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Mar. 1, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Mar 1, 2020 in Lent, Sermons

The First Sunday in Lent

March 1, 2020

Sermon: The Saving Face of God

Episcopal author Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a doting grandfather who brings his two-year-old grandson into the pool for the first time.  Like many toddlers this boy is a handful, thrashing mightily and demanding to be let go to paddle for himself.  As Grandpa resolutely holds on, the boy impulsively scoops up armfuls of water, and swooshes them toward the old man’s face. But he misjudges the distance, and ends up slapping his grandfather’s cheek. Oh no! Silence…then comes the roar of indignation as Grandpa jerks back and holds the beloved boy at arm’s length.

The child has never heard his grandfather’s voice bellow like this, has never felt frightened or hurt in these great loving arms.  Now, in the shock of this moment, the innocent bond between the two of them splits open, and things will never be quite the same again.  Between stepping into the pool and stepping out again, the boy has lost his youthful innocence.

Heard against the background of this story, the Bible’s account of Eden hits home in a new way.  A loving father creates a luxuriant setting for mutual enjoyment. God provides rich soil, lush and well-watered vegetation, living creatures of all kinds, and even human beings, who share a strong family resemblance to him.  God exults over how good this abundant sharing is.  But of course he won’t permit the humans to get in over their heads. He restrains them from grappling with the one great tree whose fruit will overwhelm them: the tree whose tempting harvest destroys human innocence by making people resistant to trusting God. “You can be like God,” the serpent hisses. “You can decide on your own what is good for you.” It is this heady overreach for forbidden fruit that disrupts the abundant sharing; things will never be quite the same again.  We know in our hearts this story is true, not because we have amassed prehistoric evidence for Eden.  We don’t need to, because we humans act like little gods every day, whenever we willfully disregard the boundaries and expectations God has set.   Original Sin, theologians call it, the seemingly irresistible impulse to hurl the pool water into God’s face.

In the New Testament Paul’s letters put the dilemma this way: death takes hold of our innocence whenever we sin, and the pollution grows toxic and contagious.  I selfishly play fast and loose with somebody else’s welfare, and you see me do it, and suddenly it seems somehow okay.  I’ve corrupted you. And the people and situations that you and I go on to spoil are now sullied, just as we have been sullied.  Overreaching comes to be taken for granted, everybody does it.  The serpent just keeps whispering that all of us can keep acting like this, and everything will be okay. This is a bold-faced lie, because Satan fails to mention the ultimate roar of indignation that will be issuing from God, along with that jolting, arm’s length thrust away from him. He loves us too much to look the other way while we trade our holy innocence for willful ignorance, like a bunch of impulsive two-year-olds.

We twenty-first century Christians encounter a big challenge in taking this lesson to heart.  Although our world is saturated with sin, the serpent has indoctrinated us for so long, that corruption has come to feel normal. One way to tell that’s the case is to have computers calculate how often the word “sin” ever appears in our publications.  It turns out “sin” has been progressively disappearing from our conversations for over 200 years. Today we virtually never use the word. We just don’t do guilt. Out of sight, out of mind. Of course we continue to suffer for our sins, but by now we have grown adept at blaming circumstances, or accusing others of tripping us up, or more commonly simply denying that a problem even exists.  Nothing to see here.  Our redemption comes when something breaks our habit of editing reality to flatter our egos, and we realize that the very scriptures we don’t like to hear—the roar of God’s indignation over our sinfulness, the thrust of his loving hands pushing us back to arm’s length—these scriptures have actually been written for the salvation of our souls.

Lent comes round each year to reopen our eyes to such crucial things. Lent leads us into coming clean about our own role in life’s adversities and catastrophes.  For instance, today’s Gospel shows us how Jesus reacts when the serpent tempts him to overreach and play God.  Satan approaches as Jesus is physically drained, following weeks of fasting in the wilderness.  Satan decides to distract Jesus from experiencing the full impact of his spiritual discipline.  He urges Jesus to turn his faith toward the instant gratification of fresh-baked loaves.  Famished as he is, Jesus is probably tempted to do that, but he chooses instead to trust the scriptures to script his response.  “One does not live by bread alone,” he tells Satan, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The devil is not easily put off, so he draws Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the very heights of its noble pinnacle.  He gestures grandly to the pavement below, where the faithful scurry back and forth offering their prayers and fulfilling their pledges to God.  Wouldn’t it be the perfect reward for those worshippers to see Jesus step off into thin air, surrounded by angels swooping down and breaking his fall?  Satan is right, miracles always do turn people’s heads.  But for a second time Jesus trusts scripture to script his response. He tells Satan, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

By now Satan is really steamed.  Frankly, he is used to having his own way with people. If the example Jesus sets is allowed to stand, there’s no telling how much headway he will make in leading all these humans back to the Father. The devil now stakes everything on his greatest subterfuge, that is using something very good to accomplish something very evil.  He sees that Jesus is totally devoted to leading us all back to God, so Satan sets out to short circuit that process.  He draws Jesus to the highest point in the Holy Land, and gestures expansively outward to the vastness of earthly kingdoms waiting to be won for God.  Jesus can gain sway over all of them, instantly, Satan says.  No long years of wandering town to town living off handouts.  No arguing with enemies.  No grueling trial and crucifixion.  No time in the tomb.  He can convert the world to himself instantly, if only he will vow in the end not to reunite this earth with God’s heaven.  For a third and final time, Jesus trusts scripture to script his response. “Away with you Satan!,” he bellows, “for it is written ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’”

Three strikes and Satan’s out—for now. He sulks away and angels arrive.  The possibility is born anew that all of us might turn back toward God together, and this time get things right.  Today’s the day to take up that trek. Welcome to Lent. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.