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Work in Progress
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 7, 2019
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A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 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, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
The most ambitious Lenten discipline I ever undertook was to give up refined sugar. It was my senior year in seminary; I was moving into Lent with a group of classmates who were encouraging each other to treat this time with some serious deliberation — and, also, I was eating too many sweets, so my thought was that Lent would be a time to set the sugar aside. Granted that it’s hard to police sugar too much — maybe it shows up in a slice of sandwich bread or in a spot of ketchup; I wasn’t going to get lost in the weeds. But the obvious sweets were out. No breakfast muffins. No morning chai lattes. No lunchtime Dr. Pepper. No after-dinner cookie. Starting on Ash Wednesday.
And then the day after Ash Wednesday, it being my senior year of seminary, I got a phone call from a church I’d been talking to inviting me to come visit for an interview weekend, which would be only a few weeks out. Of course I said yes, and eagerly. And then I began to wonder. How do you stay off refined sugar and go to a church interview at the same time? Is such a thing even possible? I mean, this was a small-town church search committee — they were going to put me up, they were for sure going to host me for meals, few and far between is the church meal that doesn’t have some refined sugar on the table, and of course the meal is part of the interview. I wanted to tell them instead, up front. I’m avoiding refined sugar for Lent, but honestly, the words on my mouth sounded just a little pious, which I get is sort of not maybe something that a pastor should worry about in a job interview but here we are. Instead I think I soft-pedaled it. I let them know before I got on the plane. “I’m trying to avoid sugar for Lent,” I said.
By time I got there it was just about where we are now, the fifth weekend of Lent, and by time I went on that trip I was thriving in my sugar-free reality. I felt great. I felt healthy. And of course Lent was almost over, I had almost run the race. And then of course I got into town and of course someone on the search committee had us all over for dinner and out comes the church supper staples, out comes the barbecue, out comes the potato salad, out comes the slaw, out come the greens, and maybe there was some sugar in the sauce somewhere but it wasn’t obvious and I had plausible deniability which is all I was really concerned about. And then all those dishes went away and somebody brought out dessert. Now, when you have given up refined sugar, dessert is not really a category option anymore, at least nothing more complicated than a banana. Which is what they had. It was a banana. It was a banana that had been made into a cream pie. It was a banana cream pie. And they said “well, we know you were trying to avoid sugar for Lent, but we thought surely you’d still want some pie.”
Which was true. I did want some pie. Never have truer words been spoken. And because I wanted some pie, I started trying to fix the theology of this thing real quick. I mean, my deciding to give up sugar for Lent was surely not the same thing as what God was doing in my life for me and perhaps God really was calling me to pastor that church and if that were true and if they have gone to the trouble of producing this pie for this moment I mean who am I to get in the way of what God is doing here at this table and if I turn down the pie in the name of my own Lenten discipline isn’t there some decent chance that I’m putting my own needs in front of God’s needs and even if we’re not sure isn’t that too high a risk to take and by time I finished having that thought I had also finished a very good slice of pie. I don’t know whether God really wanted me to have it or not. I don’t know whether God really had much of an opinion on it one way or the other. I do know that this Lenten discipline stuff isn’t always as clear-cut as it seems in the stories.
All Lent long we have been hearing these Lenten stories, forty-day stories from throughout scripture, and today here on the last regular Sunday of Lent we are circling back to the foundational forty-day story that very often starts the season of Lent and which by all accounts helped create the forty-day season of Lent in the church calendar in the first place, namely, of course, the forty days that Jesus spends in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. And at first glance this story has a sort of wonderful simplicity about it. It feels conjured from some fairy tale — the evil spirit whisks Jesus away and the two of them spend forty days going round and round the wilderness together, one-on-one, a sort of old west standoff with two cosmic powers staring each other down, Satan offering him these irresistible temptations, these opportunities to showcase the power of the almighty, these moments in which he might delight and relish in the ego-trip of being God walking around among mortals.
But of course Jesus says no. Jesus is newly baptized by John the Baptist with the power of the Holy Spirit during which God appears and blessed Jesus for his ministry which is to say that Jesus is riding a particularly strong wave of cosmic power into this confrontation and there was never any way that the story was going to let him lose. What’s more, the character of Satan that we meet here — for the first time in Luke’s gospel, — the character of Satan seems not to be playing with a full deck. The temptations that he offers are actually not that clever. They almost precisely evoke key pieces of Jewish law that Jesus would already know well from his time in the temple. It’s like some Sunday morning when we have a baptism and you all promise to help raise this child in the faith of the church and then, hypothetically, Satan walks up to you in the courtyard and says “Hey, how’d you like to not raise that child in the faith of the church?” and I think you’d say no but I also think you’d wonder why Satan hadn’t been a little more creative with the temptation. It’s a little on the nose. It doesn’t work if the search committee comes up and says “Hey, can we offer you some refined sugar for dessert?” It needs artistry.
So Jesus wins this round. Of course. It was never a fair fight, despite appearances, and despite the time Luke spends giving this whole thing the air of suspense. Jesus gets all the questions right, which only confirms for Luke’s audience that he does in fact have what it takes to be the Messiah, but if you weren’t sure, the last line wraps it up — now, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, goes back to Galilee and the news about him spreads everywhere. But of course the problem is, even in profound defeat, Satan doesn’t entirely go away, either. Luke says that he withdraws until an opportune time. Luke has a few references to Satan that will dot the subsequent chapters, and a few demons that get cast out along the way. Whatever you make of these characters they never quite leave the peripheral vision of Luke’s storytelling. And then when the time is opportune Satan comes back in much better disguise, as Luke relates that Satan enters into the disciple named Judas Iscariot, and so begins a much more creative, if not entirely pleasant, sort of temptation.
All of which is to say that nothing really finishes in our text for today. This wilderness story doesn’t really accomplish much of anything, if I’m honest. It’s all just preview, coming attractions for the conflict yet to come, and like any preview it doesn’t tell an entirely true story about what actually to expect. It makes all of this virtue look just a little easier than it is. It makes all of this goodness look just a little easier than it is. Everything wraps up so nicely, except that it doesn’t, except that the real conflict between Jesus and Satan in Luke’s Gospel is only just beginning, and however you respond when we start talking about Satan or demons or any of these characterizations, whatever you think of the storytelling decisions that Luke makes, I think what feels to me profoundly honest about this moment in the text particularly here as Lent veers towards its own conclusion is that none of this ever really ends. Just because the forty days are over. The story keeps going.
Which is what I was thinking about lying in bed that night, with the sugary after-effects of banana cream pie pulsing through my arteries. I felt like I had let myself down, of course. I felt like I had failed at something important. And what made it particularly frustrating was that I had gotten so close. This wasn’t cream pie forty-eight hours into a Lenten discipline and okay maybe that discipline wasn’t a good idea in the first place. This was five weeks in, so close to the end, almost as if — hear me out here — almost as if somehow if I had made it to Easter Sunday without refined sugar that somehow my dietary existence would have been permanently and irrevocably fixed. Like there was some finish line beyond which sugar would have no claim on me. Which sounds batty when you say it out loud. Of course none of our demons ever quite go away for good. Instead we all talk to them every day. Every one of these forty days and all the ones that come after. Instead we all decide what to say to these demons every day, every one of these forty days and all the ones that come after. Instead we are engaged not just for forty days, but for the rest of our lives, in trying to be the people that God calls us to be.
In that spirit, and in the spirit of the words I have sent you home with each of these Lenten weeks, I send you home today with one final word for this Lenten journey, which is the word become. In one sense the word asks us to wonder what has changed, what has moved, what have we become in this forty-day season of unfolding and listening and journeying together? Who are you now that you were not back before we took this ashen-faced leap towards Jerusalem? What have you learned? What have you discovered? What new muscles have you exercised? What new pathways carved in your heart? But ask these questions only to a point. Because only to a point is this forty-day journey about us at all. Because the story keeps going, and what comes next, of course, is Jesus riding into the city, preaching to the crowds, breaking bread with the disciples, arguing with the authorities, dying on the cross, and then, just when you think the story is over, it’s not. Because this Lenten journey is just our humble attempt to participate in the work that God is doing which is the unfolding of all creation. It’s not about what we have become. It’s about what this world is still becoming thanks to the work of God that isn’t over yet. That’s the Gospel. This whole thing is still a work in progress.
All creation is becoming. Regardless of how your Lenten disciplines have gone. All creation is becoming, no matter whether or not you’ve snuck a chocolate here and there. All creation is becoming, no matter whether or not you’ve skipped a Lent day once or twice. All creation is becoming, no matter whether the Lenten devotional sits dog-eared by your bedside or pristine somewhere in a stack of unpaid bills. This is a word of grace, and I want you to remember it, especially as Lent winds its way towards the finale: the story isn’t really about the chocolate, and it’s not really about the exercise, or even about the devotional. The story’s not even about the pie. The story is about the creating, liberating, redeeming, inspiring, ongoing, becoming work of the one who made Heaven and Earth. The story’s about the one who brings us to the table. The story’s about the one who says take and eat. This is for you, along the way. And come this Sunday, and come next, and come Holy Week, and come Easter, and come the day after that. We keep going. One day at a time. And all creation keeps becoming, thanks be to God.