“Like a Kid in a Candy Shop” – Sermon for February 22, 2015

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"Christ in the Desert" (painting), Ivan Nikolaevich Kramsko?, 1872

“Christ in the Desert” (painting), Ivan Nikolaevich Kramsko?, 1872

“Like a Kid in a Candy Shop”

 A Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for the 1st Sunday in Lent; preached February 22, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

“The devil was mean.” These words were the words uttered one Sunday afternoon from an almost-four year-old boy to his mother. You see, it was the 1st Sunday in Lent at this family’s church that morning. In the children’s chapel service, one of the congregation’s very dynamic children’s leaders had shared the Gospel story for the day, this very same one we just heard. And this little member of the faith community had clearly been paying attention.

This three year old was known to be quite the talker, so his mother wasn’t particularly surprised when he began to ask questions about what had happened at church that morning. “Hey, mom, what do you know about the devil?” Now, this mom who tells us this story, it must be said that she is a professor of religion at a college out in Minneapolis. And given that, she admits that she immediately began scanning her mental bookshelf: her eye noticing the well-worn gold letters spelling St. Augustine on a volume at one end; glimpsing some book titled “process theology” practically falling out of the Christianity bookcase at the other end; and the kaleidoscope-like colors of all sorts of possibilities—conservative and liberal and otherwise—occupying space on the shelf in between.

“Then,” she writes, “I looked at him again, and remembered that he was three.”

At that point, she reports that she did what any good professor—and any good mom—would do…

She said to him, “What do you know about the devil?”

“Well…” he said, “the devil talked to Jesus.”

“Good”, she thinks, “he was paying attention.”

“The devil was mean,” the three-year-old quickly followed with. Dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he continued on… “If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and… there was candy… [pause for effect] the devil would say, ‘You should take some!’”[1]

I really don’t know what I would say about this child’s claim that the devil was mean—perhaps the philosophers can answer whether it is possible to be evil without being mean. But it is the case that this kid was right with his first claim. As the story tells it, the devil did talk to Jesus. But, of course, they were not standing in a store, just one aisle over from Mary and God the Father. They were in… the wilderness.

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The “wilderness” occupies an interesting place in our human imaginations. For some people, wilderness conjures up scary images of forests so thick that you can’t imagine—let alone see—where this unknown place might yield to some sign of human civilization… of deserts so hot and dusty and barren that even water itself would be thirsty… of so many strange creeping things, that you know you are just seconds from landing your foot on a tail, or brushing your hand through the heavy breath seething out through dozens of sharp pointy teeth.

For the Jewish community that Jesus and the earliest Christians came out of, the mere mention of “40 days in the wilderness” would have immediately brought to mind the 40 years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt. That’s a story so familiar to the Judeo-Christian family that I think we sometimes forget that for them too, that wilderness had been a strange and scary place. It was a place so lacking in human comforts that they yearned for the crumbs of bread and the scraps of meat they knew back in Egypt, even if it had been bread baked from the yeast of oppression and meat that dripped with the blood of injustice.

In our own times, though, the wilderness has also come to be a place of escape, of respite, even of new hope. Some people go on “wilderness retreats” and others yearn to get out of the busy-ness of cities and suburbs into somewhere open and free. Historians—particularly a Harvard professor named Perry Miller back in the 1950s—speak of Congregationalism’s Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors as trekking out on an “errand into the wilderness” when they set sail for these rocky New England shores some 400 or so years ago. They were hoping to find here a place where they could really do things right, and the wilderness was a place where they could start establishing God’s kingdom, free of the devils of established society as they knew it.

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Of course, on his sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus did not find himself free of the devil. And more importantly, he did not find himself free of the devil-like temptations of his time. I say “more importantly” because it’s too easy in our times to get side-tracked into some debate about whether we really believe in a literal “devil”—which, quite frankly, is beside the point of this story. Whether or not you believe literally in something called “the devil”—my guess is that many of us probably do not—regardless, we know something about wilderness and we know something about these devil-like temptations.

The temptations Jesus faced are perhaps all the more devil-like because they seem innocent. The things Jesus was tempted to claim were not particularly evil on their own merit.

Pause for a moment and just think about the first one: “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” …nothing I can think of that’s particularly evil about bread itself. In fact, whether wonder-bread white or rich-and-hearty brown, crusty or soft, in loaves as big as your head or as flat as a pancake, bread is the so-called “staff of life” in many of the world’s cultures. Throughout the Bible, it stands as a symbol for all food, for all that we need for daily sustenance. And I don’t think it really has much to do with the stone itself either. In whatever rocky, sandy Middle Eastern wilderness Jesus was in, I imagine there was no lack of stones. No one would have gotten upset if one of them suddenly disappeared. Come to think of it, there could be much good if Jesus had done exactly what the temptation told him, if he had turned a stone into a loaf of bread. Or, really, lots of stones into lots of bread. There were—and still are—lots of hungry people in the world. It’s easy to think that some extra loaves of bread lying around the desert floor might just help out a little bit.

Similarly, wouldn’t a bit of glory and power for Jesus help out too? Imagine what he could have done with authority over the nations. After all, the people from which Jesus came yearned for freedom from the Roman Empire that held authority over them at that time. Why wouldn’t he want that?

But that really is the nature of a true temptation, isn’t it? Something seems good about it—it wouldn’t be tempting, otherwise. Like that three-year-old in the store with his parents. What’s wrong with a little candy now and then?

Anglican priest John Pridmore writes:

the same voice whispers in my ear too. ‘If you are the child of God…’ The tempter’s tone is mocking and gleeful. ‘You are, you say, a child of God. You read your Bible and claim its promises; you say your prayers, believing they will be answered; you go to church and seek sacramental strength to love and to serve. And yet the stones at your feet are still stones. The desert of your days is as arid as ever. The hunger in your heart, for you know not what is unabated.’ The temptation is to despair.[2]

Jesus did not have to despair, though, in his temptation. He did not have to despair, because no matter how real the temptations were, the fact was that he already had all he needed. He already had what he needed as he faced that dusty, barren desert wilderness. He already had what he needed when the temptation came for personal gain, already had what he needed when the lure of glory and power came, already had what he needed when even Scripture itself was used in the attempt to trick him.

You see, we must remember first of all that Jesus may have been in the wilderness, but he was not alone. Right from the outset of the story, it is clear: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led—by the Spirit—in the wilderness.” Full of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Spirit. Standing in a desert valley, the Spirit was with him. Resting in what little shade he could find under a scraggly desert tree, the Spirit was with him. Contemplating that stone’s future as a loaf of bread, looking across the kingdoms of the world, perched up on the pinnacle of that temple, the Spirit was there too. He was not alone.

But that is not all. He had what he needed in the face of the temptations, too. He may not have chosen to command the stone to become a loaf of bread, but as it would happen, Jesus was one who did end up feeding the hungry. He may not have taken up the devil’s offer for the glory and authority, but as Paul would later write to the Philippians, God in the end “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” He may have refused to jump off the temple to test if the angels would catch him, but in the end Jesus went to the cross full of confidence in God, trusting that in God life would triumph over the world’s decision to throw him down. Jesus had what he needed. He had what he needed all along.

And the truth, my friends, is that we have what we need, too. We may find ourselves in the wilderness, those places in life far away from anything familiar looking, devoid of the comforts we use to pacify our fears. In fact, I’m pretty sure we will find ourselves there at one point or another, if we aren’t already there at the moment. But even in the wilderness, we are not alone. Jesus has traveled there before us; the Spirit is there with us. We are not alone.

And in the temptations, too, we have what we need. That’s not to say that temptations won’t come, but that we have what we need when they do. We may be tempted to pursue glory, but rest assured, sisters and brothers, that we got a crown up in-a that kingdom already. We may be tempted to put God to the test, but God’s already brought us through—“through many dangers, toils and snares,” the hymn sings, “I have already come.” We may even be tempted by a chance at the quick fix to something huge like hunger, but all we need to do is get honest about ourselves and our world and our stewardship and our injustices, and we’ll know the truth that we already have enough even for that.

Jesus had what he needed. We, the body of Christ today, we have what we need, too. The devil may in fact be mean. But when we’re standing in that store, the parents an aisle or two away, … and there’s candy … all we need to do is look down and realize we’re already holding on to our ticket to the finest smorgasbord we’ve ever known, the feast of heaven, the banquet table of God’s kingdom. And we’ve got Jesus’ hand reaching out for ours, ready to walk with us to dinner.

 Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.


[1] The mother in this story is Dr. Lori Brandt Hale, a professor of religion at Augsburg College, and these paragraphs are based on the story she tells in her commentary on Luke 4:1-13 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Vol. 2: Lent through Eastertide (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44-48.

[2] John Pridmore, The Word Is Very Near You – Sundays: Reflections on the lectionary readings Years A, B & C (Norwich UK: Canterbury Press, 2009), 91.

 

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