"Worship the Lord you God and serve only Him"-A Sermon for Lent 1, Matthew 4:1-11:
Noel Coward, an English playwright, once said, “If you need motivation, think of your paycheck on Friday.” And sort of similarly, I believe it was Loverboy who said, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” And of course, all of us are working for the weekend because we are so looking forward to church…just can’t wait to get here…right. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not what Loverboy meant…maybe they were referring instead, like Noel Coward, to that paycheck at the end of the week, a few days off and getting into a little trouble…having a little fun.
I remember as a teenager my family was on a summer vacation with another family. I can’t remember the reason, perhaps just going out to dinner, but we were in the parking lot standing next to this other family’s SUV, when the father of the other family, who is named Mike, called me over to share some fatherly wisdom. He put his arm around me and pointed to a bumper sticker on the back of his car. It was a white normal sized bumper sticker…and on it…evenly spaced and all the same size…were three symbols or pictures. They were a red heart, a bottle of Lone star beer, and the shape of the state of Texas. I recognized the sticker from a marketing campaign that Lone star was doing at the time…and the tag line was…give me love, give me Lone star, give me Texas. And as Mike held his arm around in a congenial father, son sort of way, he said to me sort of wistfully, “Miles, that bumper sticker sums up my life…love, Lone star, Texas…what else do you really need…therein lies all the motivation you need for livin’.” At the time, I probably agreed…and thought yeah, yeah…right on man…that’s deep stuff. Now I’m not so sure…I know I can at least get on board with the heart.
I also remember from my teenage years a poster, I have mentioned it before, but a poster that my parents gave me when I got into high school and that hung on my bedroom wall for many years. It was one of those framed motivational posters, like you see hanging on office walls or in that section of motivational posters that you can always find in Sky Mall Magazines when on a plane…I guess trying to appeal to the business traveler. But anyway…my framed poster…had in the back ground a huge modern looking mansion. And in the foreground, there was like a six-car garage full of very, very expensive sports cars…Ferraris, Porsches, etc.… And along the bottom in boldface type read, “Justification for a Higher Education.” As I have said before, when referring to this poster, my parents were clearly not thinking that higher education meant seminary. Though to be fair to them, I know now they indeed believe I choose wisely.
And here is the point in all of this…I promise there is one…and that is I want us to consider what desires motivate our lives. I think this a central question that the Season of Lent hopes we will address each year, and I believe it is a question that lies at the heart of our Gospel lesson today as well. For I believe with all of my heart that the things we desire most…the things we believe we can’t live without…the things that get our blood pumping and heart racing…the things we want to possess, keep safe, and grasp onto…the things that are the true objects our hearts’ desires…are powerful motivators…and therefore they are determinative when it comes to our choices, our behaviors…who we associate with…how we spend our time…how we use our money…how we view other people…what careers or vocations we choose. Said as simply as I can, our hearts’ desires motivate how we actually live our life…which make no mistake does impact those we share our life with and those we share this world with. So, I think spending some time considering what we desire and the motivations those desires engender is a good thing. And I am not suggesting here that what you might find is problematic…like…and don’t get me wrong here I love Texas and even an occasional Lone star…but like that bumper sticker or motivational poster…for my experience is that the people of St. Julian’s are a mature, loving, thoughtful lot…but what harm is there in looking…asking the question…committing it to prayer…or having a conversation about it with someone we trust…even if there is just some tweaking that needs to be done.
So, let me turn now specifically to the three temptations laid before Jesus by the personification of evil, the devil, in our Gospel lesson. And I think these three temptations are particularly important to consider…because I think they’re true for all of us…in other words…they are sort of universal in nature…three temptations that most women and men will have to contend with. Further, we indeed call this biblical passage something like “Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness”. And that is an apt description…but I also think we can think of each as a motivator...that moves us ever onward to the desire that lies behind each.
And the first is about material comfort…being full and being satisfied. Jesus has been in the wilderness fasting for 40 days and 40 nights…Matthew says further that Jesus is famished…no doubt…he was likely literally starving after his long, and likely grueling, fast. And like a great motivational speaker, the devil gives Jesus a vision of what he can really do…to use the power within. If he is the Son of God…surely he has the power, the resources, the expertise to turn stones to bread…to eat and be filled…and surely this seems a reasonable suggestion. But I think the devil’s motivation is not simply to provide Jesus his daily bread…sustenance for continuing his physical life. For there is nothing wrong with healthy food that fuels our bodies and lives for a meaningful existence. Food, shelter and water are the foundational building blocks for living life on this planet…and we all need them…and we should all have access to them…and when I say all…I mean all…everyone who lives, moves and has a being. This is why we build and hand out Manna Bags at St. Julian’s…to be sure our friends and neighbors on the streets and without homes, literally eat. But the question that is really before Jesus and before us is what desire lies behind our motivation to feed ourselves…and often to do so well…perhaps even to excess. The devil is not really worried about Jesus starving to death. Instead, the question is what desire motivates our acquisition of things? What appetites are we diligently seeking to satiate? What are we filling ourselves up with? Where do we seek comfort when in pain or seek safety when feeling vulnerable or insecure? The devil would like for us to seek comfort, seek security, seek to be satiated, seek to be made full, through the things we acquire, the food and drink we pour into ourselves, and I would say most of all the bottom line in our bank accounts that pay for it all…making that modern mansion with a great security system and six-car garage the object of our heart’s desire…and thus our primary motivation in life. As the Fabulous Thunderbirds quipped, “How do you spell love…M,O,N,E, Y” But even in his moment of great vulnerability, Jesus says no…humans do not live on bread alone…on financial security and a goodly pile of material things alone…but on God alone…God’s word…God’s faithful presence and overflowing love that pour into our lives through the sacraments, and Holy Scripture, and the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit, and God’s love that moves between the people we share our life with. These are the things that fill us up…all the way up…that make meaning for us and give us energy for the life we are uniquely called to live. Thus, our desire, if rightly ordered, should be to fill ourselves up with God…with God’s love…motivating us to attend to practices through which we learn about and encounter the living God...that fill us up with God.
And then, not making much progress with the motivation of food, the devil, moves on to the great motivator that is certitude. How do I really know that God loves me, cares for me, provides for me…wouldn’t it be great to test this theory that we claim so passionately in church…to test in some way the validity of God…the very existence of God. Wouldn’t it be nice to really know that I am a beloved child of God, that my life won’t end at the grave, that love indeed is the greatest force in the universe…not gravity or matter or some other axiom on which physicists do their scientific research. Solving the mysteries of the universe, being sure of our value in it, knowing that there is a purposeful and loving God behind it all is indeed a great desire and thus powerful motivator among humans…we crave answers and certainty…for they make our psyche’s secure, make us feel less vulnerable and small. Again, this sounds and feels reasonable. So, the devil says to Jesus throw yourself off of this high place…surely God, as the scriptures themselves say, will send his angels to catch you…they will bear you up…so that you will not dash yourself against a stone. Then you will know…you will really know…that God exists and loves you and will take care of you. And, again, Jesus says no…I will not put God to the test. For trust, for faith, requires vulnerability and not knowing everything, and this is indeed a great blessing. Faith, trust in God, fuels hope. It creates courage. It allows us to build relationships of substance and meaning…for trust is the foundational building block of all relationships. So, the question before Jesus is what really motivates his love for God…does he desire a relationship with God based on faith and trust that come with time and letting go of self-reliance…placing our lives faithfully in the hands of the other…or does he desire certainty…motivated only by what he can prove…only by what he can control. This is indeed a lonely and actually, very uncertain, sort of life…it makes us more unwilling to love, more unwilling to trust…to share ourselves and the things we have with others…more afraid…more fearful. Instead our desire should be to increase our faith, which motivates us to courageously share ourselves with God and others and take risks that bless all who God has made…all rooted in a profound faith, not certainty, but faith that God is indeed life and love.
But the devil, that great motivational speaker, is not done yet. After failing to motivate Jesus with material comfort and our compulsion toward certitude, the devil moves on to a final desire that indeed motivates so many in our world…he moves on to power. In Jesus’ case, the power to literally rule the world. Power is indeed a wily and unruly desire that leads all, maybe even Jesus knew it would lead him, ultimately to corruption. Power is often sought to do good. People seek economic power to provide jobs, goods and services that improve the quality of other people’s lives. People seek political power to enact policy and law that make our world safer, more just, and more equal. People seek religious power to introduce others into a life-giving relationship with the God who made them and loves them. And I can go on…but once any person has power over any other person…mutuality begins to diminish. The person in power’s voice begins to carry greater weight and influence…until the voice of the other becomes silent…and abuse so often follows. Power tends to lead one to seek more power…thus meaning becomes indistinguishable from the power we wield. It indeed becomes lonely and fearful at the top...and poor decisions that do more harm than good inevitably follow. Positions of power will always exist in a broken and imperfect world full of broken and imperfect people…but, particularly when we have power and indeed to some degree everyone in this room does, we must remember that creativity, meaning, and wholeness are entirely dependent on each other’s toil. We don’t really flourish unless everyone flourishes. Thus, Jesus once again says no to the unimaginable power placed before him…and places it instead squarely into the only hands where it belongs, that it can reasonably be used and wielded, in the hands of the God of life and love. It is God alone who we worship and serve…says Jesus. Thus, the desire that motivates his life, as it should ours as well, is giving it all, everything he has, every vestige of power, his very life to God alone.
So, what do we desire? What motivates our own lives? If I can sum it up, I think Jesus is suggesting that rather than being motivated by our desire to accumulate wealth and material comfort, rather than being motivated by a desire to have all the answers and certainty in all things, rather than being motivated by accumulating and wielding more and more power, we should instead be motivated by one desire alone…to be completely filled with God…to place our faith and trust in God…to give all the power in our lives over to the worship and service of God…to, again, seek one desire alone…living deeply in the heart of God. No offence intended to the great state of Texas, the crafters of good food and drink, and to automakers who make beautiful and powerful machines…or anyone else I might have left out…but the thing or things we desire most entirely motivate the life we live and the choices we make…so it matters, perhaps more than anything else, to remember that all motivation flows from that which our heart desires most. Amen.