A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
The First Sunday in Lent – Year C – Sunday, March 6, 2022
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I will be 40 years old tomorrow and even though there is literally no time for me to be reading self-help books, to prepare for my mid-life crisis I researched Arthur C. Brooks’¹ new bestseller, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.² Brooks is a Harvard Professor, PhD social scientist, musician, best-selling author, and columnist at The Atlantic. His compelling research reveals and affirms much of the same wisdom disclosed in today’s Gospel and in our Christian tradition of observing a holy Lent.³ Today’s Homily, which will be short, explores how Jesus’s responses to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness are not only vital to living a life of deep purpose, connection, and satisfaction, but also how following Jesus during these forty days of Lent teaches us how to resist evil, repent, and return to God; how to be the Good News of God of in Christ; how to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself; how to strive for justice and peace among all people, and how to respect the dignity of every human being. In short, how to say no to Satan and death, and instead say yes to God in Scripture, Prayer, Love, and Serving Others.
Arthur Brooks’ research draws on social science, philosophy, biography, theology, and eastern wisdom and proves that as we age striving for Power, Money, Pleasure, and Prestige eventually leaves us feeling deeply unhappy, disconnected, lonely, bitter, and irrelevant. When we choose instead to love our Faith, Family, Friends, and Work that Serves Others, as we age our lives become deeply satisfying and meaningful. Brooks reveals that when we strive to get Power, get Money, get Pleasure, and get Prestige, we use people, love possessions, and worship ourselves. But when give ourselves generously to our Faith, our Family, our Friends, and to Work that Serves Others, we love people, use things to love and serve others, and we worship God alone.
Applying Brooks’ research to today’s Gospel, we see how Satan finds an opportune time to tempt Jesus in his famished, all-too-human vulnerability. Satan tries to get Jesus to choose Power, Money, Pleasure, and Prestige in worshipping Satan, and Jesus says “No.” One of the books I am required and delighted to make time to study includes a superb interpretation of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. In his essay titled, “Those Near Belonging” from his masterpiece, The Christian Imagination, Willie James Jennings shows how Jesus faces the fears and temptations of all peoples in the wilderness. He writes that Satan’s “temptation is fundamentally one of an isolating self-sufficiency that heeds no other voice and that needs no other voice.”⁴ This isolating self-sufficiency gives way to cravings for worldly power, worldly victories, ruling the world, world domination, and worldly splendor. Since God has created us instead for love and belonging, Jennings writes, “Jesus’ response is a flat denouncement of Satan’s power.” The narrative, he writes, “draws us to the awful condition of our collective weakness, yet the wilderness struggle and victory anticipates a possibility: a people joined to the body of Jesus who can overcome the temptations of evil.” His most haunting sentence reads, “Jesus is alone in the wilderness, but we are there with him.”⁵
In this wilderness of two years of pandemic while reckoning with 530 years of Western European Anglo North Atlantic world domination, like Jesus, we too are famished in body, mind, and spirit. In our families, our friends, even in our own faith community we have seen Satan’s temptations to command and demand that we get what we want, how and when we want it, and if we don’t get what we want, how and when we want it, we cut ourselves off from the relationships that sustain us, and we become estranged, bitter, lonely, and miserable. In Putin we see the colonizer tempted by Satan to conquer, exploit, extract, and exterminate Others for the sake of worldly power and the idolatrous worship of himself. Countless lives have been taken recklessly by those who would rather hurl themselves off the pinnacles of their own hubris than love their neighbors by following public health and safety measures for the common good in preserving the sacred gift of life.
For these forty days and forty nights we must heed Ash Wednesday’s sacred invitation to the observance of a holy Lent found on page 265 in The Book of Common Prayer. We must examine ourselves and the choices we are making in our daily lives. We can turn to loving our faith by praying, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, and partaking in the Sacraments. We can pour our love, our presence, and our time into those we call family, chosen family, and friends – even when don’t feel it. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “love is a choice to will the good of the other.” And finally, we can work to serve others with enjoyment, satisfaction, and delight. On this First Sunday in Lent, as we choose to say yes to God’s liberating love and belonging, I close with Willie James Jennings’ words:
My hope is for the joining of peoples not only to each other but also to God who calls them to touch his body. For some, this deeply erotic image is disturbing. But it should be far less disturbing to us than bodies that never embrace, that never walk together on a moonlit night awaiting the dawn of a new day.⁶
I pray God’s blessings on all of us for a Holy Lent. Amen.
Arthur C. Brookes, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (New York, NY: Portfolio, 2022).
The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 264-265.
Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010), 261.