SERMON 3/1/20 Lent 1A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples FL
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
As a kid, after Saturday morning cartoons, in the afternoons in my dad’s television store, I watched some incredibly dramatic competition (good vs. evil) among names like Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Ric Flair, and Hulk Hogan. Some of these wrestlers were good guys and some bad guys, but each of them were weekly vying to claim the title of being the best, to put on the championship belt (there must have been 50 different belts), and to be proclaimed the God of pro wrestling.
Wiki describes this so-called sport as, “a form of performance art and entertainment that combines athletics with theatrical performance. The matches have predetermined outcomes to heighten entertainment value and all combative maneuvers are executed with the full cooperation of those involved and carefully performed in specific manners intended to lessen the “chance” of actual injury.” (3). In other words, the so-called battle I watched as child between good and evil, I later discovered that none of it was real. Not the choke holds, the body slams, the pile drivers, nor the suplex. The battle between good and evil I saw played out on the screen was mere fantasy, drama put on by very good actors. When I found out that it was fake, I was disappointed. Interestingly enough, pro wrestling is still popular today, and I have to wonder why.
Maybe it is because we Americans like dramatic performances, even if they are not real. Maybe we like the stories of good versus evil, the success of the underdog, and bullied overcoming the bully. However, the warfare between the opposing forces of morality, kindness, empathy, righteousness, and self-identity happens every day, and it is very real.
Evil exists in this world and it is personified in the acts and choices of people. Children go hungry, marriages become broken, murders happen, unimaginable crimes abound, and death is around us. We all hope good overcomes evil, but sometimes the battle between the forces of good and forces of evil, happen in not so overt and dramatic ways. Sometimes we Christians have to duke it out, very subtle skirmishes against an opponent, who will work without rest, to deter us from our God-given identity as Children of God. Our Lord encountered the same kind of brawl in the desert, a battle that lasted forty days and forty nights.
Jesus’ Desert Sojourn
In today’s gospel reading, we hear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Sometimes, I think we hear this story and we reject its reality, because for us 21st century savvy folk, it seems more like a WWE wrestling match between Jesus and the Devil, rather than a struggle with the underlying choices we face as individual Christians and the church corporate.
Unlike the fake battles in pro wrestling, Pastor Fred Craddock describes this event like this, “The scene before us is not a cartoon of Jesus debating some horned creature with a fiendish face who smells of Sulphur. Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for the ministry now before him and is presented with three avenues.” (2). Jesus was just like us in that he was vulnerable to the same kind of enticements all of us face every single day .
The church and her members encounter subtle distracting temptations daily. We claim to be followers of Jesus, but often we are lured away from the path on which we have been set. We battle the will of God for the ministries we have before us, and we choose alternative avenues that entice us to go our own way. We may not want to admit it, but the oppressor works on us just like Jesus, and there enticements out there that make us not trust God, lure us to try and test God, and sometimes unknowingly, convince us that we should try to BE God.
Temptations, enticements, choices
Look at each of Jesus’ temptations found in today’s gospel reading and you will know what I mean. First, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan was trying to lure Jesus’ away from trust in the Father, in order to trust in himself alone. Jesus, you can feed yourself and you have the power in you to take care of your own needs without depending on anyone else. Nonetheless, Jesus’ personal needs did not get in the way of his ministry to feed the world. Jesus would later feed the crowds from a few loaves and fish, and by his cross and suffering, he feeds us with the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. We Americans have it all wrapped up and we think we are self-sufficient, “pull ourselves up by our boostraps,” and we really only need to trust ourselves, and maybe when things go wrong, we trust God. Maybe we need to seek and trust God in all circumstances.
Next, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” In other words, it is like saying, “God, I am taking matters into my own hands and I will just see if you are the real deal.” Rather than trust God, we demand a sign from God, we test and manipulate God to act. That decision confuses, who is creator and who is creature, as if “God was … at your beck and call.” (1).
Rather than trusting God’s guidance and perfect will, we decide we know what is best, and we just try and push God to act. Jesus later in his ministry while facing the cross in the Garden did not test God, but left circumstances to God and said, “If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Jesus traded a let’s test God mentality, and chose pure surrender, defeating the oppressor at his own game.
Lastly, Satan said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” In other words, why bother with the cross when you can go straight for the glory right now? Many times for us, other things get in the way of the One we are called to make the center of our lives; Our Lord Jesus Christ. We all experience this temptation, “Go ahead and worship something else other than God and forget this self-giving love and obedience thing.” My job, my home, my friends, my family these are all essential and critical elements of our life, but what happens when any one of these things become God for you? If those things are God, then who are you? Jesus traded an “I will define who I am mentality,” and chose to be the Christ (self-giver of love and sacrifice) and thus, defeated the oppressor at his own game.
The ultimate enticement or temptation is the one imposed on us by the oppressor concerning our own identity. Did you notice each temptation began with, “If you are the Son of God?” The battle Jesus fought and the one we fight is not over deciding if we will eat cupcakes versus apples, will go to church versus sleeping in, nor working out versus couch surfing. The battle we fight is with whether we will accept the truth that we are God’s children, or alternatively are we our own person who can choose our own path without ever consulting the creator. In his humanity, Jesus knew who was creator and who was creature.
“Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, not because he is a miracle-worker or a great teacher or a good man, but because he is the Crucified.” (1) Jesus knew who he was and whose he was and thus, he was able to complete his mission. If we fail to trust God, or we try and test God, or sometimes unknowingly, we try to be God, we are no longer able to recognize who we are and whose we are, and that little skirmish my friends is happening every moment of your life.
Spiritual warfare is not a cartoonish battle of two mini Eric’s sitting on my shoulder enticing me to eat that banana split or the green salad. Spiritual warfare is not a mere a sociological or psychological attempt to describe the internal struggles with socially accepted forms of appropriate communal behavior. The battle to accept our identity of Children of God is the real spiritual warfare in which Christians are engaged each day.
We all come to a crossroads in our journey as disciples, and we will stare at the fork in the road, and the sign says, “God’s Way”, and in the next lane “My Way.” The difference with the latter choice is that there is no exit from that path. That path leads you to believe that you can do it all ourselves. That path leads you to believe that you can test God and manipulate God by trying to force God to enact your desires, disregarding his plan. That path leads you to worship the way of the world, not worship the God of self-giving love. This path leads you to not knowing who we are or whose we are, and in the process, you lose yourself. The church corporate has this same struggle.
The Church sometimes has lost her identity and must reclaim it. She needs to reconnect with her mission. We are often seduced to pursue goals that have nothing to do with being the lighthouse of God’s love in a community of spiritual storms. We need to get back to trusting God, never trying to test God, and we must never try to be God. We need to get back to the work of growing disciples of Jesus, welcoming the stranger, and then going out into the world as the hands and feet of Jesus. We must let go of our individual agendas to create religious social clubs and get back to seeking God’s will. We have to accept the radical and uncomfortable call, which is to be a follower of the one who went to a cross because of love, it will require us to traverse some difficult paths along the way.
Church Spiritual Warfare
Fred Craddock says, Jesus “did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.” (2)
The church’s spiritual warfare is not some Sunday morning version of pro wrestling where the stakes are not real, the outcomes pre-determined, and the drama merely the self-aggrandizing overtures of a religious charismatic character. My sisters and brothers, our struggles with spiritual warfare are real, and if we are going to be effective in our witness to the gospel and God’s mission through us, we must face these temptations fully trusting that God will lead us forward.
It is Lent, and the next forty days is our wilderness experience and trust me when I say, the temptations are coming. Spend this time examining your own responses to the temptations you face in this life and to choose discipleship. Cultivate a deeper commitment to your relationship with God and with each other. Recognize and live into your utter dependence on God. You can only endure these temptations, which would break the bonds of love we are called to share, if you never forget who you are and whose you are. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, in their battle for the title stood on opposite sides of the ring, facing the upcoming engagement. When the fight became hot, sometimes other wrestlers would jump into the fray, deciding on which side of the ring they would stand. Fellow Jesus followers, please heed this warning, the competitive ring of spiritual warfare is real, and you will have to decide, when the battle becomes hot and untenable, on which side of the ring you are going stand.
(1) Johnson, E.Elizabeth. “Temptation.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 27, no. 2, Lent 2004, pp. 59–61
(2) Craddock, Fred B. “Testing That Never Ceases.” The Christian Century, vol. 107, no. 7, Feb. 1990, p. 211.