Lent 1

Sermon for Lent 1, Sunday, February 14 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deut 26:1-11; Ps 91:1-2,9-16; Rom 10:8b-13; Lk 4:1-13

It is in the wilderness that we become real. It is the generation of wandering in the desert which makes Israel into a people, and more importantly, into a people marked by exile, commanded never to forget that they had been lost, and hungry, and without a place or a name. There is a crucial detail in the ritual instructions given in the Deuteronomy reading—the people of Israel are to celebrate the feast of the first-fruits along with the resident aliens. For they must remember that they were resident aliens, they were refugees, they were oppressed. Their ancestors wandered, lonely and needy, into Egypt, and were enslaved there; they were brought out into a desert of freedom and fed strange food at God’s hand. Now that the wandering is over, now they are in a land they consider their own, they are to remember—although in fact they would, as is evident in many of the other Deuteronomic writings, often forget—that God has given the land and its richness to everyone. In the desert, they were sustained by God only; and they are called to realize that, in fact, this is always true, even when it seems otherwise, even when they seem comfortable, self-sustaining.

The wilderness—the Greek word in Luke is eremos, a deserted place, a lonely place. Of course, the actual desert of Judea, which we assume to be the wilderness to which Jesus went, is a rich and complex and interdependent ecosystem, like any desert. But the word eremos emphasizes, more than anything, that it is the place where one is alone. Up until now, Luke has given us a busy, social story full of human drama. But now Jesus goes to the wilderness to experience who he is when all of that is gone, when there is no human society, no structures to protect him or nourish him or sustain him. When there is only wandering and lack and need.

And it is only when he has gone down into the solitude and lack and need, when he is hungry with the hollow hunger of the long fast, when he has found the hard point where nothing is left except himself and his Father and the Spirit who brought him here—when he knows himself to be a human body, fragile and needy—only then is he ready to face temptation, and see it calmly down. Only now can he know who he truly is, and what it means, what it really means, to be the Son of God.

It would be possible, in fact easy, to preach only on the first temptation, stones into bread, its ironies and reversals. The One whose ministry would in some ways centre around bread, around food, who would feed crowds of thousands with a few loaves, who would finally become bread, would name it as his body, give himself to us precisely as bread, chooses here to refrain, to leave the stones as stones. He will not satisfy his own hunger alone in the desert—he will eat, he will feed others, he will become food, all within human community and for the sake of others. He will not give in to the fears of hunger and frailty—Lancelot Andrewes beautifully identifies this temptation as one of identity, imagines Satan taunting Jesus with the fear that “you are not the Son of God, but a starveling child.” He will not be driven, by fear or by solitude or by starvation, to pre-empt the work of God’s love by the exercise of power. He will not compel the world, by force or magic, to be what it is not, but will finally create food for the world from himself and his offering, and from our scarce selves, as we are taken up and blessed and made able offer what we can.

Matthew and Luke, the two gospels which have this longer, folk-tale-like, narrative account of the testing by Satan, both set this temptation first; but they switch the order of the other two. Matthew’s seems, at least on the face of it, more intuitively right—the final, the climactic temptation is that of power over all the kingdoms of the world; it is that thing we all, somewhere within us, actually want, God as benevolent dictator, the God who will bring everyone into line, who will end all the wars by magic, make suffering go away, force us to be good. It is The Grand Inquisitor moment, for those of you who know The Brothers Karamazov. That Jesus instead steps back and requires of us freedom and volition, that he allows the suffering of all the little ones in all the kingdoms of history to go on in order to allow us freedom—that is, on some level, appalling to us, perhaps the most appalling thing, and we feel that it must have been an appalling choice for Jesus as well. Most retellings of the temptation story do follow Matthew’s order, and make this the last and more serious temptation; it makes sense to us.

But Luke thinks otherwise. It is Luke who, more than other other gospel writer, emphasizes the suffering of the little ones—but he does not make this the climactic moment of temptation. Rather, it is the apparently rather trivial suggestion made by Satan, that Jesus should jump off the top of the Temple and see if God catches him. At a quick read, it sounds like the kind of temptation which Satan might more appropriately offer to a twelve-year-old.

And yet, as with the stones and bread, there is a strange echo of the work which Jesus will in fact accomplish. For he will be taken to a high place, and he will abandon himself without reserve into the hands of God, and no angels will come to save him; he will fall, and go down into the darkest and most deserted place of death, and only from that place rise. The temptation offered in this story is serious because the challenge is so very real, because it is precisely this kind of surrender which is required, of Jesus and, to some degree, of us all.

But what Satan presents is here, as in the other temptations, a parody of the real thing. What he presents is that impossible contradiction, a self-willed surrender, a self-selected abandonment. The tempter suggests that we can choose when and how we will give ourselves away, that the fall into the dark place can be, somehow, under our own control, and on our own terms.

We don’t know exactly how much Jesus, in his human nature, knew about what would happen to him, nor is it particularly helpful to speculate. But even in those moments when the Jesus of John’s gospel seems to be ticking off items on a mental timeline on the way to the cross, he does not control, nor attempt to control, the events. He will go to the high place of Golgotha at human hands, at our hands, with full acceptance and full volition, but without taking any steps to choose the time or place. He will not intervene nor call on God to intervene—not to save him, and not to save his murderers from what they will do. Our complicity is a part of this story. We cannot begin to be freed from our own violence until our involvement in that violence is fully revealed, until we stand with the centurion at the foot of the cross and realize what we have done, what we have done to the God who comes to us in Jesus and in all the broken, bleeding, enslaved bodies upon which our lives are built.

And we can only begin to turn away from that complicity by entering into the surrender, the abandonment, of the Son of God. Not on our terms, but on the terms which the world will deal out to us, which we cannot predict or control, but only try to recognize, to live through and die through.

We must go to our own wilderness to learn this. To the place where each one of us is alone, where the social structures upon which we mostly rely are not there to protect us. We never know when it will come to us, this wilderness, or what we will face there. We can prepare, to some extent, through discipline and prayer, through the practices of Lent, but we will, we must, find ourselves there at an unpredicted time. We cannot choose or control it. We may be taken to our wilderness by loss or by desire, cruelty or illness, time or violence, by our own failures, by the witnessed pain of others. And here we must wait, alone and hungry. Resisting the temptations of magic and force and drama, not because we are strong, but because in our weakness we may enter into the weakness of Christ. We may begin to learn to love the world and those around us as they are, beautiful and broken, to offer what can be offered in the bare desert of freedom, to accept the strange food of God’s love as it comes to us from their hands. To wait, in patience and trust, for the God who comes down, all the way down, into the place of the dead, and takes us each by the hand to lift us up into life.