A Sermon by Matt Boulter
St. Richard’s Episcopal Church
February 21, 2010
Lent I C
In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.
And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.
Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in today’s Gospel lesson from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, but with one key difference: the great tempter in our story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”
Now at first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.
Now what’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.
What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.
We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time. During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?
And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus: the short answer is that we are not so much saying “no” as “not yet.” God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”
See, all of these things being offered to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.
When the Divider offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.
The very same thing is going on in the 2nd & 3rd temptations: in each case the Devil is tempting Jesus to choose: “you can choose God, or you can choose the bread. You can choose God, or you can choose the chocolate. You can choose God, or you can choose the power of the king’s throne.”
But, you see, in every case, this is a false dichotomy, b/c what Jesus understood is what St. Paul tells us: that God has promised us all good things; that he holds nothing back from those who love him; that if we trust him, we will live in the promised land flowing with milk and honey, and we will receive the most lavish inheritance you can imagine. This is why Paul, in today’s Epistle lesson from Romans 10 has the audacity to say that “the Lord bestows his riches on all who call on him.” (RSV; NRSV has “… is generous to all who call on him.”) Paul has the audacity to say that God gives us riches. What is that!? Is it a warm feeling in your heart? No: it is all good things; it is your inheritance in Christ from the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. It is life in the new heavens and the new earth.
This is does not mean that Christians are not called to suffer. On the contrary suffering is the prerequisite to all of this. Death must come before resurrection life. What happens to Jesus here in the wilderness is just a foretaste of his cross experience. We are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness, and we are called to follow him to the cross.
But, still Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.
In the book A Severe Mercy, the story includes 18 real-life letters which CS Lewis wrote to the author after the author had lost his wife to cancer. The story – it’s an autobiography of faith, if you will – is really about the struggles and temptations of romantic love. And in one of these letters CS Lewis is trying to comfort and encourage this widower who has lost the love of his life and who is suffering from a loss of romantic and sexual love and affection. And CS Lewis quotes some ancient poem and one of the lines is this: “Worship the Morning Star, and then take your earthly love thrown in.”
See, that is really what is going on in Lent. It is not an “either / or.” “Worship God, and take everything else thrown in.” “Seek first the Kingdom, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, and all of these things will be added unto you.” The false dichotomies are just that: false. We don’t have to choose. By saying no to chocolate I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts. I am “seeking the morning star and taking all earthly delights thrown in.”
I am refusing the false dichotomies and the short cuts of the Divider. I am saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. I am saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)
Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.
What we are really saying “no” to in Lent, is “no” to the Divider. That’s what Adam failed to do in the Garden, And it’s what the New Adam succeeded in doing in the desert.
What God has joined together, let no one divide.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.