Saturday, March 9, 2019
Tempted: Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent C
Once upon a time, a terrible flood swept through a county after devastating rains. County officials sent deputies out to encourage people to leave, and most did, but a few decided to hang tight. The water rose so high that it reached second floors, and so the holdouts had to climb onto their roofs.
Old Mr. Schmidt was one of them. Up there on the roof he waited, and after a couple of hours, a johnboat came by with firemen and some of his neighbors in it. They urged him to get in the boat, but he refused, and finally they had to leave before the current got worse.
Still the waters rose, and now it lapped the gutters. Still Old Mr. Schmidt sat there on the roof.
A bit later, a helicopter hovered overhead and they shouted at him to get in the basket they would lower and come on board, but Old Schmidt stubbornly refused. “God will save me,” he said.
Sadly, it did not end well for Old Schmidt. The water rose higher, covered the roof, and swept him away.
He woke up outside the gates of heaven, and he went up and rang the doorbell. St. Peter greeted him and let him in, exclaiming only that he was surprised to see him so soon.
“Say,” said Schmidt. “What gives? I put my faith in God to save me from that flood, and here I am now in heaven!”
“Why, what do you mean, Schmidt?” responded St. Peter, perplexed.
“Weeelll,” replied Old Schmidt, “I obviously drowned. God didn’t act to save me!”
“You’re wrong, son,” said St. Peter. “Three times God tried to intervene, and three times you turned down each one.”
“How so?” exclaimed Schmidt, astonished.
“I think I would remember God trying to save me.”
St. Peter put his hand on Schmidt’s shoulder. “Listen, God sent you those deputies to tell you to leave, and you said no. God sent you that johnboat, and still you said no. God even sent a helicopter, but you said no!”
“But I was expecting a miracle!” Schmidt protested.
“The miracle was in the deputies, and the johnboat, and the helicopter, son—and God giving you the reason the be able to see that. But come on in anyway,” said the saint, and he led Schmidt through the gates.
Temptation is a funny thing. It works differently on everyone. In our gospel reading today, starting off Lent, we get an account of Jesus being tempted, and I don’t know about you, but I have always found that comforting. Just like with Old Schmidt, sometimes our greatest temptation is not to recognize God’s providence in our own lives—to realize that God’s grace works in and through others, more often than not, which doesn’t make that saving help any less sacred or holy. The converse of that is to then enjoin us to remember that we are called as disciples to work and act to help others as a way of making manifest God’s saving hand in the lives of those around us.
Old Schmidt may not have realized it, but he was putting God to the test in a way that our gospel strongly warns all of us against. Our scene picks up right after Jesus’s baptism. He is filled with the Holy Spirit, who sends him into the wilderness to encounter temptation. For 40 days—always a significant number in scripture—Jesus fasts and purifies himself. Specifically, the parallel here is the Israelites’ exodus journey in the wilderness after they escaped slavery in Egypt.
The temptations that the Evil One lays before Jesus are related to this tendency of independence in all of us. Three times, the Evil One tries to get Jesus to put God to the test. We also get a picture of the Evil One trying to use scripture to get Jesus to act in ways that denied God’s providence, and Jesus quoting scripture—specifically the book of Deuteronomy-- right back at him each time. Let’s examine each temptation for a few moments.
After 40 days of fasting, Jesus is close to starving. Thus the first temptation is eminently practical—tempting Jesus to assuage his hunger and turn stones into bread. Here the temptation is for Jesus to put his powers to work not for others but to satisfy his own self-interest. Remember that Israel hungered in the desert, and complained to God and Moses about it quite ungratefully--and God provided manna and quail.
Second, Satan makes an offer of political power. He tries to tempt Jesus to use his powers to gain earthly political power, and fulfill the role of Messiah that the people wanted, instead of the role of Messiah that God had intended. In its ancient history as attested by scripture Israel had constantly sought to play God’s power off against the gods of their neighbors, and frequently fell into the habit of worshipping other gods, such as Baal, Ashtoreth, and Molech. For Israel, God WAS their ruler in the desert, and worshipping other gods was most certainly a political act. They turned away from acknowledging God’s sovereignty over them when they demanded a king, just like their neighbors had, after they were settled. Jesus’s refusal reminds us that God is our true ruler, the one to whom we owe our allegiance rather than setting ourselves up as the only kings we recognize.
Third, Satan tries to lure Jesus into testing the love and protection of God for Jesus. Satan quotes verses from our same Psalm we heard just a few minutes ago, too. This temptation attempts to get Jesus to manipulate God by testing his care over him, just like Old Schmidt. And the problem with that kind of thinking is that it diminishes God and attempts to make God our servant, rather than reminding us that we serve God. Israel did this as well in Exodus, when they demanded water in the midst of the desert, and God used Moses to make water flow out of the rock.
Psalm 91 IS a powerful act of thanksgiving for God’s continued love and care over us. But the promises in this psalm—especially in the verses 9-12 -- are also a temptation. They tempt us to try to manipulate God, to use God as a lucky rabbit’s foot (and if rabbit’s feet are so lucky, what about the rabbit who has provided these little charms? I imagine he doesn’t feel very lucky, hobbling around on his little crutches, poor thing). Satan uses verses 11-12 to tempt Jesus into manipulating God into fulfilling the promise quoted in this section.
And this is where I think many of us feel some connection to our own lives, if we are honest. It IS so very tempting to attempt to shrink God down into something we have control over, something we can understand.
This is our arrogance that God is not necessary for salvation—that somehow WE can save ourselves, and that blessings we receive comes through to us through our own agency rather than through the loving-kindness of God. We WANT to believe that, “If I do X, then God will have to do Y,” but that is not how the world operates.
This type of thinking is usually created when bad things happen even when we are being good, in our estimation, and wonder why we are being “punished,” or think that if we just pray hard enough or make a deal with God we will get what we want. There is an assumption there that God owes us something, and that we are blameless. We want to think that ultimately we are in control.
So we see today’s reading as a fitting start to Lent for us to ponder. There is a blessing here too—knowing that God is with us no matter what befalls us, and calls us to return again to God’s embrace again and again and again, no matter how often we fall short. We place ourselves under the discipline of Lent not as a way of punishing ourselves or testing ourselves, but of putting our trust a little bit more in God.
As we are invited into 40 days of reflection, repentance, and renewal, may we never forget that the point is not to be shamed or scared, but to grow deeper into our trust and faith in God.
Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16
Preached at the 505 on March 9, and at the 8:00 and 10:15 services on March 10, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.