Sunday, March 6, 2022
First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13 If you confess that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved
Luke 4:1-13 The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days

Sermon

Title:  Sacrifices of Our Stooping God

A good way to start Lent is with confession, right?  So here goes, a confession. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, this story that every year is told on this first Sunday in Lent, during these first steps on our Lenten journey, this story of Jesus being tested by the Devil is not one of my favorite Bible Stories.  I mean, what are we supposed to do with it?  I just don’t find it helpful to apply a “What Would Jesus Do” or in this case What Did Jesus Do kind of moral to the story and say to myself or anyone else:  “Jesus resisted temptation and so must you and I.” Not helpful to anyone who has already caved to temptation and, before a week of Lent is gone by, has already done or eaten or drank whatever that said they were giving up for Lent. All that failure at standing up to temptation does is bring on feelings of guilt and shame.  Not helpful in this season in which we are called to return to God, moving from our death that was faced on Ash Wednesday into the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus which we will celebrate at the end of this journey.  What are we supposed to do with this story?

The first reading from Deuteronomy gives little help or commentary.  In fact, I find it a bit insensitive. There is Jesus starving in the wilderness and the chosen first reading for today is talking about first fruits and harvest.  Ouch!  The psalm is a little more connected, in that it offers us one of the passages that the devil is quoting to Jesus.  And the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, does speak to the shame issue that could arise when we give in to temptation and fail to follow Jesus’ example. But more importantly, it speaks to keeping the word of God close to us – on our lips and in our hearts.  Because the Word is what keeps Jesus strong in the face of temptation.  However, there again, I don’t know about you, but I’m a failure there too.  When staring down that piece of cake and fighting the temptation to eat it, rather than quoting scripture, I more likely to quote Marie Antoinette.  (You know, let them eat cake.) And quoting scripture in the face of temptation seems like one of those easy fixes that I don’t find helpful for the hard knock life of the real world.

So, like it or not, here we are again. With the annual reading of the temptation story.  In which again, Jesus is faced with the three temptations: to satisfy physical needs unjustly, overthrow God for the sake of claiming earthly power, and to put God’s mercy and love to the test.  And yet, there is some current context that is bringing a bit of new understanding and application of this story.  As we are reluctant to take on physical hardship (in the form of higher prices), putting our own creature comforts over the very survival of the people of Ukraine as they are unjustly attacked. “People shall not live by lower gas prices alone” is the adapted line, perhaps.  Temptation number 2:  there are white nationalists in our own country who are seeing in Putin the savior of the white race, absurdly claiming Russia to be the hope of white Christians.  Yes, they are definitely overthrowing God for the sake of what they see as power they wish to claim.  And then of course, there are anti- mask and anti-vaccine folks who claim their defiance is an act of faith and God will protect them.  Okay, I get it.  While the story is not one of my favorites, it never ceases to have relevance in our lives, because temptation is always present, challenging, testing, and we are often failing. And maybe that is why I’m not crazy about coming back to it again and again. I hate being reminded of the failure.

But I’m still looking for a new entry point.  I still want to see something in this story beyond our failings set against the perfection of Jesus. And so, this time around, I am proposing a new title for the story.  Rather than call it the Temptation of Jesus, I’d like to suggest that we title it the Sacrifices of Jesus – not him as one who is sacrificed, but as one who is making sacrifices.  At the end of this journey, we will find ourselves at Good Friday and we will certainly be talking about sacrifice. But let’s talk about it here in the context of this story. Consider this, Jesus as God and Human, as Word of God incarnate already possesses everything that the devil is offering. As the Lord of creation, all that is, that satisfies, is his. And as the almighty one, he already holds all the power of heaven and earth. And as the one who is the worker of miracles, he holds the power to save. And all this he sacrifices for our sake. The God of creation, almighty and compassionate, sacrifices themself to join us in the challenge and frailty of our lives.

God in Christ Jesus need not feel or experience all that Jesus of Nazareth dealt with in the wilderness or will deal with as he spreads the word of God’s reign coming near.  And yet, the sacrifice is embraced and done for our sake.  And through this beyond-our-understanding sacrifice, we behold our God who:  knows our pain, knows our struggles. God in Christ Jesus has felt the grief at the loss of a friend, the frustration of not being understood, the anguish of being abandoned. And in this sacrifice, God not only accomplishes all that is necessary for our salvation, but in Jesus we learn of this great gift of grace.  Only by sacrificing all, by stooping to live our lives, do we come to encounter God so intimately. In Christ Jesus are we able to learn of God’s love in the teachings, witness God’s mercy in the miracles, experience God’s justice in the radical welcomes, and come to know God’s peace in the compassion and the tenderness shown.

In the wilderness, Jesus refuses to abandon this sacrifice.  The devil will not distract him from his purpose. Jesus holds fast to what he knows must be accomplished for our sake. 

Luke ends this encounter with the ominous concluding phrase that the devil departed until an opportune time.  We need some eerie music or heavy cords under that, right?  But the temptation to reconsider his sacrifice would indeed surface again for Jesus.  The obvious time is in the garden, when he prays that if the cup may pass. “But not my will but yours be done,” he prays.  The Divine Will that, in perfect love and mercy expressed in sacrifice, salvation would be won for all creation.  But there were other opportune times when Jesus was probably left second guessing his stooping down, his sacrifice for our sake. We heard one just last week.  Coming down from the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration, exasperated Jesus says:  How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?  And how many tests and annoying encounters with Pharisees and Sadducees must have come close to pushing him over the edge and giving up?  And certainly his own friends didn’t make it easy:  not getting the message, missing the point, arguing over who was greatest.  And then Peter himself distracting from the mission to the point that Jesus, maybe thinking back to the wilderness, silences him with “Get behind me, Satan.”

But thanks be to God, the mission will not be derailed.  The sacrifice will not be reconsidered. All things are accomplished.  And by the work of the Holy Spirit, through the word of God, we learn of our stooping God, who humbles themself for our sake. Hearing our prayers with deepest understanding and compassion.  Showing compassion as one who has lived and learned firsthand. Loving so completely that nothing is held back. No sacrifice is too great for God to make for the sake of what God has created, what God loves, for those who God claims as children.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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