SERMON PREACHED BY THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
ON THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
4 MARCH 2001
"Where God's glory flashes"* I: In the Wilderness
"Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." (Luke 4:1)
The congregation will be happy to learn that I have resisted the temptation to watch the TV show, "Temptation Island." In the tradition of "The Survivors" and other shows that appeal to the prurient and voyeuristic instincts of the viewing public, "Temptation Island" is a place onto which planeloads of couples (who I understand are committed to each other but not necessarily married) are dumped and then separated from each other. They are thrown into what we old-fashioned prudes would call compromising situations. Then we assiduously monitor their behavior to see if they will throw caution to the wind, succumb to temptation, and forget about (or at least temporarily abandon) the relationships with the people with whom they arrived. The person who brought me up to speed on the overall plot for "Temptation Island" did not, however, explain to me who "wins." I am not certain if the victors are the ones who have as many affairs as are mathematically possible, or those who withstand the temptation to do so. (I, for one, prefer the old TV show, "Fantasy Island," on which each arrival was marked with the announcement: "De plane, de plane," and in which Ricardo Montalban assisted visitors to paradise in realizing fantasies that could be discussed in polite society, the living out of which always resulted in a clear moral triumph of good over evil.)
In today's Gospel, Jesus is tempted by the Devil, not on Temptation Island or Fantasy Island, but in the wilderness --- in the desert. The Greek word for desert, eremos, has two distinct meanings. One is a place, which while not necessarily arid, is always uninhabited. But the secondary meaning is that of a person who is desolate, deprived of friends and kindred, without community. It is the word from which we get "hermit." So, if we took great liberties with the Greek, we could translate Luke 4:1 as "Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit into the wilderness of his own soul." After his Baptism, Jesus was alone --- no disciples, no John the Baptist, no friends, no retinue, no voice of God booming from a cloud. And it is interesting to note that Jesus does not happen upon the desert, he is led there by the same Spirit by whom he was anointed in his Baptism. His sojourn in the wilderness, then, was not some unforeseen detour, but part of the divine plan.
Luke does not tell us the purpose of this post-Baptism, pre-ministry retreat, but we can imagine that it was a time for Jesus' personal testing of his vocation. Or maybe it was to be like boot camp, a physical and mental preparation or a purification for the rigors ahead. I can identify with this in a way. Thirty years ago, in the weeks that intervened between my graduation from seminary and my ordination as a deacon, I met with my bishop, who announced that he had made arrangements for me to make a pre-ordination retreat at a nearby friary. He told me that I should participate in the community's worship, and spend the rest of the time in prayer, study and --- very difficult for me ---silence. Toward the end of the three days, the bishop said, I should make my confession, for which exercise he strongly suggested I seek the counsel of the abbot. Bishop Sherman knew that I could greatly benefit from this experience of getting my act together before he laid hands on me.
But to be led into the desert of one's soul can be frightening. We are bereft of our usual support systems, the routine that gives some meaning and order to our lives, the people with whom we relate. We are forced to come to grips, perhaps, with who we really are. In this connection, an article in The New York Times last week reported that without the perks, the power, and the pull of the Presidency, Bill Clinton is finding himself more and more isolated. Once almost literally the center of the universe, he is persona non grata to people who were his friends, confidants and supporters just a few months ago. But that, perhaps, is another sermon.
The wilderness, unfamiliar and barren, and in the case of Jesus, devoid of food of any kind, can sap our energies, even distort our perception. It is not too farfetched to imagine that Jesus was in a hallucinatory state. And it is in this state that he is confronted with the Devil's temptations, first to be fed, second to be imbued with power and glory, and third, to be proven and vindicated. But we have to give the devil his due. He has done his homework. Each temptation is a little homily, complete with its own Biblical text. But in St. Luke's Gospel, unlike in "Temptation Island," there is no question as to who the winner is. What comes through loud and clear is how Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, prevails over the devil in the wilderness. He is able to be in a place of vulnerability and confusion, to be weak and hungry, and yet not succumb to the devil's seductions.
If today's Gospel teaches us anything at all, it is that the desert experience, which in many ways finds us at our weakest, can be, nevertheless, a time when we can exhibit great strength. Even our isolation and alienation become places "where God's glory flashes." Yesterday, about a hundred and seventy-five people --- from nearly twenty congregations --- Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Unitarians, Episcopalians --- in the East End and beyond --- thronged the parish hall and shared their experiences around the sin of racism. Both victims and perpetrators confessed to a sense of confusion, to experiencing pain and disorientation. Everyone present confessed to being tempted --- to ignore the problem altogether, to euphemize it to death. Others confessed to being tempted to be oversensitive on the one hand, or grossly insensitive on the other. Then one woman spoke passionately and said that nothing can be done until we allow the Holy Spirit to break our own spirit in order that we can see and do God's will.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we all have our wilderness experiences. And if we are honest, we are frightened most by the wilderness of our own souls, where, perhaps, the greatest temptations exist. Those temptations are not limited, as "Temptation Island" would suggest, to sexual peccadillos. Nor are they limited to the temptations of succumbing to our "-isms" du jour --- racism, sexism, heterosexism --- whose victims vie for attention. Oh, they are bigger than that. The greatest temptations are to ignore the promises we made in our baptism to seek Christ in all persons, and to love our neighbors as ourselves; or to make light of our promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. What we need is a quality of faith that we can carry into the domain of demons so that it we can claim it for the Spirit. What we need is a faith that will enable us, again in the words of the Baptismal covenant, to "renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God."
And if you don't believe in the Devil, take the "d" off, and, in the words of the next promise in the Baptismal service, "renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." And if we don't believe that there are evil powers in the world, we really need a reality check! Perhaps I told you about the time I was invited to officiate at the baptism of a friend's baby, in a parish that will remain nameless. As the rector prepared the parents and godparents for the service, we got to the question: "Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?" the rector announced "We don't say that here. We don't believe in the devil and all that stuff." I was aghast, and I resisted the temptation to initiate charges of heresy against my misguided colleague. It is not surprising, perhaps, that six months later, he left the ministry to become a tennis pro!
Martin Luther certainly believed in the Devil. Nearly half of his great hymn, Ein Feste Burg, is about him. Luther may well have had in mind Jesus' experience in the wilderness when he wrote these words:
And though this world, with devils filled should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us;
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him:
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
*To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent's goal;
But to be led to where God's glory flashes,
His beauty to come near.
Percy Dearmer, The Hymnal 1982, 145, v. 2
**Martin Luther, "A mighty fortress is our God," The Hymnal
1982, 688, v. 3