Sermon Preached at St. James's Church, Cambridge, MA on Sunday February 17th 2002
Most years the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness is a one-off annual opportunity at the beginning of Lent to think about an otherwise faintly embarrassing tenet of faith. Most years we make an effort to consider evil, "the devil," Satan - and for that matter sin and temptation, now mostly the domain of HBO and the FOX network - and apologetically dust them off, tease them out and try to re-work them as though they still made sense.
This year it is not so. This year we know we have seen the face of evil, and that this nation is engaged in a struggle that has been described as a fundamental contest between good and evil. If the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan is sometimes a reminder of the reality of evil, the very fact of it, then this year it is perhaps a reminder of the real nature of evil, its actual character, and just what it is that we are struggling against in our own Lenten fast and in the whole of our Christian discipleship. Michael our Rector has challenged us this Lent to consider the mystery of "Christ in us" and our being "in Christ," and that challenge also involves the need for us to discern another reality that we are in, but that we must strive against.
Jesus meets Satan not on a battlefield or a war crimes tribunal or congressional hearing into accounting practices, but in the wilderness, the desert, with absolutely no weapons, no trappings of power, nothing. Wilderness has become almost fashionable for good and bad reasons; our growing sense of its priceless ecological value and the spiritual sickness we sometimes feel at the excess of the city and what it represents, drive us to think of the wilderness as a place of peace and tranquility, where there is an end to the external influences that oppress and corrupt us.
The truth, however, is that the wilderness is not a place of peace, but a place of truth. In the wilderness there is no noise, but this means we can hear the turmoil within. In the wilderness there is no consumerist excess, but neither is there bread. God's people have had their greatest and worst moments in the desert - being led by God out of Egypt to Mount Sinai to enter into covenant, but worshipping the golden calf there; being sustained by God and having God's presence as pillar of cloud and fire, but knowing hunger and wandering not forty days but forty years, through a whole generation. Thus the wilderness takes on this remarkable place in the tradition.
Those who have encountered the literal wilderness, or who have taken upon themselves forms of spiritual discipline like retreats that evoke that experience in other places, know that the voice that speaks in the silence is not always the voice of God. To live for the Christ in us, we must discern the voices.
When the hubbub stops - when we find the desert - we find that within us there is, as the Rabbis put it, an evil tendency and a good tendency - whatever its source, it is not out there in someone else, but close enough to speak to any of us. It is not someone else's problem; it is not Osama Bin Laden's problem, it is yours and mine. We cannot escape it, we cannot deny it, we cannot project it solely onto others.
Let me give it to you straight. There is no "axis of evil" running from Baghdad to Tehran to Pyongyang - that is merely a fantasy that allows us to pretend that "Satan" is someone else's problem - unless of course we are willing to draw the line a bit further and admit that this axis is that same one that also runs through parts of Washington and of Wall Street, and the same one for that matter that may even run through Cambridge, and perhaps even zigzag its way up the aisles and among the pews here, and into our very selves, saying to us in the most reasonable of terms: why should you not turn the world's stones into bread and have all the consumer goods you want? Why should this nation not protect itself from falling by amassing power and military might? Why should you not worship a country instead of God?
The acts of evil to which this country was subjected last year were not isolated from other evils - not isolated from the overwhelming perception in the poor countries of the world that this country and its allies take what they want, decide what they want, and leave what they do not. Those acts of evil cannot be isolated from many smaller acts of dispossession, violence, and indifference which have become the means for evil to whisper, in those far away places, the reasonable half-truths that lead to the presence of the demons of terrorism in the world today.
The leaders of this nation and of others, including my own, have embarked on what they describe, as a crusade against evil. Granted the trying times we live in, and the need to protect the innocent here and abroad from acts of terror, those actions cannot now be isolated from the incredible suffering of the Afghan people to which many of us, not least the government of my own country, have been callously indifferent, when it did not matter what evil was done to Afghans. In August the Australian government refused to treat over 400 Afghans sitting off our coast in a freighter as refugees. And now that we do care? This morning's papers told us that 1,000 Afghan civilians may have died in the bombing so far - but we are not hearing their names, seeing their photos, planning their benefit concert.
The devil tempts Jesus not with excesses of worldly pleasure, not with "sin" as we have often learned to think of it, but with security and power. The United States, being tempted with these same things, "economic security, homeland security, national security," as the president called them in the State of the Union address - not a bad update on the Gospel temptations, hmmm? - is being led to think that we can deal with evil on the basis of imagining that it is out there, about someone else. It is not - it is about us. We see that even Jesus, God-with-us, was not immune to the onslaughts of the reasonable half-truths of self-interest.
Jesus establishes three places on which he must stand firm against temptation; this Lent, this year, can we adapt them to ourselves? No bread from stones - nothing material that we do not need, or that can only be produced by means that are out of proportion to the need of the community and the environment. No testing of God - let us not imagine God as our booster, a partisan in this delicate and devastating struggle with a significant part of the Islamic world. No worship of false Gods - no flag, no anthem, no army can claim our true and most basic allegiance.
Evil is not someone else's issue, it is ours - everyone's. As this escalating spiral of violence continues far from our doors, we must in our immediate places of life and witness act with the conviction that evil must be refused, not turned back on those who show it to us, lest we be Satan to those who are Satan to us. Let us rather by refusing evil, be Christ to one another, and to others - let them find Christ in us, so we may know that we are truly in Christ.
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