Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent 1 of Series C (Luke 4:1-13)

It was a glorious day; light streamed through the windows, the birds sang outside, the church was full. I was at the font, and a man in a white robe, a sinner like me, was speaking. “Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways?” The questions came fast and furious, but I knew the answers; of course I renounced them. Who wouldn’t? “Do you desire to be baptized?” There is nothing else that I could ever want. “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Cold water was splashed upon my head, and the heavens were opened; the Spirit descended like a dove, the Father’s voice rang out: “You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased.” There at the font, paradise rested on this earth. The glory shone all around, all I wanted to do was bask in it, to capture that moment and stay in it for the rest of my life. But that vision of glory was quickly shattered. The Spirit, the same Spirit which had come upon me at the font, led me away from the font. I couldn’t stay in the church; the comfort, the safety, the security of God’s house was not where I would remain. Suddenly the birds were no longer singing, suddenly the sun was no longer shining, suddenly what had been a glorious day became very gloomy. I looked around, and all I saw was a wasteland; a land of corruption, without growth, without life, without any of the glory and grace that had filled the font. I looked behind me, hoping to catch a glimpse of the font, one last look, and with a shock, I saw a figure standing right behind me.

He was not terrifying, but all the same, his very appearance gave me a shudder. “Who are you?” I asked. “A counselor,” was his answer. “I am here to help you achieve all that you deserve, if you are truly a child of God.” The ‘if’ was spoken with derision, as if he wasn’t quite sure if what the voice had said was true. To tell the truth, now, out here in the wilderness, I wasn’t so sure myself. He continued: “If you are a child of God, you should have all the good things that this world can offer.” With a wave of his hand, the desert was transformed. I saw piles of money, beautiful women, fast cars; tables laden with food in big houses. My counselor had a knowing smile on his face. “Sure, you’ve had a little water splashed on your head, but what has that earned you? This is where you will see God’s favor, if you truly are His child.” My hungry eyes drank them in; I wanted it all, I wanted it now. “What do I need to do?” He replied, “It’s simple. Seek them above all else, and they are yours; nothing, not God, not your fellow humans, should get in the way. They are your competitors; seek after these things with all your heart, and I promise you, they will be yours.” It was all so easy; and deep down I knew that all He asked me to do was be a human—what was more natural and easy than that? With greedy eyes, I said, “Show me the way.”

At that moment, a hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back. I saw a man before me, a miserable, pathetic man, who had clearly been in the wilderness much longer than I had. His face was covered with weariness; he apparently hadn’t eaten for a very long time. I had never seen such a wretched figure, but yet as I gazed more closely, he had a majesty about him. My counselor had a smirk on his face. “I tempted Adam with an apple, I tempted Israel with the starvation of the desert, but this one, who wasn’t even hungry, fell with hardly any effort, like so many before him. They are so quick to give up on God and seek the things of this world; their minds are driven by lust and greed. What makes this people worth saving?” The hungry man placed himself squarely between me and my counselor. His voice, at least, was still firm: “I stand in their place.” My counselor laughed. With a wave of his hand, the treasures which enticed me were all gone. He pointed to a rock on the wilderness floor. “You have been forty days and nights without food. If you are the Son of God, if what the Father said about you is true, command this stone to become bread.” I somehow knew that this hungry figure had the power to do it; I remembered with shame how easily I had been enticed, and I knew that that he couldn’t withstand these enticing words. But this wretched, hungry, worn down figure stood tall and declared, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”

My counselor’s smile disappeared. He pointed at me and said with a sneer: “Come.” I reluctantly obeyed, leaving the one who had conquered temptation behind me. My counselor asked me, “What is more lasting that treasure? Reputation, fame, glory.” He showed me another vision, this time not of things, but of me in triumph. I saw my name in the paper, on TV and radio, I heard people praising me at coffee and around their kitchen tables. I saw myself running a company, winning awards, having political and social power, exerting my influence in the community and in the church. I heard my parents praising how I had done so much better than my siblings; I saw myself as the most popular person at school, at work, among my friends. My counselor smiled. “If you are a child of God, then you should have status, power and glory above everyone else, because you already know that you’re better than them.” He was right, I did know that I was better, and now was the chance to prove it. My voice could barely disguise my hunger: “How?” I asked. He replied, “Make yourself a god. Put your own needs above the needs of everyone else. Crawl over others, leave them in the dust. Seek yourself, worship yourself, and all this will be yours.” I wanted it all; what else could I say: “I’m ready to live for myself.”

I was at the cusp of achieving everything I had ever wanted, but then the hungry, weary man came between me and my counselor again. He seemed as weak as ever, but yet had found the strength to come among us once again. My counselor pointed at me: “They all love glory, they all want to be gods; this temptation worked on Eve, and it hasn’t failed since. Humans will always worship themselves, never you or your Father. I tell you, Jesus, there is nothing worth saving here!” Jesus spoke: “I stand in this one’s place; I stand in place of all of them.” Without a word, my counselor took us up a high mountain and showed Jesus a grand vision, all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; all authority, all power, all glory. “All this is yours if you worship me.” I can’t be sure, but think I saw an alternate vision going on at the same time: this vision was of beatings, horrible scourging, and the ominous sign of a cross. Jesus paused, as if considering the two options; I had given in when presented with all the glory that Kiron/Deloit Iowa had to offer—how could He resist all the glory of this world? But then He stood tall and said, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’”

My counselor’s anger could hardly be contained. He pointed at me and commanded, “Come!” And we left the triumphant Jesus behind us. He said to me, “I’m sure you know that being God’s child is a marvelous thing! The gospel is so wonderful, so beautiful, because His forgiveness covers every sin. If you are truly a child of God, then you can live your life exactly how you want to.” I will admit, I was intrigued by this change of tone, this offer of being God’s child without having the hassle of actually changing my life. With a trace of skepticism, I asked, “How?” He replied, “God’s grace is greater than your sin, any sin. So sin first, and ask for forgiveness later! You can do whatever you want, as long as you remember to repent the next day—you can even stay away from worship as much as you want to, as long as you get around to asking for forgiveness before you die. You see, God has given you a license to sin, because He has the get out of jail free card!” That sounded pretty good, and hey, I was living by grace, I was relying on God, wasn’t I? I replied, “Give me that kind of life!”

My eagerness was shattered by a booming voice: “Leave him, Satan! I stand in His place!” Jesus stood there, his hunger and weakness remaining, but yet still with that hidden majesty that seemed to never leave Him. Satan, my counselor, took us to the very pinnacle of Jerusalem’s temple. He said, “God loves you, Jesus; you are His only-begotten Son. He would never allow harm to befall you. Throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” This seemed to be simply an invitation to trust God’s love and grace; at least that is what I thought when I had given in just a moment ago. But Jesus looked Satan in the eye and declared, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

I looked up, and Satan was gone, leaving only Jesus, Jesus alone. He had conquered each of Satan’s temptations, He conquered where I so easily had failed, to my shame. He looked at me not with anger, but with eyes full of grace and love and said, “Come.” We left the temple and Jerusalem, and stood upon a low, rocky hill. His voice said to me, “All of this is for you, it was all done in your place, to forgive you when you fail. I was obedient where you were disobedient, so that you would be mine for eternity.” I looked beside me to speak a word of thanksgiving to my Lord, but Jesus was no longer there. Where did He go? Then I heard a familiar voice, the voice of my counselor: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” There, ahead of me, on the crest of the hill, was Jesus, hanging upon a cross, and my counselor, Satan, giving one last temptation. Jesus, weary, weakened, and dying, simply looked to heaven and declared in reply to his words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Then with all His remaining strength He cried, “It is finished!” Satan fell to his knees, crushed, defeated, triumphed over. But for me, and all who believed, there was victory, victory sealed by an empty tomb, for where I failed, where you failed, Christ won the victory, and He won it for you and me. To Him be glory, praise, and thanksgiving, now and forever! Amen.

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