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Lent 1 March 5, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for March 5, 2017 | Lent I
Matthew 4:1-11
Two months ago, Christians kept the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, a feast inspired by the story in Matthew’s gospel of a paranoid ruler who ordered the execution of young children in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Fearing a rival to his throne, Herod told the Magi that he would join them to worship the infant king. Well, worship was the last thing on Herod’s mind. For, in fact, his goal was to hold his power and not concede one bit of it to any rival.
On January 8, we celebrated the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Matthew notes that as he emerged from the water, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But Jesus was not the only one who heard this declaration. Matthew would have us know that Satan, the adversary, also heard these words, the adversary who held power over others and had no intention to concede one bit of it.
In today’s gospel, the Spirit leads Jesus, the Beloved Son, into the wilderness for forty days. Recall, if you will, that both Moses and Elijah were in the wilderness for the same period of time: a time of preparation for Moses and his encounter with a despotic ruler who believed he was a tremendous god, a god who enslaved Hebrew refugees. It was a time of preparation for Elijah who spoke publicly against King Ahab who refused to give his loyalty to the God of Israel, a refusal manifested in the crimes perpetrated against his people. Now the adversary comes to Jesus, an adversary not unlike Herod, Pharaoh, and Ahab: one who regards Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of love, justice, and peace, as a threat to his own power, a threat to his kingdom of dehumanization, degradation, and death.
In what, then, does this dialogue consist and why should it matter to us, we, who are allegedly “enlightened” and give little credence to spirits or devils who, in our own day, walk among us on Halloween and are the stuff of cheesy horror movies? || It might be helpful to remember that Jesus’ dialogue with the adversary is inspired by the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Keep in mind, if you will, that in Hebrew consciousness, the heart is the center of affective thought; the soul is the center of life; and one’s might symbolizes one’s wealth, property, and possessions. || In other words, to love God is to allow God – and not any other power – to shape one’s thinking, to guide one’s living with others, and to order the use of one’s possessions, great or small. I wonder: would that not be an appropriate Lenten practice this Lent: to spend forty days asking how your thinking, your living with others, and the use of your treasure – great or small – is shaped by God rather than the many competing voices in our culture whose primary aim is to maximize profit?
The adversary says, “If you are the Son of God, change stone to bread.” But this challenge is not so much about Jesus’ power to do something remarkable, as it is a testing of his loyalty to God. Note how Jesus answers: not defensively as if his birth certificate were called into question, not with his own words, but rather with the words of his true Father: one lives, he says, by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Eager to quote Scripture, this clever opponent quotes a psalm, suggesting that Jesus live recklessly – throw yourself from the Temple pinnacle – because it would seem that God’s angels will rescue God’s son from any peril. Well, except for the fact that Jesus doesn’t run away from peril or conflict but engages the dehumanizing, violent, and corrupting powers in society with his steadfast commitment to the flourishing of all lives, not just some lives.
Indeed, Jesus is invited to give his loyalty to the adversary, to the animator of this world’s powers that promise “success,” domination, unimagined wealth and release – release – from the difficult work of thinking critically, of thinking with discernment about one’s values and priorities. All you ever wanted shall be yours, say the powers of this world: just give us your heart, your soul, and your might; just give us your thinking, your life, and your treasure. We’ll help you grow that investment portfolio to the point where you’re no longer anxious about the future – even though your funds are invested in a sweatshop, an arms dealer, or a coffee company that pays slave wages to its farmers. Let’s work together, they say, to grow a tremendous economy by rolling back every law that protects the air, the soil, the water, and the safety of those who labor. Yes, they say, let us grow an economy that, in fact, cannot grow – cannot grow – without using more and more earth-damaging and climate killing oil. For here is the mad logic of the adversary: let’s invest – let’s give our hearts, souls, and might – to that which, in the end, will actually kill us. ||
I think most Americans give little thought to spirits or devils popping up unexpectedly. That old phrase – “The devil made me do it!” – brings a chuckle, not a feeling of fear. But if we are insensitive to devilish spirits, we are quite sensitive to the use and abuse of power. For there is the power of the adversary, the one who has encouraged emperors, dictators, and incompetent leaders – but more so, the systems and groups who rely on racial injustice, earth’s degradation, discrimination, the labor of poor persons, and disrespect for every living creature. And, then, there is this: the power of the Son of God, a power grounded in his loyalty to the God, a power released to you and to me: a power that can nurture our confidence, animate our thinking and discernment, and nourish hope within us for the days ahead. Here, dear sisters and brothers, he gives us no stone but living bread to eat so that we might taste and thus know that we have been drawn into his campaign to “loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share earth’s bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless poor, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” What does our God say concerning this campaign? Your light shall break forth like the dawn and healing shall spring up quickly. Amen, I say: let it be so among us. Amen.