"Jesus answered him"-A Sermon for Lent 1, Luke 4:1-13
As on the first Sunday of Lent each year, we hear, once again, today the story of Jesus’ 40-day journey in the wilderness. We are at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has just been baptized by John in the River Jordan…but what follows is no baptismal reception or luncheon or celebration, as often follows the baptisms of our own loved ones, adults and children alike. Instead, following Jesus’s baptism, Luke tells us that he is immediately driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and prayer. I think of this experience as one of preparation…that is this time of wandering in the wilderness is preparing Jesus for the journey of loving, healing, teaching, dying and living again…all the wonder and heartbreak, all the triumph and travail that will follow in the life that Jesus lived during his 3-year earthly ministry. Jesus readies himself in the wilderness, tests his steel, owns his identity, strips everything away, leaving only what is most essential, becoming utterly dependent on the living God to sustain him…to provide sustenance, meaning, purpose and direction for his, to borrow a line from Mary Oliver, one wild and precious life.
And in addition to 40 days of prayer and fasting, if that was not enough to ready Jesus for the months and years ahead, he also faces and overcomes three temptations…not on day one while still fueled by his last meal and last good night’s sleep…but on day 40. Luke tells us that it was when the 40 days were over and Jesus was utterly famished that the devil made his approach…cunning indeed…for it makes good tactical sense to approach our adversary at his or her weakest point…not their strongest. So, on day 40 the battle royal begins…not a battle of physical might…more a war of words. I think it can always be argued that the pen is mightier than the sword. Indeed, most violence begins or can be adverted with the use of words. And, that is because…words have power. Genesis tells us that God spoke the creation into being at the beginning of all things. God said, “Let there be light.” And John, in the prologue to his gospel, tells us that Jesus is the Word of God…with God from forever…the very life-giving word that brought all things into being. Jesus is the incarnation, the living revelation, of what the word LOVE looks like and is…in flesh and blood. Words have power. And I should say further that words have power…to do tremendous good…and to cause terrible harm. It is with words that evil incarnate tempts Jesus…and it is with words that love incarnate rejects these very same temptations.
I think it is worth noting that the words used both in the tempting and the rejecting of these same temptations largely come from Holy Writ…from the bible. Which, again, demonstrates to us that words, even those written down with the holiest of intentions, can be used for good or ill…to build up or to tear down. Words have power. Children are taught the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And, though I understand the logic found therein…and it is indeed important to teach children how to deal in healthy ways with words that are intended to harm them…my actual experience is that this saying is about as far from the truth as possible. I have experienced words that have broken my heart…and what followed was a process of healing that took far longer and was far more excruciating…than say the time I badly broke my ankle playing high school football.
I was recently blessed to attend a panel discussion put together by Interfaith Action of Central Texas. The panel was made up of local Rabbis representing the various traditions in Judaism. And, in light of the recent tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, they were asked the question what could we do to help combat the horrors of anti-Semitism. And one Rabbi, in particular, responded by asking those of us who lead congregations to remind our folk that, as I have been saying, words have power…that words matter…to remember that Jesus reminds us today, as he refutes the devil’s very first temptation, that we do not live by bread alone…but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. I don’t think it can be understated that the words we share with one another have great impact. They are a reflection of the health and well-being of our souls. They have the power to feed those to whom we direct our words with pathogens that decay hearts and minds…or to feed those to whom we direct our words with good spiritual sustenance that provides the healthy energy they need for the living of their days. Our words are either slings and arrows that wound the hearts of others…or they are a healing balm that nurtures and provides hope for the hearts of others. They lead to edification or to demolition…the building up or tearing down of God’s own beloved. And this applies to ourselves as well…for our own words…the words we speak…shape us. Just like we are what we eat…we are what we speak. Which is to say, I think we literally incarnate and become what we speak out into the world. Further, we are deeply impacted and formed by our own self-talk…by the words we use for ourselves. So, are we beating ourselves up…practicing a sort self-shaming with the words we speak to ourselves. Or…or are we practicing self-compassion with the words we speak to ourselves…words that affirm who we are and who we hope to become, as God’s own beloved.
I really believe that God’s own dreams for the world he loves and has made, revealed to us in the words of scripture, begin to take shape, be realized, when we begin to speak them into being…with each other. For example, Dr. King’s I have a dream speech became the dream of countless numbers of people when he spoke them aloud to us…as they washed over countless people who continue to read and listen to them…creating real change in human hearts and human institutions for good and for God. As simply as I can say it, the most powerful weapon we wield against hate in any form it takes…begins with the words we speak. There is a quote from the Lutheran pastor and author, Walter Wangerin, Jr., that I often share, which reads, “Every time you meet another human being you have the opportunity. It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things, then. Either you will build him up, or you will tear him down. Either you will acknowledge that he is, or you will make him sorry that he is—sorry at least, that he is there, in front of you. You will create, or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s own property. They are made, each one of them, in his own image.”
As we come today to the first Sunday in Lent, as we find ourselves at the very beginning of our own 40-day journey in the spiritual wilderness…a time set aside, like Jesus’ own time in the wilderness, to ready ourselves for all God wants to accomplish through us…perhaps we might consider our words…the words we speak to ourselves…the words we speak to others…as something to be particularly attentive to. Perhaps we fast from both negative self-talk…and unhealthy thoughts, words and opinions directed toward others. Always remembering that the things…the people...including ourselves…we dignify or deny with our words and actions that flow from them are, indeed, God’s own property…created in God’s own image. Amen.