FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
March 6, 2022
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Saint Luke 4:1-13
In nomine Jesu!
Today is an important day in the life of Christ’s Church; and an especially important day for those of us committed to living out our 2022 Lenten theme, Fast on Fear. Feast on Faith. Today, in Jesus first (but not last) face-to-face encounter with the personification of evil, the devil, Luke’s Jesus clarifies two matters God’s people have struggled with for millennia; two intertwined matters over which Christians, particularly American Christians, have wrestled with for 80 years, since the “discovery” of the “Final Solution’s” concentration camps. What is the relationship between faith and sin? How do disciples identify and confront evil in the world?
What do we mean when we call ourselves sinners? There is no one definitive
answer. For 18 hundred years, we western (i.e., Catholics and Protestants)
Christians have more or less agreed with Augustine, who, before his baptism,
personified moral mayhem, located the origin of sin in the story of the “fall” of
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden recorded in Genesis 3. By his definition, all
humans are by nature sinful and unclean; in his words “without fear of God, without
love for God, and concupiscent.” For Augustine, we all participated in Adam’s
disobedience, this is “original sin” and our “sinnerness” is passed from generation
to generation through the natural act of procreation. Hence, many people’s
unhealthy preoccupation with matters of sex today.
In Jesus’ responses to the devil’s propositions, Jesus describes human sinfulness
not as something compelling within us, but as failure to trust God, which is
something God can and does address. The devil’s major premise in the wilderness
is that God can’t be trusted; and therefore, Jesus needs to look out for himself.
“Hungry? “Powerless?” “Experiencing oppression?” “Stop trusting God! Take
matters into your own hands. Collaborate with me,” the devil cajoles.
This is ingenious! His three propositions are constructed in such a way as to provide
Jesus – and us! – with concrete examples of “successful” people who have taken
the devilish route and reaped its rewards. The devil could point to them. Jesus, his
disciples, and we recognize them.
In Jesus’ day, these were the well-nourished, most respected, wielders of absolute
authority; the “poster children” for the actions the devil encourages Jesus and us to
take? The clue to their identity is in the scene of his final proposition, “ the pinnacle
of the Temple” where there is a structure, built shortly after the Temple, built to
overlook the Temple, built to oversee and control the Temple. The Antonia Fortress,
Pilate’s palace; the empire’s military headquarters; built by and for those who from
these heights could see that they ruled “all the kingdoms of the world.” The well-fed, respect-demanding Roman authorities and their religiously observant
collaborators, the elite of Jerusalem society; the priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees
in the ruling Sanhedrin; who publicly taught and publicly professed their love and
selfless serving of God, but who collaborated with the oppressor to maintain the
status quo and their own positions in the status quo. The devil was inviting Jesus to
be just like them; to collaborate with evil. Led by the Spirit, Jesus rejects these
propositions and, in the process, identifies sin as failure to trust God. Fasting on
fear and feasting on faith, Jesus confronts the devil, the personification of evil,
Evil. We may question the existence of demons, the devil, Beelzebub or Satan, the
First Century’s personifications of evil in the world, but we no longer question the
reality of evil in the world. We once did. We once sought to explain away the
terrible acts of some people with psychological or sociological explanations. But
we’ve now seen evil face-to-face; and while we may not want to personify it, we
recognize our need to fearlessly acknowledge it; fearlessly name it; and fearlessly
confront it whenever it appears. We once again recognize that evil cannot be
explained, contained, or ignored because to do so is to collaborate with it. As we
used to say, silence is consent.
We can all name a dozen examples of evil loose in our world. Our lists won’t always
agree, but I’ll risk naming two current examples that I believe people of faith like
us must fearlessly confront: One is the perpetrator of war in Ukraine. The other is
the promulgators of hatred and discrimination against transgender people,
especially transgender children and their loving and supportive parents, caregivers,
and friends. Each has become rampant in the last ten days. Each needs to be
named and confronted. Each can be confronted by those who feast on faith and
fast on fear.
The Gospel according to Saint Luke is all about faith because the chief actor in this
Gospel is the author of faith, the Holy Spirit.
It is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness, who accompanies Jesus even
though he is alone and who feeds Jesus even when he has fasted for forty days and
nights. It is that same Holy Spirit that God lavishes on us through the Gospel
proclaimed in word and the Gospel consumed in Sacrament. That’s why being
together around the Word, font and table is so crucial for us, especially now. That’s
the feasting on faith that leads to fasting on fear.
Luke can’t conclude this story without pointing us to the center of faith, the
wellspring of the Spirit. He writes, the devil “departed from Jesus until an
opportune time.” That “opportune time” is Jesus’ passion; the devil’s last chance to
talk Jesus into abandoning his steadfast trust in God. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus never
does that; never even whispers the words “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Luke omits those words from his story and replaces them with these, pure words of
Gospel; pure words that feeds faith and destroys whatever we might fear. The first
word welcomes all who all the fearful “Father, forgive them; for they do not know
what they are doing?” The second welcomes every outcast, “Today you shall be
with me in paradise.” Jesus’ cross is the opportune time; but not for the devil; not
for evil; but, always and forever, for us.