First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017 Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Deprived or Blessed?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to give us the eyes to see even in the darkest of circumstances your love and provision for us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen
Scott Dannemiller (thank you JayJay Flaherty for this story) writes: “I was on the phone with a good friend the other day. After covering important topics, like disparaging each other’s mothers and retelling semi-factual tales from our college days, our conversation turned to the mundane.
“So, how’s work going?” my friend asked. For those of you who don’t know, I make money by teaching leadership skills and helping people learn to get along in corporate America. My wife says it’s all a clever disguise so I can get up in front of large groups and tell stories.
I answered my buddy’s question with, ‘Definitely feeling blessed. Last year was the best year yet for my business. And it looks like this year will be just as busy.’ The words rolled off my tongue without a second thought. Like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or placing my usual lunch order at McDonald’s. But it was a lie.
Now, before you start taking up a collection for the ‘Feed the Dannemillers’ fund,allow me to explain. We are not in dire straits. Last year was the best year yet for my business. But that is not a blessing.
I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. “This new car is such a blessing.” “Finally closed on the house. Feeling blessed.” “Just got back from a mission trip. Realizing how blessed we are here in this country.” On the surface, the phrase seems harmless. Faithful even. Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have? Isn’t that the right thing to do? No.
As I reflected on my “feeling blessed” comment, two thoughts came to mind. I realize I’m splitting hairs here, creating an argument over semantics. But bear with me, because I believe it is critically important. It’s one of those things we can’t see because it’s so culturally engrained that it has become normal. But it has to stop. And here’s why.
First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces the Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers. I can’t help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M’s to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to use the toilet rather than their pants. Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it’s for our own good. But positive reinforcement? God is not a behavioral psychologist.
Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $1 per day. You read that right—hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day.
The problem is, nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.”
Part of the post-presidential election drama has been the fear by some that they might be deprived of one thing or another—health insurance, the opportunity to be in this country, or civil rights. Those who fear that, whether as potential victims or advocates, have raised their voices and actions to decry and condemn the possibility of being deprived of those things.
Though there are certainly degrees, we all have been deprived at one time or another. Perhaps, we have been deprived of approval, love, affection, opportunity, respect, purpose, and on very rare occasions even food or water. Whatever the deprivation, it is unpleasant and maybe even life-threatening. We yearn for that thing that would quench our thirst or satisfy our hunger, whether literally, emotionally, or spiritually, as if at times our very lives depended on it and in some cases has.
Peter Marty, publisher of Christian Century, recently wrote (March 1, 2017) about a man named Albert Woodfox, who had survived 43 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison), in April 1972 after the killing of a corrections officer. When Woodfox was released in 2016, he had to relearn the basics of everyday living. Even getting more than a few hours of sleep each night posed a special challenge.
“He sometimes jolted awake, overcome by the sensation that the atmosphere was pressing down on him,” wrote Rachel Aviv in a New Yorker article. “All four walls appeared to be inches from his face, (even though he was no longer in prison). He felt so constricted that he removed all his clothes. He calmed himself by pacing—four steps forward, four steps back—a technique he’d been using for decades (while incarcerated). After four or five minutes, the walls of the room would snap back into place.”
It is rare if at all that you and I would put ourselves in a position of being deprived. Certainly, we would not dare put ourselves into the kind of deprivation, as that experienced by Albert Woodfox. Deprivation, as Woodfox’s example so numbingly illustrates, can shape our characters and personalities. For better or worse is perhaps the ultimate question. Rather, most if not all of us are looking for the kind of circumstance in our lives—the new car, the successful business—which might incline us to say that we are blessed.
The season of Lent, of course, introduces the possibility of us willing engaging in some form of deprivation. We might fast or give up some pleasure—chocolate, alcohol, or social media like Facebook. These voluntary deprivations, however, are at our discretion. We choose when or if to begin and when to quit. It is another matter altogether when those deprivations are not voluntary. We undergo some kind of surgery that deprives us of our normal movement. How does that make us feel? Do we feel trapped or unfairly treated? There are, of course, other deprivations, which we have not chosen, that might befall us.
Financial failure, loss due to death, divorce, sickness, age, and the various permutations of the ebb and flow of life, are among those demons of deprivation which we fear might and usually will afflict us at some point in our lives.
In today’s gospel from St. Matthew, we again witness that extraordinary, out of the ordinary event of Jesus being led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. As we heard, Jesus had willingly deprived Himself (the Spirit did not make Him) of food for forty days and nights. The last we heard of such a fast was when Moses was on the mountain for forty days to receive instruction from God.
We are not told if Jesus was without water during those forty days. Regardless, not only had He been without food and maybe water, He had also been without the company of other humans and all that might imply—fellowship, sharing, conversation, affirmation by others, and a sense of belonging. In other words, there was more to Him being famished than a roaring, growling appetite.
It is at this point of greatest deprivation that the devil shows up; saying “If you are the Son of God, commands these stones to become loaves of bread.” Certainly, Jesus was capable of doing so, as His miracle of feeding five thousand people from a few fish and loaves testifies. Despite Jesus’ extreme deprivation, the absence of food, He did not yield to the temptation of using His extraordinary powers to save Himself.
We, perhaps, find it difficult to relate to Jesus’ situation. We can imagine, though having been deprived of food for a lengthy period, coming across a grocery store late at night, and being tempted to break in in order to feed ourselves. Would we steal to save ourselves?
The offer of food is just one of three ways the devil tries to tempt Jesus after His forty day ordeal of deprivation. With each, the devil attempts to offer a solution for solving Jesus’ state of deprivation. Food is the most obvious and logical one. We may have missed this, but with each subsequent temptation the solution gets further and further away from addressing Jesus’ actual need for food. What does worshiping the devil, the third temptation; have to do with satiating Jesus’ hunger? Nothing, nothing whatsoever! Do you hear me?
The lesson here to us is seriously important. The devil will use any means possible to distract and distort us into believing that he has the solution to our problem, our current state of deprivation, offering solutions that have nothing whatsoever to do with solving the deprivation at all. All of us have fallen prey to that trap—the most obvious, being addiction. We know that drugs or alcohol will not solve our problems. They may ease the pain or stress, but they will not remove the source of deprivation, nor supply what is needed to eliminate the deprivation.
So, how does Jesus handle His deprivation? Where does He look? He looks toward God, more specifically what God has said in scripture, the Bible. Remember what He said. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Finally, after the third temptation we heard that the devil left Jesus and what happened? “Suddenly angels came and waited on Him.”
The items offered by the devil are certainly alluring. Richard Hays, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, observes that Satan offers Jesus an attractive package of bread, fame and power. “The lure is real. Jesus is hungry in the wilderness, wrestling with a vocation sure to lead to suffering and death. The devil offers a way out, offers perks, proposes the big splash in the big media market. … Who could resist?”
Good question. Who could resist? Given an offer of bread after 40 days of fasting, fame as the one and only Son of God, and total world power at the beginning of a career, how many of us would say no? How many would turn away from offers that met physical, spiritual and political needs? How many of us have the courage to offer resistance when confronted by similar attractions?” In other words, does what the devil offer come under the category of what we would call blessed? Think about that one.
Perhaps, we can recall another time when similar offerings of blessing were presented: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). Never mind that Adam and Eve were not hungry, or worse famished, as was Jesus.
They had all the food they could eat in the Garden of Eden.
Jesus might have eaten bread with a blink of his powerful eye, might have enjoyed jumping from a high place and being caught by angels (Perhaps, the devil was suggesting suicide as a way of making the pain go away), or might have had all the kingdoms of the world (Incidentally the kingdoms were not the devil’s to give. He could not have delivered and Jesus would have lost His soul to the devil). Instead, Jesus in relying upon God’s word in the Bible ended up having angels wait on Him. Is it difficult to answer what was the greater, enduring blessing?
It is the most profound and life-change truth of the Bible, above all else perhaps, that God is not put off, overwhelmed, deterred, or defeated by deprivation. It is a consistent theme of scripture that God comes to those places most inhospitable, most deficient, most empty, and most impossible and makes possible life, abundant life. From the dawn of creation, when the earth was a formless void, to a man named Abraham and his barren wife Sarah, to a desert where a group of former slaves fed on manna, to a man named Samson, who in strength of the Spirit killed Philistines by the thousands, to a virgin woman named Mary who immaculately conceived, to the thousands healed of blindness, deafness, paralysis, leprosy, to the those raised from the dead, and ultimately He who was resurrected from the dead, God has been victorious over every deprivation. He has accomplished victory for us through resurrection of His Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus, who defeated the worst and the most of deprivation, death itself.
No, it is not easy being deprived. It is painful; it is discouraging, and at times overwhelming. We all have our own experiences in that regard. We have called out to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit to come to our aid, maybe even now. We have called out mightily, long and hard, yet, still found ourselves deprived of good health, a good marriage, a good job, a good home, or some opportunity. We have prayed for that which we might call a blessing, an essential blessing, not some mere luxury. Where, though, is God who is supposed to answer and provide?
So, we wait. Had Jesus intended to fast for forty days or was that how long it took for God, His father, to show up through the appearance of ministering angels? Did Abraham believe he would have to wait until he was one hundred before a son would be born to Sarah? Did the Jews believe they would have to wait hundreds of years before being liberated from Egyptian slavery?
God’s timing, as we know is a mystery. I heard it said recently something like this, “Time is a moral process.” What does that mean? It is in the waiting and the enduring that we show our faithfulness, our trust in God. No, that may not be much consolation, even though it is true. It does remind us, however, that the goal of our salvation, though delivered through faith in Jesus, is not without our participation and witness.
Look at it this way: Which of these genuinely and authentically legitimizes a person being able to say he or she is blessed? Is it the individual who has everything or the individual, who despite severe deprivation—illness, money problems, or relational woes, says that he or she is blessed? We know the answer.
So, Lord God, give us the eyes of faith to see the growing light of your coming presence and provision even in the darkest of deprivations.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen