“For Forty Days”

Date: March 10, 2019/Speaker: Jon Hauerwas

For Forty Days

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 and Luke 4:1-13

My father has always appreciated cars. When I was a child, there were many times when he would take me to a car lot to look at the new models. On these trips, I always knew that he wasn’t buying anything. Because when my parents bought a car, they drove it for as long as they were able. It was the practical thing to do. Whatever their income or job title, they were not interested in pouring their resources into a depreciating asset.

In Greek, there are three different words for love. William Greenway reminds us that eros describes the “love of one’s desires for oneself.” [1] “There is nothing wrong with eros,” he adds, “with having and fulfilling one’s own desires for, say, food, shelter, safety, sex, music, sport, or even social recognition and respect.” However, eros is “oriented to oneself” and, taken alone, “is isolating.” [2]

It is not news for me to say that our culture is awash in stuff. And yet, if these things could make us happy, then why are so many of us anxious and depressed? Studies suggest that while we are initial excited following a new purchase, that excitement will quickly fade. This is true even if the purchase is as significant as a house or a car.

So I had a good laugh, earlier this week, when I was driving in my own, base model sedan with hand crank windows and a few tears in the upholstery, and an advertisement for a car dealership came on the radio. The marketer said, “If the spark is gone, then it’s time to move on. Come and buy a car with us.”

My parents purchased my current vehicle for me in 2004. At the time, I was a full-time graduate student. And while it did have that new car smell when they drove it off the lot, that was 15 years ago. Today, if my car fell a part, I could probably find a way to work another one into my budget. In fact, I suppose that I would have to. But, my car is paid for. It continues to meet all of my needs, and I have no intention to purchase a new one anytime soon.

That advertisement on the radio was so amusing to me because it was pure eros. I mean, just imagine how your life would turn out if you applied that logic to your relationships or your job, for example. “If the spark is gone, then it’s time to move on.” Some of you have been married for 30, or 40, or 50 years. Today, things are certainly different than they were when you were engaged or during the first year of your marriage.

My point is this: if we value passion above everything else, then we will likely overindulge in unhealthy foods. We will speed everywhere we go. We will job hop constantly. And we will end our relationships as soon as they transition from new and exciting to comfortable and reliable. As you all know well, an important part of maturity and growth is managing our desires so that our days can be joyful, yes, but also within the bounds of personal responsibility.

Today marks the first Sunday of Lent, and we find a familiar gospel lesson. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Most sermons on this passage go something like this. Jesus was human. Like us, he was tempted and faced some terrible trials. But, he prayed and resisted. Therefore, as his disciples, and with Jesus as our guide, we are now called to go and do likewise.

There is nothing wrong with this interpretation. In fact, I’m sure that I have said the same things in year’s past. But, this year, I want to focus on a different part of this lesson – the very first verse, which just might make us uncomfortable. Jesus has been baptized. His earthly ministry is beginning. And the text tells us that he “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”

Think about that for a moment. In the Bible, the wilderness is not a forest. Neither is it “a vast expanse of sand with the occasional cactus or tumbleweed.” Instead, as James Howell explains, it is a rocky, daunting landscape filled “with cliffs and caves.” The wilderness is “the haunt of wild beasts. People avoided the place, believing demons and evil spirits ranged there” and that predators lurked just around the corner. [3]

“Jesus chose to go there – or, as Luke strangely tells us, was led there by the Spirit.” But, if this is the case, that the Holy Spirit can lead us into dangerous places, then why do we so often believe that our journey with God will always be “smooth,” and “comfortable,” and “pleasant”? [4] Each Sunday, we offer the words of the Lord’s Prayer and say, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The implication here is two-fold. First, evil is real. And, secondly, God is capable of leading us into situations where evil and temptation abound.

Now, I imagine that there are many working definitions of sin among us. imagined.  But, I am drawn to this comment from Stanley Hauerwas who writes, “we tend to think of sin as something we do, but sin is more like a power that possesses us.” [5] After all, “the Bible says that Satan often ‘disguises himself as an angel of light,’” which may help to explain why painters like Titian and Tintoretto “portrayed the devil as a strikingly handsome, innocent-looking young man.” [6]

Friends, evil is real. We know this. We sense it. We feel it. We’ve even participated in it. But, while we all grapple with the reality of evil, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that evil, and sin, and death are ultimately “defeated” at the time of his resurrection. [7]

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t avoid temptation, he leans into it. And turns a place of weakness into a place of strength. Following his successful response to his own, forty day trial, Jesus regularly returns to the wilderness as a place of prayerful reprieve. Scripture says that “he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” The wilderness, in other words, “becomes a sanctuary for God’s agent, providing an escape for rejuvenation and assurance.” [8]

Part of our earthly journey involves coming to grips with the very real evil that is all around us. This, specifically, is the spiritual work of Lent, as we observe those powers which threaten to possess us, name them for what they are, and recognize that the Spirit of God may have even led us there in order that we might be strengthened, shaped, and molded for the journey ahead. May it be so and all thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Ed. Joel B. Green, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 5.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2019, “Repentance: A Lenten Meditation,” 39.

[6] Will Willimon, Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year C, Part 1, (Abingdon Press, 2018), 183.

[7] Ibid., 187.

[8] Ibid., 36.

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