Fr. Andrew Armond – First Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022
There are many difficult things about growing up. There are many difficult things about parenting and teaching young people as well, and in my roles as both teacher and parent, I have found that one of the most difficult is helping young people to learn how to strike just the right balance between humility and pride.
On the one hand, we want young people to understand that they are unique, precious in the eyes of God, created and formed by the hand of a Diving Loving Parent. We want them to understand that God loves them infinitely, that God desires their friendship and companionship, that, as the old Rabbinical tradition puts it, the angels blow trumpets before their every footstep and proclaim “make way, make way for the image of God!”
But: we also want them to learn humility. Because it is also a feature of youth to be presumptuous, to assert that you know everything, to believe that your very limited slice of life and experience, maybe even your youth itself, somehow makes you wiser than your parents, wiser than your teachers, wiser than your elders. Youth can be foolhardy, quick to draw conclusions, quick to act without the benefit of careful processes of deliberation, and caution, and care.
And maybe this isn’t just a youth problem. Maybe this is an US problem, too. Maybe this is just the human problem.
I find that the season of Lent helps, at least a little bit. It helps us because it reminds us that two almost contradictory truths exist at the same time: dust we are, and to dust we shall return; and that we are at the same time those precious children of God, every single one of us, loved into being and upheld at every moment of our lives by that Love that is beyond our comprehension, beyond our knowing, yet intimately and immediately close.
We are capable of so much, and yet we fall so short of God’s will and purpose for our lives.
We make mistake after mistake, and yet God never, ever gives up on us.
We are so frail and fragile, and yet we are stronger than we know.
We are just dust and ashes, and yet created in God’s own image, and one day we will be made like God in all of God’s glory and splendor.
We see this disparity in our human condition in what could very well be the first liturgical text of the Bible from our reading in Deuteronomy: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” the congregation’s response begins, upon bringing the firstfruits to the altar. Or, as the King James translation puts it, “A Syrian ready to perish was my father.”
The confession of faith begins with an acknowledgement of the difficulty and poverty of the community’s ancestors, even as they bring forth the firstfruits of their harvests to the altar.
Feast and famine; need and plenty; lost and found; death and life: all the stark contrasts of our faith are there, right there, in this very early liturgical text.
But perhaps more than any other contrast, this season and its readings remind us that we exist, and are given grace in, the midst of our wanderings. As the great Christian poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy begins, the main character is alone, lost in the woods, having strayed from the path at the exact midpoint of his life.
Our faith’s texts and traditions have always highlighted this simple fact, that we are being brought to the land flowing with milk and honey, to the Promised Land, to the riches of God’s Kingdom, and yet, we often feel alone, lost, confused, and afraid.
Into that desert our Lord Jesus comes, still bathed in the glory of his baptism. Still radiant with the Promise of God, the voice of God still ringing in his ear, “You are my Son, my beloved, With you I am well pleased.”
And yet, when he gets to the desert, the time of solitude and of testing, he does not hear the reassuring voice of God any longer, only the voice of the tempter. The tempter wants to capitalize on this feeling of loss and separation, to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Heavenly Father.
The tempter does so by trying to get Jesus to believe that when he does not hear the voice of God, when God’s presence seems far or withdrawn from him, that God is not there. That he is truly alone, and so he will have no one and nothing to depend upon except himself.
No One is coming to save you. God’s not listening.
And so the temptations flow from these devilish presuppositions.
The first temptation: Make this stone into bread. Feed yourself, because God’s not coming to rescue you. There’s no manna dropping down from heaven in this wilderness.
The second temptation: God doesn’t control or exercise authority over the kingdoms of this world. How could he? Look at the state of things. You’d better take matters into your own hands.
And the third temptation: If you really think God exists, if you really think God loves you, nothing bad can ever happen to you.
Together, these three temptations suggest that the most dangerous challenge to our faith is not many of the external threats we are often led to believe, not even some of those larger societal issues and trends that we often get worked up about.
The most dangerous challenge to our faith is internal, and it is really rather simple and straightforward for all of its power: Is God real, and does God love us? Can we trust God?
Satan’s temptation of Christ is the same temptation Adam and Eve faced in the garden.
In this way it is seen in the Scriptures as the oldest Lie, and the most powerful one: No One is Coming to Save You. God’s Not Listening.
It is so powerful because in our moments of weakness we all can feel this way. And so we relive in our own lives those three temptations of Christ, over and over again.
We believe the lie in our desire to control and manipulate and arrange the circumstances and events and people in our lives, to arrange the world just so, nicely and neatly, for our own benefit.
We believe the lie in our moments of despair, when the world seems to close in on us in its violence and cruelty, and we think that God is not present, that God is not listening. We watch people fleeing war, children leaving behind their fathers to defend their country, and we can easily believe the lie. We believe the lie in our demand that God reveal God’s self in the time and manner of our choosing, so that all doubt and ambiguity would be removed.
And Jesus, too, was tempted. Jesus was tested, not only here in the desert, but throughout his life and ministry, to seize the power that was rightfully his and to remove the in-betweenness of this earthly existence, the contingency and dependency of human life, and to become a controlling and vengeful Deity, forcing us to love God, forcing us to worship, forcing the world to conform to God’s Will.
In his resistance to that temptation, Jesus opens up the way of the Desert, the way of Lent, the way of the Cross, which is also none other than the way of Life, the way of Peace, the way of the Living Water of God’s Presence. In his resistance to temptation, Jesus proclaims that his Life will be the pattern of God’s Life in this world, that God’s kindness will lead us to repentance, not God’s vengeance and punishment.
He proclaims the year of the Lord’s Favor in which we are set free, free enough to follow and to Love, without coercion. He proclaims a life in which we are radically dependent on God, not ourselves, for our daily bread, for our spiritual sustenance.
Instead of turning the stone into bread, he turns his own body into our bread. Instead of taking power over the Kingdoms of this World, he takes the Throne of God’s Kingdom and enables us to live according to its Gracious Rule. Instead of promising a life of ease in which we are completely free of trials, sorrows, tribulations, and difficulty, he comes down to live with us, to suffer with us, to bear our burdens for us and alongside us.
He does not magically erase our pain, but he sits with us in the midst of it, holding it, holding us. Because God knows; GOD KNOWS what it is like to be human, to walk in this in-between world, in all of its beauty and tragedy and violence and chaos.
There are so many incredibly powerful images coming out of Ukraine right now, but yesterday I saw one of a wooden crucifix being lifted carefully out of an Armenian Orthodox Church in Lviv. The wounded Christ, being cradled, carefully brought out and wrapped so that he can remain in a bunker, well-protected until the war is over. Our crucified Lord: He is the Prince of Peace. He is our Peace. He weeps with and for the world. This is the result of his temptation in the Wilderness: he chooses US, he chooses to be right here in the midst of us, in the midst of the frailty and uncertainty of the human condition. And he remains with us, always.