February 26, 2023, The Great Litany, The First Sunday in Lent. Sermon preached by Rev. Carolyn H Eklund

Year A; First Sunday in Lent.FB, 2.27.2023

Matthew 4:1-11 The Temptation and Trial of Christ by the Devil

            My spiritual director of 9 years is a skilled listener and is trained in Ignatian spirituality. During our appointments he lets me go and go, talking and talking, getting things off my chest. And then, he asks a question of very few words and I’m rendered silent, always in a good way, to pause and notice what God is up to in what I’m saying.  

            During a recent appointment I talked about death. I’ve spoken with him before about my relationship with God after John’s death. But I also wanted him to know that my relationship with God had moved forward from anger and questioning to companionship and even chiding. During my conversation, I heard myself tell my spiritual director very proudly that I insult God from time to time. I laughed and said, “I think it’s funny that I can insult God because I know God can handle it.”

My skillful spiritual director paused and then simply asked, “Why?” I said, “I don’t like that death is the end and causes so much pain and suffering. So, I insult our mighty Creator by saying, ‘You’ve made a bad design.’” Never mind that, in the Letter to the Romans we just heard, Paul reminds us of the sin of Adam and Eve, “Let’s be God!” That’s where the “bad design” begins!

            Yet, in that same session, I also shared with my spiritual director a Celtic prayer that I say every morning. I told him that the last phrase causes me to cry with gratitude, “I arise today in the strength of Christ’s birth and baptism; in the strength of Christ’s death and rising; in the strength of Christ’s judgment to come.” My tears are not because of the word “judgment” like “wrath.” My tears are because of the release, the re-centering and return to God that God’s judgment calls me to. Far from insulting God, this prayer brings me to intimacy with God and God’s Son.

            On Ash Wednesday, Katie preached about our “Confidante.” God is our Confidante who hears us, heals us, loves us. I took her sermon as a recommendation to be released from my sassiness and insulting of God to return to God’s companionship and care. I kind of gave up insulting God for Lent. I remembered the poem that my spiritual director gave me during my Lenten retreat last year. I sometimes return to this poem to remind me to just what lengths God goes to in order to draw us all toward God and learn of God’s love and care.

            It is a love poem written by Hafez, a fourteenth Century Persian who wrote lovingly and humorously about how much God loves us, desires us and wants to bring us near God.

“There is a Beautiful Creature

Living in a hole you have dug.          

So at night

I set fruit and grains

And little pots of wine and milk

Beside your soft earthen mounds,

And I often sing.

But still, my dear,  

You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone

Who hides inside you.

We should talk about this problem –

Otherwise, I will never leave you alone.”

How difficult it is to be angry for very long at this gentle, loving presence! It pains me to think of insulting my Confidante who is nudging me so lovingly out of the hole I have dug for myself. I wonder, have you ever felt the gentle presence of God …”never leaving you alone”?

            Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness after his Baptism by John in the Jordan. He heard similar words of love from his Confidante at his baptism before “…the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” He heard, “I will ‘never leave you alone,’ my Son the beloved. With you I’m well pleased.”

“You are my Beloved.” “You are my beautiful creature.” “I have fallen in love with you.”  “I will never leave you alone.” If you are a parent, you know what it’s like to fall in love with your baby, your child. After my niece had her first daughter, she described tearfully how deeply in love she was with her baby. So much so that she said her heart ached to just look at her little daughter.

            Now, enter someone who wants to insult God. Or someone who wants to pursue every means to take away the love of God and replace it with Worldly Power. That’s what the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is all about. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” After this holy time of forty day and forty nights, he was famished. Next, “The Tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”

            Now, Matthew’s community would have known every single quotation Jesus gave the Tempter from Deuteronomy. Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” They would have known Jesus was quoting and modeling the words from the Torah, the first five books of Scripture which they knew was the Way of Holy Living.

            The Tempter tried another angle. The Tempter knew that the angels were the protectors of Jesus. So, the Tempter told Jesus to go up to the pinnacle of the Temple and test God’s angels by throwing himself off. “Show us how God’s Son will be saved by the angels.” But Jesus said another quotation from Deuteronomy, “…it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

            Finally, the Tempter throws down the final test, the final challenge: WORLDLY POWER. High on a mountain the Tempter says to Jesus, “All these nations I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Even in his weakened physical state, Jesus was clear about who he was and his call as God’s beloved Son.  Jesus spoke these clear words, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

            Every year, the people of God gather this First Sunday in Lent and hear the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness from one of the three Synoptic Gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke. We travel with him and overhear his trials, and we enter Lent praying that we may not be led into the time of trial.

Our Beloved Confidante has fallen in love with each one of us. That’s a constant. But we stray, disappoint, stay in our hole. And yet, God stands at the opening, bringing us nourishment, care, mercy, an ear to hear our cries, forgiveness and abiding love.

I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week and his reflection on the phrase, “God is Love.” Bonhoeffer writes, “…when we speak of the love of God, we are talking about something plainly not obvious, something improbable, indeed something incredible. And yet this plainly improbable thing is true, so true that a person’s whole life should be built on it…Those who stay with love do not travel the prescribed way of excellence in the world, but rather their own often incomprehensible, often foolish ways. They lack the last bit of worldly wisdom that is called self-interest. But in these foolish, odd ways, those who have eyes to see, see something shining from the glory of God himself.”

Jesus responded to each test with this kind of foolishness and lack of self-interest. Might we risk being “foolish and odd” and return to God this Lent to find ourselves in the presence of the shining love of God?