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Sermon: Alone Together

February 19, 2010

Luke 4:1-13

For nearly 20 years, a man living alone in a cabin in Montana terrorized the entire nation.  He killed three people and wounded 22.  He even brought a bomb onto a 747, but the bomb failed to knock the airliner out of the sky.  Instead, it merely caused a small fire.  The man who became known as the Unabomber ultimately engineered his own arrest by sending a 35,000-word rant to the New York Times and Washington Post.  Ted Kaczynski’s brother recognized the writing and informed police.  Soon after, in 1995, the Unabomber was in custody.  (Time articles: “Crimes of the Century: The Unabomber” and “Unabomber: Tracking Down the Unabomber.”)

The life of Ted Kaczynski, out there all by himself in his cabin in the woods, is the way we imagine the lives of all our serial killers and psychopaths.  “I didn’t really know him.  He pretty much kept to himself.”  “He was always so quiet.”  We think of them as people who have withdrawn from society, who seem to be uncomfortable in the company of others, who are often uncomfortable in their own skin.  We imagine that their isolation feeds their anger and hatred.  They push away everyone who might be a balancing influence.

That’s why the wilderness is such a potentially dangerous place.  Jesus wasn’t the only one of God’s prophets called into the wilderness, but our Gospels tell us that either he went there obediently (Luke 4:1 and Matthew 4:1) or that the Holy Spirit drove him into it (Mark 1:12) for 40 days and nights.

Forty days and nights alone.  With his own thoughts.  With his own fears.  With his own questions about whether or not he had the strength to complete a dangerous journey to Jerusalem.  I imagine that after just a few days away from civilization, from the people and places I am accustomed to seeing every day, that I would start to long for the company of others.  After a week or more, the vast wilderness might start to feel like a prison cell, with all the time in the world to invent new fears.  At the end of 40 days, I might well be on the edge of sanity, unsure of what is really real and what is only a creation of my own mind.

Yet there was Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days.  Luke tells us that he ate nothing during that time.  Nothing.  But Jesus wasn’t alone.  The devil was also there.  The text says that “for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”  Jesus didn’t hang out there for more than a month, and then at the end the devil stopped by.  No, the devil was out there with him for the entire 40 days—tempting, testing, pushing, prodding.

Forty days out there alone, with no one to talk to except a strangely rational voice in your head, maybe a shadow, maybe a shimmering, mirage-like figure.  And so you’re famished, because you aren’t eating anything on your spiritual quest, and the voice, the presence says to you, “Since you are the Son of God, since you are the chosen, holy one, why don’t you simply turn these stones into bread?  It’s much easier than enduring this hunger.  Besides, what’s the point of starving yourself?  Your body needs food.  There are plenty of hungry children back in the world who need food.  Just turn these rocks into bread.  It’s a much better way than all of this.”  The devil gestures out at a vast space filled only with scrub and stones and sand.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?  How could that hurt to use this God-given power to make a little bread?

I wish that scripture would let us into Jesus’ head a little more than it does.  I would like to know exactly what Jesus thought about the devil’s suggestion.  But all Luke tells us is what Jesus said.  “One does not live by bread alone.”

The devil wasn’t done.  Forty days is a very long time.  The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in an instant of that time.  Jesus saw the Chosen People of Israel, broken and scattered by war, invasion and infighting.  Jesus saw the Roman Emperor’s domain, much of the Western world.  Jesus saw pagans, people who desperately needed to know God.  He saw the lands of despots who cruelly oppressed their own people.  He saw places where there was terrible famine and even more terrible disease running rampant.  Jesus saw every place where the people needed peace and decency and a chance to live their lives in quiet happiness.

The devil said, “I can give you authority over all these lands and these people, and the glory that comes with it.  The people will honor you as the one who has plucked them from the mouths of lions and set them on their feet.  All that power and glory can be yours.  I can do that for you.  All you need to do is to worship me, acknowledge me as the true keeper of power.”

Well, for goodness sakes, why else did Jesus come to this earth if not for the purpose of freeing the oppressed, bringing peace and goodwill to humanity, to save people from the awful consequence of their own sin?

Yet Luke’s narrative puts the answer on Jesus lips in a way that makes him seem so calm and assured.  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Finally, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, to the place for Luke where God’s work has its beginning and, ultimately, its end.  The devil placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple.  At the pinnacle, at the very tip top, you can go either way, can’t you?  You can fall to this side or to that side.  The trick is to stay up there without losing your balance, isn’t it?

The devil said, “Go right ahead.  Fall right off.  You are the Son of God.  God will send angels to rescue you.  As the scripture says, ‘He will command his angels…to protect you…On their hands they will bear you up.’”

What is this temptation?  Is it a temptation to display his great power so that the masses will understand in a moment who he is?  Is it a shortcut so that he doesn’t have to spend countless dusty, dirty hours with the crowds?  Is this the way he can avoid their pain and suffering, to avoid dealing with their petty problems?  If they acknowledge his greatness now, he can remain aloof from them, keep his hands clean.

Or was this Jesus’ opportunity to test God?  Could he find out if God was really with him and would really carry him through the ordeals that lay ahead?  It would be nice to know—before he went too far along in his journey toward the cross—whether or not God would back him up.  It is a practical issue.  Can I trust this or not?

Instead, Jesus said only “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

And when everything was done, when Jesus had apparently passed the tests, the devil went away.  The devil went away “until an opportune time.”  Oh yes, the devil will be back.  It is not the last time the devil will appear in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Chosen One of God.

*     *    *     *     *

Like Ted Kaczynski, Jesus seemed to be utterly alone in the wilderness for the time of his temptation.  He was alone, and that’s how the devil tried to get to him.  We’re always more vulnerable when we’re alone.  That’s why we think that loners are able to get off balance, to teeter toward the edge and commit some inhuman deeds.

Yet even though Jesus was physically alone, he made sure that he wasn’t alone.  Each time the devil came at Jesus with a test, Jesus had a simple answer at the ready:

–“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

–“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

–“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Each time the devil proposes a shortcut to Jesus’ mission, Jesus responds from the wisdom of scripture.  Specifically, Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:13 and 6:16), the fifth book of the Torah.  The story of Deuteronomy is the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness, just like Jesus was.  But instead of 40 days, the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

Jesus connected his own journey, his own temptation, to the journey of his people at the beginning of their creation as a people.  He was drawing on a tradition that is bigger than any one life because it is the tradition of an entire people.  Jesus was bringing his own community into the wilderness with him to give him strength and support when he would have otherwise been alone.  Jesus, alone in the wilderness, was not alone.  All the people of Israel were walking with him.

Certainly, there is nothing really unusual about that.  We do it all the time.  Imagine Thanksgiving dinner.  Grandpa looks around the table, a Bible in his hand, and says to the younger members of the family, “When I was a boy, great uncle Walter would always read some verses from the Psalms before Thanksgiving dinner.  When he died, then my uncle Ross read scripture, and when he died, I followed that tradition.  We do this to remember all God’s blessings for us.”

Grandpa then reads from the Bible, from Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.”  And in that household, the tradition of drawing upon the strength and memory of the community continues.

We do it all the time, and those resources are always available to us.  Sometimes we forget.  Sometimes it even feels as if we are truly alone in the world.  But we’re not.  We are all connected to a larger family of God, and the collective wisdom and love and grace is always there for us if we will welcome it.  And so whenever we come together to read the ancient scriptures, to sing again the words of grace, whenever we tell the story to one another, we are reinforcing the bond with all who have gone before us, even to the beginning.

So that even if you are alone, you are not alone.  And even if you don’t know the way, you know the way.  And even if you are lost, you are found.

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