February 21, 2010
SERMON OF FEBRUARY 21, 2010
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Luke 4:1-13
A colleague tells a story about a conversation she had with her 4 year old son, after he returned from a Sunday school class in which he heard the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
“Hey, Mom,” the boy began, “what do you know about the devil?”
Not sure what her son had been told and not sure how to answer his question, she did what any good parent, professor or politician would do. She asked him the same thing, “What do you know about the devil?”
“Well,” he began, “the devil talked to Jesus. And the devil was mean.”
As his Mom began wondering about the relationship between being mean and being evil, her son leaned closer to her and dropped his voice into a whisper.
“If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and…there was candy (in my aisle), the devil would say, `You should take some!’”
His Mom was delighted with how well he’d been listening to the story. “If the devil said, `You should take some!’ What would you say back to the devil?” she asked.
A genuinely sweet grin spread across his face and without hesitation he replied, “Oh, I would say thank you!” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, p. 44, 46, 48)
Now it’s not surprising that a 4 year old would miss the point of today’s Gospel passage.
What is surprising is how many of us miss the point so much of the time.
What is surprising is how many of us so easily dismiss the story of Jesus’ temptations as if they had nothing to do with our own temptations.
What is surprising is how easily we dismiss today’s story as if it had little to do with the story of our own lives.
When we gathered in this space last Tuesday evening to begin our journey through Lent we created the nest in front of the lectern as a reminder of our commitment to make space in our lives for God in the weeks ahead.
We then received ashes in the form of a cross to remind ourselves that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return. (Genesis 3:19b)
As we received the ashes we also heard the words of the First Commandment – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Doing this during Lent, or in any other season of the year, is a difficult and demanding enterprise – one that constantly confronts us with the temptation to say “thank you” to the very things that lead us away from living the life God created us to live.
In his play Look back in Anger, John Osborne has a character named Jimmy say this about love: “You can’t fall into it like a soft job…It takes muscle and guts. And if you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, clean soul, you’d better give up the whole idea of life...Because you’ll never make it as a human being.” (Quoted in Lectionary Homiletics February and March 2007, Soul Healing, a Sermon by Dianne Andrews, p. 39)
It takes muscle and guts to live and love as the human being God created each of us to be.
The same was as true for Jesus as it is for us. That’s why it was the Spirit of God that led him into the wilderness.
You can’t miss this part of the story. It’s right there at the beginning: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit,” Luke tells us, “returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2a)
The same Spirit that had blessed him at his baptism in the Jordan and identified him as the Beloved Son of God now led him into the wilderness where Jesus where Jesus would be challenged to forget who he was and forced to develop the muscle and find the guts to live the life God intended him to live.
A colleague tells a story about visiting the house of a friend when he was a teenager. Whenever they’d leave his friend’s house, his friend’s mother would always say, “Remember who you are.”
Remember who you are. The Spirit led Jesus and leads us into the wilderness places of our lives so we too can develop the muscles and find the guts to “remember who we are” as baptized, beloved children of God created and called to share in God’s mission in the world.
Two of the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness began with the devil saying, “If you’re the Son of God…” A more accurate translation would have the devil say, “Since you’re the Son of God command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus refused to do this because he remembered who he was, not in the eyes of others, including the devil, but in the eyes of God.
It was in the wilderness of temptation that Jesus remembered who he was as the Son of God and developed the discipline he needed not to live by bread alone –- to worship and serve only God – and to trust rather than test God.
If we think we can follow Jesus without being disciplined in doing so - without the inclination to say “thank you” to the temptations that come our way – without remembering who we are as a child of God - we’re laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.
Our mission, as a congregation is “to grow disciples of Jesus.” This means both helping others become disciples and growing ourselves as disciples.
The Latin root for our word disciple is discipere. It means “to hold” or “to grasp.” A disciple of Jesus is someone who follows him by “taking hold of his teaching” – by “grasping his way of life.”
We can’t grow as disciples of Jesus without letting his life of self-giving love shape ours as fully as it possibly can. We can’t be disciples without discipline.
Notice the similarity between the two words.
The word disciple is the root for the word discipline. We all need discipline if we are to live the life God intends for us to live as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus needed the discipline of 40 days in the wilderness to get clear about God’s intentions for his life. And we need the 40 days of Lent to do the same thing – to get clear about God’s intentions for our life – to make space in our life that only God can fill.
We need the 40 days of Lent to remind us that we live in the wilderness every day of our lives. We live in a cultural wilderness that is constantly trying to convince us that something or someone other than God can satisfy the longing in our souls and the hunger in our hearts.
We live in a cultural wilderness that is constantly trying to convince us that we do in fact live by bread alone.
“The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, p. 67)
In a culture where instant gratification is one of the local gods, Jesus reminds us that we don’t live by bread alone.
We don’t have to be drug addicts, alcoholics or shopoholics to know that we live our lives in a culture that is constantly trying to convince us that comfort and convenience are ultimate values and that suffering is to be avoided at all costs.
If we’re serious about making space for God in our lives and allowing God to fill the emptiness inside us that only God can fill – if we’re serious about not saying “thank you” to every temptation that comes our way – then we need to allow the Spirit to lead us, as it led Jesus through the wilderness.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, suggests that we think of Lent as an Outward Bound for the soul.
“No one has to sign up for it,” she writes, “but if you do then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life. You place yourself in the hands of strangers who ask you to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a precipice with nothing but a rope around your waist or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. But none of these is the real test because while you’re doing them you have plenty of people around and lunch in a cooler (nearby).”
“The real test comes when you go `solo.’ The strangers put you out all by yourself in the middle of nowhere and wish you luck for the next 24 hours. That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you really fear. Some people dream about their favorite food. Some long for a safe room with a door to lock and others just wish they had a pillow, but they all find out what their pacifiers are – the habits, substances, or surrounding they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human…
“Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers in our mouths and suck for all we are worth. While they don’t nourish us, they at least plug the hole.” (Home by Another Way, p. 67)
Lent is a time to practice the discipline of not trying to plug the hole with anything other than the presence and purpose of God in our lives.
That’s why the insert in your bulletins lists a number of Lenten Disciplines – ways in which we can develop the muscle and find the guts to resist the temptations that come our way to be someone other than the person God created us to be.
Think of each discipline as an Outward Bound for your soul. Some of these disciplines we do “solo” others we do “alone–together” with those in our family or in our family of faith.
All of them offer ways to leave our pacifiers behind on this 40 day journey and focus our attention on God’s presence and purpose in our lives and in our life together.
In addition to practicing one or more of the Lenten Disciplines listed in your bulletins I’d invite each of you to be attentive in the weeks ahead to the pacifiers that you reach for first to fill the emptiness that God alone can fill.
For 40 days pay attention to how your mind works.
If you’re craving a candy bar ask yourself, “Am I really hungry? And if so, for what?”
If you’re craving companionship, ask yourself, “Am I really lonely? And if I am, what’s so bad about being lonely?”
If you’re craving something you don’t have, ask yourself, “Do I really need it? Might I not invest my money and myself in a different way?”
“Try sitting with these feelings instead of fixing them…”
Try asking yourself – “Am I trying to fill an inner emptiness that God alone can fill?”
If you do this, “chances are you’ll hear a voice in your head warning you what will happen if you give up your pacifier. `You’ll starve. You’ll go nuts. You won’t be you anymore.’
If that does not work, the voice will move to level two: `That’s not a pacifier. That’s something that will make you more popular and more powerful! Can't you tell the difference?’
If you don’t fall for that one, there’s always level three: `If God really loves you, you can do whatever you want. Why waste your time on this dumb exercise?’”
It was this same voice that was speaking to Jesus, inviting him to turn a stone into a loaf of bread, to claim political and military control over the lives of others, and to leap from the top of the temple.
It was this same voice that was speaking to that little boy, saying, “You should take some candy.”
If you don’t want to simply say “thank you” when this voice speaks to you then you’d better know who it belongs to. If you’re not sure read Luke’s story again.
“Then tell the devil to get lost and decide what you will do for Lent.”
Decide what spiritual discipline you will practice as a disciple of Jesus.
Decide whom you will worship and serve.
Decide in whom you will place your trust.
And discover God’s presence, God’s power and God’s purpose in your life!
Note: This sermon draws on the sermon “Lenten Discipline” by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home by Another Way. P. 65-68. When not indicated otherwise quotations are from this sermon.