The First Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


I wonder how Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, John and Jesus (the folk in Luke’s first chapters) heard our reading from Deuteronomy. It’s a celebration of a good harvest and of God’s deliverance in the exodus and gift of the good land. But that was hardly their experience: Israel had spent centuries in the belly of foreign empires. In Ezra’s words: “Here we are, slaves to this day– slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress” (Neh. 9:36-37).

Hearing that Deuteronomic text probably involved some combination of pain over what had been lost and hope that God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm could again intervene. That’s the hope for a new exodus, a new Davidic heir, a new deliverance expressed in Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s prayer.

I wonder how they heard Psalm 91. “…my God in whom I put my trust.” Trust is tricky. Encouraged by Isaiah, King Hezekiah trusted, and God delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. Just over a century later Jerusalem, ignoring Jeremiah’s calls to stop exploiting the poor, trusted that God would again deliver Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!”), and watched the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem and dethrone the Davidic dynasty. The Maccabean heroes started out proclaiming their trust in God, and ended up as fat and happy clients of the Roman Empire. Trust is tricky.

Over to Jesus. Luke tells us that while Jesus was praying after his baptism “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (3:21-22), which rather sounds as though it’s heralding that new exodus, that new Davidic heir, that new deliverance. So, no pressure.

What does trust mean for Jesus? That, after forty days of fasting, begins to be sorted out in an interview with the diabolos, the ‘accuser’ or ‘slanderer’, that cynic who assumes the worst about humanity.

There are many ways of unpacking what’s going on in that interview, what’s at stake, and over the years you’ve probably heard many of them. So, with no interest in reinventing the wheel, let me simply recall a couple of them.

“Son of God.” If we focus on its Davidic/Messianic dimension, the interview is about how this son of David will operate. The editors of the David stories in Samuel noticed the moments in which David had the choice of receiving or grasping. The former, receiving, e.g., kingship, turned out well. David let the kingship come to him on God’s terms, and repeatedly refused to kill Saul.  The latter, grasping, e.g., Bathsheba, not so well. The interview easily reads as offering Jesus the same choice: are the kingdoms of the world something Jesus is going to grasp, or receive from the Father—in the Father’s time and way?

Grasp or receive. A question for Jesus, but also for Jesus’ followers. So there’s some logic to reading this text the first Sunday of Lent. Where might we notice that we’re grasping? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isa. 55:8). What are the situations in which we judge that to be a defect in God?

Let’s pull back the camera a little. “The devil is in the details,” we say. And in this interview the devil wants to get the details right, because with a little fine tuning even the presence of Jesus, the Son of God, need not disturb the status quo. And as long as Jesus’ church doesn’t disturb the status quo, doesn’t embody an alternative to the lies and jockeying for power that deform our institutions, the devil’s content.

We might put it this way. I imagine Jesus hearing Mary’s song repeatedly as he was growing up:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

Jesus recognizes—with the help of Deuteronomy, the source of all his replies—that the devil’s suggestions would put him on a sidetrack, set him up to be no more than an improved model of King Herod. From this perspective, the text—with the Magnificat as the audio bed—invites us to remember our calling. God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm—Jesus—intervenes not simply so that we survive, but so that we help heal our world.

Not simply so that we survive, but so that we help heal our world.

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