Sermon, Feb. 14

Jesus has just been baptized in the river Jordan, at the hands of his cousin John; he has just received these gracious words from Heaven:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He’s about thirty years old – Luke tells us that – and Luke tells us, too, that this is the moment when Jesus begins his work. Begins to preach, and teach, and heal, and stir things up. But first, there’s a time of retreat, of solitude and prayer and reflection, to get clear on who he is and what he’s doing. The Spirit alights upon him like a dove, at the moment of his baptism; then She leads him out into the wilderness, to struggle with hunger, and loneliness, and temptation. To become ready, truly ready, for the work ahead.

Someone asked me recently if I believed in Satan, and what our church teaches about the Devil,and I was embarrassed by how unready I was for the question. Let me take a moment here to talk about that, since this passage presents us withthe idea of evil personified in the character of Satan. The Devil isn’t covered in the Catechism in the back of the BCP, nor in my seminary classes.  The official Episcopal Church website has a Glossary of significant terms and names; neither Satan nor the Devil are in it… I have a hunch that if you asked a roomful of Episcopal clergywhat they believe about the Devil, you’d get a long, embarrassed, awkward silence. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to. So you’re stuck with my vague and jumbled thoughts, rather than official church teaching.

I don’t believe in the Devil as an excuse for bad human behavior. I have zero patience with “The Devil made me do it” as a rationale for naughtiness. I know my own heart, I have been a student of human nature, and I believe we are quite capable of all sorts and degrees of poor and flat-out evil behavior without any intervention or encouragement from supernatural beings. At the same time, I have enough epistemological humility to say, I don’t know. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our universities. Is evil simply the absence of good, or is evil a thing, a force in itself?

There are definitely times when, looking at the world, evil seems to be an active, living, intelligent thing. If calling that the Devil gives us the courage to name and rebuke those forces, then maybe there’s power in doing so.

And there are definitely times when I hear a clear voice of temptation in my own head and heart, feeding my worst impulses, undermining my weakest virtues. If calling that the Devil gives me the courage to name and rebuke that voice, then maybe there’s power in doing so.

That’s the situation here, in the scene that Luke describes. If you’re distracted by mental images of a guy in red, with horns and a pitchfork, then imagine this whole dialogue as taking place inside of Jesus, his human desires and impulses at war with his sense of call and mission. It works just as well that way.

There’s so much that can be unpacked from this scene, rich with details and beautifully told. What I want to point out, this year,is how well Satan knows Jesus. Consider the things he could have tempted Jesus with,but didn’t: A beautiful woman. A jug of fine wine. Wealth and luxury. Given what we know of Jesus from the rest of the Gospels, if the Devil had waved those things in front of his nose, Jesus would’ve just shrugged. Not that he couldn’t appreciate any of the above…but the Devil knew those weren’t the way to trip him up.

The ways the Devil does tempt Jesus are pretty on point. Jesus is famished, Luke tells us. He hasn’t eaten for forty days. We believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. *I* struggle with my mind making allowances for my body, sometimes; I can well imagine that one of great ongoing struggles for Jesus might have been how much his God-self had to make allowances for his human-self. And the Devil goes right to that – so cleverly. He doesn’t offer Jesus bread; no, that’s too easy. He doesn’t actually offer Jesus anything, here; he just encourages some thoughts Jesus probably has anyway. He says, Use your power to make things easier for yourself. Use your power to get what you want. Just a loaf of bread, when you’re hungry; what’s wrong with that? But that could be one hell of a slippery slope. Jesus knows it. And Jesus says No.

The second temptation is the temptation of earthly authority. Glory, power, rule, not the divine kind but the human kind. This is the one time the Devil actually offers Jesus something, since he claims that human political power falls under his jurisdiction!… The paradox and mystery of Jesus’ authority is a theme in his life and ministry. For just one example, there’s the scene from John’s Gospelfrom Christ the King Sunday back in November. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, Are you a king? And Jesus says, If I were a king in the way you mean, don’t you think I’d have followers fighting to save me? My kingdom is not of this world… In this moment, back at the beginning of his work, the Devil temps Jesus to break down that wall between divine and human power. To use human glory and authority to advance God’s agenda. With the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, I think we can say that, in general, the times when Christianity has ruled through human politics have not been Christianity’s best chapters. Politics driven by Christian ethics, yes, please, by all means. A Christian political system, no; that has not worked out well. And how could it, when ours is a faith of persuasion, of heart, of conversion, which simply can’t be imposed from outside? Jesus sees the risks of entangling the ways of human power with divine. Jesus says No.

Finally, the Devil lays before Jesus the temptation to know that everything will be OK. The temptation to equate being loved by God with always being safe. Note that the Devil is quoting the Bible, here – Psalm 91, which we read today. The Psalms actually make this equation a lot – if I am righteous and favored by God, then things will always go my way, I’ll be rich, healthy, and popular, and my enemies will always be defeated. Now, there’s a lot more going on in the Psalms than that; that’s a sermon for another day. But those bits of the Psalms – well, they’re pretty easy for the Devil to quote out of context. And, well, that’s just not the deal. It never has been. The overwhelming witness of Scriptureis that living as God’s people, with love, justice, and mercy, is hard, and sometimes dangerous, and most certainly does not guarantee prosperity or even safety. That’s not why we do it. We do it because the world is better with people in it who live like that; and we do it because we believe.

But it sure would be nice if that were the deal – if only good things happened to good people. We fall to this temptation, friends, every time we tell someone who is suffering, Everything happens for a reason, or,God won’t give you more than you can handle. Those words are kindly meant, but they can be heard to imply that tragedy and pain are blessings in disguise. And I just don’t believe that’s always true. Though I do heartily believe that God is with us in suffering, and that God is always at work in our world, lives, and hearts, working to bring good out of evil and meaning out of tragedy.

Satan knows that the work before Jesus will be hard, and dangerous, and ultimately fatal. The temptation he lays before Jesus is the temptation to opt out of the pain and danger. Throw yourself off the Temple! God won’t let anything bad happen to you! Angels will catch you! It’ll be fine! But Jesus says No. I won’t test God – and I won’t make God’s goodness conditional on my personal safety. God is good whether I prosper or suffer. If Jesus hadn’t known that, deeply, truly, there’s no way he could have started down his path. We need to know it too.

In his season of temptation, Jesus’ determination, his trust in God’s love, his certainty of his own purpose and direction, holds him up as he faces his weaknesses and struggles. Jesus refuses temptation three times – but I think we should assume that those refusals were hard. As hard and harder than the hardest such moments in our lives, when we’ve turned reluctantly away from something that we wanted badly, but knew wasn’t right for us.

The church’s season of Lent, which began this week, can be framed as a season of acknowledging – with Jesus in the wilderness – our weakness, limitations, struggles and fears; while – again, with Jesus – holding fast to our desire and intention to live lives that, in ways great or small, add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight. We stand in that space of struggle and hope as we pray the Great Litany, that big strange sprawling beast of a prayer with which we began our worship this morning.

Just as Lent always begins with one of the Gospels of Jesus’ temptation, so it also begins with the Great Litany. I’d like to say a few words about the Great Litany, because it is, frankly, one of the more peculiar and medieval things we do. I grew up with it more or less as we do it here, praying it together once a year on the first Sunday in Lent,although at St. John’s, Lafayette, the choir marched right along behind the clergy, for the long and convoluted procession that we called the “Holy Pretzel.” And despite its length, I’ve always kind of loved it. I like that it’s peculiar and medieval. I like that it marks the beginning of Lent so emphatically. I like how encompassing, how thorough it is – whatever your innermost fears or struggles, they are in there somewhere, I guarantee it.

The earliest form of the Great Litany was composed in the fifth century, after a volcanic eruption disrupted Easter worship. Archbishop Mamertius of Gaul introduced the practice of a litany chanted while processing around the city,and asking God’s protection against disasters of all kinds. The forerunners of the Great Litany were developed further in medieval Europe, as a way to respond in communal prayer to political instability and the ravages of the plagues. Martin Luther, the founder of the German Reformation, loved the spirituality and practice of the Litany. He added prayers for the wider world and for faithful ministry and witness in the Church. Luther’s Litany was the most important source when, in 1544, Thomas Cranmer composed a Great Litany in English – before going on to develop the first English Book of Common Prayer.

For 300 years the Great Litany was part of Sunday worship – many churches had a special Litany Book with its own book stand, called a Litany Desk, marking the centrality and importance of this exhaustive prayer. But in the 19th century the Litany began to fall out of favor; people found it perhaps exhausting as well as exhaustive. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes it only in archaic language – perhaps because of love for those rhythms of speech, or perhaps because the framers of that book assumed that only the most old-fashioned congregations would keep using the thing.

But the Great Litany continues to stand the test of time. There is nothing quite like it, in the way it weaves all our smaller prayers into its dense fabric of confession and intercession. An article summarizing the history of the Great Litany, my source for this overview, begins with the image of seminarians at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, on September 11, 2001. The seminary community was grief-stricken and terrified. They had no idea what was coming next, or what it all meant. They gathered in the chapel for prayer. And they prayed the Great Litany.

Mark Michael, the author of the article, says that the Litany “describes the fragility and peril of human life with particular emphasis,”evoking its origin among the droughts, famines, plagues, poverty and instability of medieval Europe. Michael writes, “This is what those at General Seminary on 9/11 surely understood anew as they took up these prayers on that dark day. Our [modern] ingenuity, reasonableness, and pluck are not enough in the face of natural disaster, bloodshed, and the sudden approach of death. We face great threats from environmental catastrophe, a fraying social fabric, and international terrorism, and the grand promises of science and technology seem to be wearing thin. In the face of evil that baffles, frightens, and overwhelms us, we [like our forebears] must beg for deliverance…. [The Great Litany] is a text that speaks to pastoral need, the Church’s gift for times of crisis. When you do not know how else to pray, there is always the Litany.”

And so, as in our Gospel Jesus takes up the work of his earthly ministry, we take up the work of Lent – in the words of the Litany, we do the work which God gives us to do,with singleness of heart, and for the common good. And we inaugurate the season by joining our voices with Christians across many continents and centuries, mingling our hopes and longings for ourselves and for the world, our repentance and determination, our fears and our hopes, into one great flavorful stew of prayer in which we marinate ourselves, once a year, need it or not. Welcome to Lent.

I am greatly indebted to Mark Michael’s great article summarizing the history of the Great Litany, which may be read here: