God or the Devil

Luke 4:1-13


Jesus has just been baptized by John. Now Jesus needs to sort out just what God has in mind for him. He goes into the wilderness and there he must confront his demons. He has choices to make about what sort of Messiah he is going to be. Is he the expected Messiah that will conquer, rule and lead? Or is he something very much different – something described by some of the ancient prophets but rarely considered?

He must face the many temptations to be the long awaited Messiah of authority and power and victory. Here in the wilderness Jesus becomes not a conquering hero or a white knight on his horse saving the people. Such leaders have risen in the world before. Here in the wilderness he becomes something unexpected, outside the realm of reasonableness and pragmatism. Here in the wilderness he banishes his demons and emerges has the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:

53:3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not… 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed… 53:10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; 53:11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.

If he were the expected Messiah, he would feed and clothe the people and give them wealth. Then they would follow him. So said his demons. Yet Jesus knew that that is not enough. Simply giving the people material things does not transform them and their world from the greed for gold and power. They are given what they want, but not all of what they need. … And Jesus was transformed in the wilderness to show them what they needed, to show that their spirits needed to be fed as much as their bodies.

Again his demons challenged him. He can rule the whole world if he doesn’t require his followers to be too disciplined. Give them a little and take a lot and he can rule the world. If the people or the culture is not willing to embrace new ways, such as including strangers or reconciling with enemies, then don’t force it. Let them have their way and they will follow. So goes many a politician in any age including ours: being elected is paramount, defeating evil can wait. But the people would still be living in the old, broken, angry world. They are given what they want, but not what would make a better world for them and their children. … So Jesus was transformed in the wilderness to show them the better, compassionate way despite the logic of politicians.

And one last time his demons challenged him. Even if he were determined to transform the people, he needs to be a visible and charismatic leader. He needs to do things that will impress them. But the moment he falls from his charismatic pinnacle the people will see only a washed-out loser.

But here in the wilderness Jesus let go of all of these efforts by his demons to make him what they people expected. He decided during his 40 days of fasting that he would be humble and ordinary and showed that the humble and ordinary will transform the world.

This event in Jesus’ life is our model for Lent. As those 40 days unfolded Jesus gradually let go of the seduction of power and dominance and fame. He emerged as a Messiah of peace, inclusion, courage and grace willing to suffer if need be. Our tradition of Lent is to emulate Jesus: resisting the temptations of our worse selves to rise to our best selves as followers of Jesus and a people of God.

But the sacrifice of Lent is optional now and I suspect, all but forgotten. Mardi Gras is the high point with parades and fun. Ash Wednesday is just a day on the calendar. But the last day of Lent, Maundy Thursday, lives on as the reminder that Jesus was betrayed and a sad remembrance that the apostles still didn’t understand.

Christians over the ages were asked to give up something they likes to have or do during the 40 days of Lent to remember Jesus’ challenge in the wilderness. But that demand descended into simplicities such as giving up coffee or playing cards. Lent lost its meaning.

But there is meaning in Lent if we look closely at what Jesus did. Jesus cleaned house – like Spring cleaning. He had stored up his demons crying out for the old, failed ways of conquest and dominance and coercion. Now they were dusty and rotting, and it was time to clean his soul of them.

And likewise for us Lent can be a time when we do a spiritual Spring cleaning. None of us is the Messiah and I suspect none of us have universal, cosmic callings to be the Messiah. But even in our ordinary living and lives we are interconnected in God’s cosmic and universal community. So Lent can be a time to go through the old, dusty habits and behaviors and selfishness, and challenge ourselves to be new, washed spirits.

For example, maybe we’ve stored up grudges against neighbors or old friends or colleagues. If we gave up those grudges we can make room for a friendlier, mature relationship.

Or if we are preoccupied by material things – food, our car, our house, the Internet, including worrying about them – we could throw the worry and the dependence on them out the window, and leave space to see new perspectives of life more spiritual and lighter than the suffocating hold upon us by our material possessions. Maybe we can see our way to generous tithing to the church or bring a friend or two to the service during the 6 Sundays of Lent.

Then at the end of the Lenten season, maybe we would see the hand of God at work in our lives and maybe even the world through our faithful giving and efforts, in a letting go of worldly idols. Maybe we will see great wonder in the wilderness of these 40 days. Maybe we would come out the wilderness more faithful, more loving, more trusting, more courageous, more humble, more hopeful and more filled with joy.

But if we have the courage and determination to go even further into wilderness, we can own up to why Lent just became a sacrifice of diet rather than a sacrifice of spirit. Jesus’ stay in the wilderness was no occasional feeling of missing something. It was a famished time of deep spiritual hunger for what God really wanted him to do. His demons tried to seduce him away from God and keep to the comforts of the known and expected way of being what he was becoming.

He faced these demons and all the comfort and acceptability and honor that they brought and awoke to God’s alternative call to transformation and renewal of our souls and of our lives.

Christians very early on lost sight of God’s call and turned Lent into an accessible reflection of the world around them. They were too comfortable in the society around them, even when it turned on them. There’s always comfort in the familiar – even bad familiar. Generations of Christians sought to accommodate the culture around them. How long and how often do you really want to stand out from the rest of your neighbors living a peculiar life that they find humorous or more likely threatening and offensive.

How many of your neighbors really want to hear about loving their enemies, embracing strange … and questionable … people, of caring for all of those failed humans who are hungry and jobless, and maybe most of all hearing about faith in God rather than in things or people? And so we tone it down and eventually lose what Jesus found in the wilderness… and become comfortable with that lower tone.

And in our modern 21st century advanced civilization we are not just comfortable spiritually, we are comfortable physically and mentally far more than the generations before us. We have learned to store up in our souls what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “pacifiers” that “cushion our existence, making us feel safe and comfortable, making us think we can get along with God [just as we are].”[1] And sometimes these pacifiers are just distractions from the pain and the struggles in our lives.

We need to find these pacifiers and throw them away … just as we do a baby’s once the child is done with them. We need to look at what we are hiding behind so we can avoid recognizing and confronting attitudes and actions that are at odds with God’s call.

And having found them can we throw them away or at least put them aside for the 40 days of Lent and during that time be attentive to how much we miss them. And when we walk out of the wilderness can we leave the pacifiers behind and face the world directly and find wonder and challenge in the world. And most of all can we come out of the wilderness closer to God.

For example, one of the most common pacifiers is the desire to be in control of the world around us. Our lives are faced with an uncertain and complex world. Truth be told we can never be sure what the next moment will bring. It may bring what we expected and hoped for. But it is also likely—and maybe just as likely—thatthe next moment may change our lives forever.

This inevitable uncertainty can weigh heavy on us. If we are prone to thinking ahead and plotting the next day or week, the uncertainty may weigh even heavier as the uncertainty is greater. We may seek all sorts of means to eliminate the uncertainty. We may lay a careful plan. We may buy extra insurance. We may buy extra equipment such as a generator. We may narrow our vision of life to just the basics and minimum to get what we want. We may coerce our family members or colleagues into certain behavior that we can control.

Trying to control the world and the future leads to erecting idols. Your daily routine can become sacrosanct and you become unraveled if your routine is disturbed. You may strive to accumulate as much money and investments as you can – maybe even at the expense of others, relying on your wealth to protect you from the uncertainty of life.

And having built this complex structure, you will find you have restricted yourself to a small realm of make-believe security from the uncertainty of life. You fear to step out of the circumference of your idols and your routines. Although you might have eliminated much uncertainty, you have also eliminated a wealth of living – to only discover that within the circumference of your life, uncertainty runs wild. All the controlling in the world can rid us of the uncertainty of life. In the end the only thing we can truly control is how we will respond to uncertainty.

At last spending the 40 days of Lent away from our pacifiers and our constructed routines will be quite a challenge. But maybe during that 40 day retreat from these behaviors may lead us into stronger faith and trust that God will carry us through whatever we encounter and by learning this have a more peaceful, care-free life full of faith in God’s call to each and every one of us.

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …


[1] Sermon Seeds: Year C; Kathryn Matthews Huey; p. 78; The Pilgrim Press. A number of ideas in this sermon are gathered from this text.