It’s easy to cross through the mental and emotional door to victimhood. Jesus does not cross through. How can Jesus help us remain grateful for our lives and thus lead us away from temptation?
First Sunday in Lent (Year C) – February 14, 2016 – Luke 4:1-13
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
No Cookies – Pastor Evan Davis
Let’s say you’re traveling and you’ve been having a wonderful trip, you saw lots of great things today, had a lot of fun, and now you’re checking in to your hotel for the evening. The front desk staff is excellent, they’re efficient, they give your kids a toy, they get you some restaurant recommendations and help you map out your day tomorrow. You get up to your room and it’s just gorgeous, the sheets are silky, the pillows heavenly, they’ve got the cool bathrobes in the closet, nice, renovated bathroom with beautiful tile and upscale soaps and shampoos….but this is the hotel that promises you cookies when you check in, and THERE WERE NO COOKIES!?!?! What is this outrage!?!? Call Judge Judy, because justice needs to be served.
You see, you’ve crossed through a mental and emotional door from being a privileged traveler and now you’ve entered victimhood. Now you’re a victim, and, in a way, that’s a wonderful thing. Now you have all the permission you need to treat well-meaning people terribly because it makes you feel better, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it! In fact, you feel righteous. Your cookie-deprived brothers and sisters around the world are in solidarity with you.
Back in the Exodus story, God led God’s people Israel into the wilderness of Sinai where they wandered for 40 years. This was not a meaningless wandering…it was in the wilderness that God taught them to be his people, taught them the distinctive way God wanted them to live, and made good on his promises again and again. Jesus is the fulfillment and expansion of those same promises, so, of course Jesus must have his wilderness experience. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, right after Jesus is baptized, saved by passing through the water (like Israel was saved by passing through the water of the Red Sea after God passed over their homes), Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. And…you might expect him, like Israel, to be learning something there. Well, Jesus is not so much learning as he is living out the identity he has received from his Father.
And let’s review just a little bit. Back at Jesus’ Baptism, his Father tells him something and by now you should remember what it is [anybody?]: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then this is where Luke chooses to tell the genealogy of Jesus… “he was the son…of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi….all the way through David and Jesse, through Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, to Seth, son of Adam, son of God. So, we’re really supposed to know who Jesus is right now. And Jesus knows too.
That’s why it jumps off the page that the first thing the devil says to Jesus in the wilderness is, “IF you are the Son of God…” If. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. This is the devil’s favorite thing to do. And it’s not new. Go back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and what does the serpent say? The serpent asks, “Did God say, you shall not eat from every tree in the garden?” This is what the devil tries to do: he tries to get you to doubt God’s promises, and God’s commands. He wants you to wonder….did God really say that? Did God really mean that? Am I really who God says I am? If God has promised this to me, why isn’t my life better? Is all this talk from God just a load of empty promises?
And the devil knows that if he succeeds in working a crack into the foundation of our faith, if he can jam his foot in the door, he can swing that door wide open, and we can walk through it, from a place of trust in God and gratitude toward God into that alluring place of victimhood. We will begin to believe that we are righteous victims of God’s arbitrary, and maybe even malicious, whims.
We can hear the devil’s questions: If you are God’s child, why aren’t you rich? If God really rules the world, why isn’t there peace? If God actually loves you, why do your loved ones get cancer? If you are God’s child, why are you so weak? And if we feel like God’s victim, then we feel justified in lashing out. The circumstances of our lives are no longer our responsibility and we don’t have power to change anything – it’s all got to be someone else’s fault, or God’s fault. We have been wronged and so now we’re justified in seeking compensation. This personal inability to bear suffering and loss – something we’re all susceptible to – it’s what created Mussolini and Hitler and every fascist movement (blame them!). It’s what tells someone it’s ok or right to vent her frustrations by blowing up a building or shooting up a movie theater. It’s what allows any of us to cut a deal with the devil to take a little bit for ourselves for a change. Ok devil, you’re offering me a big house and a fat bank account if I will worship wealth instead of God? You know what, when’s the last time God ever did anything for me? You’ve got a deal. Ok devil, you’re offering me authority and respect if I worship power and status rather than God? Deal. Ok devil, you’re offering me the love and adoration of others if I worship achievement and accommodation rather than God? Where do I sign? The devil says, trust me, follow me, get some for yourself, give yourself to me, and I’ll take care of you.
What makes Jesus different, what enables him to resist the devil’s empty promises is that Jesus knows who he is. The devil’s talking about “IF,” but Jesus is talking “IS.” You are my Son, the Beloved. I am the Son of the Father, Jesus trusts. He knows his status, his wellbeing, and his future destiny lie in the safekeeping of God his Father. He trusts that even if he has none of the world’s kind of power, he has the power of the Almighty. He knows that even if he is famished, starving to death, even if he is heading straight into death’s jaws, he is whole. It is well with his soul. Because even if, in the mystery of God, death comes for him, he trusts he will be well, he trusts this is ok, he trusts that death passes into life.
God says to you: You are my daughter, my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Know who you are. We all have plenty of evidence in our lives that would seem to contradict that promise, just as Jesus did. This is why the cross was and is a scandal – it appears to be incontrovertible evidence that Jesus is not who he says he is. It’s why Paul called our faith “foolishness.” It is in the mystery of the cross, the mystery of being alone in the wilderness, when God seems most absent, when Jesus, when you, feel most abandoned, it is there that God is most present. It is the Holy Spirit who gives you that kind of trust, which is what Paul and Martin Luther call “faith.”
It is this faith that transforms the cross into the tree of life and the desert wilderness into an oasis. It is this faith that assures you – you don’t need the world’s affirmation, its power, its comforts, its promises of safety. They’re all empty promises anyways. Only one promise is kept – God’s promise to love you, to vindicate you, to deliver you from death to life. This faith assured someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King that when they confronted the world with the weakness, the nonviolence, the daring love of Jesus Christ, they wielded the most powerful weapons in the world – the power to turn an enemy into a friend. To melt hate away with love.
It is this faith that enables you not to step through the door into victimhood, but to experience gratitude even in the wilderness of your life. Gratitude that you are not alone, that you are blessed, that God is present, that life can still be good. The Spirit gives you this faith, faith not in yourself, but in the faithfulness of Jesus, his Father, and their Holy Spirit. Lent is our time in the wilderness, our time to hear these promises again and again, so that Jesus’ faith will become ours, so that this faith will make us grateful, loving witnesses to the foolishness of Christ’s cross. Amen.