Sermon preached at St. John's, Speedway, March 1, 2020 (Lent 1). With both the annual meeting and the Great Litany happening, I kept things brief. I owe the emphasis on the angels in this text to a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. at a preaching conference sponsored by the Christian Theological Seminary's Ph.D. program in African-American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric in the summer of 2019. Before hearing his sermon I hadn't paid much attention to this detail.
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart. (Ps. 32:12)
In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here at St. John’s, you use the contemporary form of the Lord’s Prayer. I approve. My home parish of All Saints does, too. I prefer it to the traditional version, mainly because it forthrightly asks that our “sins” be forgiven, rather than the more elliptical “trespasses.” I like it when we say what we mean.
I also find “save us from the time of trial” to be more compatible with my conception of God than “lead us not into temptation.” Because what kind of God leads us into temptation, right?
Well, that would be our God, apparently - because this morning Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. God did lead Jesus into temptation - so that turn of phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is born of Christ’s own experience.
Does this make God cruel? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I wonder instead, if, as Jesus’s earthly ministry really kicks off, what we’re seeing is the Holy Trinity figuring this incarnation business out. This may be a test of the limits that being fully human, with all the appetites and pleasures and exhaustion and inconveniences and relationships that being human entails, places on God the cosmic Son, through whom all things were made. Can God, divine yet subject to human hunger, go the distance in the desert? Can God, divine yet subject to human pain and fear, commit to the way of the cross?
For the devil’s part, he’s got a sophisticated temptation plan, targeting both Jesus’s humanity and divinity. Better yet, he hopes to entrap Jesus in the words of scripture. After forty days in the desert, Satan finds Jesus to be a famished man, and reminds him of God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness.
“You’re the Son of God, right? Why don’t you do that manna trick again?”
Failing there, Satan snatches Jesus away to the top of the temple, and from that dizzying height above Jerusalem, goads Jesus to prove himself, as if being the Son of God is synonymous with being an unusually virtuous daredevil -
“Shoot yourself from a cannon, walk a tightrope over the grand canyon, throw yourself from the temple, Jesus - show me your power to save.”
And failing there again, the devil tries to sell Jesus the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Worship me,” the devil says, “and I’ll give you all these kingdoms, with their power and palaces, jewels and splendor.”
Jesus responds: “Away with you, Satan, I worship the Lord - you, Satan, have nothing to give me, and to you I have nothing to prove.”
And that is when the angels came.
St. John’s, today we stand just within the threshold of Lent, and we are called to a fast,
or the assumption of some special act of devotion. I won’t ask what yours is - that’s a matter for you and God.
But what does your fast mean? Your decision to give up chocolate or alcohol, coffee, diet coke, Netflix or shopping may please God - I don’t know - but that’s not the main thing. It’s a practice for a thing yet to come: a time of trial we may not be spared, a temptation into which God may lead us.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that we be saved from that time of trial, or not be led into that temptation, as the case may be, and most days I believe God will honor this request. The world has temptations enough to challenge us without God dragging us into more.
And when I think about what it means for one of us to be led into temptation for the greater purposes of God, I think of a college friend of mine who became addicted to methamphetamine and now works to bring other addicts to freedom, a career that carries the risk of relapse. It’s holy work. God leads him daily into temptation.
For Jesus the time in the desert and the temptation of Satan is a dry run for the crucifixion. When the moment comes, in the agony in the garden, despite expressing his desire - “let this cup pass from me,” he is able to say “not my will, but yours be done,” and so face the cross and the grave.
We may not be called to such heroics. But we prepare ourselves during this holy season so that we too can be ready, practiced, when God has need of our discipline.
But don’t forget the angels. As Jesus’s fast in the desert concludes there are angels waiting to revive him. And as his even greater fast - where he empties himself of all life - comes to an end on the third day, within the tomb there is a spark like the first glimmer of the dawn, and an angel appears to roll the stone away and announce to the women the world’s release from the power of death, and the assurance of new life.
Trust that it will be the same for you. Be blessed in your fast. The angels are coming.