Monday, March 17, 2014

Angels Come

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The opening words of our worship today came from priest and poet Michael Hudson, writing about our Lord’s temptations in the desert. Hudson structures his poem by opening each stanza with the most familiar words we know about the subject of temptation: “Lead us not into…”, a phrase he lifts from the tool-kit of prayer that Jesus gave his disciples, the Lord’s Prayer. On the hook of this repeated phrase, Hudson hangs three comments.

First, the way the tempter works is “to bend us from the way that is open to the promise and the purpose of each day.”

Second, the tempter comes enticing, spinning visions of an easy journey. By contrast, “Wisdom knows an easy journey is the devil’s sweetest lie.”

Third, in spite of “lead us not,” Jesus points us toward the desert “with its devils, well aware God is sending better angels on the wind to join us there.”

The poet’s comments on temptation are worth considering more closely. At the root of the word “religion” is “religare”, to tie back—as in staking a sapling so it will grow true. So too, religion trains us to grow towards God. The tempter bends us from, distorts, binds us to negatives, not positives. The tempter has, actually, little to offer us: the promise and purpose of the day are not his to give, but he’s intent on depriving us of having what God has invested in the new day. The tempter distracts us—or contracts us—from being open to the day.

The day, of course, like every day, will not be simple. It will have its own complexities, and people of faith know that God is just as present and active in the difficult passages as in the simpler gifts. By contrast, the tempter persuades us to take what he promises to be an easy journey; but that promise is made of “spinning visions in the sky”, what the poet calls “the devil’s sweetest lie.”

God who works through what challenges us keeps calling us to our deserts because they are such valuable frontiers, workshops, laboratories for discovering priorities and values and goals. In our deserts, we are required to choose what we believe and trust to be our best choices, recognizing that our lives depend on best choices from among the many that we may face.

Perhaps it’s that desert sand that reminds me of the sandpaper at the carpenter’s bench, where we are the wood in this prayer from the Iona Community: “O Christ, the Master Carpenter, who at the last, through wood and nails, purchased our whole salvation, wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand.”

For me, the take-away message from our Gospel today is that when we are at our most vulnerable in the thick of particular temptation, we may feel alone, locked in argument with whatever is tempting us, isolation that may terrify us. But the truth is heard in Matthew’s final words: “Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

If we will recognize and welcome them, we will discover angels of mercy, companions on the way, fellow-tempteds who have something to teach us, fellow travelers who might like to learn from our experiences.

That was no hollow claim, as I read this Gospel to a dear couple in the parish, last week, when I brought communion to their home, where one of these partners is declining (or inclining) towards death. Their children had come and gone, the previous weekend; every day, two or three friends come to visit (different two or three, from day to day), and many phone calls come, including oldest friends and distant relatives.

There must be moments when it’s tempting to believe we’re alone in our extremes of weakness or suffering or doubt or despair. But, if recognized and welcomed, angels come.

(Michael Hudson’s poem, “Meditation for Matthew 4:1-11,” is found in “Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts,” Church Publishing, 2004.)