Deut 26:1-11; Ps 91:1-.2, 9-16; Ro 10:8b-13; LUKE 4:1-13
God shall give the angels charge over you, to protect you in all your ways. AMEN.
“Create and make in us new and contrite hearts…that we may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…that [whenever we are] separated from the body of the faithful…[be] now reconciled…and restored to the fellowship of the Church…I invite you, therefore, (in case any didn’t hear this from Ash Wednesday) in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. This invitation to a holy Lent, the Great Litany’s “Spare us, Good Lord, whom you have redeemed,” and from this morning’s collect, “Come quickly to help us…and let each one find you mighty to save” propel us both into the readings and into Lent.
When Jesus was tempted by the devil to command stones to become bread, insuring that he would have the power and ability to feed the world decisively and completely, Jesus did and said two things simultaneously. He answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” He beat back the devil decisively, refusing to do the devil’s challenges, and denying the validity of those. He neither says he can’t do it, nor that he won’t do it. He is observing that giving people food isn’t enough to sustain them, and that he doesn’t accept the power over people that would follow to anyone who could easily and completely feed all people. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 that “One does not live by bread alone.” Here is referring to Israel’s desert experience when the Lord provided manna. He trusts that God can provide such sustenance, and does not put himself in the place to do that as well. He understands, too, when people are satisfyingly and thoroughly fed they must be charged to make an intentional effort to give thanks to God with “some of the first of all the fruit in the ground” “to celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to [them] and to [their] house.” Jesus neither wants the probable power which being the magical dispenser of enough food would give him, nor is he willing to replicate the Lord’s action, whether from humility, piety, or caution. He is aware of the risk to a community when living is easy. He resists the challenge for himself and for his community.
Jesus could answer both the tempting challenge and the underlying risk to people, who can easily forget their multiple blessings, in part, because of his familiarity with his tradition’s sacred writings. Of course, it may be the Gospel writers who knew scripture well, and so they framed the words of Jesus in the language they were knew. If Jesus had understood the way Moses seemed to step into the Lord’s role, of anger against the people, as being dangerous arrogance, it may have added to his choosing not to seem to do that. Jesus did know the call to give first fruits back to the Lord, so that people would continue to praise and worship the one that had done so much for them. This is more than an ability to quote scripture, it shows that Jesus knew and understood what his tradition taught and whether he cited apt references or just understood the teaching, and the authors later put in the references doesn’t matter much; he had heard, learned, and inwardly digested his tradition’s writings.
Similarly, when the devil baited him to show off who he was, to authenticate the growing belief inside and outside his community that Jesus was the Son of God, again Jesus refused to show off that way. The devil said to make the Lord rescue Jesus from life-threatening danger by commanding angels to rescue him from when he threw himself off a pinnacle. Again Jesus would have known the Psalm, whether or not he actually quoted it to the devil saying, “The Lord shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” (Let’s note the traditional and accurate use of the subjunctive—“the Lord shall give his angels charge,” and “They shall bear you in their hands.” The simple future would have been “The Lord will give,” and “they will bear you up.” We’ve now almost lost that particular piece of grammar to such and extent that these “shalls” sound odd, rather than hearing them rightly as forceful not future.) Jesus would have been familiar enough with the psalm to remember the Lord’s command to angels to protect his own, but again not accept the dare, either to him or to the Lord to prove dramatically who Jesus was.
Jesus answered the devil, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus understood the risk it always is to humans to be challenged to show off, especially if, by meeting the challenge, we’d get puffed up with our opportunity to shine and possibly lord over others. Whether Icarus or the margarine ad that reminded us “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” it’s a bad idea to compete out of our scale, and Jesus knew that in each of these three temptations. However, Jesus understood, too for him as well as for his forbears in the wilderness, temptation wasn’t all that happened in the wilderness in these occasions, in these places, it was also a time of testing to learn and to understand.
That brings me back to the invitation to a holy Lent. There are many references to sinners and sin in these readings, directions, and in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy—which I urge you to read; beginning on p.264. Here’s what we all need to remember about those two words, so loaded for us with heavy gloom, doom, and darkness. Neither word was intended to be as negative or psychological as each has come into our culture from our Celtic ancestry, northern heritage and darkness, and years of complicated psychological interest. As I’ve said repeatedly the word for sin, hamartia, is an archery word. The martia part means an archer’s mark or target, and the ha negates that, like adding in English to the beginning of a word: un (unreal,) or in (invisible,) or in fact a (amoral.) There is absolutely nothing psychological about archery and even less dark or hidden. The archer aims, misses, and aims again, over and over. (There’s a rather grisly version of a sinner’s aiming over and over in Neil Gaiman’s short story, “Other People,” as in Sartre’s line “Hell is other people.”)The idea of aiming for an archery mark is a sunny, outdoor active process. There are many ways to aim better: try again, get closer to the mark, breathe more calmly and regularly, look more carefully, get in better stronger condition to draw back the bow, worry less, and keep on aiming.
The concept of sin is, of course, connected to a sinner. Sinners are just humans. All of us aim at the mark, over and over. We get better; we lose ground; we miss wildly; we get so close, and we keep on trying. If every time we say “sinner,” we hear in our own ears and psyche “human,” we are closer to understanding the inevitability of our own sinning, and the healthy normalcy of renewing our efforts to do better. If we substitute “human” every time, we’re also much closer to accepting that missing the mark is right for humans to understand. This concept makes real the theological acceptance and humility that we are not the Creator, not G*d. We’re not supposed to be, because we’re part of the creation. We say and say that the Creator loves all that he/she created. If that’s true, then missing the mark is part of the Creator’s knowing and accepting about us—we just supposed to keep trying, and aiming, and trying again.
The Invitation to a holy Lent suggests some ways to improve our aim. We are called to self-examination and repentance, and understanding that we’re expected to miss and try again, is a healthy part of that. More sleep is key to that for all of us modern people here. Prayer in more directed ways is also useful, while walking, doing any repetitious task—whether chopping onions, riding the T, walking a dog, shoveling, and more. Saying some simple mantra, like “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” or better “Love one another; love self; love one another;” or “God is good—all the time.”
What about fasting and self-denial? If we’re fasting from chocolate, sweets, or meat, save the cost of those things to give to your cause of choice, maybe Project Bread or ERD (Episcopal Relief and Development.) Instead focus on fasting from gossip, swear words, mean-spirited comments to or about anyone, and from being short tempered. Feast on: “God is good—all the time,” on “love one another.” Read and meditate. Try Chip’s group at 9 am the next 4 Sundays reading and talking together about prayer, in Help Thanks Wow or Evelyn Underhill’s Lent Meditations, or the ones we’re being given. Pick something you’d like to engage in and do it with someone. We live our Christian life in community, and here, we are individuals, a Vestry, a choir and church organist, a staff, and more subgroups which at various times represent us all. In aiming that archer’s arrow, it takes someone, several people, or some objective guideline to keep us on the mark. Check in. Jesus pushed back 3 devilish tests, knowing G*d was mighty to save; we trust that too: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black, St. John’s, Boston 17 February 2013