The First Sunday in Lent: March 5, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So whenever we get to this reading about Jesus in the desert, I find myself helplessly harking back to the very first episode of the Muppet Show, a skit of the Muppet Glee Club directed by Kermit the Frog, singing an a cappella rendition of Perry Como’s famous song, Temptation – you know, dum-da-da-da-dum-da-da-da-dum-dum – with Miss Piggy amorously attacking Kermit at the end of the song.
Isn’t it great, we’re only 4 days into Lent and already Monty Python and the Muppets have made it into our sermons? Usually we’re much further into Lent before this stuff starts coming out.
But we’re just at the very beginning of Lent, the beginning of our 40 days of renewal and preparation for Easter. And the story for the beginning of our 40 days is every year the same, this story of Jesus and the devil in the desert. Jesus willingly enters the wilderness of temptation in order to prepare himself for his ministry, fasting and praying and utterly vulnerable to the elements and forces. There he encounters temptation that will continue to plague him throughout his ministry, temptation that many of us struggle from as well. And through prayer and scripture, focusing his entire being in God and God’s will for him, Jesus is able to resist those temptations, pursue his ministry, save the world. What will we do with our temptations?
Despite the silly song I made you all think of at the beginning, this is not funny, sexy temptation, temptation doing a tango with a rose in its teeth. This is real temptation. So throw out the pop culture ideas of temptation we usually think of, dancing and wine and chocolate and all that nonsense of Christians never having any fun and especially not in Lent. This temptation Jesus meets is serious temptation: the temptation to forget who he is, and whose he is. The same temptation we face.
The writer Henri Nouwen wrote a meditation on the three temptations, in a book that Leigh gave me – thank you Leigh! Nouwen writes that the three temptations Jesus faces are the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful – temptations that every Christian must confront also. We are meant for God, but we live in the world, where the tempter is always seeking to snatch us away from God. We are always tempted to go along with the world and not with God, and to forget who we are in the process.
The first temptation is relevance – the devil suggests Jesus turn stones into bread. Do something useful, something everybody needs. Be productive, make something, prove your worth by contributing to the needs of the world. For us this looks like letting the judgment of the world and market forces determine what we do rather than beginning with God’s call to us; and like letting the success of the results be the only measure of our purpose. We can let our decisions of career and jobs, our decisions of how we spend our time, even our decisions about ministry at church, be ruled by the god of productivity. Don’t just be there, do something! And so we are distracted from the nourishment we need, the foundation of our call from God. We may luck into doing the right things, but for the wrong reasons, and we lose ourselves in the process.
The second temptation, being spectacular. The devil tells Jesus to throw himself down from a high place and get God’s attention that way. We can all crave attention. Draw a big crowd, increase your output, be famous. Burnish up your persona on Facebook and Snapchat, be liked, be praised. Because if we’re not praised, something might be terribly wrong. At its worst, this is known as narcissism – that we truly feel we will cease to exist without the constant affirmation of other people. Psychologists today express concern that our president has this problem; psychologists have also opined that the whole generation of millenials has this problem. Maybe all of America does. But in some form, we are all susceptible to it, and maybe especially in the age of social media. We are always aware of being regarded, hoping to be regarded, trying to be regarded, and to impress others who regard us. We forget who God created us to be, and try instead to be what we think others will like and applaud.
The third temptation is to power. Jesus is tempted by the devil to amass power over the whole world, if only he will worship the devil instead of God. For us, this temptation may be a true grasping after power, money, connections, influence in the world – New York is one center of such temptation, we see it all around us. But the temptation may also be that within us that seeks control over our lives, trying to ensure security and safety. A temptation that is rooted in fear, fear that is acting with wild abandon in every part of our country today, turning us on one another and obliterating our common humanity. We try to hide the vulnerable parts of ourselves, the parts that aren’t sure, are worried or anxious, need love and comfort. We fail to see that God’s mercy and love has more room to act when we acknowledge our own brokenness and need. We want to wall it out with our own shellacked selves.
Jesus says in response to all of these temptations from the devil, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve God alone.’ When our focus is on all these other things – what others think of us, whether we look successful and productive and efficient in the eyes of the world, whether we have more than other people – then our focus is not on God. God the root and source of our being, in whose image we are made.
In the 12 steps of AA, the fourth step tells followers to make a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory’ of their lives – to go back through their lives and see where their instincts have gone astray, where defects of character have damaged them and others – in short, where sin has had the upper hand. It is called a ‘searching’ inventory because it requires a full and careful look at ourselves to really see ourselves in all honesty. But it is also called a ‘fearless’ inventory – rather than being afraid of what we might see, or dominated by fear in our actions and lives, we claim fearlessness, the wisdom of knowing that others too have fallen short, that things we had thought were huge and terrifying are not as bad in the light of day. As the Big Book says, ‘as we persist, a brand-new kind of confidence is born, and the sense of relief at finally facing ourselves is indescribable.’
A few weeks back we asked you to fill out an inventory of your spiritual life. Now, in Lent, we are invited to inventory all of our lives. To begin first with prayer, asking God’s help as we look honestly at ourselves. And then to stop and notice the thoughts and fears that preoccupy us over the course of a day. Where are we tempted to judge ourselves or others by what we produce, how busy we are, how important? Where are we driven to seek other’s acceptance rather than God’s? where are we compelled to control, to protect some piece of territory or turf we think is ours?
When we see ourselves this way, some of us might be tempted to despair, feeling we’ll never get it right. But that is only another temptation, truly – the temptation to wallow, as Kyle put it on Ash Wednesday. Instead, Jesus tells us, worship and serve God alone. We take our brokenness and our failure and all the ways we don’t get it right and we turn to God, asking for forgiveness and a new start. And God tells us, you are my beloved. That is who you are. You belong to me. That is whose you are. Begin again from that place, rooted in love and the power of God, and live.