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Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan 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. -Luke 4: 1-2
This is another one of those familiar texts, for those of us who have been going to church for more than a couple of years. This one gets reproduced, almost verbatim, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so we hear very nearly the exact same words every single year, on the first Sunday in Lent. And so it doesn’t seem a very strange text, to us; but it is a very strange text.
It is strange to see Jesus alone. This is something that we’re not going to see much of again before Holy Week. That doesn’t seem like a very long time to us, now, in our liturgical year, but it was a much longer time in Jesus’ ministry.
It is strange to us to see Jesus being so intensely, almost entirely human, in this moent
It is strange to us – at least it should be – to hear the word Devil. Which may seem odd in our Christian tradition, with our imagery and our concept of this red guy with the horns and the tail and the pitchfork. But this is a rarity in the Gospels, it’s a rarity in the Bible at all to talk about the Devil. So it is a very normal question – not one we usually ask, but still a very normal question, to ask ourselves what on Earth is going on here? Who is this Devil character anyway?
I think we read this story and we see Jesus out in the desert, probably looking kind of skeletal after 40 days, and this being appears, whispering in Jesus’ ear, suggesting all manner of trouble. We see the Devil as an external force of evil, sent precisely down to tempt Jesus in this moment. We conflate this Devil, this mention, with Satan, who comes in Job, back in the Hebrew Bible, who was, in fact, a somewhat-embodied angelic being who wreaked real havoc with poor Job’s life. And I think it really helps us; I think it does something within our hearts, to see these as beings. To see them as external to us, somehow, these conniving, compelling, fallen angels who are trying to pull us away from God. In a way, it helps us to see them as somehow Darth Vader-like perhaps with a light-saber for good measure. We want this to be a visible, a tangible creature; someone with whom we could conceivably do battle. Someone with whom Jesus could do battle, and have it be that story of Good vs. Evil, because we know how that ends. We have that story, throughout the history of human literature, the Good vs. Evil story, from the earliest mythology right up through Star Wars and Harry Potter. And they end, almost inevitably, with the unblemished Good still managing to overcome Evil personified. As though we could, in fact, rid the world of Evil.
And I think we would all feel pretty good about this story – and I know this is what would happen if Hollywood ever got a hold of this one – if up there, on the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus and the Devil had that last little tempting conversation; if instead of the Devil just giving up, somehow Jesus’ powerful love pushed the Devil off of the pinnacle and he fell down into a little pile of dust and was never heard from again… wouldn’t that be a great ending?
But we run, in that moment, right into temptation ourselves. Right into one of the temptations already on offer in that moment. Because what is on offer here? What is the Devil saying to Jesus in this moment, in the desert (or wherever he took him)?
He’s saying, “You know, there is an easier way. I know what you want to do, I know what you’re trying to do. Did it occur to you that you might be taking the convoluted path, that there might be a smoother option? A way of leading, maybe not by example, but by power? You have the power, Jesus, you know that. You could show them what you can do. You can perform the miracles. You can throw yourself off the Temple and the angels would descend to save you, and wouldn’t that just wow ’em? You’d have them eating out of the palm of your hand. And yeah, I get that you don’t want to turn the rock into bread, because that would just be feeding you, but what about for the sake of your ministry? How about a miracle? Wouldn’t that make life easier? You want those people out there? Because I can give them to you. You want their hearts and minds? I can get that for you. And I can do it in a way that isn’t going to take all the work, it isn’t going to take the pain. Because you know what pain is, now, don’t you? You’re hungry, aren’t you. You want the easy way?”
In that moment, that has got to sound so much easier than what Jesus knows lies ahead of him. Maybe not longer lasting – maybe the easy way is the short-term solution. But in that moment, out there fasting in the desert, you have to wonder if the hard way is going to last any longer. Even if Jesus goes all the way to the cross, is it actually going to last any longer than the memory of the miracle of the angels rescuing the guy who was falling from the Temple?
Because that’s the problem with temptation. It just all sounds so reasonable.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that while God is all-knowing, and all-powerful, and all-loving… nowhere is it written that God is all-reasonable.
Reason is a human thing, not a divine thing. Reason is a measure of our human understanding. Let’s remember that not all that long ago, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun was unreasonable. God is not calling us to be reasonable beings. God is not calling us to common sense – there’s precious little of that in the Bible, either, quite frankly. God is calling us to love. And love is not reasonable. And love is not common sense. And love is not something we do out of human nature.
Human nature, in this moment, is exactly where we find Jesus. Totally pulled into this human body that is, in that moment, suffering. Can you imagine forty days of fasting? There is nothing going on in Jesus’ head, other than what is going on – or not going on – in Jesus’ stomach. There is just no way. There is no way he can be thinking about much beyond when the next meal is going to happen. He is not battling an external projection of evil; he is not battling a Vader or a Voldemort with light-sabers or wands or whatever we need to make this story really awesome. He’s battling his stomach. He’s battling that little voice within us all, that little one that says, “Well… but… what if?” He’s battling the knowledge that this road that he is starting down is going to be really, really hard. That people won’t always hear him. That he’s going to be upending the status quo and that that is not going to be popular – oh, man, is that going to be unpopular because there is no way that such a thing is ever going to be popular – and that it’s probably going to end him up in even worse pain than forty days without food.
He’s battling the little voice of fear that must pop up in moments like that: fear that no one is going to listen, that no one is going to hear him, that nothing is going to happen – no matter how he goes out and preaches, that the crowds won’t come, that maybe humanity is already too far gone.
He’s battling that little voice of doubt. That’s not a little voice in this story, it’s the loudest voice in this story, did you hear it? The Devil says to Jesus, “IF you are the Son of God, take that rock, turn it into bread, and feed yourself. Think you can do it? Are you sure? IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the Temple. You know what’s promised, you know what will happen. Or don’t you quite believe it? Are you willing to take that risk? Are you really the Son of God, Jesus? Would the Son of God be this hungry right now?” The Devil throws them like darts into a suffering body: “IF… IF God will provide… IF? IF God will save you… or any of us…”
It’s a familiar moment, it’s a human moment in a hungering body, when divine power seems no more than temptation itself. when all those voices stop sounding like fear, and start sounding like common sense.
Maybe, in this moment, we can all remember how those old Good vs. Evil stories really go: how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side to protect his love and unborn child. How even Dumbledore, in the story – the good guy, the one we all looked up to – flirted with the power that he was given, and considered turning it to evil purposes. Maybe in this moment, we can realize that the Devil never, actually, is external.
And we find ourselves now in Lent. Lent, the forty days before Easter when, in memory of that forty-day fast, we, too, give things up. When, in memory of that human hunger, we deprive ourselves, even in small ways. Or we add things into our schedules – because we assume he wasn’t just fasting, out there in the desert, but that he was praying; and so we add a new prayer practice, or we add service, or we add acts of loving-kindness, and we make those our Lenten disciplines. And they’re all good – don’t get me wrong, if any of that sounds like what you have decided to do this Lent, I will not discourage you from acts of loving-kindness! But over the course of forty days, there will come that moment, it happens to all of us, when we’re tempted to cheat, just a little bit. When we’re tempted to suspend those rules that we set for ourselves because after all, we’re the ones who set the rules, so we can bend them, it’s not a big deal. We weren’t thinking ahead, that’s all, there has to be some sort of reasonable clause in there for unforeseen circumstances, for the unexpected…
And in that moment, Lent can begin.
Because there comes a point in all of it when we find ourselves saying, “Well, yeah, I suppose that makes sense…” When the external voices stir up internal fears and doubts, and another way forward seems so much smoother and easier… and Lent can begin.
Lent can begin at any point, not only during this particular set of forty days, but Lent can begin when each of us on this path can recognize the fears that each and every one of us carries. When we recognize that little voice of doubt that will not leave us alone. When we find ourselves questioning God’s provision, God’s abundance and God’s care. Maybe we even question the idea that God is, in fact, all-loving. Or we question whether God actually understands our fears and our doubts, when we wonder if God will actually forgive us, this time.
Lent will begin, for each of us, when we recognize the voice that is within, that little Devil-whisper that occurs in every human heart. It will begin when we are ready to stand up and square off against that voice, to hold ourselves firmly in the path that God has set for us, even though it’s not going to be the easy way. When we are willing to trust that people will come, that the money will be there, that we’re all going to be okay in the end, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. That we, as individuals, as the church, as a community, can not only live, but thrive, if we can just stop acting out of a place of fear.
Lent will begin when we can realize that the story of Good vs. Evil – that ubiquitous story through all of human experience, is our story – each and every one of us individually. That there aren’t light sabers or wands or excitement. That getting rid of the personification of evil isn’t necessarily going to help. That we are going to be consistently doing battle throughout our lives with the little, quiet, compelling voice from deep within us.
Lent will begin with our willingness to face that voice, to recognize it, to name it… and to say No.
It’s not about me.
A friend of mine is working with a free-form Lenten discipline this year, in which she simply tries to be more mindful of the world around her, and do small, daily acts that make the world a better place. Acts that she would prefer go unnoticed, for the most part, because it is, as she puts it, “not about me.”
The sentiment is admirable, I think, and knowing her, the acts are likely to be loving and generous. The push to mindfulness is one that we could all emulate, no matter the Lenten practice in which we have chosen to engage this year, should push us outside of the bubbles in which we all live: the bubbles of work, and family, and community. As we pray this Lent, let it require the full participation of our imaginations, as we pray not only for those we know and love, but for the millions in the world without food, clean water, or medical care. Let it be for the final member of one of the two species of Galapagos Tortoise, the species made nearly extinct because of human interference. Let it be for the families of any of the thousand victims of gun violence in this country so far this year. Let the words of our prayers, let the actions of our hands speak for us, saying, “it’s not about me.”
And then let us recognize that, if it’s not about me, it’s certainly about us, and that the relationships formed in prayer and service must, necessarily, have an impact in our own hearts. The act of looking beyond ourselves, beyond the safe and familiar, will leave us changed.
A prayer by Rev. Kate Braestrup asks for a heart of glass; for as the glassblower works, the glass both expands and becomes more fragile, more transparent, more easily broken. Our mindfulness of the surrounding world, of the joy and suffering even of those whom we will never see, will both stretch us to a love far beyond ourselves, and push us to far greater fragility. Our hearts will expand, our hearts will break, our hearts will expand again.
So while our Lenten prayers and practices begin with, “it’s not about me”, let them end with this: “Wow. Thank you. Amen.”
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. -Matthew 6:1
There is some irony in reading this passage on the one day that we mainline protestants openly and overtly wear a mark of our faith.
Should we actually not walk out of here with a black smudge on our foreheads, there for all the world to see? Are we doing it wrong, right from the beginning of Lent? This scripture has to make us question that… and so many more things. What about our communal worship service, in which we pray aloud together? What about the collection of the offering – although at least there, checks and pew envelopes can make that a relatively discreet practice. But a close examination of our worship practices forces us to wonder if we haven’t been doing it wrong for centuries? Wouldn’t we be better off, each of us in our own individual spaces, like hermits, where we could pray in secret, where perhaps the right hand really wouldn’t know what the left hand was doing?
Perhaps. But perhaps our anxiety just gives this passage more power than it deserves, all by itself.
Christianity is inherently a faith of relationship. Throughout the Gospels, throughout centuries of tradition, our faith has been about how we treat one another. Our faith has taught us that how we treat one another is the clearest reflection of our relationship with God. The very God who came to us in human flesh, who came to understand human relationships, who came so that we might learn how to have a relationship with God. This is why we worship in community. This is the faith that calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; the faith that shows us who our neighbors truly are, even in unlikely surroundings. This is the faith that we carry into the world, not as a badge of honor or source of pride, but as a way of informing, and of affirming, our relationships.
An alternative text for Ash Wednesday is taken from Isaiah 58:Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers. Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Our call is to a new fast, one that requires far more of us than hidden, individual practices. Our call is to more than isolated prayer and unnoticed giving. Rather, we are called to separate the trappings from the faith; the practice from its reception.
We are called to do what is right and just, rather than what will get a nice reaction. We are called to question our motivation every time we bow our heads in prayer, because that little voice within us wonders who is watching, wonders who is passing judgment upon us. We don’t necessarily need the quiet room for prayer, although that does make it easier… until we begin watching for who runs first or fastest off to their own quiet space to pray. We don’t need to hold our prayers in for a more opportune time – indeed, there are moments when we can’t. Whose head did not bow, whose heart did not cry out in prayer on the day of the Newtown shooting, when waiting for “the right time” was impossible? When for once, the little voice within us was silent?
Because ours is a faith of relationships, much of what we do in faith must be visible. Can we feed the hungry without anyone seeing? Or house the homeless, or clothe the naked? Usually, as we do those things that are our Christian responsibility, we cannot help but do them in a way in which someone, at least, will see. And there will be moments when we will not hold our silence – indeed, moments when we should not: not for ourselves, but for those whom we serve, and for the sake of relationship. We will speak of those whom we feed in this very community, in the fellowship kitchen and from the food pantry; we will tell their stories, we speak their truth in love, we will call them our neighbors. We will speak of our work with Habitat, building and restoring homes here, and we’ll encourage others to get involved. We will be open about the ways in which we serve so that others might come to serve alongside us, so that the humanity of those who are often dehumanized might be recognized.
Sometimes we will speak of our own Lenten disciplines, as they encourage us to be mindful of the practices of our faith, and guard us from the dangers of the voice of judgment within us all – for that is the point of our Lenten practices, whether it is committing to volunteer work, or to going green, or to finding out what it would actually be like to live off food stamps. We can share our experiences, and thereby strengthen our relationships with one another and with Creation. We can seek together new ways of living Christ’s love towards one another.
And sometimes, we will speak of this small black smear of ash on our foreheads; this reminder of our own mortality, this reminder that our faith – the practices which bind us to one another in community, the practices which unify us into one Body in Christ – that our relationships cannot wait. There is no more opportune time. There is no dodging away from the voice of doubt and judgment within us, there is only our response to it; our choice to ignore it.
Yes, it can be awkward, leaving the church on Ash Wednesday, going about the rest of our evenings with blackened foreheads. It can feel like we’re only doing this to prove our piety. These marks we bear tonight may well attract stares, of approbation or of disdain. They can make us wish for a quiet room in which to be our humble Christian selves.
But they can also be an opportunity for us. For all who stare at us this evening, whatever the reason, are equally made in God’s own holy image. They are equally part of God’s creation. They are our neighbors, those whom we are called to love without reserve.
May the ashes we wear tonight tune our hearts, not to the inward voice of shame, but outward, to those we are called to love. May they serve not to make us feel good about our own faith and practices, but rather to make us aware of the responsibilities to which we are called by our baptisms. And may they serve even after they are washed from our skin, as a reminder that when it comes to loving our neighbors, now is always the most opportune time.