Deacon Sue Nebel
On Tuesday evening, like many of you I came to St. A’s for pancakes. I showed up right at 5:30 as things were getting started. I had my plate of pancakes (they were really good!) and some conversation but, sadly, I couldn’t stay long enough to watch the burning of the palms. I had to leave to fulfill one of my duties as a deacon: serving with Bishop Lee on a visit to a parish. Most of his visits are on Sundays, but occasionally he has one during the week. This time it was St. David’s in Glenview. It was a celebration. They had moved the Feast Day of their patron saint, David of Wales, to that night. But the main celebration, the central focus of the evening, was Confirmation. Five young adults affirming promises made at their baptism. Commitments made on their behalf when they were too young to speak for themselves.
At the beginning of the Confirmation rite, after the five were formally presented to the bishop, he asked them two questions:
· Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?
· Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
I am quite sure the five teenagers knew that those two questions were a condensed version, a summing up, of the six questions asked at the beginning of the rite of Holy Baptism. They had completed a 10-week course of preparation for their Confirmation and the baptismal liturgy was a core part of that. Six questions, now two. Two questions. Two decisions. Two actions. Renunciation, turning away. Affirmation, turning toward. Two powers. Evil and God. In Baptism and in Confirmation, we choose Jesus, God.
In today’s Gospel lesson we encounter those two powers face to face in the figures of the devil and Jesus. As we journeyed through the season of Epiphany, we traced Jesus’s developing ministry. We started at the beginning with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Then we heard how Jesus could perform miracles. Turning water into wine at Cana. His ministries of healing and teaching. Ministries that drew people to him, often in large numbers. Today we go back to the beginning of the story. The events in today’s Gospel take place right after Jesus’s baptism, when he heads off into the wilderness for a period of forty days. The pattern of going off by himself for prayer and renewal is a familiar one in the story of Jesus’s ministry. This is different. Jesus is not alone. The devil is there in the wilderness with him, ready to test him.
There is a lot at stake for the devil here. He has undoubtedly heard of Jesus. Perhaps he was lurking around the edges of the crowd at his baptism. He heard the voice of God saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” God is up to something; God is doing something different. This Jesus, whom God calls Gods’ Son of God, could be a threat to the devil’s power. He wants to stop Jesus before he gets started on his mission. He wastes no time; he gets right to work. First, sensing that Jesus is in a weakened state after forty days 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: “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Well, that didn’t work. So the devil, acting on his operating principle that all human beings want power, takes Jesus to a place where he can see the kingdoms of the world. He offers Jesus authority over all of them. The only condition is that Jesus must worship the devil. Jesus refuses, saying: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Well, if Jesus is going to respond to these temptations by quoting Hebrew Scripture, then let’s go the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place of the Jewish faith. There, high up on the pinnacle of the Temple, the devil says to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here . . .” This time the devil uses Scripture himself, saying: “. . .for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up. . .” Jesus comes right back at him with another passage from Scripture: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
This is a remarkable encounter between Jesus and the devil. Three challenges. Three responses. The devil uses his best weapons. He goes after Jesus in his vulnerability due to physical weakness and then targets the human desire for power. Finally, he tests Jesus’s faith and trust in God. Each time the devil fails. Jesus is unshaken. He holds firm. It is worth noting that Jesus responds each time, not with his own words but with words from Hebrew Scripture. He is at the very beginning of his ministry. He has not yet developed his own voice or his sense of authority as the Son of God. So he turns to Scripture. Words and teachings that have shaped him, teachings that are the foundation of his faith in God. It is worth noting too that each time Jesus responds in this way, the devil stops right there. He does not criticize. He does not try to engage Jesus in debate. Those words stop him cold. The devil knows that God is stronger, more powerful than he is. He isn’t going to get anywhere with this Jesus. There is no point in getting into arguments with him. His faith is steadfast. He is solidly grounded in God. The devil may be defeated here, but the struggle doesn’t end. He will keep trying to bring Jesus down. The final sentence of the Gospel passage sounds a warning: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” We know where the story of Jesus is headed: to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. To the Cross. Powerful political leaders and those with high social status will try to destroy Jesus and put an end to his mission by killing him. They will fail.
Jesus and the devil in the wilderness. This is more than a story about Jesus. This is our story, the pattern of our lives as Christians. In our baptism we turn away from evil and choose God. We make commitments and promises: to accept and affirm Jesus as our Lord, to follow him. We renew our promises every time we join together in repeating the Baptismal Covenant. We are resolved to keep those commitments. To live in closeness to God. To follow Jesus’s teachings. But we fail. The barrage of messages of the world around us, valuing power and possessions. The stress and pressures in our lives. Our own selfishness. They all draw us back, away from God. We feel cut off from God, wandering in our own wilderness. We acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness. We draw close to God again. Back and forth we go. Pulling away from God and then coming back. Again and again. The good news is God is always there, ready to welcome us.
In Lent, we pay special attention to this back and forth pattern and our desire to be close to God. We simplify our lives, stripping away things that distract us. We may take on a new spiritual discipline or participate in one of the formation offerings for this season. In church, we change the liturgy. We began this morning in silence and then joined together in the Litany of Repentance, reciting in detail the forces and actions that separate us from God. Then the Confession, brought forward from its usual place. We named ourselves as sinners. We owned up to our failure to keep the commandments Jesus gave us. We repented and asked for forgiveness. To be restored to God once again. To be restored once again to God. To reclaim our baptismal selves, our best selves.
We have set out on our Lenten journey. May it be a holy one.
First Sunday in Lent; Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2,9-16;
Romans:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13