Sunday, February 14, 2016
And the devil said
Scripture Lessons: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13, NT page61 Sermon: “And the devil said” Today is Valentine’s Day, and I hope that me saying so reminds any husbands who might have forgotten. This is a good day to show someone how much you love them by saying so or by buying them something. I suppose that the most traditional things to buy for the ones we love on Valentine’s Day are flowers or chocolates, but there are non-traditional gifts as well. For example, I know of one man who received nose hair trimmers from his valentine, which is a gift that says “I love you” but this gift says “I love you” in a very particular way. Unlike flowers and chocolates which both say, “I love you,” nose hair trimmers say, “I love you so much that I’m going to help you fix this problem that you have that no one else is willing to talk with you about.” Today is the first Sunday of Lent. And if the season of Lent is a gift, if observing Lent is a gift to Christians, it’s that kind of a gift. It’s the kind of gift from God that says, “I love you so much that I’m going to help you fix this problem that no one else is willing to talk with you about.” So during these 40 Days we are given the gift of penitence – a time to examine our lives, our habits, our thoughts, our relationships, especially the broken parts of ourselves that we don’t want to look at and that only those who truly love us are ever willing to talk with us about. God loves us enough to call our brokenness to our attention, and because we believe that our God is slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love we are invited to practice self-examination without fear of punishment, for God is not interested in our punishment nearly so much as our God is interested in leading us towards a more abundant life. We are invited then, to go with Jesus into the desert – to join him for 40 days in this quiet place without the distractions that keep us from dealing with whatever ails us. We are invited to go without, to give up something that we love, just as our Lord went without food. And we are invited to face our own demons, just as Jesus faced the devil himself. That’s the goal of all of this – we are leaving the world that we know and are joining our Lord in the desert, and it’s a feat of time travel to go meet Jesus in the desert 2,000 years ago, but the Bible is full of instances where the past is made present again for the redemption of God’s people and it is no different with us now. Deuteronomy 26, our first Scripture lesson is a good example of just such an instance in Scripture where time is irrelevant because this liturgy employs the present tense when remembering a time long ago. That’s why is says, “A wandering Aramean was MY ancestor.” It’s not because he literally was, but because in joining with the faithful of generations long past “they” becomes “we”, “their” becomes “our” and so we say, “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated US harshly and afflicted US, by imposing hard labor on US, WE cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard OUR voice and saw OUR affliction, OUR toil, and OUR oppression. The Lord brought US out of Egypt. He brought US into this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.” Us, us, us we, we, we – you can see that this lesson from the Old Testament, this ancient liturgy uses personal and present tense pronouns even though all that happened so very long ago to a group of people who we are not, because so much about our faith is rooted in going one step beyond remembering to making the past present once more. It’s like when I take the yellow straw for my daughters’ juice box and I can feel the presence of my grandmother. I can see her taking the yellow straw for my Capri Sun. It’s a ritual that washes the present in the past and we’re reminded once more that the words of Faulkner are true: the past isn’t gone; it isn’t even past. So at Communion later in the service, we’ll sit before the table and do more than remember the One who sacrificed his life for our sake, in this liturgy we call on him to be present to us again, not confined to ancient history but right here and now. The Bible’s not ancient history than. It’s not dates and people to remember. Instead Scripture is the Living Word that will come alive right in front of you if you know how to use it. That’s what hit one of our own church members this Christmas. Jessica Sweeney was in the minivan, kids in the back, the news of the day was that of Syrian refugees forced out of their homeland and seeking refuge somewhere else, and there right in front of her is the Craft Memorial Church’s living Nativity telling the story of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus escaping to Egypt because King Herod forced them out of their homeland. “This is happening right now” she says out loud from the driver’s seat to no one in particular, and her kid’s don’t know what she’s talking about, so the next day she runs up to me on the sidewalk right outside our church – and when she told me the story I couldn’t have been more excited because that’s the point – it is happening right now! Right now we are in the desert with Jesus. Right now we are fasting beside him. And especially - right now Satan is there whispering temptation – not just in his ear but in ours. First: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Second: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And third: “Throw yourself down from here,” and to make matters worse, from the Psalms he says, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” These are three great temptations of our age – not of some ancient history – but right now we are tempted to be mindful only of the need of our belly, to live is to be satiated. To float through the ocean on some great cruise ship – in the middle of the sea and yet comatose from crab legs while baking in the sun like beached whales. Command this stone to become bread - eat drink and be merry – but is there not more to life than this? Some would say that there is, that better than being full is being powerful, and so the politicians promise that they have all the answers, that they can fix all the problems and return this nation to greatness, but to give all power to any one man or woman, to place on him all your hopes and dreams absolutely is to face the reality that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Still some seek it, and still the powerful reduce their subjects to pawns or consumers without thought to their minds or their bodies and so the children of Flint, Michigan are poisoned by their water because some humans were given more power and authority than they deserved. You see, the devil is with us still. Right here with us now, tempting us to worry not for the state of our souls but only the state of our stomachs; tempting us to pursue power without thought to kindness or decency; and worse yet the devil is with us still tempting us to save ourselves. To preserve ourselves and our way of life. And I say this is worse yet because some of the greatest tragedies of human history were motivated not by hatred but self-preservation. It’s not that Pharaoh hated the Hebrew people, but it was because we were a great nation, mighty and populous. Pharaoh didn’t hate us – he feared us, and so out of self-preservation the Egyptians treated US harshly and afflicted US, by imposing hard labor on us in the hopes of accomplishing the same goal that every oppressor who feared for his life has tried since. More than anything else, it’s this temptation that would not be confined to ancient history, so as a child we’d drive through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina on our way to tour Fort Sumter, but to get to the ferry that would take us there we had to pass by those beautiful old mansions, tall and white. They were as they are still, breathtaking, yet even today they are protected by the most sinister rod iron fences. Spikes sharpened to protect the families who lived inside from the slave revolt they all feared. It was self-preservation that justified the harsh treatment of those slaves in both Egypt and South Carolina, and out of fear for our own lives 70 years ago, white children hid under beds, white fathers watched the streets, and a white mob assembled at our court house because once again the oppressed were rising and the powerful wanted to preserve a way of life that needed to die. “Save yourself,” the devil says, but you must listen instead to the one who says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Lent is a gift we’ve been given. And we’ve been given it because we are all the time living these unexamined lives, falling into patterns of waking up and getting by without ever thinking about what we should be leaving behind. Just because we were raised this way – that doesn’t mean we should be living this way still. He’s calling you to join him in the desert so you can face your demon and leave your brokenness behind; to walk beside him toward a brighter future. Amen.