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March 10, 2019

“Count on God: Beginning the Forty Days”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Romans 10.8-13

Luke 4.1-13

March 10, 2019

Lori Brandt Hale, a professor at Augsburg College, writes a story about her three-year-old son learning about our Gospel reading for today. Hale’s son went to Sunday school and came back, bouncing with energy, telling his mother about the devil. Hesitantly, Hale asked him to replay exactly what he had learned. First, her son explained that the devil was “mean,” which launched Hale into her own inner monologue of questions about what “mean” meant to a three-year-old. As her son went on to tell the story, he suddenly whispered to explain the ending: “(i)f we were in the store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and…there was candy…The devil would say, ‘You should take some!’” Hale went back to all her inner questions – wondering why her son’s teacher was so worried about the devil and not focusing on Jesus. She wondered why this was the focus story instead of so many others. Though, as she did previously, she shook off her questions, because she realized that she was overthinking for a three-year-old. Instead, she looked deeply into her son’s eyes and asked him what his response would be if the devil told him to take some candy. “Oh!” he said, “I would say thank you!” Hale goes on to say that even though her three-year-old didn’t understand the full gamut of the story, many of us misunderstand, too.[1] Instead of turning from temptation, we open our arms to it because it is the simplest route.

Our society is caught in the cycle of the “simplest route.” It is easier to build more jails to house people than to create relationships and mentor someone who is going through a difficult time and is faced with some damaging choices. It is easier to pay for health care treatment rather than to think through preventative care. It is easier to just hire people of color to meet a ratio rather than addressing racism straight on. Our society is filled with ways we look temptation in the eye and say “thank you” rather than dealing with the difficulties.

This passage is about more than our own responses to sin and temptation – it is about how Jesus responds. Jesus frames a response for us. Lent is a time to look at our own motivations, see where God is, and perhaps realign ourselves. We can ask if we are taking the simplest route, or if we are committing ourselves to the difficult, yet rewarding, route that Jesus leads us on. No matter where we are in our journey we can count on God.

Is it possible to know if Jesus actually went through this? The only ones out in the wilderness are Jesus, the devil, and the Spirit, and we never hear Jesus recount this to the disciples or others.[2] The accuracy of the account is not as important as the relational aspect of the story. Jesus is relying on his relationship with the Spirit, who guides him through. We, too, must rely on God to make it through these forty days, these forty years, and our entire lifetime.

Now, just like the snake in the garden in Genesis, we can’t necessarily say that the devil is tempting for something bad. The snake in the garden suggested that if the humans ate the fruit they would have knowledge. This was a true statement, but they didn’t realize that they really didn’t want that knowledge. Here, the devil asks Jesus to turn stone into bread. I think we can all agree that bread is a good thing – we need to eat. Yet, it wasn’t the bread that was the temptation – it was the misuse of power. Sometimes the line between “right” and “wrong” seem obvious. Sometimes we think we are helping – it’s just a loaf of bread, right? But sometimes we can see that the bread means so much more – and can be more harmful than we imagined. Thankfully, Jesus sees this temptation for what it is – the misuse of power. This is why we must rely on Jesus – because sometimes we cannot see it, but God can.

Often, though, our problems are not so clear. “Right” and “wrong” become more of a gray area. Sometimes sin is not a choice or a temptation, but we are confronted with a problem that is, as they say, the lesser of two evils. Those who deal in ethics give examples like the Trolley Problem. This ethics exercise gives the example that a trolley is riding on a track and is approaching a switch. One path leads to one person stuck on the track, and the other leads to five people stuck on the track. The exercise forces one to consider which way to switch the track – so that only one person is hurt or five. When we are confronted with an ethical decision like the Trolley Problem, how do we decide?

Thankfully, most of our daily decisions aren’t life or death situations like the Trolley problem. Yet, I think sometimes our daily activities are more like the Trolley problem than we would like to admit. We have decisions with the products we buy: do we purchase something that is convenient and cheap for us, but might come in more plastic packaging that will harm the environment down the road, and potentially might mean the workers who made it were not paid fairly, or do we pay for more expensive products that might mean more of a living wage for others? Do we invest in a company that is doing well financially but supports a war, or do we invest in a company that might not make as much money but is socially conscious? Do we take the extra effort and use reusable shopping bags, or do we use plastic that can harm the environment? I will say that when people in the backseat are screaming at me and I’ve had a full day of meetings and I’m already halfway to the grocery store but forgot the bags, to quote that little boy, sometimes it is easier to just say “Thank you” and move on with convenience.

Yet, temptation is often convenient. Jesus’ response teaches us that convenience is not the best way all the time. Jesus’ response takes us out into the wilderness – far away from convenience and comfort. We are reminded in Lent that what society deems as best, what society claims is easiest, is not in the end.

Lent is a time to grow closer to God. In these forty days we grow closer to God – one day at a time, one hour closer, one minute closer, one second closer. We take each moment one step at a time. Sometimes it might be three steps forward and one step back, but we intend to keep growing closer.

How far away is God? Sometimes, in the wilderness, with the temptations right in front of us, God seems far away. When the simple way seems best, God seems distant. When we are stressed and life is not going as planned, God seems far away. When we have fallen for the tenth time and we aren’t sure we can stand up again, God seems to be gone. Yet, we are reminded that God is on our hearts and on our lips – in our words and in our minds. God is closer than we think. God is near us at all times. God is generous – an infinite number we cannot quantify. We cannot detail just how generous God is to us.

As we go throughout these forty days, we look to God. Knowing that we will be tempted, we look to Jesus for a response. Expecting that we will be in the wilderness and will want to go the easy route, we send for the Spirit. This is why our spiritual practices are important – they help us to understand the will of God in times of trial. Plus, they are called practices because we need to practice – we will not always be able to fight temptation. We will not always be able to turn away because we are human. We are going to slip up and say “Thank you” instead of “no, thanks.” Yet, kicking ourselves isn’t going to help. Bringing ourselves closer to God and recognizing that God is near, and supports and loves us, will remind us that we are not alone, and God loves us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Lori Brandt Hale, “Luke 4.1-13” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 46-48.

[2] Sharon H. Ringe, “Luke 4.1-13” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 45.