First Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Durham as part of a pulpit exchange…

Good Morning! I am so glad to be here with you today, able to return the favor Rev. Douglas bestowed upon me and Judea Reform Congregation on Friday night. I am grateful for our partnership, and for the continued bond between our two congregations, a bond fostered over decades by Rabbi Friedman and Rev. Harvard. Mindy, we’ve got big shoes to fill! I’m grateful to Kathy and Allan as well. Their musical friendship was the catalyst for this pulpit exchange.

One of the great joys that clergy find in pulpit exchanges of this sort is that it puts us in a relationship with less familiar texts. Rev. Douglas preached Exodus 25 on Friday night, a passage that she tells me does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and she relished the opportunity to engage with it. Her teaching was challenging, and uplifting: everything one could hope for.

As for me, I’ve got options. Genesis 9, the Rainbow Covenant, is a worthy subject for inquiry, and there are some beautiful teachings about the rainbow as symbol. Two of my favorites are those of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also called Ramban, a thirteenth-century Spanish sage, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived and taught in nineteenth-century Germany.

For the Ramban, the key to understanding the rainbow is to consider its shape, and its position in the sky. It is a bow pointed away from the earth, demonstrating God’s commitment not to target it for destruction again. Much as soldiers returning from battle would hang their bows on their front doors as a sign of peace, God hangs a bow in the sky, as it were, to proclaim an end to the hostilities.

Hirsch doesn’t disagree with Ramban, but he adds to the teaching, discovering additional meaning in the colors of the rainbow. He notes that the light which creates all of those colors comes from the very same source: the sun. The key to avoiding another destruction is to remember that the diversity of creatures on earth all share a common source as well.

Peace and diversity: a lovely message, and a timely one. I could play it safe and stay with Genesis 9, and no one would think any less of me, I suppose. But inspired by Rev. Douglas’s profound engagement with a story that doesn’t show up in her lectionary, I chose to spend some time with a story that is most decidedly not in mine: Satan’s tempting of Jesus in the wilderness.

Mark’s telling of the story is characteristically brief, spanning just two short verses. A look at the other synoptic Gospels illuminates this morning’s text for us, adding information about how Jesus was tempted. We learn that Satan tried three separate times to draw Jesus in, in three very different ways. Here’s how Matthew (4:1-11) tells it:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

To review:

—first, Jesus was told that he could extract his sustenance from the stones;

—next, he was told that by wrapping himself up in a biblical verse, he would be safe even in a situation of great danger;

—and finally, he was told that power was an unqualified good, that might makes right, and that all of the power in the world was his for the taking.

It’s a text that preaches itself, isn’t it? As we frack our way into an uncertain future and turn our backs on the sun and the wind; as we, awash in the blood of our children, send thoughts and prayers and embrace the foolish hope that everything will be okay if a nation awash in children’s blood were just a little more awash in guns; as we disenfranchise the poor, the young, the old, and people of color in order to maintain power, for the sake of power…is there any conclusion to draw, save that we are failing the test, again and again and again?

What’s the solution? The fashioners of the lectionary were on to something when they paired the Rainbow Covenant with Jesus’ baptism and temptation, and set both to be read on the first Sunday in Lent.

—Forty days to remember just how precious is our water and our air, how fragile is our planet, and gain the resolve to act on that awareness;

—Forty days to gather the strength and courage to turn the bow upward, to turn swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and AR-15s into scrap metal;

—Forty days to grow in our understanding of the ways in which we are responsible for one another, in all of our diversity, in every color of the rainbow…to remember that one God made us all.

Lent is not a Jewish practice (though we have something analagous in the late summer, as the forty days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time similarly built for introspection and personal growth). As you practice Lent, Jews are preparing for Passover, a spiritual journey that takes us from slavery to freedom, from degradation to exaltation. These different paths we walk are not so different, when we understand that at the end of the road, Justice and Mercy, Truth and Peace await.

May our practice lead us away from the temptations of appetite, ego, and power, and toward the sacred work that binds us.

Ken yehi ratzon…may this be God’s will.

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