Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent
The first Sunday in the season of Lent, and we begin with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan”—where he had been baptized by John—“and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” Forty days of fasting in which Jesus faces down the devil in a kind of battle of epic and cosmic proportions; what does this have to do with us? I mean other than the fact that our rather more modest Lenten observances run for forty days, what’s the connection? A good deal, I’d say, but only if we back away from some of the ways in which we normally picture the story, and hear it anew.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Typically in paintings and drawings of this story, the face down between the two characters is presented as decidedly clear-cut. Whether in orthodox iconography, medieval art, Renaissance paintings, or the more current imagery in illustrations, film, and even clip-art designed for church bulletins, it isn’t hard to see who is the good guy and who is the bad. Jesus may—may—look a bit worn and tired from his fasting, but not always. The devil character often comes complete with horns and a tail, and there’s just no mistaking him for anything but a diabolical villain and tempter. Confronting such a clearly evil character, how could Jesus do anything but refuse his temptations and push him away?
The Christian tradition affirms that Jesus Christ is what? Fully human and fully divine. The Nicene Creed proclaims that Christ is,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father.
A Christ who is “God from God, Light from Light… of one being with the Father” could surely rebuff all temptation with little more than the flick of the finger, a blink of the eye. But that same Creed also proclaims that,
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
Incarnate, en-fleshed, human. One of us, one with us, which means among other things that whatever spiritual clarity had come from forty days of fasting and prayer, those days would also have left him famished, weakened, and vulnerable.
Now put aside the images of a horned and tailed figure appearing at his side and trying to seduce him through these temptations of self-serving power; a figure too easy to recognize and reject. Imagine instead something closer to a steady, insistent voice pressing subtly on those very human points of weakness and vulnerability. Both N.T. Wright and Robert Farrar Capon have wondered if it might not be best to imagine this struggle as being almost entirely internal. “[T]he devil’s voice,” suggests Wright, “appears as a string of natural ideas in [Jesus’] own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.” You’re hungry… you can eat; if you are what you think you are—the Son of God—you can easily end this fast and turn this stone into bread. You are destined to be sovereign over the world; isn’t that what the angel Gabriel had told your mother? You can have that right now; just bend your knee and accept the power that I have in hand. You believe you are the Son of God, don’t you? You could leap from the very heights of the temple, and everyone will see as God’s angels leap to save you. How could they disbelieve if they witness that?
Notice how that tempting voice even quotes scripture to justify that third temptation; a temptation Scott Shauf characterizes as being “a cross-avoiding spectacle.” Notice, too, that Jesus comes back at the tempter, not in a posture of debate and argument, but simply by quoting scripture back at it. “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” It is what keeps his mind, his heart, his very self, from falling off the mark.
The Greek word translated as “sin” in the New Testament is hamartia, which means literally “off the mark” or “missing the mark,” and what Jesus is facing down in the wilderness is the temptation to settle for that which will take him “off the mark.” And you know what? The same temptation plays on us as well. “Every moment,” N.T. Wright observes, “God call us to know, love and worship, and thereby to find and celebrate our genuine humanity, and reflect [God’s] image in the world.” That is what we were meant to be; that is what it means to be creatures fashioned in the image of God; “to find and celebrate our genuine humanity.” But, Wright adds, we so easily “lower our gaze, shorten our sights, and settle for second best or worse. Sin, like a misfired arrow, drops short of the call to true humanness, to bearing and reflecting God’s image.”
Anyone who has ever used a bow and arrow knows how little it takes for an arrow to miss the mark. You pull back, close one eye so you can draw a bead on the target, hold as still as you can, and then release… and just a little bit of difference in your stance, your aim, your focus, makes all the difference as to where that arrow sails. Understood rightly, sin can also be much like that. The person who has cultivated a destructive drinking problem probably can’t tell you when “sure, you can pour me one more glass” became an unquenchable thirst for more; always more, no matter the cost. And when did that apparently harmless hour spent playing an online casino game land someone in crushing debt? That so-called innocent flirtation with the colleague at work become an extra-marital affair? When was the moment when the military guards in Guantanamo Bay began to see torture and humiliation as justifiable means of keeping order? When did a dutiful and patriotic German military bureaucrat named Adolph Eichmann cease to see actual human people in all of the papers and numbers he shuffled that sent tens of thousands to their deaths in concentration camps? On account of Eichmann’s utter inability or unwillingness to recognize any responsibility for his actions—he was just doing his job as a bureaucrat—Hannah Arendt subtitled her famous book on his war crimes trial “The Banality of Evil.”
The gaze is lowered, the sights are shortened, the mark is missed, and the call to “true humanness [and] to bearing and reflecting God’s image” is obscured. It is what the devil wants Jesus to do; to lower his gaze from the vocation to which he is called. And the tempter even uses scripture as justification! Yet as the biblical scholar Ruth Anne Reese, insists, “Scripture must be read rightly in light of God’s nature and the life envisioned for God’s people. Such a life is rooted in God’s narrative of deliverance and a response of faithful obedience to God rather than in self-reliance which is the devil’s story.” Self-reliance, which is the lie that says I am self-determining, I can do it my own way, I have no real need for anything higher than myself. Even in his hunger and his weakness, it is a lie Jesus recognizes and refutes.
And best as we are able, so must we. Speaking truthfully with one another and to our God, so must we. Finding the courage to both see and confess our hungers, our weaknesses, our lowered gaze and shortened sights, so must we. That’s why every year at this time we tell this story.