A sermon by Associate Minister Elsa A. Peters, February 21, 2010
Until an opportune time. This thing departs from Jesus until an opportune time. It had finished whatever it was that it needed to do. And then, it leaves him until an opportune time – but when exactly is that? When will this opportune time be? If the test is over, for now, when will the next opportune time be? Is there truly a time that is opportune? Who knows? But, we sure know what it’s like to feel this thing dig into what it thinks to be an opportune time. Like Jesus, it happens in our wilderness. It happens when we feel most alone. It happens when we can’t find connection to anything. That’s when this thing appears that Luke calls the devil. It appears at an opportune time. Now, I know there is a lot of fantastic imagery in the Bible. I know there are miracles of all shapes and kinds. I know there are times when the text tells us that Jesus literally glows, like he did just last week. But, I still don’t think that this thing that Luke calls the devil is the “evil force opposed to God” that we see portrayed all over Hollywood. No, this thing is not that. There are no horns, pitchfork or pointy tail.
This thing that Luke calls the devil appears at an opportune time because it has a particular job to so. It has a certain role in the Biblical story. Actually, the word satan is a job title. It’s the role of the satan to “accuse, test, challenge” in order to push toward transformation. The satan isn’t supposed to give an answer. That’s not its job. Instead, the satan is supposed to push and push using that anxiety-producing word “if” over and over again. And you know, “if” is never a fun word to hear. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. It assumes that we can’t rely on all that we think we’ve had figured out. It accuses us – which is exactly the job that the satan has in the Gospel of Luke. This thing that Luke calls a devil accuses Jesus with each if statement it makes: if you are the Son of God, if you will worship me, if you are the Son of God. It doesn’t need a pitchfork to do that. It just needs to know the opportune time to push on all of those “ifs.” Surely, you’ve felt that push before. You know exactly when that opportune time hits. You don’t plan for it. You don’t really want it to happen, but when it happens, you know exactly what it is. Of course, no one else knows. It’s something that only you know. Everything can seem fine to the outward world but you know that that’s not really true. That’s the thing about this story of Jesus in the wilderness. He’s alone. There’s no one there to record what happened out there in the wilderness when the slanderer started pushing with all of these “ifs.” It’s just Jesus. Sure, Mark, Matthew and Luke all have versions of this story in the wilderness but they weren’t there. Jesus is all by himself. And as you know, from your own experience, no one else really knows what it’s like for you when you find yourself there. Only you know when you find yourself in that opportune time when you can’t find it within you to believe those words promised to you at your baptism. In that opportune time, you can’t figure out how you could possibly be the beloved child of God.
There’s nothing worse. There’s nothing worse than the moment that you doubt those words – but this is exactly what the slanderer does to Jesus. He pushes Jesus on the promise God made at his baptism. It’s not really clear who heard the voice that announced “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But, you can be sure that Jesus heard it. Jesus heard that voice that said God was pleased. Jesus heard that voice that called him beloved. But, the slanderer causes him to doubt. The slanderer pushes. If. If. If you are the son of God. If you worship me. If. If.
It’s annoying, but Jesus isn’t terribly phased. Or Luke seems to think he shouldn’t be. In Luke, Jesus quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures. He stands firm – which reminds me of our confirmands. These teens are being asked lots of “ifs” and (ironically or not) I’m the slanderer in that story. On the first night of their journey, they went on blindfolded trust walk where they had to touch all kinds of objects that represented the life journey. In the next class, they were asked to bring an object that was important to their journey. I didn’t give any other specifications – even when they asked. And so, there were trumpets, electric guitars, track medals and laptops. Few of them fit in the basket I provided. They were asked that day to tell the story of their lives and where that object fit into their journey. And here’s what’s amazing: each youth chose something that they were good at. Their object symbolized something for that teen that had acted as an affirmation. There was only one teen that chose something that challenged her. All of the others chose objects that made it possible for them to recall that they are beloved. Each of those objects allowed them to believe that there was something about them that would make any of us proud.
And yet, Lent begins in this opportune time with our lowest lows. There is no opportune time for anything good when that barrage of “ifs” flood over us. And yet, I don’t think that means that we have to deny ourselves of that affirmation that we felt at our baptisms. We need it. These 10 teens know how much we need that reminder. At this opportune time, we need to remember that someone is pleased with us. We need to remember that we are beloved. So, why should we forget that when Lent begins?
Jesus never did and neither should we. We should never forget that we are beloved by God. Those “ifs” can get the better of us. They can pull us even lower, but they could also do just the opposite. They could invite us into transformation. Those “ifs” could allow us to imagine a way to resurrect. After all, as much as the word “if” makes us squirm, it can allow us to imagine. It can allow us dream of what could be. My childhood dentist must have believed this, as he had Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” hanging just so that you could read it while he was cleaning your teeth. Sure, he may have hung the poem in the role of the slanderer. It may have been taunting. If you had only flossed… If you had brushed twice a day… But, I prefer to think that my dentist was a dreamer longing for transformation when he hung this poem. The second stanza was always my favorite.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
What if we were to imagine that this was our transformation this Lent? What if we were to take all of those “ifs” in our lives and build them up with wornout tools? What if, this Lent, we claimed ourselves as God’s beloved and truly allowed ourselves to be transformed?