine, for a minute, you are Jesus. You've been out in the wilderness for 40 days trying to figure out your call and mission. You haven't eaten. You're stressed and you're hungry. And the devil says, "Turn these rocks into bread." It might be easy to refuse that on the basis that you know you can't live on bread alone.

But bread is a good place to start quenching hunger. So what if you were to create bread in famine stricken countries? Could not that be the beginning of the end of the famine? Think of all the people you could help by getting them immediate relief. Sally Struthers would be out of a job. How great would it be if you could feed the hungry as easily as turning rocks into bread. Think about it . . . You'd be a hero!

Or what about the temptation to be the ruler of the world? Again, at first glance, this is not such a good idea; way too much paperwork. But what if . . .

What if you could be the ruler of the world and you could eliminate all of the despots? People like Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and others, none of them would be around. Nobody would be tortured and there truly could be peace. Governments in general would be a darn sight better than now with me in charge. This could be a good thing.

Or think about the temptation to fling yourself off the pinnacle of Washington National Cathedral (I am an Episcopalian, after all). Sort of a risky thing to do, especially considering my track record with the "God, if you do THIS then I'll do THAT" prayers.

But what if our psalm for today really was the way it is? Think of the possibilities. There wouldn't be a bigger PR stunt since Oral Roberts bilked thousands of people out of $1 million because God was going to call him home. People would be flocking to your church. And think of the money you would raise. Programs for education, poverty, homelessness, you name it. The First Church of the Messiah could do wonders for spreading the Good News with that kind of publicity.

And that's where temptation has its biggest draw; by getting you to compromise your principles in the name of selfishness for the greater good. We aren't tempted to cheat on tests because we want to be bad. We are tempted to cheat on tests so we can pass the course and go on to have a good life in the career of our dreams. We aren't tempted by power simply to be in control. We are tempted by power because we think we can do a better job than that idiot who's in charge now. We aren't tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so we can be as defiant as Satan. We are tempted to eat of the fruit so that our eyes may be opened and we can become like God.

We are all tempted. It may not be as big and grandiose as becoming ruler of the world or tossing yourself from the top of the cathedral, but we are tempted to do that which is just within our power to achieve. The more power you have, the greater the temptations become. Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, but did not sin. Think about his temptations with all the power of the universe at his disposal.

None of this is easy; but then, God never said it would be. Despite what the televangelists tell you, Christianity doesn't always make it all better. It can be a strugggle. We can feel like we are wandering through the wilderness for 40 days, or even for 40 years.

If you are struggling, if you are wandering, or if you feel like you've been given too much to deal with, keep this in mid: you aren't out there alone -- you are being led by the Holy Spirit. Just like God led Noah and Moses and the Israelites and Jesus, God will lead you where you need to be. And being willing to follow God through the wilderness is what I call faith.


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