220306 Lent 1C
March 6, 2022
Sermon: “Mortal Beloved”
Rev. Kristian Wold
Today is the first Sunday of the season we call Lent (or “Spring”), this time of “remembering we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” There’s so much in this simple phrase. It’s a call to remember our fragility as human beings, our vulnerability, our mortality, our incompleteness, our sin. When it comes down it, we are just assemblages of atoms and molecules, the same as any other in the universe, like stars, rocks, frogs, or fir trees, no more.
But also no less! Because in Lent we must also remember that at every stage of creation God said of the latest collection of molecules, “It is good!” Sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, everything that grows on the earth, swims in the sea, or moves upon land – God delights in it all. And when it comes to human beings, formed so lovingly from the dust of the earth and animated by God’s own breath of life, God said, “Very good!”
To remember we are dust is to remember that we are beloved, cherished, and precious to God AND to know that we are frail, weak, sinful, and mortal.
The reason we need the exhortation and invitation of Lent is that we always seem to be striving to be more than human, some kind of being that is insulated from the buffets, wounds, suffering, and death of mortal life. We want to be like God, knowing good and evil, maybe even knowing the secret to immortal life. More than that, maybe we think we can’t be beloved and mortal at the same time. We think that if God really loved us, then we wouldn’t be suffering like this, sinning like this, ignored or neglected like this. And that’s exactly the fear the devil preyed upon when he came to Jesus in the wilderness, which symbolically stands for that experience of barrenness, isolation, and danger that is central to our mortality.
Remember Jesus had just come from the Jordan river where he heard the voice of God naming him the Beloved Child and seen the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. He was indeed “full of the Holy Spirit” as he came to the wilderness. But the devil questions this. “IF YOU ARE the Son of God, then command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Because you know, Jesus, that this hunger, this gap, this unfulfilled desire, this fear you live with for your survival on this earth—it’s a sign God doesn’t love you. That God is not here. But you can fix it. You can fill the gap. You can fulfill your desire on your own. Just go ahead and turn the stones into bread, you know you have the power.
I think we fall prey to this temptation all the time, especially in our modern materialistic culture. We are endlessly trying to fill gaps in our lives and fulfill desires of all kinds—and we can! Money can buy us so much. In a certain sense we’re turning stones into bread all the time. The fossil fuels we pull from the earth and convert to energy and money – they buy us all kinds of the things of this world. But are we ever fulfilled? No. One desire just gives way to the next, even in the moment of its fulfillment. The attempt to transcend desire is an endless and exhausting treadmill. The devil lies by even suggesting that turning the stones into bread will fulfill Jesus’ hunger.
Jesus knows this. He knows that there is more to us than our physical desires and appetites. “One does not live by bread alone.” The hunger we feel can be a gift, an invitation to live into a fuller, richer life—even in the midst of lack.
The devil’s second temptation seems at first to concede the point to Jesus. You know what, he says, you’re right Jesus. There’s more to life than the bare survival of the body. Because what kind of life would it be if you didn’t have power in the world? What you really need is to win friends and influence people – then all the other stuff will fall into place. Fame, visibility, recognition, admiration – this is what you really need. The love, respect, or even fear of others – that’s what will show that you are really Somebody in this world. And it can be yours if you just go after it with singleness of purpose. Worship me and I’ll give it all to you.
Again, I think this is a very deep temptation that we succumb to. We seek validation and recognition from others to feel good about ourselves. Or we seek power over others to feel secure in the world. So much evil comes from these deep-rooted desires, either to please others or to have power over them. Our own lives are diminished, or we diminish (or even destroy) the lives of others because of that craving for recognition.
Again Jesus recognizes the devil’s lie. Striving for praise and honour and glory in the world is another endless treadmill that leads to needless suffering. The antidote? “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Your belovedness doesn’t depend on the recognition of others, only God, and that is already a given. Be content with obscurity, humility, and insignificance, the way of the cross.
The devil’s third temptation is very subtle. As before he seems to agree with Jesus. Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. That is very true, Jesus! You are very spiritually evolved, and I can see you know that relationship with God is what counts above all else. Being the beloved child is all that really matters and nothing else will fill that hole. And being beloved means that God will always keep you safe. “Safe from physical and emotional harm, safe from frailty and disease, safe from accidents, safe from death.” (Debie Thomas) So prove for once and for all that you really are beloved, that God really cares. Throw yourself off the temple pinnacle. You’ll finally know for sure whether there is a God in this world, and if God really is there for you. And if you die from the fall, well, who really wanted to live in a world without God anyways? It won’t really matter.
It's a subtle temptation because it gets to the heart of all our fears. Why this suffering? Shouldn’t God keep us safe? Shouldn’t God fulfill our needs and desires? What good is it to be beloved anyway if we still go through this strife?
The issue here is wanting to be something more than the beautiful, wonderful, mortal creatures that we are. We think being loved should mean God would make us invulnerable angels, something apart from this world. That and we wish for God to take second place to our own ambitions, goals, and desires. We’d like a wish-fulfilling, magical genie, not a God holy and mighty, holy and immortal, holy and utterly all-in-all. We’d like to be served, not to serve.
To this last temptation Jesus replies, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The way through this last, great, subtle, and ever-present temptation is prayer, which is to say engaging in a living, dynamic, conversational relationship with God.
Et cetera, ex cordia
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash