FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
February 14, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Deuteronomy 26:4-10 Psalm 91:1-2;10-15
Romans 10:8-13 Luke 4:1-13
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
If you’ve ever watched the television program “American Greed”, you know what temptation looks like, and you’ve seen the devil at work. Financial fraudsters tempt otherwise honest people into becoming involved in schemes to cheat people out of their money by telling lies and that they will be rewarded for doing that. If anything, that program teaches us that greed ultimately does not pay for anyone involved, for the victims, for those the fraudsters convince to become involved in their schemes, and for the fraudsters themselves. The message of “American Greed” is that everyone loses when they yield to temptation to get rich quick.
Every day, all of us are tempted to sin for short-term gain leading to long term harm. If you yield to temptations to commit serious crimes, there could be legal consequences. If you yield to temptations to be unfaithful to your spouse, there could be consequences to your marriage. People make bad choices when they think only of their short term needs and look for easy ways out of serious problems.
Very often, however, we blame our own weaknesses when we yield to temptation with statements like, “the devil made me do it.” We think we are weak because we are unable to ignore the devil. Does the devil exist? If we take today’s gospel lesson literally, yes, the devil doesexist, as a being capable of articulating thoughts and carrying on a conversation in a devious way for nefarious purposes.
But to consider today’s Gospel reading only in the literal sense deprives it of its great power and eternal truth. If anything, this particular Gospel lesson illustrates the fallacy, and stupidity, of reading scripture literally. The contemporary religious landscape manifests a pattern and practice of selectively quoting scripture out of context to buttress the credibility of their ideological points, exactly what the devil tried to do to Jesus. This Gospel reading invites us to compare appropriate and inappropriate uses of scripture.
In this encounter between Jesus and the devil, Jesus was the first to quote scripture. The devil knew Jesus was hungry, and tempted Jesus to use His divine powers to make bread from the stones on the ground. The devil, however, did not anticipate Jesus would quote scripture to him. Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone.” That quote comes from Deuteronomy, chapter eight, verse three, in the context of a warning not to forget God when one becomes prosperous. God had fed the Jewish people bread after they had been hungry, to make them understand they do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God. In other words, satisfying bodily hunger is not the most important thing in the world, but God is. What Jesus was trying to tell the devil, was that God’s word was more important than satisfying human desires.
In the next temptation, the devil offers to give Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus would worship the devil. Jesus again says no, and again quotes scripture to say one must worship and serve only God. That quote came from Deuteronomy, chapter six, verse thirteen, where Moses is exhorting the people against disobedience. The purpose for which Jesus quoted it was the same purpose for which it was written, to proclaim loyalty to God as supremely important.
At this point, not getting anywhere with Jesus, the devil was getting really frustrated, and this time decided to be a bit devious. He challenged Jesus to prove He was the Son of God by throwing Himself down off a mountain. The devil reminded Jesus of the words of Psalm 91 that God had given angels charge over Jesus and would save Jesus from danger. However, the context of Psalm 91 is different than how the devil was using it. To save people who do unwise things was not the intent of its author. Rather, its theme was to assure that people who live their lives in a just manner under hardship can trust God to overcome everything, that salvation is available who make God their refuge in the face of the danger and bitterness of life, and it invites those to seek the ultimate in protection through a loving relationship with God. What the devil did here, is what bad lawyers do by quoting cases and statutes for propositions for which they do not stand to assist otherwise losing legal arguments. But like smart judges, Jesus saw through what the devil was doing, and quoted scripture that was more on point: “Do not test God,” which comes from Deuteronomy chapter six, verse sixteen, which is in the context of warning people not to disobey God. The verse at issue reads in full, “do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” In other words, don’t distrust God. At Massah, the Jews were upset with God because they had been wandering in the wilderness with nothing to drink and believed they were worse off than in the captivity of the Egyptians. They didn’t trust God. Instead, they challenged God, just as the devil was trying to challenge God to send angels to catch him if He threw Himself off a mountain. That is not the relationship God wants with humankind, and Jesus knew it.
Today’s gospel reading is about more than just resisting the temptations of the devil and the appropriate interpretation of scripture. It is about where we should place out faith, in whom we should believe, and in whom we should trust. In dealing with the devil, Jesus reposed His ultimate Trust in God His Father, despite the devil’s efforts to get Jesus to believe in the devil rather than God.
For Christians, the Creeds are a statement of what we believe, and by believe, I don’t mean agreeing with a particular theological statement about God, but having faith in God, trusting God, to be there for us, and to love us. When we say, or as we do here, sing, the Creeds, the second section tells the story of Jesus, mentioning the major events in his life, that is, His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. Today’s first reading could be considered a creed because it follows a similar pattern. However, the “creed” that is presented to us there does not consist of a series of high ideas on God, His essence and His attributes, or on the reason for the world’s existence in God’s mind. Rather, this so-called creed begins with the story of Jacob, a wandering Aramean, and of his descendants, led by God, throughout the centuries, until they are taken to the Promised Land. Reduced to being slaves to the Egyptians, God listened to His people, rescued them, led them into through the Red Sea, destroying the pursuing Egyptians in the process, and into a land flowing with milk and honey, where they showed their gratitude by offering God the first fruits of their harvest in worship, just as our belief in God, our faith in God, impels us to offer God the best within us in our worship.
For us, as for the Israelites, God is there for us in times of trial and suffering if we take to heart the words of our creeds by confessing that Jesus Christ is our savior. Our belief, our trust, and our faith in Jesus, is what ultimately saves us from whatever adversities we may encounter in our lives, just as the faith and trust that Jesus had in God His Father got Him through those three temptations of the devil. Salvation through Jesus is available to all who believe and trust in Him. Jesus came into this world for allof us, not just the Israelites. We are all the chosen people of God, by virtue of our belief and Trust in Jesus. We achieve that status by loving, trusting and believing in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not obeying the human rules made by religious authorities and governments.
Jesus knew that when his time in the desert wilderness ended, God would be there to feed him. Jesus would ultimately reign in power and glory in Heaven and neither needed nor wanted dominion over earthly kingdoms during his human lifetime. Jesus had no need to trust the devil for anything. With God on his side, there was nothing the devil could do for Jesus that would shake the faith Jesus had in His Father.
When we are tempted in our own lives to listen to the devil, that is, to do something we should not be doing, we need to keep the big picture in front of us by focusing thoughts and feelings on God just as the Israelites did and as Jesus did. We owethat to God, who is faithful to us just as God was faithful to those who believed and trust God in times past. Yes, there is a devil, and yes, there is evil in the world, and evil must be defeated. To do that, however, we need God on our team, and we must be on God’s team, not on the devil’s team.
Today’s Gospel highlights the humanness of Jesus and how we can and why we should resist temptations from the devil. If you are child of the nineteen sixties and seventies, as I am, you might recall that a slang word for money was bread. When I read Jesus saying that we do not live by bread alone, I see not only an image of food, but money as well, and am reminded that life is more than money, because the happiness money can buy is truly transitory which cannot ever replace true and honest love of God for us and people for each other. We see this on the “American Greed” program as families are wrecked by greed for money through divorces and parents becoming estranged from children and friendships destroyed.
The fraudsters on “American Greed” not only tell lies to get people’s money, they alsotell the supreme lie that only money will make you truly happy. The truth is, you need more than just money to be happy. You need intimacy, family, and friends as well, to be a truly happy person. That is because God created us to live in community with others and to give and receive love. Money is just a toolto help make that happen, not an end in itself. Money does not bring us salvation, in this world or the next.
The power and glory the devil was tempting Jesus to seek by giving Jesus all the kingdoms of this world in exchange for ditching the loyalty of Jesus to his Father also does not bring the compassion, peace and justice we all should seek in the reign of God. We do not solve whatever dissatisfactions we may have with our lives by challenging God to seek fame and honor for ourselves. Instead, salvation comes from faith in God, trusting God, as God’s loyal children.
Like Jesus, we can resist temptation from the devil through unswerving loyalty to God, thinking of God first rather than giving in to greed and desires for personal glory, power, and fame which so many chase at work, in politics, and even in the Church. As the “American Greed” program so graphically demonstrates, yielding to the temptations Jesus faced in today’s Gospel reading bring nothing but misery in the end.
Lent is a time to stop the busyness of our lives, to be aware of what tempts us, and focus inside of ourselves on God’s values instead of those of this world. One of those values is liberation. Lent can be the season of liberation when we pray for freedom from oppression. As we reflect on the Israelites giving thanks to God for their exodus from slavery, we can pray for all those oppressed by war, poverty, and political domination at the hands of the purveyors of sick political and economic ideas. Israel in Egypt presents a strong parallel to today’s economic situation featuring gross disparities of wealth and poverty where the one-percent of the people who control the majority of the world’s wealth exploit the other ninety-nine percent of us. The cold, hard facts are that we live in a world where just sixty two individuals have as much wealth as the three point six billion poorest people. That needs to change.
We look forward to Easter as symbolizing an exodus from that system into a world where the dignity of all persons, not just the wealthy and powerful, becomes more than an empty phrase, a world where healthcare, food and shelter are rights of human existence, and not something for which one is required to endlessly toil for those basics of survival.
Jesus confronted temptation and was able to say “No.” So there is hope for us, too! Jesus showed us resisting temptation is possible. Jesus gave us an example to follow in resisting the pressures of our culture and society so we can instead become free to be loyal to God, who has so much more to offer us than Wal Mart, Wall Street, and large religious institutions. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows us how moving beyond materialism, the desire for personal glory, fame and power gives us freedom true human freedom, which is freedom to love God and our neighbor. The forty days Jesus spent in the desert and His encounter with the evil one are a sign of hope for us all. AMEN.