By Rev. Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
1st Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Let us pray. Gracious God, when we crave quick fixes and easy comfort, feed us on your word instead. When we desire control and power, give us trust instead. When we want popularity, give us your purpose instead. And Lord, uplift me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Today let’s get into this text. All the way in. Perhaps differently than we do normally when we study or observe or… pray soundly. If the church is the body of Christ, really the body of Christ, then imagine the text from Luke sounding like this:
There she was, the church. The church was still damp from her baptism, still humming the melodies “And he walks with me and he talks with me…. And he tells me I am his own….” Her voice crackling a little. But she didn’t care that her hair was messy and her voice crackly because she knew she was beloved, anointed by the Spirit, and that made her glad. Sometimes she thought about doing a liturgical dance, but part of her wasn’t too into ribbons these days. Now that choir, those hymns, opened up in her a holy place, a portal to heaven. And she found she could comfort the sick and feed hungry people and grow strong and weather all kinds of hard things and not grow weary even after thousands of years. She sang, “Lead me Lord,” and lifted her hands up in praise. And the spirit of the Lord led her.
But even as she followed, the terrain around her began to change. Suddenly, the crowds were gone. Her mouth felt dry, and it got harder to sing out loud. Her tools, all those books and maps and lectures from before, they all felt obsolete. The church found herself in the wilderness, but not the glamorous kind that made her feel brave and cutting edge and sinewy and tan like ole what’s his face, Charlton Heston. It was the bewildering kind of wilderness, where things felt confusing and full of extremes. The days were too hot. The nights were too cold. There was music, but it was extreme too. Too loud. Too slow. There was light, but it was either full blast or incredibly dim. There were scandals and all kinds of ugliness. The coffee and the sermons were either trying too hard or somewhat bitter. She amused herself with the coffee metaphor, but then she felt old and lost and incredibly hungry.
Just then, a stunning young devil strolled up to her. “Oh honey,” she said, “You look awful. You’ve got to get some new families in here quick. Gotta turn those sermons into pledging units. Tell people whatever they want to hear and make them smile. Turn those thorny topics into a nice warm loaf of whateverism. You know that song: “Talk less, smile more, never let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” People don’t want all those moans, groans and gall stones. They want a quick hit from an agreeable God who is mad at the same people they’re mad at. So, deliver the goods, my dear, and the babies and bucks and clicks and likes will flood in. Feed yourself, church, please, for the love of God. Call it… self-care. At least take the edge off all the grief you’ve been carrying. It’s like manna, right?” She beamed. Slid the church a business card. “Your Best Church Now: In Three Easy Steps.”
The church saw the subtitles …. They read: Quick comfort, quick control, quick power.
But for some reason she refused. We do not live on bread alone, she said. Nor budgets nor babies nor buildings. We are birthed from the very breath of God and we subsist on the food of grace at that table right there. We pattern our lives after the one who came to serve, not to be served, and gave his life for many. And our God knows our hunger, better than we do, in fact. And God knows what it is like to go without. Better a scrap from Christ’s table than gorging on what will make us unrecognizable to ourselves.
Well, the sharp devil came back again. “Goodness,” she said. “You are strident. No wonder people are turned off. And last I checked, your sermons and programs and twangy hymns really have not changed the world. Poverty and warfare and this coronavirus are doing pretty well these days. And, how low are your numbers now? You could do a lot more good and get a lot more funding if you washed those controversial crosses off of things and just became a non-profit. And, if you had a lick of strategy, you’d know that you could sway far more political leaders if you went all in on one side or the other. Aren’t you sick of losing? Is it cold up there on the moral high ground? You have got to throw your weight around if you want people to care who you are. Gotta be wise as a serpent, right? Isn’t that in the Bible? If you don’t get in the game soon, there won’t be a church left to save.”
Again, the church shook her head. She squinted her eyes and heard herself quote from the Book of Order. “The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” The devil rolled her eyes.
Finally, the devil laughed playfully and put her arm around the church. “The Book of Order. That’s cute. Let’s take a walk.” Up they went to the top of the world. “You got me. I’m seriously impressed. And you’re adorable when you’re feisty. I think if we work together, there is nothing stopping us. What do you want? Prestige among the young people again? You want to be the hero of movies or viral TED talks? Want sermons in the newspapers? What do you want: The White House? The earth? Let’s do this! All I ask is one small thing: your loyalty. If someone disagrees with me, I want you to go after them, ok? Tell them how morally awful they are, call them a wretch, whatever it takes, you take them down. We have to stick together.”
The church turned on her heels to march away. She slipped, scraped her elbow, felt the sting, a dash of blood, then felt a deep muscle memory helping her get back up. “Depart from me. You distort our scriptures. You divorce our living from its Source, from life itself. And your ways are not our ways. We bless our enemies. We don’t curse them. We find strength in our weakness and we find blessings in brokenness that you could never understand. We are not afraid of being poor because that is when we are closest to our God. We are not afraid of a mess because we came from the dirt and God makes beautiful things from the dust of the earth. You know what — You might even bury us…. but guess what – know this too. We are seeds, tossed in every direction by a God of resurrection and new life. We grow in broken sidewalks and broken lives. We bloom in deserts. And in the dark… in wombs and tombs… that’s where we grow the fastest. We’re already promised to someone else.”
So the devil walked away. And the church started to sing again. And sat down at a crowded table.