St. Mark’s, Westford, MA
Meghan T. Sweeney
March 13, 2011
First Sunday of Lent
And here we are in Lent.
One of the things to learn in seminary is that the readings in the lectionary –
the three year cycle of biblical texts appointed for Sunday Eucharistic worship –
is that these readings are randomly put together.
So we’re taught in preaching classes
that we don’t have to connect all the appointed texts.
If common themes emerge, that’s great.
But that’s accidental.
This organizing principle holds true in ordinary time, the green season.
But it does not hold true during the special seasons of the church year –
namely Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.
And so with today’s readings,
if there was any lingering doubt at all that we’re now into Lent,
our readings today with their emphasis on sin, temptation, guilt, and justification,
make it crystal clear that we are indeed full into Lent.
As for the lectionary, despite the connectedness of the readings,
I’m actually only going to consider Matthew’s gospel, which is plenty.
At the parish where I was a seminarian last year,
I was helping to teach the confirmation class.
And one of the assignments –
which became an assignment for the St. Mark’s / All Saints’ confirmation class this year –
was for each confirmand to bring her or his favorite Jesus story to class,
to read it to the group, and then engage in a discussion
about why he or she liked it and what was appealing about it.
One young man picked the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
One young woman picked the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
And as we went around the circle, we came to the last young woman.
And this 14 year-old said that her favorite Jesus story is the one from today’s Gospel, of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
I was not expecting this response.
When I asked her why,
as I had asked “why” of all the others,
“If Jesus can resist temptation and he was a human being,
then I can resist temptation too.”
And within moments, another young person connected with this young woman’s generous self-vulnerability and the story of the temptations,
and began talking about buying stuff.
And so our conversation evolved into a quite-serious and open discussion about temptations and addictions – whether of shopping, the internet, or drugs.
Implicit in this discussion among these teenage confirmands
was an intuitive sense that temptations are things that are harmful
to ourselves and to others.
Also implicit in this discussion among these teenage confirmands
was a sense that temptations are seemingly small things
that happen in the context of the everyday.
The devil indeed is in the details.
Today’s gospel text from Matthew
comes after the genealogies leading up to Jesus’ birth
and Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan,
which Jesus underwent in order to fulfill God’s will,
and before Jesus’ public ministry begins.
So after the baptism, before the public ministry.
The timing is important.
Jesus enters into what some ritual studies scholars might call a period of liminality, of in-between time and space,
following a significant religious ritual.
(ad lib about doorways)
This liminality is a time for Jesus of transformation
in which he comes to understand who he is and what he is called to do.
The devil already knows who he is and refers to him as the “Son of God.”
Calling him this name,
before Jesus himself understands what it means
and has embraced it,
is part of the tempting (and taunting).
And Jesus emerges from this chrysalis as the Son of God.
Whether or not understood from a ritual studies perspective,
what we understand from a biblical perspective
is that these 40 days of transformation in the wilderness
are akin to the 40 days and nights of the flood,
or the 40 years of the Israelites sojourn to reach the promised land,
or as we heard last week,
Moses’40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai.
40 marks a time and space of growth, of change, of re-birth.
I suspect that it is not accidental that the biblical significance of 40
as a time of transformation and rebirth
matches the standard 40 week gestational period for a human being.
This emphasis on change, growth, transformation, and re-birth
is the only way – at least right now –
that I can make sense of what the text says:
that it was the Spirit – that it was God – who led Jesus into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil
(ad lib about the Lord’s prayer and leading not into temptation;
it’s a dangerous time but/and a holy time).
I would like to think that this temptation, these temptations,
that Jesus experienced were a necessary part of Jesus’ growth
into who he was called to be.
That without these temptations, Jesus could not become himself;
could not become who he was;
could not become the Son of God.
I was in Maine on Friday --
I drove up and back on the same day –
and so I spent a fair amount of time in the car.
Before I left home I grabbed a CD travel case that I hadn’t used in years.
I came across a song written by a young woman that is a prayer to Jesus.
Her relationship was ending and she was praying to Jesus for her beloved to stay.
In the first verse of the song she says to Jesus,
“there’s something you must do… if you make my baby stay, I’ll make it up to you.” In the second verse, the beloved has gone,
and so the young woman says to Jesus,
“I asked you please for a favor but my baby's gone away,
went away anyway
and I don't really think it's fair,
you've got the power to make us all believe in you
and then we call you in our despair, and you don't come through.”
And there, I think, is the core of the temptations
that Jesus confronts in the wilderness:
As the Son of God he does have the power to make us all believe in him,
to fix problems,
but he must resist capitulating to this temptation of power-over people.
He must resist the fantastic.
He must resist turning stones into bread even though he’s hungry.
He must resist the spectacle of falling from a pinnacle and having angels catch him.
He must resist the lure of power and temporal authority.
He must resist coercing people into belief,
into making us believe through the fantastic, the spectacular, and the powerful.
A forced conversion is no conversion at all.
Jesus knows God’s heart;
he knows his God as abba father
and as mother hen who gathers us up in her arms,
and he knows that the reign of love and justice of God that he wants to usher in
– the heart of God --
has to be freely offered and freely chosen;
it cannot be forced upon us.
God wants relationship.
If he succumbs to the temptations of the devil,
he will be harmed because he will not be living into his call
to show forth the generous heart of God and to convert us to the love of God.
We will be harmed by not experiencing the gospel.
What we will know is coercive power, not the power of love.
Certainly God can make us believe and can fix everything.
The temptation for Jesus was to go this route.
But he resists.
He challenges the devil’s understanding of what it means to be the Son of God.
Instead of power over people, Jesus chooses love and servant-leadership.
In his resistance to coercive power in favor of the hard, slow,
at-times disappointing, at-times betraying work of showing forth the love of God,
he becomes himself.
He becomes the Son of God.
In all three of his responses to the tempter, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy.
Might I suggest,
that what I think Jesus does is,
paraphrasing another Deuteronomy text (30:19),
“choose life – choose love –
so that he and his people – so that we – might live.”
The Matthew text seems to emphasize that Jesus knew what was happening;
that he knew he was being tempted by the devil,
that the unfolding drama was clear.
I’m not convinced that Jesus knew, at least not at first,
in part because of what the confirmands hinted at:
temptation happens in the context of the ordinary, everyday.
On this same trip to Maine on Friday,
another one of the CDs in the case was the soundtrack to Godspell,
the 1970s musical based primarily on the Gospel of Matthew.
So, I listened (and maybe sang along) to Godspell.
In one of the songs, the music suddenly changes.
Then a narrator,
against the background of the now-solemn music,
begins to read the scripture passage
in which Judas makes his deal to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
That was a temptation, and Judas capitulated.
And I thought to myself,
as I was driving and listening,
wouldn’t it be great if,
every time we were assaulted with a temptation,
some solemn background music, some soundtrack, would start to play
and alert us to “Danger! Tread carefully! Be thoughtful. Be intentional.”
I suspect that we would hear that music pretty often.
In the wilderness I doubt the devil arrived with music.
And I certainly don’t hear a soundtrack
in the ordinariness of everyday life, relationship, actions, and decisions.
Yet recognizing and resisting
small temptations prepares us to resist big temptations.
The devil starts with food because Jesus is famished and he needs to eat.
Had Jesus succumbed to the temptation to turn stone into bread,
it is much more probable
that he would have succumbed to the other temptations as well.
Small actions, big consequences.
Every athlete or musician knows that good practice is the key
to game day and performance success.
We don’t only practice when we know the big event is coming.
Rather, we practice every day so that when the big event comes, we’re ready.
Many of us take on practices for Lent.
The purpose of these intentional practices –
whether it’s refraining from something or taking something on –
is to help open us to the grace of God
and to deepen our loving relationships with God and with each other,
whether in our small communities or the world in which we live.
Jesus was tempted by the devil to a lack of faith
of using his power to want to control people instead of loving them.
He would have lost himself and us if he had succumbed.
Attentiveness of and resistance to small temptations now –
temptations of control, of fear, of power-over, of dehumanizing,
of faithlessness, of exclusion, of hatred, of prejudice
of apathy, of exploitation, of injustice --
things that harm us and that harm others,
in short, the temptation of not loving –
Attentiveness of and resistance to small temptations now
prepare us to resist bigger, large-scale temptations later.
The arc of the gospels is
God’s deep abiding love for every single human being.
I pray that through God’s grace my heart, your hearts,
may be conformed to the heart of Christ.
So that each of us may know the depth of God’s love for us,
and in face of the many assaults of temptations
we may choose life and love now,
sharing the graces of God,
so that we may all have life abundant.
who is fully human,
can resist temptations,
then we can too.