Conversations Before the Cross 1: Sermon

Conversations Before the Cross #1:
Satan Speaks

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/A • March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

The Best and Worst Day of Your Life

What was the best day of your life? Go there for a moment: remember it. Was there a party? Were you with a few people, family, a crowd or were you alone? Was there cake? There’s often cake on the best day of your life. What did it smell like? How did it taste? Did you know then it would be the best day of your life? I mention all this because Jesus’ baptism must have been about the best day of his life, even though there is no report about cake. I don’t think chocolate cake had been invented yet, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But there was a crowd, his friend John and wow: a voice from heaven! Even when Jacquelyn and I were married, there was no voice from heaven, though she looked like an angel. “You are my beloved child, I’m pleased with you.” Some of us live our whole lives waiting to hear that; it must have been amazing.

All of this is a prelude, it turns out, because no one gets to live in the best day of their life forever and for Jesus, the next day is terrible. It’s like living in Albany, having it hit 70 degrees one day and then a couple days later barely making 16. Ouch: things sure can turn around. In the life of Jesus, the turnaround is to go from heaven opening to being driven into the wilderness and going hungry for 40 days. No cake; no food at all. Just the dangerous, daunting, desert wilderness where all you can hear is your empty stomach begging to be filled. This is the site of temptation: this is where temptation always occurs, when we are empty. How can I get what I need? Isn’t that the question that leads to temptation?

Temptation in the Wilderness

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all include this story, apparently using two different versions they combine. Since no one else is present, we an only conclude they are relying on Jesus’ own account of his time in the wilderness. Geography is theology in the gospel. To go from the Jordan River into the wilderness is to go backward on the journey of God’s people. There, just as they did, Jesus is hungry, thirsty, and there he faces temptation. He faces it alone: the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has flown off; the voice from heaven is silent. Jesus, as the song says, has to walk this lonesome valley by himself.

Alone, hungry, vulnerable, Jesus fasts for forty days and nights. Here is the first thing to learn about temptation: it often comes when we are most vulnerable. Today we rarely practice the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches but our fathers and mothers in the faith did. We took over Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims; seldom mentioned and almost never included in Thanksgiving is the fast that preceded it. Today, the Lenten discipline of giving something up has fallen into disfavor but giving something up, taking something off the table of possibility induces temptation. It walks us into the valley where Jesus walked.

Imagine him there in the desert. He’s lost but beyond worrying about direction. There is a moment when you become so focused on your hunger that nothing else matters. This is the moment he hears the voice of temptation; this is the moment, alone, hungry, vulnerable he is like us, on his own, facing temptation alone. Three temptations are mentioned but in a sense, they are the same temptation. All of them circle back to this simple principle: who’s in charge here?

If you are the Son of God

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” This is the first test. 
A few days before, he is acclaimed as Son of God, but what does that mean? The first temptation is to use who he is to sustain himself on his own, to feed himself. God fed the people of Israel with manna, bread, in the wilderness; why shouldn’t the Son of God feed himself by making bread appear? It is a test: if you are the Son of God—the question suggests that perhaps he is not the Son of God after all. Does he believe in what’s been said? Does he believe in his own call? And can that call, that power, be used for himself, to meet his own needs? The second temptation, to recklessly throw himself out into the air, depending on the angels to save him is like it. Both ask: do you believe who you are? Show it by using the gifts of God not for God’s purpose but for your own.

The Wizard of Earthsea is a long story about a young wizard who becomes so proud of his gifts that he uses them to show off. But in showing off, a dark side of him splits off and the rest of the tale is a story of how that darkness darkens the world until finally the wizard, Sparrowhawk, must confront the darkness. Along the way, he learns this most important lesson: that all gifts are given with a purpose and the purpose is to serve others and serve the larger unfolding, blossoming purpose of the creator. The challenge of the temptation to Jesus asks whether he will serve his own needs or stand in humility and serve the unfolding purpose of God. Why am I hungry, he must have wondered: the answer is so that in hunger, he can learn humility.

The final temptation in the wilderness sums all temptation up because it asks who Jesus is serving. All the kingdoms of the world are offered, a way of summing up worldly success; only serve me, the tempter says.

Jesus Facing Temptation

How does Jesus face these temptations? He faces them by living from God’s Word. Today we live in such a self-regarding culture that worship is often judged by the standards of entertainment. “I really enjoyed that,” someone will say, and there are endless advertisements for preachers to help us make worship more fun, more interesting, more light-hearted. But worship is really a way to come back to the Word of God. This is what finally answers temptation and it is the only thing that answers it. Three times Jesus is tempted; three times he quotes back God’s Word to the tempter.

We all walk through times of temptation. We all walk through wildernesses. We all face questions. Tracy Cochran writes,

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “[Quoted byTracy Cochran, In the midst of Winter, an Invincible Spring, Parabola, Spring 2017, p. 26]

If we want to find the adventure, we have to walk through the temptation and answer the question of who we are serving.
This year, this season, this Lent, I hope to walk with you, listen to God’s Word, listen to the characters in the story, listen to their questions. Here is the first and most important and the tempter is asking it every single day: who are you serving? Ranier Rilke, a German poet said in a letter to a young friend,

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” [Rainier Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903.]

This season, we are challenged to live the questions God’s Word asks, to confront them, to wonder with them, to let them live in us and change us.