A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
They tempted him at the end, too, taunting him to come down from the cross, to save himself. But he was not in the world to save himself, but to give life to those who need it – hope to the sorrowful, comfort to the suffering, release to the captives of sin, misery, and death, good news to those in most need of it.
After these early temptations, the gospel says, the devil left him until an opportune time, until his next weakest moment, but even on the cross, Jesus’ love was stronger than the devil’s snares.
There is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. Jesus himself was not averse to using miraculous means to feed multitudes, multiplying loaves and fishes to feed thousands on the hillside. Did he remember the devil’s temptations at that moment, as he gave thanks to God and broke the bread that would satisfy five thousand followers? There is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. Jesus even turned water into wine, to delight a wedded couple and their guests.
There is nothing wrong with taking care of our own bodily needs, and in fact it is demonstrated throughout the gospels that God, and Jesus, want our health, our wholeness, our satisfaction. Jesus is worried about the congregation on the hillside and their hunger. The discipline of fasting, our hunger is not an end in itself, nor is it designed to be a permanent state. That would be to deny the abundance of God. Fasting, rather, is a means of ridding ourselves of distractions, and even of using the distractions of our bodily prompts of hunger, appetite, desire, to remind us of our appetite for God, our need for mercy, our desire for grace. The first temptation, then, is not to satisfaction. The first temptation, rather, is to take our attention back from God, elevating any other appetite above the hunger to know deeply the love of God.
Thus Jesus answers the devil.
There is nothing wrong with taking care of our own bodily comfort, still less with taking care that all are fed.
Then who would decide how they were distributed, who was deserving? Who would pay for the delivery, the packaging, the tracking, the clean-up? Who would profit from this miracle? The devil is in the details.
This is the second temptation. The devil tries to deceive Jesus, first by telling him that the whole world has been given to him to manage, to divide and conquer, that the world has already gone to the devil and there is no hope but only to worship me, the devil tells Jesus; only then can you become an influencer, make a difference, change the world. Only submit to me and my rules, and think how much good you could do, how much bread you could spread. But one cannot worship God and the devil.
Making bread out of stones is one thing, but if we think we can partner with hatred and manufacture love, that’s a whole other level of delusion. If we think we can make compromise with injustice and come out with dignity, we are deceiving ourselves worse than the devil could do. If we think that we can use foul means to make a fair profit, we are missing the point of the miracle. Perhaps that is why we cannot be trusted to make bread out of stones, bread rolls out of grains of sand. We may not take short cuts to doing the right thing. We have to love God first, with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and the love of God will help us to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Then there is the temptation to helplessness. It is right and good to trust in the promises of God. We used the self-same words as the devil when we prayed this morning’s psalm:
For he shall give his angels charge over you, * to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands, * lest you dash your foot against a stone.
Throughout the Bible and throughout our history we have learned that God is true and faithful. Part of the way in which God is true and faithful is to design for us and support us in a world that makes sense. It is appropriate to use and to trust the gifts of gravity, and our understanding of how the world works, to do great things, to accomplish marvellous feats of exploration, engineering, inspiration, so far as they enlighten and encourage our vision of what it is to be fully human, made in the image of the almighty God. It is not appropriate to defy the gifts of God, to challenge God to let us fall and fall without ever landing, and throw our lives away as though they were without consequence.
It is a good and appropriate and joyful thing for us to use our God-given abilities to emulate Jesus in the feeding of multitudes, in the healing of the sick, release to the captives, in providing good news to those in most need of it. This is the work that God has given us to do, as stewards of God’s creation, as inheritors of God’s covenant of mercy and of grace, as those made in God’s image, and following in the footsteps of Jesus. Sometimes, it will mean self-sacrifice, fasting, discipline and discomfort, as we reorient our appetites from selfish desires to something more satisfying: sacrificial giving; a shared meal; a sacrament of God’s abundance. Sometimes, it will mean having the humility to turn down deals with the devil: quick schemes and short cuts that threaten to distract and divert our souls away from the goal of loving God, and loving our neighbour, however long it takes. It will mean having the courage not to compromise with promises of false peace that deny justice, whitewashed walls that cover up but do not undo the graffiti of hate, which will one day bleed through. Often, it will mean getting over our own helplessness and hopelessness, to trust in the promises of God to walk the long way with us, to pick us up when we do fall down, to hold us when we stub our feet against a stone and cry out in pain and anger.
This was the last temptation, the one that the devil returned with at an opportune time, when Jesus was dying on the cross, stripped and struck and suffering. The devil and those whom he had successfully deceived taunted Jesus, saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27:40b) Give it up, this plan of being human, God Incarnate, this compassion for, this solidarity with the people made only in your image. Why suffer for them?
But the promises of God are more enduring and more trustworthy than the temptations of the devil, and Jesus came not to glorify himself, but to draw the world closer to the profound understanding that God is faithful, that God hates nothing that God has made, that, come what may, God will forgive all who turn back to grace. Jesus went into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, so that whenever we find ourselves lost, hungry, at an end of hope, tempted to give up on life, on the God who gave us life, Jesus is there to meet us, swaying with hunger between us and the devil, famished, and full of love.