Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Tempts Us

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent is Luke 4:1-13

I opened my Ash Wednesday homily by noticing how, every now and again, we get a vague stirring of spring in the air, in the light, in the smell of the earth. Lent is our season, and that name comes from the same root as “length”, as in the lengthening of days. At this time in the calendar, smelling spring is very much a matter of hopeful anticipation, and the forecast of a snowstorm this week suggests how tentative that looking-forward may be.

I ended my Ash Wednesday homily by urging each of us to decide what kind of Lent we want, and then go for it. Don’t be satisfied with vague stirrings of the heart and tentative movements of the will. Be bold, as our artists have been, creating the Stations of the Cross that surround us here. Welcome a season of purposely growing your faith, your hope, and your love. At the foot of the aisle are daily guides through Lent. By far the best and boldest is Martin Smith’s book A Season for the Spirit. Henri Nouwen’s meditations are there, as well. As bold as these authors are, just reading isn’t what I have in mind when I recommend boldness; but what your reading may lead you into… now that’s where you may want to recall the adage, “Fortune favors the bold.”

And there’s nothing quite like temptation to discourage boldness, or to recklessly exaggerate it. So a good question for today is, “What’s tempting you?”

I notice from the temptations described by St. Luke that it may be the very thing you lack that defines your temptation. Jesus has fasted for forty days, a perilously long time to go without food, and he is famished. What’s the nature of his first temptation? Bread. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Martin Smith, in his book, says that in the early days and weeks of our Lord’s public ministry he was not focused on being Son of God. Rather, he was keen on fulfilling the role of Son of Man. “The True Human Being” might be another way to understand that role. Unless he was fully identified with every reality of being human, Jesus would do us no earthly good as Son of God. There would be no pathway for the grace of God to reach us through a Messiah who didn’t put his sandals on one at a time like the rest of us.

Martin Smith takes us back to our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River, and says, “In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.”

Now in the desert, temptation rears its ugly head again with the prospect of his becoming a political Messiah hungry for national (even international) influence and glory, and Jesus recognizes one more category of what he lacks. He doesn’t have that kind of power, nor, as Son of Man, does he want it. (For that reason, I think this temptation is actually weaker than the first… I believe he really could have welcomed that bread.)

If this second temptation sounds vague and tentative, so does the third. Jesus is invited to imagine himself as a snow-less Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, flying down the halfpipe of the Temple parapet, executing a Double McTwist 1260. “It is written, He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” cooes the Great Promoter.

To which Jesus replies, “And it is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus is not called to gravity extreme sport. Rather, says Martin Smith, “To exploit miraculous powers would be to insulate himself from day-by-day dependence on God’s voice, and force him to part company with ordinary men and women struggling to be faithful to a hidden God…. To stand with them means he may never stand over them.”

These three temptations suggest that what we do not have may uniquely and insidiously tempt us. There is Jesus in a barren place, void of civilization, and he has no bread, has no political power, has no need for the limelight. He is hammering-out the balance between being Son of Man and Son of God, and in each temptation what he doesn’t have could cause him to reach in a way that breaks his balance, distorts his nature.

I wonder if we are likelier to face temptation rising from what we do have. Here we are in an abundant life, a well-off society by comparison to so much of the world, many in this room living prosperous lives, even in a recession, in a land still blessed with a flow of milk and honey.

Our daily temptation may be to live within our homes without being thankful for them, without (to echo our first reading) celebrating “with all the bounty that the Lord our God has given to us and to our house.”

Our temptation may be to more quickly undertake home improvements than address homelessness.

Our temptation may be to never see or meet a homeless family, our lives being as well insulated as our homes.

Well, fair warning. Today’s Gospel is neither vague nor tentative in its presentation of Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, the author of our salvation, and the one into whose likeness and stature we are called to grow.

“His surrender to the Spirit of God allows him to break through to the truth that his specialness as the Beloved Son gives him the freedom to take human suffering upon himself and to be the Servant of all.”

His church, his people, have the same calling. You might say that our calling is to hammer-out the balance between loving obedience to the Son of God and loving obedience to the Son of Man.
Our Lenten mission focus on homelessness in North Berkshire is a step in responding to that call. It’s one that our children are hearing, and they’re leading us to be bold in answering.