Holy Wisdom Monastery
First Sunday of Lent 2013
There’s no sense in searching your Bible dictionary for the word, “Lent;” there was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 days in prayer and penance did not arise until later, sometime after Christianity was legalized A.D. 313, when that first rush of Christian adrenaline was over and many believers had gotten rather ho-hum about their faith, hanging their crosses on the wall and settling back into their customary routines.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that little by little, Christians became devoted to their creature comforts: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the scotch after dinner. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was difficult to tell them from the general population. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for each other, they were not heralded for championing the poor. They blended in.
In the midst of this, someone suggested it was time to call Christians back to their senses, and the Bible offered some clues: Israel spent 40 days in the wilderness learning to trust God; Elijah spent 40 days there before hearing the small, still voice of God on Mt. Sinai, the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days with his God. And then, of course, there were the events of today.
So the church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word, lenten, meaning “spring” – not only a reference to the season before Easter but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. In Brown Taylor’s words, “forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. … an Outward Bound for the soul, a giv(ing) up of the illusion that you are in control of your life.”
When today’s story, the first of the six Sunday Lenten stories, begins, Jesus has just been baptized: “full of the Holy Spirit, he returned from the Jordan and was led into the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil.” At the baptism, God is reported to have been “well pleased” with God’s beloved son, but it does seem a little capricious of God (after this ringing endorsement) to abruptly lead Jesus into the desert and seemingly abandon him there. Frederick Buechner suggests that in the crucible of heat and sand, Jesus was trying to figure out “what it meant to be Jesus” – the divine essence within a very human spirit learning – in the most physical and spiritual of ways – about the power of his divinity and the depth of the upcoming struggle for human redemption. It was hard. And it was necessary, if only for those of us who need a reminder that it is humanly possible to remain faithful to God – and who are, as well, figuring out what it means to be Jesus. We are, are we not, other Christs?
Enter the devil. The word “devil” in Greek literally means “one who throws things around” or “stirs things up” – and the forces of evil represented by Luke’s devil packed a wallop. The devil arrives when Jesus is hungry, with an idea for how to get food. If this were all we knew about the devil, we could imagine her as anyone’s mother or grandmother. “Look, you’ve gotta eat.” Or more diabolically, we could imagine the devil as one of those people who keeps trying to convince us to super-size it. Put more into yourself, more carbs, more gadgets, more technology, more horsepower, more.
Now Jesus loves to eat. He especially loves to eat in Luke’s gospel, if the 10 table scenes are any indication. Refusing the first temptation is a way that Jesus says, “My life will point to the real truth of “more” – that life is more than bread alone.”
But the sparring continues, and the devil shifts the grounds of the attack.
In Jesus Christ Superstar, Simon the Zealot shares this advice with Jesus as they both look over the crowd Jesus has gathered.
There must be over fifty thousand
Screaming love and more for you.
And every one of fifty thousand
Would do whatever you asked them to.
Keep them yelling their devotion
But add a touch of hate at Rome.
You will rise to greater power.
We will win ourselves a home.
You’ll get the power and the glory
For ever and ever and ever
Forever Amen! Amen! Amen!
“Add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to greater power. We will win ourselves a home.” Now, the devil makes a similar pitch to Jesus. All the reigns of the world are the devil’s; the devil can give them to whomever the devil chooses. Such a prospect has lured others; the reach for power by the young and strong is just as human as the reach for bread when one is famished. The devil is a clever politician: The offer appears to be less a grab for glory than a chance to do great good. The devil knows about the reign, power, and the glory.
Or does he really know? Listening to Simon’s advice, Jesus replies:
Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand,
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews,
Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes,
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is,
Understand what glory is,
Understand at all.
Understand at all.
The reign, the power, the glory: If they are not the revolution to throw the Romans out of the promised land, if they are not about the military Messiah of a desperate people – what are they about? What does Jesus want us to understand about power and glory in our own wilderness this Lent? That the reign is among us. That the “power from on high” that clothed Jesus’ little band of disciples gave them the courage not to take up arms against Rome but to be witnesses of Jesus’ dominion to the ends of the earth. That there is more glory in a day lily than in Solomon or any of the rest of us, all dolled up. The devil’s asking price – “worship me” – is too high. Strike two.
Finally, like many others who are preoccupied with God, the devil shows herself to be a skilled theologian who can quote scripture for her own purposes. The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and says, in effect, “You have been throwing scripture at me; here is some for you: Listen, God and God’s angels can bail you out of anything.” Again, Jesus counters scripture with scripture, responding, “Worship God the Almighty and serve God alone.” In other words, “Just because God can bail me out of anything doesn’t mean I should make it necessary.” Believing the truth of the Bible and demanding proof of its veracity are two very different things. Jesus will not throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and hope for the best. Quoting scripture and praying are not a way of ringing for the cosmic bellhop. For Jesus, and for us, they are ways of being in relationship with the One whom we do not need to put to the test.
The story of Jesus’ testing ends with the enigmatic statement, “After finishing every test, the devil departed from Jesus until an opportune time,” foretelling the continuing presence of evil in the world. We would do well to remember the words of the poet Rumi who reminds us of the dangers of beginning to believe and act as if “the ten thousand idiots who so long ruled and lived inside have all packed their bags and skipped town.” The devil will be back.
The real test of those of us who sign up for the Outward Bound experience of Lent doesn’t come when we have people around and lunch in the cooler. It comes when we go solo, when we find out what we really miss, what we are afraid of. What we crave. It is hard. And it is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to look deeper into what we use to fill the empty places inside of us that belong to God alone.
Our Benedictine friend, Joan Chittister, reminds us that the hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong, of impending disaster, but of the holy of holies inside us, the uncluttered throne room of our God. But often when we start feeling empty, we stick our pacifiers into our mouths. They don’t nourish us, but they fill the hole.
To enter the wilderness of Lent is to leave our pacifiers behind and to be Christ. What is the devil saying to us? Nothing is too small to pay attention to. Maybe … we pay attention to the devil! For 40 days, we can simply watch how often our minds (and maybe your bodies) travel to those pacifiers. Why does it happen when it happens? What is going on when we go for that Dove chocolate or reach for that glass of wine. Is it hunger? Is it loneliness? We can try sitting with the feeling instead of fixing it, we can engage with the devil – and see what we find out.
And, we can, with the poet John Canaday, reflect on the transformative power of our Lenten wilderness:
“Praise God for the deserts, famines, droughts
with which God seasons us when we wax fat.
And bless these vacant words as well, God. Inhabit them.”
LET US TURN TO GOD IN PRAYER.
For the renewal of hope and forgiveness in our hearts and the hearts of all during this Lenten season, let us pray – loving God, hear our prayer.
For those for whom a kiss of peace has been too long absent, that they may be so blest, let us pray – loving God, hear our prayer.
For all humankind, that the trials in our lives may remind us who we are and to whom we belong, let us pray – loving God, hear our prayer.
That we come to know the devil – and win our dialogue with her.
For what else shall we pray?
We now lift up all the prayers listed in our book of intentions, the prayers we hold silently in our
hearts, and mention quietly the names of those for who we wish to remember especially in
Good and Gracious God, we offer you these prayers and the prayers and needs that are known to you alone. We invite your saving grace into our lives through the Divine Spirit, Jesus the Christ and ask you to let our steps fall in line with Christ’s journey through the wilderness and our hands reach out in care and re-creation where your work is still to be done. Amen.
 Roberta M. Felker, with thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor’s insights regarding the Lenten journey.