February 21, 2010

As most of you know, every Sunday of the year, there are specific readings which we are meant to use as part of our worship. This is known as the lectionary, and having a lectionary is very helpful, as it tells me what text I need to preach on each week. There is a three-year cycle, with at least three Scripture readings for each week, and each reading could lead to several sermons. So there is no need for me to repeat myself. However, today is one of the Sundays when you just might hear something you have already heard – not from me, but from someone else. You see, there are certain Sundays that the church seems to recognize as almost requiring certain parts of Scripture to be used. For instance, if you look at the readings for the first Sunday of Advent, you will find a focus on the end of the world. The second Sunday of Advent always has a story about John the Baptist, while the readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent discuss the mother of Jesus. And today, this first Sunday of Lent, we always read the story of Jesus’ trek into the desert and his temptation there. Mark’s gospel only says, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” But Matthew and Luke tell us the whole story, including the conversation between Jesus and Satan. I think that it is important for us to know the whole conversation, because that way we are better able to relate what happened to Jesus to what happens to us, every single day.
Let’s have a look at each one of the temptations, but not just a casual look. This time, after each temptation, I am going to talk about what Satan was really doing, and how similar temptations assail us on a regular basis. First of all, we need to know that this forty-day period Jesus spent in the desert was not a vacation. Luke wrote: Jesus ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them, he was hungry. Well, I’ll guess he was hungry! In fact, I would say that he was ravenous. My father used to come home from work some days claiming that he was hungry enough to eat the leg off the table, and I would imagine that Jesus was even hungrier than that!
So for the first temptation, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Now, on a casual reading, we see that Satan is tempting Jesus to eat, to break his fast. Funny, the first temptation we read about in the book of Genesis also has to do with eating, when Eve is tempted to eat the fruit which God had commanded her not to eat. Eve, as we know, gave in, but Jesus said, “ It is written: man does not live on bread alone.” Whenever Jesus says, “It is written”, we know that he is quoting from the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. In this case, he quoted from Deuteronomy, and it might be helpful to hear the quote in context. In chapter 8 of this book, we read: Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of Lord.” Just as the Israelites had been humbled by being forced to submit to the will of God, so had Jesus chosen to accept the discipline of the Father and to humble himself for forty days in the desert. Many people see this first temptation as being purely physical – Jesus was hungry, and Satan tempted him to eat. But listen to the first seven words Satan spoke – IF YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD. Forget the hunger; forget the bread. Satan was trying to plant doubt in Jesus’ mind. And this is what he tries to do with us, when we are tempted to replace God with material things, when we look for things rather than God to make us happy. He is trying to show us that we do not need God to make us happy, that we can be happy with the things of this world. Well, I don’t know. I keep reading about rich people who are not happy, rich people who end up in rehab over and over again, because they are looking for something which their money cannot give them. And then I hear about people like Mother Theresa, who lived a life of poverty, but who was happy serving others. Or I hear about people who volunteer time on a regular basis, right here in Quebec City, people who give of themselves in an effort to make things better or easier for others. These are the people who are happy, not the people whose lives are full of things.
The next thing the devil did was to lead Jesus up to a high place and show him all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendour, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So, if you worship me, it will all be yours.” First of all, Satan lied. He had not been given the authority and splendour of the kingdoms of the world. But leaving that aside, how does this offer tempt? Well, many people want power, or they want more than other people have. God has given each one of us gifts, as we heard a few weeks ago, and Satan tempts us to use these gifts to elevate ourselves above other people. I am smarter than the person next to me in class or at work; I am stronger than the person working out beside me in the gym; I am more talented or prettier or more handsome than my neighbour. This self-elevation, this pride – this is something which can surely separate us from God. And the really funny thing is that when we see people doing this, when we see them using their gifts to make themselves feel superior, we are not at all impressed. So we have to ask ourselves why on earth Satan thought that this temptation would have any appeal at all to Jesus?
The third temptation – following the custom of saving the best for last – heard Satan himself quote Scripture. He again took Jesus to a high place – this time on the very top of the temple in Jerusalem, and said, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” A few weeks ago, I referenced Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, in which Antonio said that the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. Surely, this must have had its origin in this scene in the Gospel, as Satan quoted the very psalm which we read just a few minutes ago, in an effort to persuade Jesus to listen to him. Imagine Satan asking Jesus to prove his divinity! This temptation reminds me of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, in which Herod said, “Jesus Christ, if you’re divine, turn this water into wine” and again, “Jesus Christ, if you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” This is something of which many people are guilty today. All around us we see God’s wonders, all around us we see God’s miracles, and yet we ask for more. Miracles are not enough – we want the show, we want the magic. And Jesus replied to the devil, as he replies to us, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, he was quoting from Deuteronomy, and he was telling Satan – and us – that he does not to prove himself to us.
The point of this reading is to tell us that, just as Jesus did, we can resist temptation. I don’t know how many of you remember the late comedian Flip Wilson, but I do. He specialized in playing other characters on his show, and one of the most popular was Geraldine, whose catch-phrase was “The devil made me do it.” Well, sorry, Geraldine, that doesn’t cut it. Jesus resisted, and so can we. So do we, every single day. I am not saying that people don’t sin. As we read Scripture, we see sinners everywhere. Peter – the rock upon whom Jesus founded the church – sinned. He denied Jesus, he doubted, but, in the end, he triumphed. He was not a servant of the devil – he was the servant of the living Word of God, and so are we. Because we are human, we are not perfect. Often we fall short of the mark. But the thing is that we keep trying. We don’t give up. And we have resources to help us in our fight.
The first thing we have is prayer. When I was a little girl, the nighttime prayer ritual was a big part of my life. Then it was simple, and consisted mostly of God blessing everyone in my family, usually including my cat. If every day is bracketed by prayer, then we know that we are arming ourselves to fight off the evil one. A minister friend of mine does her morning devotional before she gets out of bed, and carries that with her throughout the day.
The second thing we have is Scripture. We saw it in action today, as Jesus used it to put Satan in his place. When I was working with a spiritual director, one of the pieces of advice she gave me was to read my assigned Scripture over my morning coffee, so that it could be in the back of my mind while I went about my daily tasks. In my Bible Study classes, we were required to memorize certain key verses, so that we could carry them with us. This brings Scripture out of the pages of a book, and into our lives. Next month, we are going to be taking part in the Proclamation of the Word, when the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation will be read aloud in this church. What an opportunity for us to hear or read some part of Scripture we have paid little attention to until now. What a chance to find a section or even a verse that will speak to us! Armed with Scripture, we can do as Jesus did, and shoot Satan in the foot.
The third thing we have is our faith community, and I cannot stress how important this is. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” And I say that there is an unbelievable power in community, a power that can overcome any kind of temptation. Most people are familiar with Twelve-step programmes, in which individuals draw on the collective strength of others to overcome their addictions. They know that they cannot resist alone. Neither can we. And nor should we. I remember when Christ Church – the Presbyterian Church I attended in Wabush –closed. I have to admit that for a couple of weeks, I enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in on Sunday. But then I started to feel like a ship without a rudder. And I realized that I not only enjoyed the idea of a faith community – I needed it. Without it, I was weaker. Without it, even though I still had an active prayer life, I felt alone. When I pray for people, I pray for them by name. I don’t just say something generic like “God bless the members of this congregation.” In our prayer of intercession, I often name particular people. And I often leave a moment of silence so that we can name people in the silence of our hearts – people whom we know to be in particular need. And, for me, knowing that someone has prayed for me, personally – that gives me such a feeling of being loved, of being cared for, that I feel it in my heart. There is a children’s praise song about having the joy in my heart, and that expresses the sensation very well. Interestingly, the song goes to say – after expressing the idea that I have the love of Jesus down in my heart, and the peace that passes all understanding down in my heart – it goes on to say that if the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack. And, isn’t that what we heard today? Jesus was able to resist temptation because he prayed; because he lived Scripture; and because he was part of the community of the Trinity.
I told someone this week that I was going to talk about the idea of giving up something for Lent, which was a part of many people’s lives when I was young, and still is, in some circles. The celebration called Mardi Gras was integral to this self-deprivation. This was seen – particularly in French circles – as the last day to eat fat and sugar for six weeks. It was the last day to party before Easter. In some churches, weddings were not performed during Lent, and many churches which had statues would cover them in purple for this period of time, as it was seen as a time of mourning. As children, we used to talk about giving up candy, and we heard adults talking about giving up beer or cigarettes. Sometimes this backfired, though. Once I decided to give up sugar in my coffee, and this was a time when I used to take at least two teaspoonsful in every cup. Every cup of coffee I had for those six weeks really didn’t taste very good, and I could hardly wait for Easter Sunday. But I persevered, and got through the entire Lenten season with no sugar. On Easter Sunday, I made a pot of coffee, determined to enjoy the whole thing myself. I poured a cup, added the sugar, and took a huge gulp – which I promptly spit into the kitchen sink. It was disgusting. It tasted like coffee-flavoured syrup. I still don’t take sugar in my coffee. I don’t know if any of you still follow this custom, or maybe this was never part of your lives. And, you know, I think that there are better ways to mark Lent than by self-denial. I am not telling you not to give up anything, but what I am telling you to give up may surprise you. Give up grumbling and complaining. Instead, take Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians, and “In everything give thanks.” Give up hating anyone. What a waste of energy, which could be better used to the glory of God’s name! Give up worrying and feeling anxious. Trust that God knows what he is doing with you and for you. Give up conspicuous consumerism. Live more simply. Remember that when Jesus spoke, one of the things he said that we should look at the lilies of the field, who neither toil nor spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Lent is not only about giving up things we like to do, or doing without things we like to have. It is about adding things to our lives – things like love for others. During this season of preparation for the greatest feast in the church year, think about what you can add to your life. Can you visit someone who is lonely? Can you talk with someone who needs a friend? Can you pray for someone by name? In doing these things, we are heeding the words of Jesus, who told us to take up our cross and follow him. During Lent, let us do this. Let us speak up when no one else will, and follow Jesus into the wilderness, secure in the knowledge that, with his help, we can resist any temptation which comes our way. Thanks be to God.


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