Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
March 5, 2017
The First Sunday of Lent – Year A
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
If you have been paying close attention to our election campaigns—at every level of government—over recent years, you will have noticed that we Americans seem to have a great hunger just now for “hope” and “change.” Many candidates for elected office—some more strident and vulgar than others—have even made these elusive realities the explicit watchwords of their campaigns with such slogans as “Hope”; “Change You Can Believe In”; and “Make America Great Again.” And this is hardly surprising in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; widening income inequality; amoral globalization with its random winners and losers; and the protracted and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with ancillary military operations in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and in Iraqi Kurdistan against ISIS. And just when we in the west thought that the “Cold War” was a thing of the distant past, the world’s two largest nuclear powers are in a stand-off once again in east central Europe—this time in Ukraine, Crimea, and the Baltic nations—in what The New Yorker magazine has just this week officially dubbed the “New Cold War.” War, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, economic recession, environmental degradation, predatory globalization, and expanding income inequality have made it clear to all save the most obtuse that our present course is simply unsustainable at every level of world governance. We now need deep, structural changes and a new international system as a matter of mere species survival.
It’s no surprise, then, that this obvious and voracious hunger for redemption and salvation—articulated as a desire for hope and change—among so many all across the world seems to exceed the usual and ordinary categories and aspirations of “politics as usual” at both the national and international level. To my ears, this longing betrays a deep exhaustion and an almost manic, desperate hunger for release from a world made meaningless through the genteel nihilism of its post-modern “trinity”: relativism, uncertainty, and materialism of both the consumerist and philosophical variety. The hunger is so palpable, the emptiness is so obvious, and the desperation is so enormous that no person or political arrangement could possibly satisfy the inexhaustible need for meaning and purpose in our post-modern world. Just when the neo-conservative pundits were telling us two decades ago that we had finally reached “the end of history” with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we find ourselves once more facing both echoes of the Cold War and a nihilistic ideology wedded to fascist totalitarianism—this time in the form of political extremism and fanaticism masquerading as religion. We can draw a straight line from Nazism’s industrialization of mass murder in its death-camps, through Stalinism’s brutal famines and gulags, to the al-Qaeda training camps in Yemen and the so-called ISIS caliphate. And, as we are now learning, it’s only one short step from the total obliteration of personhood at Auschwitz to the suicide bombings of Peshawar and Baghdad. We are reaping the dark and bitter harvest of an unprecedented century of violence and mass murder. And no politician, no party platform, and no historical “narrative” will, I fear, slake the terrible thirst for spiritual fulfillment or substantially alter the sinful social structures created by modernity’s desert of rapacious globalization, environmental degradation, war, terror, and extreme poverty. And yet, believe it or not—and I say this without a hint of irony—this is the “good news,” the “Gospel,” this morning!
I say it is “good news” because no material construct or merely human social arrangement will ever fashion the “kingdom of God” for us. When the kingdom comes, it will come to us as a free gift from God: the ripe harvest of the spousal covenant between God and humankind. The “kingdom of God”—already inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—will not drop down from the heavens in its fullness like some pre-fab. Rather, it will result from purified and obedient hearts fully surrendered to and cooperating with the will and purposes of God for God’s “very good” creation. And that will require massive “metanoia,” “repentance”: a complete change in the direction from which we humans are seeking “happiness,” understood in its classical sense as “the knowledge of the truly good and the freedom to pursue it.” This requires spiritual discernment for the slow and painstaking deconstruction of the false-self system with its doomed programs for emotional happiness. And this is a very tall order, impossible without the resources of grace and attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, praying within us and directing us to the presence and action of God at the center of our hearts and our world.
We see this in this morning’s readings for this First Sunday of Lent. In both the lection from the Hebrew Bible and the familiar story of Jesus’ great desert agon in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we witness the perennial human temptation to snatch from the hands of God what only God can give us in due course. In the first instance, Adam and Eve decide—against God’s explicit command—to grasp, on their own and for themselves, depth knowledge of good and evil; instead, they reap only sin and death as their empty reward. But, in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus, the “new Adam,” God’s definitive self-revelation and the completely righteous human one, refuses the temptation to satisfy his very real and gnawing hunger by turning stones into bread. He chooses instead the nourishment of “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When he is tempted by the “yetzer ha-ra,” the “evil inclination,” to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple to force evidence of God’s care and concern for God’s fragile and contingent humanity, Jesus chooses instead to live by dark faith and hidden hope in the loving purposes of God. And finally, when the Enemy of our true nature offers him a fast-track to the fulfillment of his divine mission to possess the entire world for God by the short-cut of idolatry and by embracing an apparent good, Jesus banishes the suggestion and clings to the worship and service of the LORD God, who alone guides a distracted humanity to its true nature and its real home.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, just as Jesus’ baptism and anointing as God’s “beloved Son” by the Spirit drove him immediately into the wilderness for trial and temptation, we are summoned by the holy season of Lent to join our Savior there in that wilderness of spiritual desolation, hunger, and thirst—which our Christian tradition calls “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (BCP)—to spend our own forty days of fasting, prayer, and special works of charity as a preparation for the renewal on Easter Day of our own Baptismal Covenant as daughters and sons of God. For it is only in the pregnant silence of our interior and exterior deserts that we truly hear the voice of God and surrender ourselves through suffering love to God’s will. It is in that very desert—so stark, and yet so beautiful, as I discovered in my own visit to the Mount of the Temptation in the Judean wilderness—that God speaks to us in the silence of our heart, summoning us to find him in the desert of this world, even at the cost of suffering and death; because, as Jesus tells us, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life, loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
My friends, no politician or political agenda alone will ever give us what we truly want and need; no human scheme or blandishments can ever satisfy the hunger and thirst for God and for true transcendence planted in our soul. Only God in Christ can do that for us. After all, each and every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we conclude with a doxology affirming that, “the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” (BCP) And when we stumble and fall and fail—as we inevitably will—we have the assurance through our participation in Christ by Holy Baptism and Holy Communion that Jesus’ perfect obedience and surrender to the will and purposes of God through redemptive, suffering love will supply what we are lacking before the “mercy seat” of God.” This is the whole meaning of the Paschal mystery, for which we prepare through the grace of a holy Lent.
Over fifty years ago, the great, twentieth-century philosopher and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “What goes on in the depth of our lives has a profound effect upon the international situation. Others may suffer from degradation by poverty; we are threatened by degradation through power. Power corrupts, and it is only the acceptance of the Spirit of God that saves, that prevents disaster, that ennobles body and soul…Religion is what humankind does with the presence of God. And the Spirit of God is present whenever we are willing to accept it.” So, let us pray today, on this First Sunday of Lent, that God in Christ will be for us and with us, now and always, as we make our pilgrim way through the corrupted currents of this world with fasting, prayer, and charity as our companions on that way. Lent is a special “season for the spirit,” an opportunity to break with our manic routines and daily concerns to hear anew God’s summons to an abundant life in Jesus Christ—by whom, with whom, and in whom ALL our desires for the only hope and change that truly matter find their definitive expression and fulfillment.