Sunday, March 09, 2014

Lent 1A

(NB: With a wee bit ‘o inspiration from Douglas John Hall and Maryetta Anshutz in Feasting on the Word.)

How would you know the Devil’s voice if you heard it? What does the voice of evil sound like? How would you know evil if it was sitting across the table from you?

On the surface, the answer may sound obvious. Just listen for the sound of the guttural voice, growling under your bed at night.

Or look for the goateed fellow in the red pajamas and pitch fork standing on your shoulder, whispering naughty suggestions in your ear.

Or the guy with horns sprouting from his forehead, laughing at you while you try to follow the bible life instructions.

Is that what you hear when you listen for the voice of evil?

Or maybe you’re not so fanciful. You know that there’s evil in the world and it bears no resemblance to a cartoon character. You’ve seen it. Heard it. You’ve felt it.

Maybe for you, the voice of evil is the one justifying child poverty in our communities as a unavoidable result of economic changes.

Maybe it’s the voice of dictators oppressing their people as they try to hang on to power.

Maybe it’s the voices of church leaders who covered up decades of sexual abuse.

Maybe it’s the smack across the face from someone who is supposed to love you.

Maybe it’s the boss who won’t pay you what you are owed.

You can say that the voice of evil is everywhere, shouting in our ears.

And that would be true. But I would say that the voice of evil doesn’t only shout, but also whispers.

The voice of evil sends us subliminal messages, until evil’s message makes its way into our lives, and before we know it, we stop recognizing it as evil.

Hiding money from the Tax Man, or even your spouse, because you have to protect what’s yours, don’t you? You've earned it.

Fudging the facts on your resume. After all, everyone does it, right? It’s almost expected these days.

Ignoring the phone call from someone who needs your help, because, y’know, boundaries.

These are small examples. But it shows how easily evil can burrow into our lives.

I think that’s the evil that Jesus was fighting in the desert. After all, there wasn’t anything in the devil’s temptation list that we don’t affirm as good. Yet Jesus rejects as evil. Or at least outside of his mission and God’s plan for him.

Look at the first temptation. The devil knows he’s hungry. After all, Jesus hasn’t eaten in weeks. I’m sure he was getting the tummy rumbles.

So the devil says, “Hey, Jesus, just turn these stones into bread. You’re starving. People will understand. Plus it would be a really cool trick.”

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied. “But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Okay, Jesus. Be that way. But we both know what you really want to do.

The devil then takes him to the roof of the temple.

“Jesus, if you just jumped from here, the angels will swoop in and carry you to the ground. Can you imagine what would happen if people saw that? Don’t you think that such a display of faith would bring people to their knees in worship? Isn’t that what you want for people?”

“The bible says, ‘Don’t test God.’”

Okay, Jesus. But this is a lost opportunity. 

Then the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world. “Think of it Jesus, think of all the good you could do if YOU were in charge and not these small, petty, selfish, mental dwarfs and moral midgets who call themselves kings. You could REALLY set the world straight - on YOUR OWN terms. You wouldn’t have to sit back and watch people kill each other for no good reason. You wouldn’t have to stand by while countries are destroyed, while families are broken up, while people drown in selfishness, while disease steals people away from those they love. You could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity that the world has yet to see. You could re-work the EVERYTHING to be EXACTLY how you want it. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that why you were born? All you have to do is bow to me just once.”

Jesus sits back. Closes his eyes. And ponders this opportunity.

And after a minute or two, Jesus whispers through clenched teeth,

“The bible says, 'worship the Lord your God, and only him.'”

“Okay, Jesus, leave the world to these small-minded, petty, selfish children. Let’s see how THAT works out.”

Then the devil disappeared and the angels nursed Jesus back to health.

But the test wasn’t over. The devil was just getting started.

These temptations popped up all through Jesus ministry. Jesus had to be on his guard against the forces of evil trying to end his mission, trying to pull him away from God’s purpose for him.

It may seem like the devil tempted Jesus with three different temptations, but I think there was one temptation running through each of them, and through Jesus’ entire earthly mission: the temptation to power.

The power to bend the world to feed personal desire; the spiritual power over the heavenly realms to draw attention to himself rather than to God’s message; and political power over earthly governments.

The devil tried to get Jesus to abandon his mission of changing the world through love, by tempting him to change the world by force. Force is easier than love.

And since the devil failed to tempt Jesus, he turned his guns on to a more susceptible group: the body of Christ, the Church. Christians. Us. I think we’re being tempted everyday by the very things that Jesus was tempted by.

When our churches aspire to be religious corporations rather than servants to the poor and hurting, we are being tempted by the devil to abandon Jesus’ mission.

When we demand that Christians be given preferential treatment from government and culture, and seek to change the world by force or by legislation rather than by love, the devil wins a victory.

When we worry more about correct doctrine, about believing the right things in the right ways, than about sharing and being good news to broken people in a sin-stained world, we succumb to evil’s temptation.

And, of course, we DO fail the devil’s test, just as we fail God’s test. The devil knows the standard by which we will be judged, and knows the evil that lives within us. The devil knows what buttons to push.

The devil knows that we aspire to transcend our humanity, that we have a will to dominate, that our selfish impulses often overwhelm our desires to do good. Or even that our good works are sometimes motivated by our egos.

The devil knows that we are capable of terrible evil and incredible good. The devil knows that we are muddle of mixed motivations, and the harder we try to deny the darkness within us, the more our darkness comes out of us.

We will be tempted. And will fail. We ARE tempted. We DO fail.

But Jesus, finally, did not.

It wasn’t in the wilderness that Jesus passed the test. He passed the tests along the way as he healed the sick and raised the dead. He passed the test when he preached the good news of the Kingdom of God. He passed the test by dying on the cross rather than crown himself as king. He conquered his enemies by suffering a horrible defeat. He won the war by losing the battle.

On the cross, love won over force. Servanthood was victorious over power. Mercy triumphed over evil.

On the cross Jesus overcame our darkness with God’s light. A light that glows with a cleansing fire. A light that purifies. A light that shines in our hidden places. A light that fills the whole world with God’s loving grace.

On the cross and in the grave, Jesus defeated the powers of darkness and death, Jesus overcame the forces of sin and evil. Jesus conquered those who would destroy rather than create.

And in rising from the dead Jesus established a new day, a new day of love, a new day of mercy, a new day of forgiveness. That day when the tomb was found empty, God had started a new creation, where people love one another rather than fight with one another.

A creation where people live in joy and freedom, and the temptations of the world - the temptations to fulfill our basest appetites, the temptations to rule over others, and the temptations to glorify ourselves rather than God - are swept away, and we are clothed in love, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.

It was your temptations that Jesus endured, and won where you failed. It was those moments of weakness when you succumbed to those things that pull you away from God, and hurt others, that Jesus took upon himself in the wilderness, and led him to the cross.

Jesus knows our temptations. He felt them within his own body. He knows how hard it is to follow in God’s path. He knows that how often we get in our own way when we try to live the life that God wants.

And that’s why Jesus went to the desert. And that’s why Jesus went to the cross. That he would share our temptation and die our death, so he could rise to a new world which God is creating from the ashes of our failure. 

In the waters of baptism, where we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is the new world we are re-born into - God world, where God reigns in love, and we live in the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven, and then living that freedom we have received from Christ, believing that guilt and shame and regret have gone to the grave with Jesus, and with him we share in his resurrection life.

We will be tempted and we will fail. But Jesus has passed the test for us. And that’s all we need.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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