Deacon Sue Nebel
It is a moment of great delight for me when I hand off the Gospel Book to one of the children standing around me and tell them to take it to Children’s Chapel. There they gather in a circle hear the Gospel story once again and reflect together about it. I was tempted this morning, as I sent them off, to add the words, “It’s a great story!” A great story it is, one that I anticipate will engage the children easily. Jesus and the devil. Good guy vs. bad guy. A contest of “I dare you.” How will Jesus do in this one?
Good question: How will Jesus do in this one? We fully expect him to win, of course, but it won’t be easy. The setting for this confrontation with the devil is the wilderness, where Jesus has gone immediately after his baptism. He stays there for a period of forty days, eating nothing. The devil arrives on the scene to tempt Jesus. To test this man who is supposedly the Son of God. To find out how strong and powerful he is. Can he be won over? The devil is a formidable adversary. His first challenge is on the personal level. Knowing that Jesus is weak from hunger after his long time of fasting, the devil says to him: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus responds that one does not live by bread alone. He will not give in to a temptation to satisfy his own personal need. There is much more to life than his own self-interest. Well, that approach doesn’t work, so the devil decides to think bigger. To appeal to the human desire for power. Showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, the devil offers him glory and authority over them. On one condition: that Jesus will worship him. To this temptation, Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” This Jesus is steadfast in his faith and unshakably loyal to God. He will not be deterred from that. All right then, if Jesus is going to throw quotes at him, the devil will try that tactic. He takes Jesus to Jerusalem, high up to the pinnacle of the temple. There he dares him: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ’On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”. Jesus doesn’t bite on this one either. He counters with another quote, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The devil is no match for Jesus, so solidly grounded in God. He wins in this confrontation, hands down.
This story of the devil’s effort to tempt Jesus, to draw him away from God is more than a story about Jesus. It describes a fundamental pattern of our lives, the push-pull. back-and-forth dynamic of our relationship to God. A pattern rooted in baptism. The rite of baptism asks us to turn away from evil. To turn and pledge our loyalty to God. I think it would be worthwhile at this point to take a close look at what we promise. I know that some people find it helpful to have a visual resource, like the printed page, in front of them when someone is talking. So, I invite you to take the Book of Common Prayer out from the rack in front of you. It is the red book with a cross on the cover. You may need to share because there are usually only two in each pew.
Now, turn to page 301. At the beginning of the rite of Holy Baptism, the candidates for baptism are presented. If they are adults, they present themselves and speak for themselves. If we have children or infants, parents and sponsors present them and make the commitment on their behalf. Then comes the Examination. You don’t get to just walk up to the font and have holy water poured over you. You have to respond to questions. Big questions. There are six of them. First, three renunciation, or turning away, questions:
- Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
- Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
- Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Look at what we have in these three questions. First, evil as big picture, cosmic forces. Satan, our friend the Devil. And God. The second question focuses on evil in the world, forces that destroy the goodness of human beings, communal life. Things like the desire for power and control, domination and oppression. Systemic forces such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. And then, third question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God. Evil is personal. A me-first or my-interests-over-anyone-else’s mind-set. Words and actions that diminish others and separate us from God.
After the three renunciation questions, we shift to affirmation. The person to be baptized has said “no” to evil and is now ready to say “yes” to God. The very first question names that shift as an act of turning:
- Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept his as your Savior?
- Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
- ·Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
What is asked for here is allegiance, trust, and obedience. Commitment to Jesus, a promise to follow him, to live according to his teachings.
During this first part of The Examination, the six questions, we are an audience of sorts. We watch and we listen. Then, our role changes. We are asked if we will support the person in their life in Christ. We respond, “We will.” At that moment, we enter into the action. We become active participants. We join the person who has just made a commitment and renew our own promises, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant. It is on page 304 The Baptismal Covenant consists of questions to which we respond. Questions about what we believe. Questions about how we will live our lives. How we will live out our faith in our words and actions.
Here at St. Augustine’s, in the season of Lent, we are going to reflect on these questions, a different one each week. This week’s question is: Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? An appropriate choice with today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus and the devil confronting each other in the wilderness. Temptation and resistance. Wouldn’t it be great if that were the end of it? Jesus triumphs and we’re done with the problem of the devil. But it doesn’t end that way. The final line is the lesson is: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time. The devil isn’t giving up. The struggle will go on. Wouldn’t it be great if our baptismal commitment to turn away from evil and turn to Jesus were a simple, one-time thing? All done, all set, let’s move forward. It doesn’t work that way.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? The Church, in its wisdom, recognizes that the question is not if we will fall into sin, but rather when. Our struggle is against evil in its many forms is on-going. So, we asked. It asks us to recognize our failings, or wrongdoings. To express sorry and regret. And to ask for forgiveness. And then to return. To re-turn. To repeat that fundamental action of baptism. To turn to Jesus. Resolved to be stronger in the wilderness of our lives. To be better in the work that Jesus wants us to do.