Saturday, March 08, 2014

First Sunday of Lent

Matthew 4
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

And then the devil spoke to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, we seem to do this temptation thing every year, about this time, and I have to say I’m finding it a little ho-hum. Stones to bread, top-of-the-temple, kingdoms of the world...I’m bored to death.’

‘Really,’ Jesus replied, somewhat taken aback. ‘You know that the generative capacity of the Word of God means that even seemingly ho-hum passages can come alive through the work of the Holy Spirit.’

‘Yes yes, I know all the tricks of you and your legion of preachers. Every time you read it the Maker of All reveals more truth, or so you claim. For now, just work with me, and let’s see of we can jazz up this tempted in the wilderness thing.’

‘Fine, you can try.’

And then the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness once more. Jesus was fasting for forty days and forty nights, and was very hungry. The devil spoke to Jesus and said, ‘I will give you a shot at a grand prize of $250,000 and your own line of President’s Choice products if you can turn some of these stones into moderately priced appetizers, entrees and desserts.’

And Jesus replied, ‘Nothing in the frozen food aisle will save you, only the word that comes from the mouth of God.’

Then the devil took him to the Air Canada Centre, near centre ice, and said, ‘if you are the Son of God, I challenge you to play without thought of injury; body checking, shots to the head, the occasional brawl. For it is written ‘the angels will protect you, and never allow you to be concussed.’ Jesus replied, ‘Do not put your Lord God to the test, and stop praying for the cup Toronto, you ask too much.’

And then the Devil showed him Youtube and said, ‘your first video will go viral, and you will get a record deal. Teenaged girls will scream and cry and follow you everywhere, calling themselves ‘believers.’ You will eventually become a bad-boy, with a DUI in Florida and other crazy antics, but your wealth and fame will only grow. And all you have to do is worship me.’

But Jesus answered, ‘Get lost, Satan. Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone. And leave that lad from Stratford alone too.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Ah, the devil, so predictable, so easily defeated. Or is he? Subjecting yourself to humiliation on television, risking life and limb for some fleeting fame in the NHL, following the inevitable path from fame to infamy—all these stories have the same script: Something will be held out before you, you know you want it with every fiber of your being (whether it is good for you or not) and you will eventually succumb. Doesn’t matter if it’s potato chips or 15 minutes on TV, it’s all the same.

Now, before I bash society too much, we should say a word about the devil. In the United Church, of course, we succumbed long ago to the temptation of believing that the devil is not real. And that seems fair enough. Too many things are blamed on the devil when we ourselves are too blame, and too many things were blamed on evil in our midst when it was just garden-variety sin. If everyone is greedy and some people starve, we can call it the work of the devil, when in fact it’s a collective decision to allow a system to continue.

The secondary problem with the devil is the way he has been used to literally demonize others, usually the people we disagree with. Picking your least favourite politician and calling him or her the devil removes their humanity and steals a little of our humanity at the same time.

In the end, the devil is just a metaphor, a way to conceive of the enemy of good. Another common name for the devil is the adversary, opposed to good, but again nothing more than a metaphor for something we can’t really know.

Now, some people of late have been critical of our use of metaphor in the church, particularly the use of metaphor that supports the mystery of faith. But this points to a misunderstanding of the role of metaphor in our lives. It is not a trick or a crutch: rather, metaphor is at the heart of what it means to be human. It expresses what we know but cannot literally explain, and that encompasses much of life itself. We know that something is opposed to good, so we call it evil. Then we give it a personality and call it the devil. Each is a metaphor, and each expresses truth: The absence of good exists and sometimes deserves a name.

So now that we’ve established that there is an adversary, and a formidable one at that, how do we protect ourselves, both during our journey through Lent and for the rest of the year as well. How do we defend ourselves—first from ourselves—and from everything that may tempt us away?

The first answer, the one that Jesus demonstrates, is the effective use of scripture. ‘We shall not live on bread alone, do not put the Lord your God to the test, worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone.’ All of these words come from the ‘it is written’ defense, a comprehensive grasp of the Bible and the truth it contains.

This is not an argument for proof-texting, something that the church is tempted to do too often, and usually for all the wrong reasons. This is an argument for a good knowledge of scripture to understand the religious context for our actions, good and bad.

Why on earth would a church like ours supply addicts with clean pipes and distilled water to smoke crack with? First of all, to protect them from hepatitis, a terrible disease that no one should be exposed to simply because they have an addiction. But primarily because Jesus tells his disciples to tend his lambs, to judge not lest you be judged, and to spend more time with the least and the last, the people Jesus loves.

So that was the good, so what about the bad? I can confess to you that there have been moments, usually on a long flight, when I have not mentioned my occupation. I gave into the temptation to remain silent on the question. I could stretch the truth, tell people I’m a motivational speaker, but that might prompt more questions. Nope, the temptation is to remain a non-pastor for a while, lest I be subjected to four hours of why someone is spiritual-and-not-religious (thanks Lillian Daniel).

When I do this I feel like Peter, who at the critical moment decided not to tell his fellow passengers that he belongs to the ultimate Pilot named Jesus the Christ. Maybe my comparison is a bit rich, but it helps me understand what I’m doing, and it helps me too to remember that by the end of the Gospel all is forgiven.

Our lenten journey begins today, and I encourage you to read your way though it. Pick your favourite Gospel and read it over the next few weeks. Time it out so you come to the passion around the time of Holy Week. And become familiar with all the ways Jesus was tempted, the disciples were tempted, and we too are tempted. Look for yourself in the Bible, and remember you are first and foremost a child of God. Amen.


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