March 10, 2019

1 Lent

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Of the three temptations Jesus experiences in the wilderness, the one which references another reading we hear today is the third and final temptation. This occurs when the devil confronts Jesus, doing what the devil does best: quoting scripture.  I am not very good, okay I’m really bad, at quoting scripture.  The devil does it much better than I do.  To be honest, I become very uncomfortable when a person quotes scripture to me, because I usually feel that the person quoting scripture is doing it to support their personal agenda, rather than God’s.  At least that’s what the devil seems to be doing in the story today.

Recall that in this part of the story the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and somehow they end up on top of the temple there.  Remember the temple the very center of Jewish religion, the temple is like the Washington DC of American politics, the temple is like the Nashville of country music, it’s the Vatican to the Catholic Church.  The temple in Jerusalem was the geographic heart of Judaism. 

From atop the temple, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” In the last part of the verse, the devil quotes psalm 91, v. 11-12 which we heard today. That verse, printed in your service leaflet, reads: “On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” 

Anyway, the belief which this verse suggests, and what the devil intends, is that if Jesus were to jump from the temple in Jerusalem, that angels would protect him from hitting the ground.

On a very superficial level this is a ridiculous request that the devil makes: jump off from the roof of the temple and see if the angels really will catch you, as the Bible says they will.  Notice here the devil’s insistence on a literal reading of scripture. 

On a deeper level, this is a story more about the temptation to get God to do what we want. Jesus rebukes the devil, saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” With that rebuttal, Jesus reminds the devil that he is subordinate to God.  Even the devil is below the Lord his God.  And so are we, of course.

It’s embarrassing how often I put, to use Jesus’ words, “the Lord my God” to the test. I do this most coercively in my praying. I’ll give you an example. Sometimes when praying, I reverse the roles of God and I.  I become God, God becomes my subordinate. It usually will go something like this: I tell God in my prayers how it’s going to be. I’ve already got it figured out.  I know what’s best for me, I don’t need God’s help on that.  I tell God I want this and this is when I want it and this is how I want it. Does this sound familiar to any of you? Any of you all mistake telling God what to do and call that prayer like I sometimes do?  If you’ve never tried this way of praying before, I’ll give you some advice: it doesn’t work!

I once prayed to God, and I told God what kind of car I wanted to drive, what kind of house I wanted to live in and what kind of vacation I wanted.  Did you know that God answered every single one of those prayers?  Every one.  The answer was “no!”  “

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Prayer is not about telling God what we want or what we need. God already knows that and doesn’t need to hear it from us. Neither is prayer about trying to change God’s mind.

Prayer is about relationship with God, period. And a relationship with God is the most important relationship any of us have.  A relationship with God is more important than a relationship with a spouse or with parents or with children.

Last week, I got a voice mail from a man I’ve never met before. Let’s call him Len. Len called and said that he had just arrived in Houston and was the victim of a heart attack, and had only a few months to live and he wanted to talk to a priest.  He claimed to be a lifelong Episcopalian from Panama City, Florida and he needed help.  I called him back and he said that of all the Episcopal Churches in Houston he had I called, I was the only who had returned his call.  He told me his whole story, and it was long and convoluted.  It sounded made up, and to test him, I asked him where his home parish in Panama City was and he told me.  After hanging up the phone, I called the church Len claimed to be a member of and asked the secretary, “Do you know anybody named Len that goes to your church?” The secretary said, “I’ve been going here fourteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever met the person your describing.”

Even before calling the church I’d already figured I was the target in Len’s con act. Why do I share this story? I share it because Len is all of us.  We all have a con.  We’ve all pretended, or are still pretending, to be something or someone else other than who God created us to be.  Lent is about giving up the con act, and being who we really are. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. 

Lent has begun. How will you pray, and who will you be? AMEN.