First Sunday in Lent, Year C
6 March 2022
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
One of our common myths is that anyone can do anything if they only put their mind to it.
It is a nice sentiment, usually, I think, intended to encourage the young, but we know that it’s not true. In fact because it’s not true, it may actually be discouraging, besides denying the existence of social inequalities.
I know people who would like to hold permanent employment but they don’t conform to employers’ expectations, some of which they can do nothing about.
We know that women and minorities are still largely absent from positions of leadership in most areas of our society, and surely none of us would say that this is because white men were generally better at almost everything.
I have shared with you that the first congregation I served had a long history of conflict. I knew that going in, and I thought that since I had grown up with conflict, it would not be a problem, if anyone was good at managing conflict, it would be me. I found out that seeing conflict rekindled the anxiety I had experienced in my childhood.
Or looking at what is called the American Dream, a dream the rest of the world has long adopted as its own, it is not a dream that everyone will do better, but that those who hustle will do better than others, while many are left behind. Yet the idea that I can do better makes me tolerate social inequality and injustice. It also leads to assuming that excess is desirable.
The idea that everyone can accomplish anything keeps us from looking at the reasons why people are left behind.
The story that anyone can do anything as long as we put our mind to it is the hope that we can somehow escape our present circumstances. And the settling of this continent provides plenty of examples of that having happened. I have known many who, having lost everything during WW II, came to Canada with next to nothing and who were able to build a new life for themselves. And often they were the kind of lives they had hoped for, but they were modest lives, made possible by a growing post-war economy, as well as the support of others, organizations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief, and communities that welcomed them. And while the post-war years seemed to suggest unlimited growth and economic excess, the lives of the people I know did and do not reflect that, even if they accepted the narrative of unlimited growth.
At his baptism the Holy Spirit descends onto Jesus and it is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus in the wilderness where for forty days Jesus is tempted by the devil. The story is given us now, no doubt, because we just entered into the forty days of Lent, and often the church has described Lent as a wilderness. We call Lent wilderness because when the Israelites were in the wilderness they were not self-made people but were dependent on God. We enter Lent to remember our dependence on God.
But depending on God is the very opposite of the image of the hustler, of the dishwasher to millionaire story, of unlimited economic growth, and of the idea that anyone can do anything.
Jesus fasts for the forty days he is in the wilderness and so the first temptation relates to physical hunger. My mother told me that during the great scarcity that followed WW II, her mother’s bed time reading was a cook book, and her greatest wish a certain kind of cake. A cake she never had when the food supply improved.
Yet the temptation Jesus faces is not simply hunger, but to let hunger determine who he is, to let his physical cravings determine his feelings, thoughts, and actions. Jesus does not deny his hunger, anyone who has ever fasted or experienced want knows hunger. Yet Jesus lets a deeper hunger determine who he is, and he replies by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, ‘we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Deuteronomy 8:3) It is God who is to determine his life, not hunger, nor the use of power for his own sake.
The second temptation is power, in the case of Jesus over all the world. It is a temptation most people with power succumb to. It is the hubris that we can make the world a better place and we use inappropriate means to do so, whether this results in trade agreements that shift production overseas, or work programs for welfare recipients, or wars to pacify our enemies.
The thing that should stand out for us in this temptation is that Jesus is Lord of all, which has long been what the church professes. But Jesus is gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29) and chooses not domination but service, culminating in the washing of his disciples’ feet and his death on the cross. Of course, despite Jesus’ gentleness and humility, it is not an easy thing to walk the way of the cross, but it is of profound importance that Jesus chooses not power but the way of the cross.
The third temptation is to treat our relationship with God as magic, as something we can manipulate. It is the temptation to think that our life with God did not entail suffering, when it is in suffering that God seems closest. It may also include the temptation to think that everything happens for a reason, somehow believing that if suffering had a reason we would not suffer. It is the temptation to sanitize life of life, and leave nothing that resembles our actual experience.
And since we know how to manipulate each other, manipulating God is not a big step. Jesus opts against manipulation and against sanitizing the humanity he entered, showing us that God has entered this world and that we do not need to wish away this life for another.
What Jesus does here is accept his humanity. Even though Jesus is God and could transcend his humanity, he shows us how beautiful it can be to be human.
Our fulfillment is not found in satisfying our every need and craving. Our fulfillment is not found in unlimited growth, in the belief that technology will save us, or in the assumption that we alone could right the world.
And our fulfillment is not found in treating God as our genie but in embracing our humanity as in Jesus God has embraced it, too.
Our fulfillment is found in accepting our human limitations (not necessarily the limitations society has imposed on us) and finding our humanity to be the place where God meets us.
Thanks be to God.