What does it all mean?
1st Sunday of Lent
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave Baptist Church
4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Luke 4: 1-13
There are signs that mark our lives and connect with the essence of who we are. Scents and songs and images, but the signs are just as significant. We have a Walgreen’s across the street from the church now. Have you even noticed? It’s been the Rite Aid for as long as I’ve lived here, but I’m smart enough to know that it’s really the K&B. And I know that if you peel the signs off of the Broadway side door of that building, the K&B logo is still underneath everything on the outside. The K&B on Springhill Avenue in Mobile was the marker to turn to my grandparents house. A marking sign in my childhood that we were almost there.
When I drive to my hometown now, like I did on Friday, something happens in my heart along I-10 when I see the “Sweet Home Alabama” sign. I don’t even know if I’ll ever live in Alabama again in my lifetime, but when I see that sign (or, let’s be honest, hear the first notes of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song) I’m home. There’s this other sign on I-65 when you’re driving North from Mobile to Montgomery or Birmingham, as I have so many times, that pictures a red devil with a pitchfork. Do you know it? Have you seen it? It says, “Go to church of the devil will get you.” It disappeared for a while recently, and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the theology is so gross, but on the other…that’s one of my signs. I know where I am when I see that sign. Turns out the owners were just repairing it to hang it again after a storm, so that Southern Gothic combination of landmark and toxic theology is still right there along I-65 on the northbound side near Prattville.
I think that may well be the sign we have in mind when we begin the season of Lent with this story of the Devil and temptation. Jesus is off in the wilderness for 40 days and has a little devil man chasing him around offering him all kinds of Faustian bargains. And when we make it a silly cartoon in our imaginations, then it’s really easy to dismiss the struggle Jesus is experiencing for those 40 days.
So let’s do better with this story, shall we? We’ve been in Luke for ages now, and I love it. As we pace back and forth through these pages, we know that Luke has a deeply political context. We know that the author of Luke is writing in a very particular time (when Quirnius was still governor and in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar). In this very particular time and context, John the baptizer is out in the wilderness preaching about a way that is counter both to the way of the empire and the way his religious tradition is far too cozy with Rome.
And in this very particular time and context, in this very particular, counter-cultural wilderness baptismal spot, Jesus shows up. Not only does Jesus show up, but he gets in line along with tax collectors and soldiers and all kinds of curious folks who aren’t okay with the way of the empire and the way of the status quo and the way their religious tradition has gotten entirely too familiar with powers that crush and oppress. Jesus gets in *this* particular line for baptism—bypassing all of the other far more convenient and prominent places he could have lined up for baptism.
And when Jesus is baptized, he hears this voice from something descending and hovering like a dove that calls him beloved. This is a sign. This is one of those marking moments that defines what home is for Jesus. In this particular time and place, in this particularly problematic political moment, Jesus heads past the city and past what’s convenient and past what’s status quo to the one who is shouting, “The crooked will be made straight,” and he gets in line among people who are NOTORIOUSLY crooked, so he can be washed into the movement of this new thing right alongside them. And when he enters those waters and comes up again, he is called beloved.
We have to tell this baptismal story again because it is only AFTER that moment that he heads deeper into the wilderness, farther from the city, farther from the status quo, and away from even those beautiful, crooked people who have just been baptized until he is alone. Well, maybe he’s alone. Maybe he’s out there with a red guy with a pitchfork. Maybe he’s hearing voices. Maybe it’s that ha satan accuser from the book of Job. Maybe it’s the dark, hovering presence of fear and ego that may as well be personified. I don’t fully know. Luke just tells us that Jesus is out there, thanks to the guidance of the Spirit, with the mark of his belovedness still dripping from his wet hair, and some kind of devil speaking to him.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
Here’s what I think. Jesus has received this beloved marker. This sign. This blessing that covers his identity and tells him who he is and where he is. But now he has to decide what to do with it. Now he has to decide what it all means. Will his belovedness give him fame? Will his belovedness carry him on the shoulders of power? Will his belovedness be a bubble of safety around him, charming his life?
Or will his belovedness compel him to speak into the particular place and particular time and particular moment in which he was born. Will his belovedness require he challenge the authority and splendor he sees his faith leaders exploiting. Will his belovedness make certain that he is not physically safe and forever wandering without a rooted home because of the people he loves and the ways that he welcomes them. What is he supposed to do with this mark of blessing in a time of oppression and turmoil? He is wrestling with these questions and with the Divine blessing that has been placed on him.
He has these signs. These markers. These phrases that have shaped him—the words of scripture that he took seriously even as a 12-year-old in the temple—and they guide his answers to this question about what does his belovedness mean. We do, too. That’s why Lent is our wilderness each year. We have this time built into our year when we get to ask ourselves what we are going to do with our belovedness. What are we going to do with the words of scripture that shape who we are. What are we going to do with the calling we feel so clearly to be a remnant of a particular way of Christianity in a particular time and particular moment?
What do we do with our belovedness now? Do we use it to propel us to celebrity and fame? Do we use it for our own security and comfort? What does any of this mean? These words that we keep holding tenderly and studying and praying with and by and over. Why do we come back to this place and this way again and again? Where is the Spirit compelling us to go? And what will become of us once we go there? Jan Richardson writes, “Life will continually lay us bare, sometimes with astonishing severity. In the midst of this, the season of Lent invites us to see what is most elemental in us, what endures: the love that creates and animates, the love that cannot be destroyed, the love that is most basic to who we are. This season inspires us to ask where this love will lead us, what it will create in and through us, what God will do with it in both our brokenness and our joy.”
That’s what we’re doing in this wilderness. That is the great invitation of the season, and I pray we give ourselves to it. I want you to do this work individually, as I surely am, and ask good, hard questions about how your belovedness calls you to live and act and move in this world. We also need to do this work together as a people who are part of a movement. We are creating some really great, exciting, new things here at St. Charles. What does it all mean? How are we moving from our belovedness and not our ego? How are we moving by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not the dark promises of security and adoration? We need to be really clear about these questions because we are figuring out what this life means. We need to be clear not just that we bear the signs of love but that love is leading us, creating in and through us, and where we are going in this particular time and particular place is carrying us all to a sacred place where brokenness and joy intersect for the shalom of the world.
May it be so with us.