030622 Lent 1 Facing Temptation to Reveal True Stories

The sermon begins at minute 20:25 of the video

Deut. 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

       We come to the story of Jesus’ temptations this year with a renewed awareness of war – especially the war in Ukraine, but also the cultural wars going on in our own country. In times of war, truth is often the first casualty. There is the official version of the Ukraine war offered by Russian media to the Russian people, and the version that is somehow reaching the protesters in the country; the versions circulating in Ukraine itself, and the versions in countries as diverse as Canada and Cuba, Norway and Nicaragua, France and Venezuela. In the US there is the version broadcast by conservative media, the version given by the government, and many versions circulating among different interest groups. We also hear cries of “stop the steal”, and reports of “the big lie.” We see a governor rebuking high school students for wearing masks, and we hear scientists trying to reduce complex facts into sound bites. We read about states banning books, and libraries and bookstores stocking their shelves with those books.

     All these versions of truth emerge from different stories. Sometimes they are the personal stories of leaders who dictate those versions to their people. What stories from Vladimir Putin’s life led him to start this war? There are stories of countries and shared histories between countries. We know from recent history that Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union. But what other stories offer insights into the full truth of the current war?

      In today’s temptation story, Jesus and Satan had very different versions of Israel’s history. The three moments chosen from that history revealed choices that always face us. The first temptation refers to the wilderness wanderings. Manna, quail, and water from the rock – Satan remembered them as miracle stories about a magical god who will always take care of us; Jesus saw them as trials that evoke humility for people whose priority must always be every word that comes out of God’s mouth. The second temptation recalls the moment of settledness in the promised land. What Deuteronomy refers to as a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant, Satan remembered as an assurance that we have a guaranteed right to all the kingdoms of the world; for Jesus, they remind us that God liberated us from slavery and is the only source of life and goodness, so God is the only one we should worship and serve. The third temptation points to David’s desire to build the temple. The temple as God’s dwelling place among the people can be remembered as the gift that David wanted to give to God to provide certainty that God belongs to us and should do what we say, and proof that the people were entitled to a beautiful temple; or it can remind us that we belong to God, that we walk by faith, and don’t need more certainty than that to face life.

   Stories always offer us choices. It’s tempting to go along with the choices our peers make – whether they listen to MSNBC or Fox. Reflecting on the news in light of our personal and national history may lead us to different conclusions than our peers. In this time of fake news, alternative facts, and algorithms that reinforce our ideas, whether true or false, we must confront the temptation to conform by remembering our stories.

      Jesus chose to face temptation head on. He went straight from his baptism, where he heard a voice that named him beloved, to the wilderness, where none but God, beasts, and the tempter dwelt. When we believe that God put us on earth to do something important and uniquely ours, it is essential to face upfront the ways we will be tempted to take short cuts to accomplish that mission. Sometimes we believe that we lack what is necessary to succeed; or that the container for what we most need to carry out the mission is empty; or that the gifts needed are simply not there. All those beliefs make us susceptible to temptation.

   The scriptures tell us that those empty places are where God dwells. We won’t accomplish our mission by filling that emptiness with clever strategies or more relevant gifts. We often use those things to fill a place that belongs to God alone. The hollowness we feel isn’t a sign of something gone wrong. I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor describes it: it’s the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we’re tempted to stick a pacifier into our mouth and suck for all we are worth. It doesn’t nourish us, but at least it plugs the hole.

   I believe that is what’s going on in some of today’s culture wars and cancel culture strategies. The recent spate of book banning and forbidding teachers to teach about racism in American history reveals this. To prohibit books and ideas because they disturb us is to offer moral pacifiers instead of moral nourishment. We must name that distortion. Jesus did that by telling stories. Telling stories is being prohibited to save an illusion. Jesus wants to explode the illusion to make room for liberating truth. After telling the story of his baptism, Luke traced the genealogy of Jesus through David, Jacob, Noah, Adam and God. Jesus knew who he was because he had been taught all those stories of his ancestors, and had them at his fingertips to draw on in the midst of temptation. He had heard about their successes and their failures, and understood that both were a part of life.  

        I remember how impacted I was when I first heard today’s passage from Deuteronomy in an Old Testament class in seminary. The professor drew attention to the power of a story known to a whole nation. Every year at the festival of first fruits, each pilgrim recited that story to the priest who received their offering: A wandering Aramean was my father, who went down into Egypt. To refer to Jacob as a wandering Aramean was a radical statement when spoken in a settled land of Israel. Jacob was revered by the Israelites. It was true that he was a wandering Aramean; but it was a jolting, disturbing truth. And that was the point. It would be like calling George Washington a young rebel rather than President and soldier. It was meant to jolt them into an awareness of their history, when some memories may have faded.  

       Some of you may have noticed that I modified that passage in today’s reading: My ancestors were wandering Arameans; they went down into Egypt plural rather than singular; gender-inclusive rather than masculine. It’s a more accurate depiction of what happened, because it was not a solitary man who went to Egypt. It was a large family. In a patriarchal culture it was enough to speak of the father to describe the whole family. But when we break out of our cultural blinders, the truth can be broadened and made more precise

   The first Sunday of Lent always includes the temptations, inviting us to reexamine the stories of our lives and times and make the necessary corrections. I’ve been doing a lot of dream work with my therapist. After I tell her about my dream, she often identifies a place where I might have made a different choice. She then invites me to make a correction to the dream through visualization. At the part where I didn’t act in the most healthy manner, I make the correction by acting differently in the dream. That’s one way to correct stories in our lives. Another is a variation on the Ignatian examen. Before going to bed, we can sit and remember the day, event by event. As we do, we think about ways we wish we had behaved instead of the way we did. We make those corrections in our imagination. Both practices are ways of creating new patterns in our brains, so we can make different choices next time.

   Lent is a perfect time to engage some of these practices to bring transformation and renewal in our lives and in our world. May you have a holy Lent.