Sunday, February 17, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 17, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 4: 1-13 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
11     and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. [1]

I've found, now twice it's happened, when you go from not preaching from the lectionary to trying to preach from the lectionary, that you find yourself preaching out of passages from scripture that you have recently preached. Last winter, at the beginning of the year, I was attempting to follow the major events of Christ's life, my own lectionary of sorts, and now I find that the lectionary has a similar structure. So here I go again, getting the chance to preach again on Christ's temptation in the desert. Last year I focused on the character of the devil, focusing on how easily Christ seems to do away with the devil, simply by saying no, by resisting temptation, he strips the devil of his power, and he simply walks away vanquished, to wait for a new opportunity. Then I touched on the nature of sin, being that it seems to stem from our desire to sustain ourselves by controlling others, controlling the world, and in many ways even controlling God. I want to continue that idea this morning, and it seems, that I've already used my buzzword for the day, three times, seems, and there is four. Basically, I'm going to try to get at how our need to control comes from the idea that it all seems right to us to do so. It seems that our only hope is to control, and so we strain, struggle, by rook or by crook to control. It seems the only way after all.
Seems. . . Every week we confess our sin. Every week we talk about living rightly. Every week, and it's been this way for 2000 years of Christianity. Why is it that we cannot perfect existence? Why is it that sin is so strong? In many ways it is found in this one little word, "seems." Seems suggests that things are not what they appear. What we see is not the actuality, the truth, what is. . . Think about this in line with our gospel passage for today.
Jesus is hungry, food is offered. . . There seems no harm here. Is there harm in seeking nourishment when you are hungry? Jesus says that "Man does not live by bread alone." It certainly seems like that is the stuff of life, well bread, water, pizza, sandwiches, an occasional steak, some grilled chicken, some of Russ's crab bisque (I can tell you it was good), all these things certainly seem what gives nourishment. It's pretty simple, it seems as if our lives are dependent on the food we eat. Maybe more than seems in this sense.
Then the next temptation, Jesus is the son of God, why not be in power, why not assume your place, why not rule all that the devil shows, it's his anyway. . . it all seems logical, why not now? Why must it be later? Why must Jesus go through the rest of the story? Why not just take it all now? . . . Then "worship the Lord, Your God, and serve only him." Yeah but it seems as though a little change in the scheduling wouldn't make a difference. . .
Then the third, God is all powerful? God is Good? It seems as if he should come save me should I decide to jump off this cliff. Such is the gist of what the devil says to Jesus, such is the gist of what Psalm 91 says.  . . we recited it as the call to worship didn't we. . . we said:

For God says, "Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them."
The Lord God says, "I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long Life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation."

Seems pretty cut and dry. . . why not put it to the test? Why not see if it's all real after all? Why not get some real empirical data for once, do away with all this faith stuff? There seems to be no harm in taking a jump. I don't have bad intentions. I'm just doing what seems right. Why should it make a difference if God saves me now or at some other time? Why not now?
These three aspects of the story reflect different aspects of our lives. Remember I looked at them last year as, control of resources, control of others, control of God. But if we look at them as seemingly harmless acts that prove to be "sin" how big does the list grow? Many poets and writers within the Christian tradition have tried to show this interesting dilemma of perception in interesting ways. Allegory is one of my favorite literary devices. Allegory is when the author writes a parallel story, which symbolically tells another story. Animal Farm, by George Orwell is a great example, also the Wizard of Oz. I've been working on such a story about this beaver, who in the name of helping his friends begins to do their jobs for them to disastrous circumstances, meant as allegorical satiric commentary on much of our  society' ills. Many poets have used allegory to show human sin in a way that is less harsh, a seemingly innocent story, so that people are willing to listen to what is the actual truth beyond the seems. It's like Emily Dickinson wrote:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --
There it is blind to the truth, blinded by what seems true, what is true is often harder to bear. I'm going to use Aunt Emily's advice and use an allegory to help us see how sin blinds us to its wiles despite our best intentions.
My example of the allegory of the "seemliness" of sin is Edmund Spenser's story of "The Red Cross Knight." And before you ask, yes I'm teaching it in my class right now. DeAnna commented to me last week how my class tends to influence my sermons. . . I told her that it works both ways. . . I'm not sure to feel more sorry for you all or those poor boys. . . The Red Cross Knight is a story about a knight, who turns out to be St. George, going on a quest to defeat Sin, which symbolically takes the shape of a dragon. St. George and the dragon is a familiar legend, but Spenser adds to it the allegorical combating of sin element. The coolest part of the allegory is the way his intentions are good, but he somehow gets waylaid along the journey, and must struggle to remember his mission. His struggles all begin in the wood of error, where wouldn't you guess it, nothing is as it seems.
The first aspect of the story I want to bring out, is why he goes into the wood of error. The story says a storm sends him there looking for shelter. What are the storms of life? Stress, loss, pain, losing a job, losing a loved one, a break in a friendship, changes in wealth, political threats to safety, doubt, fear, regret. These send us looking for shelter. So we take up trying to find a way out, and forget that we were on a mission to begin with. Such happens to the knight, he goes searching for shelter from the storm, and the woods at first "seem" to be quite inviting, peaceful, and beneficial. It's very beautiful and pleasant, at least at first. It also says that the paths and alleys (seems there is no way to tell a dead end from a path), and  in the wood of error they are also very wide and lead in many different directions, to many different outcomes, the appearance of freedom, but the outcomes are not visible, and therefore are not definite. . . and all the paths are also well travelled. We are not the first to travel down this road.
The details that Spenser puts forward about the wood of error are amazingly timeless. It's funny how as time goes by, sin does not change. I asked my students this week, "why must the wood of error seem inviting and pleasant." They were thinking about it, so I let them think, I let them stew about it for a few moments. What do you think? Then one boy chimed in, saying, "because it wouldn't be error if it was intentional, it would just be wrong." Right! Let's think about that. . . why does Spenser hold error as a part of sin? Let's put that question off for a second. . .
Now I want to bring up the Red Cross Knight's companion, Una, she represents Christianity. It is her who gives him his armor, almost quoting word for word from the Ephesians passage about the "full armor of God." It is symbolically her country that is being ravaged by the dragon of sin, and it is for her that he goes on the quest in the first place. (You can see how complicated it gets, I promise I won't go too much further). She goes with him in the wood of error, and is a warning to him, constantly reminding him of the dangers. Take a look at the Prayer of Preparation for today, it gives one of their exchanges.

"Ah, lady," said the Knight, "it were shame to go backward for fear of a hidden danger. Virtue herself gives light to lead through any darkness."
"Yes," said Una; "but I know better than you the peril of this place, though now it is too late to bid you go back like a coward. Yet wisdom warns you to stay your steps, before you are forced to retreat. This is the Wandering Wood, and that is the den of Error, a horrible monster, hated of all. Therefore, I advise you to be cautious."                                              

Two of my favorite lines are in this. . . Red Cross says, "Virtue herself gives light to lead through any darkness," which is him basically saying I know the rules, and what is expected, I don't need anything but rightness to pull me through. . . And she says, "but I know better than you the peril of this place". . . as if to say, there is more to right and wrong than what virtue teaches, and the power of error is strong. Is this Christianity's message to us about sin. . . that it is stronger than we are because it begins with error and then snow balls. And it does for Red Cross too, he becomes blind to his error, gets involved with pride, which leads to despair. Despair is that hopeless place where we often find our world. Safely cynical, unchallenged, but miserable.
I had the distinct privilege of seeing the play "Urinetown" at Blue Ridge yesterday. Those boys did such a great job. I was moved. . . you know it's a good play when you laugh, cry, and are forced to question your world view all in one two plus hour sitting. Only music and theater has that power. Urine town is another allegory, that poses questions rather than answers about our world, the path we are on, and the possible outcomes of the choices we make. It leaves you really at a place where you have to choose what to believe. Cynicism or Hope. . . and the play doesn't necessarily sell one over the other, just the actuality of the dilemma. It was a breath of fresh air hidden by allegorical satire and bathroom humor. And it asks you to take a leap of faith because either truly is one.
The question that we ask ourselves during this season of lent is: Is our world what it seems or is it so much more? And if it is more what does that mean? For the Red Cross Knight, what brings him out of his despair is being reminded of his mission. . . defeating sin. . . interestingly enough flawless virtue isn't the answer, instead he must learn, faith, hope, love, humility, zeal, justice, repentance, mercy, and then with the help of the living waters or Jesus Christ the dragon is slain and sin is destroyed. The boys were upset that the fight scene with St. George and the Dragon was so anticlimactic. Yes for the final battle is nothing, sin is weak against faith, hope, and love, which is why Christ is so unaffected by the devil's temptation. May we all seek such grace. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.