Sermon — The Whole Enchilada

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 14th, 2016
Preached by Pastor Gregory Sakal
Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

“If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

God be in my head, in my heart, and upon my lips.

Not a week goes by that I don’t find stuffed in my mailbox, taped to my door, or in some other manner attached, a flyer from one cable company urging me to forsake my relationship with my current provider, and instead form a relationship with them. More channels! Faster download speeds! Lower prices! Well, at least for the first twenty minutes of the contract, if you read the teeny-tiny print at the bottom of the flyer.

And that’s pretty much where Jesus finds himself today. He’s being asked to change sides, tempted by things that every human desires. Jesus is fasting in the wilderness for forty days. Now, in Bible-speak, this just means a good long time–more than a month, but not a year.

All three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell of Jesus in the wilderness contending with the Evil One. While Mark gives us the “Cliffs Notes” version in 1:12:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In Mark, Jesus is “Driven” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and I don’t think Mark means in stretch limo. Like much of Mark’s narrative, the temptation of Jesus is described to us in short, urgent phrases.

But in Matthew and Luke, Jesus is “Led” by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days. And during that time, Satan comes courting. Both Matthew and Luke provide a lot more detail about the encounter.

Like the cable companies, Satan attempts to woo Jesus away from his current “Provider”, if you will, and go to work for him. “Leave your family business”, Satan seems to say, “and come to work for me.”

And, Satan, continues, I’ll give you a great sign-on bonus.

This is a good point in the story to remember that Jesus is a man, fully human—a man on a divine mission, perhaps, but a man nonetheless. He wasn’t pre-wired in any way to take the path he ultimately chose; he had to make conscious decisions every step of the way, and wrestle with temptation just as we do.

Jesus, the man, is at a crossroads in his life. We don’t see the glorified Jesus, the incarnate son of the very living God, clothed in dazzling white on the mountaintop, in conversation with Moses and Elijah. That’s the story we heard last week.

We see a thirty-year old man facing his biggest challenge ever. He had to make conscious decisions at every step to follow the divine will of his father, rather than his human self-will. He had to struggle with his own self-will just as we do.

This dialog with Satan, taking place over his forty-day exile, reveals Jesus the man making his decisions as an expression of his faithfulness to his Father-God. Each temptation is, in its own way, designed to lure Jesus away from his mission; to turn him away from his divine nature to instead fully invest in human weakness.

The first: total comfort. Command this stone to become bread. Hmmm…rye, pumpernickel, or sourdough? No need to till, plant, water, toil, harvest, grind, knead, and bake.

Just Shazam!, and voila, here is bread, and everything that bread symbolizes: comfort; a full belly, like sitting in front of your flat-panel TV, eating pizza, drinking beer, and clicking the remote.

The second: empire. Unlimited wealth and power; dominion, and total control. “All this is mine to give to whom I please”, says Satan.

Unlimited wealth and power! What a temptation for the man whose mission is to save the world. How useful all that wealth and power would be!

And the last, indestructibility, invulnerability. “Throw yourself down”, says Satan, having taken Jesus to the highest parapet of the Temple in Jerusalem, and God won’t even allow you to stub your toe.

So, not only all the power and riches in the world, but all of eternity in which to enjoy them! Certainly, in worldly terms, that’s the whole enchilada. Much more appealing, wouldn’t you say, than a trip to the cross?

Satan offers Jesus more glitz and glamor than a trip to Las Vegas. And like a trip to Las Vegas, all of it is hollow, superficial, and in the greater scheme of things, empty. Like the ad from that other cable company, Satan, representing all things worldly and ephemeral, really has nothing to offer at all.

He fails, of course, in his attempt to convince Jesus to exchange his long-term eternal mission for short-term temporal pleasure and satisfaction, and Satan departs to wait for “…an opportune time.” Anyone care to guess on when that opportune time might be?

Of course, it comes when Jesus hangs on the cross, and one of the thieves who is crucified with him taunts him, saying, “Are you the messiah? Save yourself and us.” Even at the end, Satan attempts to persuade Jesus to abandon the divine mission to save humanity, for the short-term goal of saving himself.

This is the contrast between things that we see as being affirming and attractive in this world, like great power, comfort, wealth, and great bounty, those things that our short attention spans often desire; those things that we see as telling us, “so-and-so has made it”, those qualities we admire in celebrities—the contrast between all of that, and the long-term desire of God expressed through prophets for millennia that all come to pass in the person of Jesus.

And what is that long-term desire of God? The lengthy reading this morning from Isaiah tells us.

“Look at us, Lord”, Isaiah says, mocking the people. “Look at us. We’ve fasted, just as your law requires. We’ve gone through all the motions. Haven’t you seen us Lord?”

Like children on the playground yelling, “Hey mom, look at me!”, humankind goes through the motions, but never reaches God’s bottom line. As Isaiah points out, the poor are still hungry, the naked still need clothing, and the rich still exploit those lower down on the food chain.

Justice is what the Lord requires. Sharing what we have is what the Lord asks us to do. Clothing the naked is what the Lord demands.

And, not just on the day of fasting; not just at the appointed times, but on all days and in all times.

Then, says Isaiah, when you call on the Lord, then he will answer.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land…”

And that brings us to the point of my message. If we really want to grow in love, and in our commitment to God’s justice; if we truly want to fulfill our destiny as the hands, hearts, and minds of Christ in this troubled world, this is the time for us to begin, right here in this season of Lent.

Jesus was sorely tempted by every worldly desire that the devil could conjure, just as we are tempted.

Yet, in perfect obedience to the Father, he remained without sin, a prospect that is beyond most of us, I think.

How should we use this time that precedes Easter?

Well, we could do what all the kids in my neighborhood did back in the day: give up something like chocolate, or gum—or in the case of my childhood bestie, watching the Micky Mouse Club. And then what? Start them all up again after Easter?

While a little self-denial is never a bad thing, Lent is a good time to take on those issues which are a constant struggle for us. Lent can give us an opportunity to free ourselves from the past.

St. Makarios of Egypt in the 5th century said, “Let us draw near eagerly to Christ, and let us not despair of our salvation. For it is a trick of the devil to lead us to despair by reminding us of our past sins.”

Our past sins come back to haunt us, distracting us from the work we need to do in the present.

If we become despondent in the present, our actions from the past can often rise up to choke us, like acid reflux, as we imagine that had we chosen “A” instead of “B”, or turned this way instead of that, our lives would have somehow been better than we find them now. The reality is that we did the best we could with the light we had to see by at the time.

So, perhaps Lent is a good time for us to confront the past, and make our peace with it, learn from it, and then move on.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in today’s reading from Romans: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We ask God to release us from our past mistakes, and to guide us into the present.

For us to live with intentionality in the present, we need to let go of the past. We must learn from what our mistakes in the past can teach us about ourselves, but we can’t live there, because to do so, prevents us from growing. However, the present is full of temptations of its own. Temptation in one form or another is something that each of us faces most every day of our lives, and often not very successfully.

Pettiness, rage, mean-spirited thoughts and feelings towards others are part of the human genome that require constant vigilance on our part to keep them at bay.

Envy of those who are more fortunate than ourselves is another example of a poor response to our unhappiness with our own lives and situations.

The obverse is just as pernicious: thinking that by virtue of our wealth and/or position, we are superior to others lower down on the food chain, when we instead should recall that to whom much is given, much more is expected.

Blaming others for those things in the world that we dislike, or worse, those things within ourselves that challenge us is another biggie that overtakes most of us at one time or another.

To quote Thomas Merton, the great Catholic writer and mystic, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

Hate these things in yourself, not in another.

In other words, the improvement of the world around us begins with the improvement of ourselves.

Our understanding of the foibles in others begins with the full-throttle courage and willingness to face those things in ourselves.

We might call the temptations in today’s gospel reading, “Temptations from the three basic groups”: sloth, or laziness, as in “Command this stone to become bread.” We want things without having to work to achieve them, whether they are consumer goods, or personal qualities. When we don’t have what we think we should, we begin to feel entitled to them, which bring us to the next temptation.

“All this I will give you, and more.” Power and greed, as in unlimited power and riches, and the desire to control the behavior of others. So much easier, isn’t it, to manipulate others than to address our own shortcomings.

Worse perhaps, is we often desire to give this unlimited power to someone else who, like Satan, promises a quick fix to the world’s troubles.

The twentieth century gave us two terrible instances of leaders who came to power with the willing consent of the populace through the promise that they would fix everything by any means necessary. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This willingness to give away the store in the interests of making things the way we think they should be resulted in Hitler, Mussolini, and a host of other little demagogues that have popped up around the world since then. We see a solution in the strongman who promises to fulfill all our desires and fix everything that we think is wrong around us.

It’s so much easier to invest all our hopes and dreams in someone who promises everything, rather than to come together in that messy process of consensus-building to figure out what’s best for everyone.

In our efforts to make everything the way we think it should be, we lose all sight of the common good; we abandon the trust in one another that is the glue of any functional society, in exchange for a primitive tribalism that has us tearing one another apart.

And finally, exceptionalism: a belief that somehow, or in some way, we ourselves aren’t, or shouldn’t be vulnerable to those same afflictions and temptations that affect the rest of humanity.

A sense of entitlement that somehow, we deserve more than other people; or that God favors us more than others; or that we’re not accountable in the same way as other folks might be.

Waterboarding, the death penalty, and all the other excesses of our time are simply expressions of this exceptionalism on a national scale. What they really are, are the terrible result of forgetting that we should know better—that our resources and prestige beg a higher calling, not a lower one.

This, alas, is the underpinning of racism: our need to think that just by virtue of who we are, or the color of our skin, we are better than those who differ from us.

We look for reasons to be superior to others when, in fact, we are engaged in the same struggles as everyone else, slogging the road to seek the perfection to which we are called by Christ.

These temptations, and the sins they often yield, are not just personal sins: they are sins committed by communities, and entire nations. Alas, they are inescapable in that we cannot run from them. We can only turn around and face them.

As Pogo Possum once said in Walt Kelly’s satirical comic strip “Pogo”, “We has seen the enemy, and he is us.”

So, this season of Lent is a good time for us to turn around and face ourselves, looking for things to let go of not just for these six weeks, like chocolate, chewing gum, and five-dollar lattes, but things we are willing to let go of for good and all, which, with God’s help, we can.

Things that distort not just our own lives, but the lives of those around us. Things that once released, can allow us to grow.

Dig up the weeds in your garden, pull them out by the roots, and the fruits, vegetables and flowers will flourish.

Cut the weeds off at the top without removing the roots, and they will simply grow back in six weeks or so.

This is a big challenge, at least for yours truly, and I expect for everyone. Yet, that is what we are called upon to do.

Jesus had to muster every bit of strength and courage that was in him to resist the grand offer made to him by Satan. All of those things that were presented to him would have made his life a lot easier, and perhaps he might have been able to avoid all that unpleasantness at the end of the road.

But he knew who he was, and what he was about. And through his ordeal, his resolve was strengthened.

One of my favorite films of all time is “Moonstruck”, with Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and Nicolas Cage.

Olympia Dukakis plays an Italian-American housewife in Brooklyn, a woman of a certain age, Rose Castorini, married to a well-to-do philandering plumber husband, Cosmo.

While Cosmo is at the opera with his current chippie, Rose dines alone at the local Italian restaurant, where she encounters a younger man, a university professor whose even younger companion has stormed out of the restaurant, leaving him sitting alone.

He offers to walk Mrs. Castorini home, and on the way, he tries to seduce her. She refuses, and when he asks why, she says, “Because I know who I am: I’m a married woman. And you’re a little boy who wants to be bad.”

Do we know who we are? Jesus fasting in the desert, facing hunger, and temptation reminds us. He is like us in every way, and we are a part of who he becomes. Our desire to forsake our sinfulness depends on our remembering who we are.

Often, it is that alone that stands between us and yielding to temptation. It is our sense of accountability to Christ, honed with practice to avoid the wiggle-room that might otherwise allow us to yield into behavior that we’ll later regret.

We know who we are, and to what we are called.

And, if we need a reminder, just think upon what Jesus gave up for our sake: his very life on the Cross.

Let us pray:
God of wilderness and water,
your Son was baptized and tempted as we are.
Guide us through this season,
that we may not avoid struggle,
but open ourselves to blessing,
through the cleansing depths of repentance
and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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