Sunday, March 05, 2017

Temptations Made Just for Jesus and Just for Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 5, 2017

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Temptations Made Just for Jesus and Just for Us
            You know, just like everybody, I guess, it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in my own stuff – easy to spend too much time in the office, easy to not pay attention as I make my way around the city, lost in my own thoughts and plans and concerns, not really seeing what’s going on around me.
            As you’ve heard me say before, I really do try to be mindful, but all too often I give into the temptation to look away and no longer see the world around me, no longer see the people passing me on the street as beloved children of God.
            But, every once in a while, I’m forced to pay attention.
            As we have for the past few years, on Ash Wednesday we offered “Ashes to Go” over at McGinley Square.
            Thankfully, this year it wasn’t too cold – and maybe that helped me really see the people passing by – the many people trudging their way to work or school, and not looking very happy about it, not one bit.
            We could see the people hitting the bottle (or maybe something stronger and even more dangerous) first thing in the morning and well on their way to a daylong stupor.
            Lots of people ignored us while some gave us a second look, looking at Rev. Gary, Vanessa, and me – wondering what we were doing there or maybe dimly remembering a long ago time when Ash Wednesday meant something.
            And, there were the people who were delighted – and in some cases quite surprised - to see us, people who wanted that smudge of a cross on their foreheads, who wanted the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return – the reminder that we depend on God for every breath.
            Spending a couple of hours at McGinley Square, I was struck by how rough it is – the heavy traffic passing through that confusing intersection with drivers blaring their horns and running the light, pedestrians crossing wherever they like, desperate people begging for change, people drunk or high, and lots of litter, bottles rolling and paper blowing in the wind.
            It’s not the desert or the forest, but like many parts of our city it is a kind of wilderness – just like many parts of our city, it’s a wilderness filled with temptations, temptations made just for us.
            Last Sunday we heard the story of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop experience for Jesus and his friends, a foretaste of Easter, a preview of love defeating hate, of life defeating death.
            But, today on the First Sunday in Lent, we back up to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – or, actually, just before the beginning.
            Jesus has been just been baptized, heard the voice of God reveal who he is, and now we’re told that the Spirit has led him to the wilderness for forty days of fasting, a miniature Exodus, when a starving and exhausted Jesus will face temptations, temptations made just for him.
            You know, Satan the tempter is quite skilled at coming up with temptations that hit our vulnerabilities and since Satan is well aware of who Jesus is, he comes up with temptations perfectly suited for the famished Son of God.
            Come on, just make bread and feed yourself!
            Come on, throw yourself from the Temple and show everybody that you really are the Son of God!
            Come on, you can be a real king, ruler of all the earth!
            But, of course, unlike God’s people in the desert and unlike us all too often, Jesus the Son of God is able to resist these temptations – and, I’m sure he faced and resisted other temptations throughout his ministry, temptations to turn away from his path, temptations to just live like everybody else and let someone else proclaim God’s Kingdom and suffer the consequences.
            But, instead, Jesus chooses to offer bread to others, chooses life over death, and, as St. Paul writes to the church in Rome, that makes all the difference for Jesus and it makes all the difference for us.
            Yet, Evil is still very much at work in the world, well aware of who we are and able to come up with temptations perfectly suited for us.
            Come on, forget about school or your dead end job and join those guys on the corner, make easy money dealing poison in our neighborhood!
            Come on, life is hard, a couple of drinks in the morning won’t hurt, they’ll just take the edge off!
            Come on, the people who disagree with you, who see things differently, they must be evil or just plain stupid!
            Come on, you know there’s not enough for everybody, so grab as much as you can, look out for number one, be a winner not a loser!
            Come on, you know that this person – or this type of person – is the source of all our problems so just pick on them, just get rid of them, and then everything will be just fine!
            Come on, don’t bother looking for beauty in this world, don’t waste your time looking for God in the people walking past you on the sidewalk or sitting next to you in traffic, or beside you on the bus; suffering and drudgery and ugliness is all that there is!
            Come on, you know that you’re not worth much of anything, that you’re not smart enough or good looking enough or lovable enough, so don’t bother hoping for anything good in your life!
            Come on, you know that hate beats love and death defeats life, every time!
            Yes, Evil is on the loose, still hard at work.
            But, although Satan is skilled at coming up with temptations made just for us, the truth is that when you peel away the particular details, it’s actually always the same temptation: give into despair and just live like so many of the people out there.
            For Jesus, the temptation really was to use his power for his own glory and benefit, to be just like so many rulers of the world, past and present.
            And for us, the temptation is to live like the guys on the corners or the unhappy-looking people trudging their way to work, or the addicted opening a bottle first thing in the morning, or, so many people without hope and without love.
            Today is the First Sunday in Lent. We began a journey on Ash Wednesday. We’ve silenced the “a word,” we’ve covered up or put away the shiny stuff, we’ve shifted our focus to confession and repentance.
            It’s Lent here in church – and, in a lot of ways, it feels like it’s been Lent out in the world for a long time – but, we know that this journey is going to lead us to the cross, where we see God’s love for us so clearly - and we know that this journey will bring us to the empty tomb and new life of Easter.
            We know that we’ll face many temptations, temptations made just for us, temptations at home, in our neighborhoods, at school or work, out in McGinley Square, on the bus and in traffic.
            We may be ready give up in despair and live like so many others, but today we’re reminded that Jesus has been in the wilderness. He’s been down this way before.
            And, Jesus continues to walk beside us, strengthening us to resist temptation, and, yes, he is always quick to forgive when we slip up.
             There are plenty of temptations made just for us, but we know that, in the end, life defeats death and love conquers hate.
            Yes, it may be Lent, but, actually, it’s already Easter.