Saint James Anglican Church

Joseph Howe Drive at the Armdale Rotary, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada             


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Lenten sermon series

 

Lent I -  2008

 

Three Temptations, Eight Millennium goals

 

"The Barrens" in Nova Scotia are beautiful but formidable. Whether one looks over the barrens at West Dover near Peggy's Cove, or the Barrens in the Cape Breton Highlands, you are struck by the stark wonder they possess. They are not dwelling places for the unprepared. The Barrens in the North Highlands contain emergency shelters for those who may become caught there unprepared. A Nova Scotia government website describes the ecosystem of our barrens as follows: "Barrens are essentially impoverished habitats, with low nutrient availability and low floral diversity, offering a comparatively small number of niches."

 

There is life in the barrens. It's not readily visible to the untrained eye. It's life that is tenacious, that literally clings to the rocks and crags. I wonder what spending over a month in one of the barren areas of the province would require? The mere question takes some of the churchly romance out of our understanding of Jesus 40 days in the Judean wilderness. The desert that Jesus sojourned in bears similarities to the barrens. The Canadian Oxford English Dictionary defines a desert as "a dry barren area of land, often sand covered, characteristically desolate, with little fresh water and scanty vegetation." There are differences between the two geographic areas for sure. But we get the picture by comparison. It was in a dry and barren land that Jesus prepared himself for bringing the message about renewal of human community.

 

Why would he choose to go into such a desolate place as part of his formation? There are a couple of reasons. The place was free from the pull and distractions of the social setting he would return to work in. Conversations, parables, debates and controversy will come later. It was in the wilderness that he would have time to focus and prepare for dealing with these in an effective way. Secondly, the kind of life found in the wilderness is a reminder of both the wonder and tenacity of life and our vulnerability within the created order. His ancestors had experienced this during their wandering in the desert centuries before. They discovered that without the bread from heaven and the water from the rock they would not survive physically. They discovered that without the leadership of Moses they would not survive socially. They discovered that without the gift of the law they would not survive spiritually. In the desert they began to understand the importance of each of these elements within their covenant relationship with God. Jesus repeats this exercise for himself as he prepares to bring a message of covenant renewal. Like his ancestors of centuries past, he is tempted externally and internally. Here we see the classical role of Satan in Hebrew scripture, to tempt in the sense of sift and sort and demand choice. Any number of theologians can be cited who understand that the temptations of Jesus are temptations that challenge his relationship to God the Father in covenant Love. [Raymond Brown. An introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. Doubleday, 1996. p.177].

 

I think what is most interesting about the temptations is how powerful they are. For example, according to Matthew the first temptation placed before Jesus is to turn stones into bread. I recall a presentation at a clergy gathering when I served in Western Newfoundland. The facilitator brought in some stones from the wilderness. She pointed out how much the stones resembled loaves of bread in their shape and color. What a powerful temptation to place before someone who is "famished". What a powerful temptation to place before someone who is passionate about the hunger of others. Jesus rejects Satan's temptation. Bread alone is not enough. However, he would later perform the miracle of loaves and fishes. It's a miracle that is so important that it is recorded in all four gospels-in one of the Gospels it's recorded twice! We do not live by bread alone. But, Jesus feeds people, describes himself as the bread of life, grounds his memory and presence in a meal of bread and wine, and makes feeding the hungry a standard by which we will be judged in terms of our own moral stewardship. He will respond clearly and decisively to the misunderstanding and controversy that the loaves and fishes miracle created for some. There is little doubt that the temptation of stones for bread gave Jesus focus and perspective. The complex nature of the temptation surfaces with reflection. Something similar can be said of the other two temptations.

 

Satan fails to drive a wedge between heaven and earth, fails in having Jesus make false choices between one and the other. Jesus leaves behind a geographic environment where life vulnerable. He emerges clear and focused with regard to God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. He re-enters a society where the moral life, (described in the scripture by such terms as justice, righteousness, peace) is equally vulnerable. Being aware of a dependence on God is equally crucial if the kingdom is to be a reality. The temptations of Christ in the wilderness formed him for ministry in the world.

 

Lent is a time when the church calls us to prepare ourselves for renewing our baptismal covenant. The renewal intended is not merely the reciting of words but the renewal of our lives. I'd like to suggest that wrestling with the United Nations Millennium Goals over the next four Sundays in Lent provides an opportunity for us to better understand how God will, as the prayer after communion says, "Lead us in the path of Christ, who is the word of Life."

 

There are eight Millennium Goals. [See Sunday Leaflet for Feb.10th]. We will have opportunity to set them along side the encounters described in the Gospels over the next four Sundays.

 

These conversations are rich and layered. We meet Nicodemus, The Samaritan woman, the blind man, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus. We will hear again cutting edge conversation. -conversation enables us to connect our faith to our world. These encounters help us understand how to better seek and serve Christ, love our neighbor, and respect human dignity.

 

You may not be able to take this exercise out into the wilds of Nova Scotia (perhaps); but I encourage you to find time and place to ponder what we read and hear. There are three temptations. There are eight Millennium Goals. The common ground between them is the call to discernment and formation with regard to our covenant with God and with our neighbors in the global village.