March 10, 2019 | Lent I | Luke 4:1-13
Last November, I began the process of becoming an oblate of St. Benedict. That simply means welcoming the monastic practices that have served as the foundation of Anglican spirituality: praying morning or evening prayer, reading the Scriptures, and reflecting on the Rule of St. Benedict as a guide for living with others in the world. That process began with the reception of the medal of St. Benedict: a polished medal with a blue border and these letters inscribed on it: CSSML and NDSMD. The letters represent these words: “May the Holy Cross be my light. May the devil and his temptations never be my guide.” My guess would be that most Americans do not believe that devils or spirits cause them any problems and so the practice of wearing a blue medal with a prayer against the devil may seem quaint or a little weird.
And yet the color blue and a prayer against devilish temptation were woven into the social fabric in which Jesus and his first disciples lived. For in that Mediterranean world then, people frequently painted and still paint their windowsills and doorjambs blue; wear blue ribbons or clothing; they wear medals or amulets painted blue in order to ward off tormenting spirits. Perhaps you might remember these words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” In that world, then, everyone knew that devilish spirits also heard this announcement, the voice of God endorsing Jesus as a holy man sent into this world for a particular purpose. And everyone knew what would come next: spirits will test him to see if this claim is true. In that world, then, it would come as no surprise that Jesus, guided by God’s Spirit, would enter the wilderness and engage the Great Tempter, the agent of human degradation, trauma, and violence.
What, then, is utterly surprising in Luke’s wonderfully mythical story is that Jesus does not ask for God’s protection against this twisted spirit but engages in one-to-one dialogue, in the interpretation of Scripture. Thus, this story of someone being water-washed and then tempted should ring a bell for us because Luke’s careful crafting of this story about Jesus was inspired by the foundation story of Israel, what is mentioned in today’s first reading: walking through the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of liberation from Egypt’s imperial oppression, the Hebrews also enter the wilderness and there are tempted to place their trust in many things other than their Creator and their Liberator. Luke’s purpose, then, is to present Jesus as the one more powerful than any human being, the one who opposes any force that diminishes, degrades, and deals death to God’s creatures – both then and now.
From what were the Hebrews liberated a thousand years before Jesus? Why they passed out of a society marked by the conspicuous display of imperial wealth, authoritarian corruption, and economic enslavement, those very things that Jesus is tempted to accept so long as he places his trust, his loyalty, his worship in the Great Tempter – those things that he flatly rejects as incompatible with God’s vision for life together in this world. And in rejecting these temptations, he clearly demonstrates his solidarity with those in his society, in every society, in our society, who must contend with inadequate food and drink (“Turn these stones into bread”), who must contend with political corruption (“All these kingdoms I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”), and who must contend with violence as a tool of social control (“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”).
It is a trivialization of the season of Lent and of the Christian life to imagine that you and I are invited to give up a few things, reflect on our personal sins, and pray just a little bit harder as if being a disciple of Jesus Christ in the modern world were nothing more than a religious form of self-help therapy. For you must know that we live in a nation marked by poverty, by political corruption at the highest levels, and the use of violence and fear to diminish or stop any compassionate and equitable reform that benefits the many rather than just the few. Americans, in general, and perhaps we among them, do not believe that invisible spirits cause them and us any problems. But we do understand power and its use for good and for evil. Is little wonder, then, that the baptismal liturgy asks you and me to renounce the evil powers of the world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? And is it any wonder that the same liturgy invites you and me to place our whole trust in Jesus Christ, his grace, and his love? For what does he and he alone offer us and this suffering world but adequate nourishment, benevolent care, and the peace, which passes all understanding. And who among us, who among us, would not long for that world to rise among us under a shining blue sky?