This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville. The text is Matthew 4:1-11.
Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent. They say that Lent is a time for admitting and giving up your vices. I’ve got one that I’m not quite ready to give up yet, but I don’t mind admitting it to you: I watch too much TV. That may not sound like much at first, but it gets more impressive when you realize that I don’t actually have a TV in the strictest sense of the term. My wife and I have a unit on which we can watch videos and DVDs, but it receives no signal from the airwaves. So, whenever we want to watch something new, we have to go through the effort of procuring our own material. So, when I tell you that I watch too much TV, believe me when I tell you that it’s a lot of work!
Lately, I’ve been indulging my addiction with a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a ridiculous story about an average high school student named Buffy in Sunnydale, California who happens to hunt vampires and other monsters in her spare time. She does this with the help of her school librarian and a few misfit friends.
One recurring character in the show is a classmate of Buffy’s named Cordelia Chase. Cordelia is “the popular girl” at Sunnydale High. She is as shallow as her family is rich. She looks down on Buffy and her friends. Most of the time, Cordelia is just a bully who blocks Buffy’s path to acceptance and happiness in high school.
Anybody who went to high school probably knew someone like Cordelia Chase. Unfortunately, the entire experience of teenage politics is usually defined by people like that. Individuals gain power by sucking up to the popular and stepping on the unpopular. What’s even sadder is that the rest of the world seems to operate on the same principle. The politics of the board room are remarkably similar to the politics of the locker room. Some people just never outgrow those manipulative games. It’s just the way the world is.
I think we get a taste of that world in today’s gospel reading. It’s the famous story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In this story, Jesus comes face to face (and toe to toe) with the spirit of this world system and all its power-mongering. The question on the table in this scene is, “What does it mean to be the Son of God?” In other words, will Jesus be a king like all the other powerful rulers on earth or will he be different? Jesus faces three separate temptations, but beneath them all is this one, lingering question.
We’ve already read the story, so you know what the three temptations are: to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, and to worship the devil. Let’s look at them one at a time:
First, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Remember that Jesus was fasting and hadn’t eaten for forty days. The temptation here is for Jesus to make use of his power to meet his own needs first. Isn’t that how powerful people act in times of scarcity? They circle the wagons and look out for themselves. They take of their own needs first. Is that the kind of king that Jesus is going to be? As it turns out, Jesus says no.
In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and invites him to make a spectacular leap from the top. The kings of this world rely on “shock and awe” techniques and dramatic displays of power in order to foster loyalty. Will Jesus do the same? Jesus says no.
In the third temptation, the devil shows Jesus the splendor of all the kingdoms of the world and promises to hand them over if only Jesus will bow down to Satan. The devil knows that Jesus has come to establish a kingdom. He offers Jesus the chance to pursue God’s ends through Satan’s means. It’s an apparent shortcut to power. The rulers of this world often justify their means by their ends. As long as you’re going somewhere good, what does it matter how you get there? You and I are asked to sacrifice our integrity for gain on a daily basis. But Jesus says no. For Jesus, who you are and how you get there is just as important as where you’re going.
There is one detail in the second temptation that’s particularly interesting to me. It has to do with place and movement. The devil moves Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple. This was the holiest spot in the holiest city on earth. Isn’t it ironic that the devil is leading Jesus toward church? We usually think of him doing the opposite. What’s even stranger is that, once they’ve arrived, the devil starts reading from the Bible, quoting Psalm 91. Get this: the devil is reading scripture in church. We usually think of this place as a sanctuary from the brutality of the world, but those who have been around for a while know that even church can be a pretty dark place sometimes. Power-hungry people of all ideological stripes co-opt pulpits and twist the Bible to fit their agendas. In this passage, it looks like Satan comes dressed in a clerical collar and a stole.
So, where is God in all of this? The fate of Jesus’ ministry is hanging in the balance and a power-hungry devil is reading the Bible in church. Is God absent or silent while this is going on?
Well, we get lots of little hints scattered throughout the text. Let’s look again at location and movement in the text. We read in verse one that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. Isn’t that interesting? The devil leads Jesus closer to the center of religion and power (Jerusalem) while the Holy Spirit is leading him out toward the edges (the wilderness). There aren’t many literal deserts in this part of New York, so what might this mean for us? I wonder where the “edges” of life are for people in our community? Where are the places that are farthest from the centers of power and religious practice? Who lives there? What kind of people are they? Who in our community is least likely to come to church? Could it be that the Holy Spirit is leading us to walk out to meet them, rather than waiting for them to come in here?
It’s a powerful and disturbing image: the devil is preaching from the Bible at the front of the church while the Holy Spirit is ushering Jesus out the door. I want to let that image sink in.
I don’t think we all need to get up right now, leave, and never come back to church. But I should also confess that I have a conflict of interest there, since my salary depends on you staying! But can we at least look at the movement in this passage and focus our attention toward the direction in which the Spirit is moving? Let’s follow the Spirit’s leading into the “wilderness” of our community where people are famished in more ways than one.
This is the way that Jesus walked. Jesus says no to turning the stones into bread for himself, but he says yes to miraculously providing bread for a hungry crowd later on. Jesus says no to a spectacular display of power in the religious center, but he says yes to teaching and healing large crowds of hurting people on the hills and in the streets. Jesus says no to sacrificing his integrity for power, but he says yes to sacrificing his life for us. The devil wanted Jesus to wear a crown of gold and sit on a throne, but Jesus chose to wear a crown of thorns and hang on a cross.
In the TV show I’ve been watching, Cordelia Chase eventually walks the way of the “wilderness” as well. She keeps crossing paths with Buffy and her nerdy, vampire-hunting friends. Slowly but surely, she is drawn into their misfit community and away from the popular crowds. In time, Cordelia is transformed from a bully into a sympathetic character who cares deeply about the needs and pain of others. In the end, she even becomes one of the heroes.
How might the Spirit be calling us to follow Jesus into the wilderness? What will our church family start to look like as we reach out beyond the walls of our sanctuary and touch the lives of those who are farthest from it? How will we be changed as we let go of this world’s power-grabbing tactics and embrace the way of the cross?
I want to leave these questions open for you to ponder as we move through Lent toward Easter. As you let these questions take root in your imagination, you will be opening yourself to the leading of the Spirit in new ways. And I believe that you too will be able to sense the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead bringing new life to you, to your community, and to our church as well.