A Kiss and a Cross

A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

March 13, 2011

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota

“After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 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,

‘One does 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 placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do 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 splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”                                Matthew 4:1-11

What is the point, please, or an earthquake?  What are we to learn from a tsunami?  By what possible criteria can such unspeakable suffering and loss of life be justified?

And why don’t you just flick the murderer Khadafy off the face of the earth?  Why did you sit on your hands and let the madman Hitler claim thousands of innocent lives?  Why do you allow the starvation of innocent children? Why do shallow, troubled movie stars consume so much of our national energy?

And enough with asking us to balance Tradition, Reason and Scripture in some kind of impossible equation….Couldn’t you be a little clearer, please?   Most of us have some questions for God today…

Our first lesson is about Adam and Eve, who also wanted their questions answered.  So Satan tempts them with exactly that promise: they would know everything if they ate the apples from the Tree of Knowledge – they would be Godlike. They gave in, were banished from the Garden, but their questions remained unanswered.

Today the Tempter appears again, this time not in a Garden but in a desert, and Satan tempts Jesus in the opposite way he came at Adam and Eve.  They wanted to be less human and know everything; Satan tempts Jesus to be more human by giving in to the things that virtually every human longs for: satisfaction of hunger; the ability to manipulate God, and unlimited recognition and power.

Jesus was a learned and devout Jew who knew his Scriptures, and his responses to these temptations are brief and are all exact quotations from Deuteronomy:

“Man does not live by bread alone.”  (Deut. 8:3)

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deut. 6:16).

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.” (Deut. 6:13).

It’s not difficult to put ourselves into this showdown in the desert.  Our hungers are infinite, although few of us have known moments of genuine want.  In fact, for most of us the challenge is not to consume an unhealthy amount of the bounty that is constantly before us.  We buy things we don’t need, spending money we may not have. We diet while much of the world starves.  People seek to be “the biggest loser” and win prizes for allowing their struggles with weight to be exploited as entertainment.

The second temptation is to put God to the test.  Satan tells Jesus that if he is so sure of God’s protection, jump off this roof and we can all cheer as the angels come and sweep you up.

I have always loved the response of religious historian Huston Smith here who points out that in a scientific experiment, you manipulate certain variables to make a conclusion.  But guess what: because God is, by definition, a higher power, all of the variables are not within your control.  So you can’t set up little experiments – like jumping off roofs —  and see if God comes through.

The third temptation is idolatry. Satan promises Jesus everything the world offers if Jesus will worship him.

Our own culture presents many gods for worship.  Frederick Buechener: “Under certain circumstances, money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family, loyalty, physical beauty, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on, are fine things to have around, but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly.  They just aren’t up to it.” (Beyond Words, Frederick Buechener, 2004).

No version of the temptation of Christ is more powerfully rendered than in the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

(An aside here, to lighten things up a bit: last Thursday afternoon I was feeling a little sense of accomplishment that I had been wrestling with Dostoyevsky for much of the week, and, bleary-eyed, I walked up to the main desk at Barnes and Noble to get a birthday present for one of the grand-dudes and glancing at the line behind me, and had to say so softly I had to repeat it : “Do you have Dav Pilkey’s book, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space? What we do for love.)

Back to the “other” novel: It is the height of the Spanish Inquisition, around 1600 in Seville, and a disguised Jesus visits the city. The Grand Inquisitor, a cardinal of the Church, described as “an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect and with sunken eyes,” recognizes Jesus and has him thrown into prison.  And the he pays a visit.

He begins by referencing the three temptations in the desert and asserts that Jesus made a gigantic mistake by misjudging human nature.  He should have turned the stones into bread, as people always follow those who feed their bellies. “Feed them,” the Inquisitor insists, “then ask of them virtue.”

Secondly, Jesus should have cast himself down from the roof of the temple and be swept up by angels, because then he would have cemented his godhood in the midst of the people who would then follow him forever.

Thirdly, he tells Jesus, “You should have claimed the power that was offered you. Then you could have ruled over the kingdoms of the earth and could have mandated Godly behavior.”

In other words, as Phillip Yancy writes, “By resisting Satan’s temptations to override human freedom, Jesus made himself far too easy to reject.  He surrendered his greatest power: the power to compel belief.” (Phillip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew)

The sly Inquisitor continues, fortunately, the Church has recognized this problem and is now correcting it, even as we speak.

The “correction” was the Spanish Inquisition when thousands were burned at the stake for being unwilling to confess Christian faith.  The penalty for disbelief was often enforced baptism and then death.  Jew and Muslims were particular targets, as well as those who officials felt might have “insincerely” converted to Christianity.

We are all grand inquisitors, with endless questions: Why did God give us free will?  Why did God make it so easy for us to hurt each other, to exploit the planet? Why aren’t things explained more explicitly so that we can do the right thing?

The answer to all the questions is given in the last scene of The Grand Inquisitor: “Christ, who had been silent throughout the questioning gets up, crosses the room, and kisses the Inquisitor on his bloodless, aged lips.”  That is all his answer. And he slips out into the night.

The kiss of God’s love is the answer given our questions as well.

Dostoyevsky concludes this must mean:

 Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it.  Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. 

If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.  Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

But of course, you cannot impose, mandate, or legislate this love; you can only respond to it and offer it.

The response to a murderous tsunami?  Figure out some ways to love.  Love the solid ground under your own feet; take some action to love the people far away who are suffering.  The answer is love.  Those same people whose main goal is what?  To know about the safety of those they love.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about “God’s light touch,” and the remarkable restraint of God.  For God gives us the world and suggests “Take care of it.”  God gives us life and choices about how t live it.  God gives us each other, and commends us to each other’s care.  Sometimes this means standing up to the forces of evil, and the bullies who hurt and destroy the innocent.

Jesus never forced anyone into anything.  Even though he knew Judas would betray him, he did not interfere with his decision.  Yancy suggests that “’Take up your cross and follow me’ is perhaps the least manipulative invitation that has ever been given.’

The “answers” God gives us are a kiss and a cross; the assurance we are deeply loved, and the knowledge that new life will spring from the glory and the rubble of our lives.  God in Jesus who shows us the way.

My favorite television show will always be “The West Wing.” In one episode President Bartlett’s assistant Leo McGeary, tells this story:

“Guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”



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