Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
February 14, 2016
The First Sunday of Lent-Year C
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Luke 4: 1-13
Although it may strike us moderns as odd that the Holy Spirit, in this morning’s Gospel, “leads” the newly-baptized Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil, it would have been the expected next stop for Jesus in the Mediterranean culture of his times, especially in light of Jewish apocalyptic expectations then. God, after all, had just designated Jesus as the “beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” at his baptism, and now, God was about to prove it. And what better place to do it than in the desert, the historic testing-place for the Jewish people as a whole, and individually for their prophet ancestors such as Abraham and Moses and Elijah, whose lives of faithfulness to God in adversity Jesus would have been expected to recapitulate? For people in Jesus’ world, the desert and the wilderness were the special haunts of all sorts of malevolent spirits. So, if Jesus were truly the “Messiah” of God, who would do decisive battle with evil and defeat it once and for all time through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, then the desert would be the proving ground for this victory at the very outset of his public ministry.
This Judean wilderness, then, is the appropriate backdrop to the cosmic drama narrated in today’s Gospel according to Saint Luke. And, for the evangelists, it is nothing less than the arena in which the long expected and ultimate battle of the “end of days” between the forces of good and the power of evil unfolds before our eyes. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the “Christ,” the Gospel writers proclaim, the long-awaited “Day of the Lord” predicted by the prophets of Israel has arrived, and light has now triumphed over the darkness. Indeed, this initial skirmish in the desert is just a harbinger of the final outcome yet to be revealed in that “opportune time” mentioned at the end of this morning’s Gospel: that time when God through Christ will gain a final victory over sin and death through the suffering love of the Cross and the vindicating triumph of the Resurrection. Hence, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Saint Luke foreshadows the final battle between sin and obedience, life and death, of the great Paschal mystery. Through this encounter between Jesus and the Devil—whose very name means “the Divider”—sin and death are overcome by “the author and exemplar of our faith,” as Saint Paul describes Jesus.
Now, it often comes as a great surprise to many of us—steeped as we are in Greco-Roman dualism—that in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is a bona-fide member of God’s heavenly court, whose duty is to tempt and to test the faithfulness of God’s people. While God does not cause evil, God certainly permits it—but always in the service of the good. In the anthropology of the Hebrew Bible, we humans are endowed with the “yetzer ha-tov,” the “good inclination,” and the “yetzer ha-ra,” the “evil inclination,” that foil for the good and the all-important guarantor of our moral agency. Jesus’ Jewish world knew all about sublimation long before Sigmund Freud and modern psychology, proving once more that “everything old is new again”! The Holy One, blessed be He, made us not puppets, but humans in God’s own “b’tselem,” God’s “image and likeness” and, as a result, we must choose, ever making the “evil inclination” the servant and goad of the good.
So, on this First Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ victory over Satan and the “evil inclination” should comes as very “good news” for us pilgrims traveling through this “vale of tears” marked by genocidal war, terrorist violence, economic catastrophe and inequality, natural disasters caused by climate change, and all manner of innocent suffering. We who live in the corrupted currents of this world are not surprised in the least by Satan’s claim that “all the kingdoms of this world,” with their so-called power and glory, have been delivered to him and are his to give to whomever he wills. We need only glance at the front page of the newspaper on any given day for more than enough evidence that this world is temporarily in Satan’s iron grip. And even if it does sometimes seem to us that God allows evil and evildoers too wide a berth; nevertheless, God does not let time and history slip through God’s fingers. As Sir Winston Churchill observed at the height of World War ll, “God’s mill grinds slowly, but it also grinds exceptionally fine,” and “evil triumphs only when good people do nothing.” Hence, this vivid portrayal of the Enemy of our true nature’s defeat in this morning’s Gospel is—by itself–cause enough for great celebration on this First Sunday of Lent.
And yet, there is so much more at stake for each one of us in today’s Gospel besides the great cosmic drama between God and Satan, good and evil. There is also “good news” for us ordinary disciples of Jesus who struggle in the petty pace of our daily lives to overcome the very real allurements and temptations of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (BCP). To see this, however, we must remember that Jesus is not only divine; he is also entirely human, “like us in everything but sin,” according to the Holy Scriptures. What we witness this morning in the Judean desert is not only a battle between the divine Word and cosmic Evil; it is also the very human struggle of Jesus of Nazareth, whose love for and fidelity to the Torah of Moses and the holy prophets of Israel, allows him to succeed where our spiritual parents Adam and Eve failed. Recall that the divine-human story in the Holy Scriptures both begins and ends in a garden: first, in the garden of autonomy, disobedience, and death in Genesis; then, in the garden of relational love, perfect obedience, and eternal life in the Gospels’ Resurrection narratives.
And, like Adam and Eve—and like us–Jesus is tempted to abuse his power by grasping what God always intends to give in God’s own time and way, and as a gift of God’s grace. Just as the story of Eden’s ancestral sin features a crisis of faith represented by food, power and glory, and trust in God’s providence, so Satan tempts Jesus, the “new Adam,” with precisely these same three things: Jesus could satisfy his physical and spiritual hunger by feeding on materialism; he could realize the power and glory for which he is destined by succumbing to and worshipping the “Powers and Principalities” of this world; and he could abandon the difficult life of faith and trust in a hidden God of the covenant for the consolation of religious certainty by tempting God’s power and protection at the height of God’s special dwelling-place on earth, the Jerusalem Temple. But he doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, he puts “his whole faith and trust” (BCP) in God’s love and providence by submitting himself, in complete surrender and perfect obedience, to the will of God, even if that will is a faithful Jewish life and death marked by Torah piety, suffering love, and hope in “the resurrection of the dead.”
So, what is the “good news” for each of us here this morning, at the beginning of our annual Lenten journey?
The “good news” is that if we, who have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection by virtue of our Holy Baptism, also participate in his Paschal victory through a life of obedience, discipleship, and surrender to the will of God with lives of suffering love, we too will come to the joy of the “resurrection of the dead” and the “kingdom of God,” when “God will be all in all.” For we, the “people of God”—Jews and Christians alike, as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s reading from his magisterial Letter to the Romans—are not saved by morality; rather, we are saved for the moral life. The aim of the Christian life is not substitutionary atonement, but participatory attunement with the will and purposes of God in all times and places and circumstances. In Christ, as Saint Julian of Norwich reminds us, the “greatest deeds are done already”; our task is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps—with temperance, courage, justice, and prudence, the four “cardinal virtues”—Jesus’ humble “Way” of suffering love that leads to the “resurrection of the dead” and the life eternal already won for us by our Lord’s great Paschal mystery.
Let us pray then this morning for the true “grace of a holy Lent,” (BCP) that we might spend the next “forty days,”—the biblical period for “teshuvah” or “repentance” marked by prayer, fasting, and charity—preparing to participate fully in the Paschal Mystery. We can do this by abandoning all of our own little autonomy projects and all the stratagems of our “false self,” with its doomed programs for emotional happiness, so that we might rise with Jesus as God’s own transfigured “new creation” on Easter morning in just six short weeks. Satan will never have the last word so long as we use the “evil inclination” to choose and to serve the good after the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Lent is the opportunity to go into the desert places of our own lives to confront the “Divider,” the “Enemy” of our human nature, certain that Jesus Christ the victor has already gone there before us to strengthen and inspire us for our struggles. For, as the psalmist tells us this morning, “God’s fidelity is an encompassing shield.”