Beloved is where we begin

Matthew 4:1–11

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

—Matthew 4:10

 

 

The first Sunday in Lent is also known as Temptation Sunday since this liturgical season always begins with a gospel lesson of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Rather than read Matthew’s version, we will stage this confrontation between Jesus and the Satan.

Narrator: When Jesus had been baptized, a voice descended from heaven saying “this is my son, the beloved.”   Then Jesus was led by the spirit to the wilderness to fast and pray. He fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and spoke to him.

Satan: So you say you are the Son of God! You have been here a long time. You look hungry. How about a little bread? If you are the Son of God, you can command these stones here to become loaves of bread. Go ahead. Do it. It’s OK. It’s just a little bread, not a great feast. You will feel better when you have a little food in your stomach. Go ahead.

Jesus: It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Satan: Quoting scripture, huh? Well, if that’s the way you want it. Stay hungry.

Narrator: Then Satan took him to the holy city and placed him on the highest point of the Temple so that he could see all of Jerusalem.

Satan: Well if you don’t want bread, maybe there is something you do want—assurance. Son of God, throw yourself down from this high point, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not even dash your foot against a stone.” How’s that for quoting scripture?

Jesus: Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Narrator: Again Satan took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

Satan: How about it, Jesus? Want a little power and wealth? Look at this! This is all mine to give. I have control over it all, and I can give it to whomever I choose. I choose to give it to you, and all you have to do is to bow down and worship me. Nothing fancy, just a little spiritual commitment. You can have it all. Think of all you could do with this wealth. You would never have to worry; you could take care of millions of people. After all that’s what you want to do, right? Just bow down and worship me.

Jesus: Get away from me, Satan. For it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Narrator: And Satan shook his head, and walked away for a time. And God’s angels came and took care of Jesus.

Opening Prayer: We give you thanks for these stories of faith, of Jesus, and of temptation. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Silence the noise around us that in our meditation we may hear your word for us today. Amen.

 

eorge MacDonald was a Scottish minister and writer in the late 19th century known for his work about our imagination and fantasies. He wrote, “A genuine work of art is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning.”

For MacDonald, stories could be a work of art.

Stories teach, not by catechism, but as George MacDonald argues:

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; to make him think things for himself.

Leo Tolstoy wrote masterpieces of Russian literature. Not only the 1,000+ page tome, but small vignettes. After a life of intellectual inquiry, debating with philosophers as well as the theologians the merits of life, he came to believe “as soon as man applies his intelligence and only his intelligence to any object, he unfailingly destroys the object.”

After the years of heady stuff, when he began to listen to the stories of Russian peasants, he invited them into his home and he talked to them, he listened to them more correctly. The folktales they shared reignited in Tolstoy a sense of wonder of God’s presence in ways beyond his knowledge and experience. Tolstoy began to write these folktales they shared.

A couple of weeks ago the Women’s Reading Group read Three Simple Men, one of Tolstoy’s folktales.

The premise is simple. Three men live a contented life on a remote island, each pursuing his unique talent to sustain their communal life. One was a skilled basket maker, another at hunting, and the third was a thinker. What they did was not so much “work” as it was “prayer” in the way they served one another and God. But they also had a simple prayer they offered together: “We are three, praise to Thee, have mercy on us.”

One day a ship teaming with pilgrims passes by the island and two of the priests decide it is their obligation, not only shepherd those onboard to faith, but to ensure these presumed heathens come to know Christ. They are in such a hurry; they jump into the seas, arrive at the island drenched, and launch into a systematic theology, liturgical framework, and finally attempt to teach the Lord’s Prayer. They were convinced that was the only way to reach God.

Struggling to keep up, the simple men tried to keep up…“Our Father who cart to bevan…”

Frustrated but trying to save them, the priests taught until the sun was to set. As they left, they counseled the three men to try so “God will hear you.”

Later that evening, the captain noticed some shapes piercing the horizon. As the shapes came closer, moving over the water, finally the priests recognized those three men, running on top of the water.

Once aboard, the men bowed to the priests and asked again the prayer—they’d forgotten.

Only then were the priests silent. Finally one of them extended a hand saying; “you need no instruction. Pray as you have and please pray for us.”

Together, the three simple men offered, “we are five, praise to Thee, have mercy on us.” Then they danced again over the water to their home.[1]

Tolstoy discovered from these peasant folktales, when we become so certain, enamored with our ability to reason and know, we are tempted to forget the wonder of God’s presence and the deep connection we wholeheartedly have.

Faith traditions began in stories—before written texts, the experiences were preserved in hearts and minds through stories and were accompanied by rituals to enact faith. Our sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—these are all stories that we tell as we do something. As we all do something, together. This is true of every faith tradition. Before there were gospels, there were the stories of Jesus, and the stories Jesus told.

In Matthew’s gospel, seldom is Jesus autobiographical in his teaching. He never shared memories of growing or spoke of himself other than to point to God. Those who were among the original discipleship crowd who heard his Sermon on the Mount and other teachings or witnessed his resurrection learned of Jesus’ divinity and his humanity first hand.[2]

So the gospel writers created this story, just for us, who had not seen or heard, nestling it just after the baptism, in which God calls Jesus, “my son” and “beloved.” The tempter invites Jesus to turn away from God in three different ways.

In the first, Jesus is asked to prove his son-ship through a display of power with the challenge “if you are the son of God.” That is, if Jesus turns stones to bread, he establishes his validity and worth through his own abilities.

We fall prey to that temptation to think our business cards identify our worth through what we have done rather than what God has done. In a community of high-achievers, this list could be so long and also include a notion of “we achieve salvation.”

In the second, the temptation is to test God’s fidelity by jumping off the cliff. We might experience this as “If God really cares, God will do what I want and need.”

In the third—more a bribe than temptation—Jesus is promised all the power and glory the earth can offer if he will give his allegiance and devotion to the Satan.

In each case, Jesus rejects the offer and lodges his identity, future, and fortunes on God’s character and trustworthiness. This story is a theological meditation on the baptismal narrative, answering the question “what is implied in the heavenly declaration ‘this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’”

Jesus’ human identity, at its core, is always “beloved” by God and being beloved is more precious that any of the Satan’s temptations. But, we face a strong, additional temptation today.

One of the unspoken temptations for us is to dismiss this as “just a story.” No one can prove it. The writers of Mark and Luke tell it differently. Fables and folktales and stories may have something to say to us, but let’s not confuse them with the truth or put too much stock in them.

When we venture down that slippery path, it becomes even more tempting to say this it is all a far-fetched story: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is adorned with solid moral teachings of love your neighbor and help the orphan and widow. But, the fundamental claim of Christ’s death and resurrection is what defines us and yet that is what defies our intellect. The gospel demands a leap of faith to accept as true and good and life giving.

On this first Sunday of Lent, we are facing a long road with Jesus as he is betrayed, humiliated, and crucified. But we’d prefer to skip over these actual events of our faith and race straight to the lilies and Alleluia’s of Easter. The penitence and self-reflection of Lent puts a mirror up to us, asking us if we can we trust Jesus.

Last weekend, we buried a beloved child of this congregation and the grief continues to inhabit us. As we prayed the commendation in the Memorial Garden, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” we would say those same words just a few days later on Ash Wednesday, when we would trace a cross on someone’s forehead. No one wants to be at a funeral or think about death and dying, but it is in doing so that we ponder Jesus, his belovedness, and our baptismal tether to him.

At the memorial’s reception in the Culbertson Room, a man sought me out to talk about how compelling the experience had been. He remarked at how much he had missed singing hymns and hearing a choir. Music moves him in ways words alone fail—that is true for many of us. Being here was a balm for a broken heart and weary soul. This church welcomed and comforted him in ways beyond expectation. Despite the crush of people, this was a tender exchange near the kitchen.

He had been a churchgoer, but slipped away. He said, “It starts with a conflict on one or two Sundays and then it rolls into being gone for a month and you kind of get distracted.” Church reminded him about being good and doing good.

After a bit, he finally said: “you know, you put a lot of Jesus into the service.” I admitted “guilty”.

Then his face softened. “Of course. Now is the time to talk about Jesus, he wasn’t just a good man, he was God’s son.”

If there is ever a time or place to hear about Jesus it is in a memorial service—otherwise we might as well be in a park or assembly hall. During a memorial service, we confront the finality of our lives on earth, but also the belovedness we share with Jesus that sustains us in all our trials, and most of all, that is the promise that takes us up from the grave. From some mysterious way we came from dust, to dust we will return, and throughout all we will be within God’s care.

We begin Lent by telling the story of just how difficult it is to remain faithful to God. Jesus was tempted. We too are tempted in all the same ways and more so to just walk away from this precious gift of the gospel. He was God’s beloved son and our savior.

After Tolstoy heard the stories of peasants, along with the clarity of their faith, he stopped trying to intellectualize his way through religion and took up a life of simple piety. He returned to worship. He received the sacraments. Then prayed. He deliberately quieted the intense questioning that had characterized his previous life. Not that the questions ceased, but they were quelled by the greater movement of his heart, welling up passions, emotions and practices of faith.[3] Critics notice this faith distinguishes his later works.

In Lent, we begin by facing the temptations of life or, perhaps, the temptation to just step aside from the entire season. Don’t give in. Put your voice and your heart into the prayers of confession. Consider a day of fasting from technology or harsh words. Open up a time each day to be quiet, maybe pray. That’s not doctrine, this is faith.

The story began for Jesus just as it begins for us as beloved. The penitence, the confessions, the austerity of Lent is not to tell us how bad we are…just the opposite. The days of Lent are to shine a light on these so we can accept them, slough them off and when we do, we learn that inside we are beloved. We learn through practice what God has done and will continue to do for us. Beloved is where we begin and beloved is what we will always be. Amen.


[1] All the quotes from George MacDonald and Leo Tolstoy as well as the folktale are from Jon Sweeney, Leo Tolstoy: Three Simple Men & Other Holy Folktales (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2015).

[2] D. M. Beck,Temptation of Jesus,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible R-Z, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962 ) 569.

[3] Sweeny, Three Simple Men, xvi.