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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 14, 2016 — First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13


It was a little bit like a trip to the dentist. You know how it goes—they clean your teeth, and rinse your mouth with that funny little squirter, and suck up the water with that funny little suction hose. And then they get out those wire implements, the ones that look a bit like medieval instruments of torture, and they begin to probe.

They’re looking, of course, for cavities, for soft spots in your teeth where bacteria and decay can get in. And they know just where to look. They poke and prod and test every nook and cranny for a weak point in the enamel, leaving no crevice unexplored.

It was a little bit like a trip to the dentist. During his time in the wilderness—a trying time for body, mind, and spirit—Jesus encountered an adversary, one who would test his focus, his commitment, his priorities. And that adversary got out his implements and began to probe. But where a dentist’s probing, though sometimes painful, is ultimately meant to keep you well, this adversary had the opposite intention. He was looking for cavities, for soft spots in Jesus’ identity where doubt and decay could get in. And he knew just where to look. He poked and prodded and tested every nook and cranny for a weak point in his resolve, leaving no crevice unexplored.

First, he tried the angle of physical discomfort, hunger and thirst. Perhaps this was the entry point where he could distract Jesus from who he really was and get him to use his power to make his own life less uncomfortable. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” But there was no cavity there. Jesus knew who he was and how he was called to live. He knew he was called not to a life of ease, but to the way of self-giving love, even at the expense of his own comfort. Those wire implements found no traction.

Next, that adversary tried the angle of glory and authority, tempting Jesus to build up his own power, his own reputation. Perhaps this was the soft spot where he could convince Jesus to advance his own status by the standards of this world. “To you I will give the glory and all this authority, if you, then, will worship me.” But there was no cavity there. Jesus knew where his loyalties lay. He knew that he was called not to self-aggrandizement, but to the way of true power, which looked like weakness in the eyes of the world. Again, the implements found no traction.

Next, that adversary tried the angle of confidence and trust, or lack thereof. Perhaps this was the vulnerable place where he could tempt Jesus into a dramatic display that looked like a leap of faith but was really a demonstration of doubt. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here!” But there was no cavity there, either. Jesus knew that God’s care was trustworthy, and so he had no need to force God’s hand by risking his own neck with a death-defying jump. He knew that his very identity resided in the love of God, that that connection was the truest thing about him, and that it had already been demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt. Once again, no traction.

That adversary poked and prodded in every way he could think of, looking for cavities, for chinks in the armor, for holes in Jesus’ sense of self and clarity of call. Finding none, he departed from him until an opportune time. Jesus had proved himself for now to be rooted unshakably in his identity as God’s child, God’s beloved, our Savior.

Friends, I don’t know about you, but I am definitely not Jesus. I am definitely not as unshakable as he was. If the adversary were to poke and prod me with even a fraction of the thoroughness he exercised on Jesus, I am quite sure that he would find some cavities.

In fact, I’d say that cavities are part of the human condition. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that we are born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We seek to satisfy that longing with all kinds of earthly things—food and drink; power and authority; sex, drugs, and rock & roll—but the only thing that can truly meet that need is the love of our Creator. Other things might look like they are exactly the right size, precisely the right shape, like they will taste so good, or feel so right, or fill us up so we won’t have to feel so empty inside… but in the end, they only leave us hungrier and lonelier and emptier than before.

Jesus had the wisdom to know the difference between the things the devil offered to him and the things he truly needed. I, on the other hand—and perhaps you, too—do not always have that wisdom. There are plenty of ways I seek to satisfy my longings by my own devices, to achieve security and comfort by my own efforts, to establish my own identity apart from my dependence on God. But when I can see clearly, I recognize that all my striving only separates me from God’s embrace, only distances me from where I really need to be.

If you are like me, which is to say, if you are human, then perhaps there are things with which you try to fill that God-shaped hole, things that do not ultimately satisfy. Perhaps for you it might be self-reliance, the myth of independence to which we New Englanders are particularly prone. Perhaps for you it might be material possessions, that next right thing that will surely make you as happy as the people in the commercials seem to be. Perhaps for you it might be alcohol or some other substance that dulls the pain for a while but does not treat the underlying cause.

This Lenten season is an opportunity for us to examine these ways in which we seek to satiate ourselves, to fill those cavities that can only truly be filled by the love of God. And it is an opportunity for us to let go of some of those things that, in the end, only make the cavities deeper, only distance us from where we really need to be.

To that end, I invite you now to come forward (up the side aisles) as you feel led, take a stone from these baskets, and use the markers on the tables to write on that stone something you need to let go of, something with which you try to fill the God-shaped hole in your heart. Then, come here to the font, drop that stone into the water, and watch as that thing to which you cling is washed away. As you return to your seat (using the center aisle), remember that the font is also the place where, through your baptism, God’s love for you was made manifest, guaranteed, promised to you for all time, and by letting go of those things you do not need, you are opening yourself to receive the love that is poured out for you, already and always.

Here we go.


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