Today we have one of those really odd juxtapositions of the Church calendar and the secular calendar. As far as the Church is concerned, today is the first Sunday of Lent, and our worship takes a reflective, even penitential tone. And then, on the secular calendar, we see that today is Valentine’s Day – a holiday of chocolates, flowers, romance, and probably several glasses of wine. Thank God it falls on a Sunday, when you don’t have to observe your Lenten fast….
Of all the ways our worship changes today to mark Lent, maybe the most jarring is the Great Litany, a prayer that Anglican Christians have been using for centuries now. This prayer has particular significance for us because it was the first part of the liturgy to be offered in English. Having worship in the people’s language was one of the strongest reforming impulses in England; and in 1544, the Great Litany became the first liturgy offered in the common tongue. I think it’s a telling statement of priority: The first thing regular folks could actually understand during worship was their need for forgiveness, their need for repentance, and their need for protection from powers that threatened them. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us.
Of all the things we pray for in this ancient Great Litany, probably the most archaic are these petitions: first, asking God to deliver us “from all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil”; and then to deliver us “from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil”; and finally “to beat down Satan under our feet” (BCP 148-152). In a world in which many people aren’t even sure evil exists, what are we supposed to do with those 16th century prayers about the devil? Do we just chuckle, and smile knowingly, and rest assured that we enlightened, postmodern people know better?
I want to go out on a spiritual limb and say something probably some of you won’t agree with – and that’s ok; as Episcopalians, we don’t have to agree on everything to follow Jesus together. But here goes: I actually believe there is such a thing as Satan. I don’t mean some character with horns and a pitchfork. I mean evil, as a force to be resisted and from which we ought to pray for protection, if we know what’s good for us.
Like everything else, what we believe about evil is shaped by our context -- the place, and the place in life, we inhabit. Age and life experience matter in how and what we believe. In the book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes about the differences in spirituality, and spiritual maturity, revealed in what he calls the first and second halves of life. That’s not necessarily a chronological thing, though it can be. Rohr talks about the difference between the largely empty vessel we form in the first phase of life and the experiences that fill that vessel in the second phase, making us more and more into who we truly are. And the experiences bridging the first and second phases of life tend to share a common denominator. They’re examples of our least favorite reality, which is struggle and loss. Most of us don’t much like losing anything – neither in the sense of defeat nor in the sense of things being taken from us. But you know, what you find in the “second half” of life is this: Struggle and loss is the bridge to a depth of life and a depth of love you never knew possible. No one in his or her right mind would ask for it, but the blessing of struggle and loss – over the long haul – is undeniable.
So, as we find him in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is just beginning his ministry, perhaps a first-half-of-life kind of guy. As Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story, not much has happened to Jesus yet. He’s been born; he’s wandered away from his parents in the Temple; he’s come on the scene as a grown-up; and he’s been baptized by John in the Jordan. He leaves that experience on a huge high, filled with the Holy Spirit. How else would you feel, hearing God’s voice from above telling you, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22)?
And then, the next thing that happens is that Jesus is led into the wilderness by the same Holy Spirit that’s just filled him to overflowing with the Father’s love. Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights out there away from friends and community, accompanied only by the Spirit, praying and fasting – and encountering the tempter, the deceiver, Satan himself. I’ve always wondered, why in the world would the story go like that? How do we make sense of a heavenly parent who says in one breath, “You are my Son; with you I am well-pleased” and then, with the next breath, whips up the winds of a dry and barren and threatening landscape?
I think the ultimate answer to that question may not be very satisfying: It’s a mystery. But let’s tease out the threads the story gives us.
First, it’s helpful to put ourselves into the story’s time and place, and remember what was implied by that voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son.” When we hear the phrase, “Son of God,” we think, “Jesus” or “Savior” or “second person of the Trinity” or some other Christian way of reading the story. For the people living the story, “son of God” would have taken their minds back to the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. Those kings ruled as adopted sons of Yahweh; that’s where their authority came from. So calling Jesus “son of God” meant he was to be king, too. Interestingly, we get a visual clue about that identity here, as we begin Lent: Purple is the color of royalty as well as the color of penitence. We penitent pilgrims follow the way of the crucified king.
So, the one who will be king finds himself in the wilderness, immediately tested. As Richard Rohr might say, it’s a pattern we see over and over again in the stories that form us as human beings. Whether its Moses or David or Odysseus or King Arthur or Luke Skywalker, the hero who will save his people must endure some kind of refining fire before he comes into his own. The shape of the hero’s kingship – the priorities that he’ll practice, the gods that he’ll serve – all that gets sorted out only by putting the hero to the test.
And that test involves time in a wilderness of some kind, a time when we face the possibility of true loss. The hero goes out, confident about what he brings to the task, that great capacity we think we have in the “first half” of life – but then, the hero’s great capacity is tested. What seemed like clear principles get muddied through use. What seemed like clear priorities get clouded by sirens’ songs. For the hero, it’s the passage from the first half to the second half of life. And it’s a passage many of us know better than we might want to.
For Jesus, Satan sings the siren song. That embodiment of evil goes by several names in Scripture, and they each have different shades of meaning. But here, as elsewhere, the character is all about deceit. The devil with whom Jesus wrestles in the wilderness is telling him lies – or, more precisely, he’s offering Jesus a contrast reality populated by deceit. Where God’s reign and rule is about good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed – the things that Jesus stands up and proclaims in the story just after his temptation in the wilderness – where God’s reign and rule is all about those holy purposes, Satan holds out a contrast realm. Satan offers Jesus the kingdom of this world masquerading as the truth: a kingdom of getting what we want simply by exercising our power, a kingdom of glory and honor that pass away like the grass, a kingdom in which God is nothing more than a life preserver or a cosmic vending machine. Satan never tells Jesus that God isn’t real. Satan knows better. The siren song that Satan sings is that God is at your disposal, on call to meet your needs. If Jesus – the one who will be king – if Jesus buys into that model of thin and cheap divinity, then the deceiver has won the day. Why? Because if Jesus buys into that model of thin and cheap divinity, then the world goes on just like it is. The boat is conveniently not rocked; and the poor and the blind and the captive and the oppressed stay just where they are; and nothing of much significance changes. If Jesus buys into that model of thin and cheap divinity, Satan’s deceitful view of what’s real carries the day.
But Jesus’ kingship is different. The reign and rule of God demands a king who will suffer and die in order to trick Satan and beat him at his own game. On Good Friday, the forces of evil win – or at least they think so. They’re content with killing the hero. But what they don’t realize is that the hero kills death by rising from it. It’s not just that Jesus stands strong out there in the wilderness, refusing to buy into the devil’s deceit. Jesus the hero ends up deceiving the deceiver and taking his power away.
So in this early moment in the story, as he faces down the powers that will later seek to destroy him, Jesus the hero moves through his wilderness loss, not just overcoming it but paradoxically being strengthened by it, growing into the fullness of his true self – the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one who brings good news to the poor, and releases captives, and gives sight to the blind, and sets the oppressed free. Coming through his wilderness, Jesus the hero moves one step closer to becoming Jesus the king.
Now, you can see all this as just a myth, in the literary sense. You can see it as just a tame children’s story, an archaic tale of heroes and devils, fit only for a child’s bedtime. But as C.S. Lewis says about the Christ figure in his supposed “children’s stories” of Narnia, Aslan is no tame lion. In the final chapter, this king – though he’s beaten and battered in the wilderness; though he’s beaten and battered on the cross – in the final chapter, this king will come out roaring.