The Lure of Power~ The First Sunday of Lent

Sermon Given March 6, 2022

Today’s the first Sunday of Lent. There’s something odd and even sometimes a bit off putting about entering into worship today with the Great Litany. Part of what makes it great is its length. It takes a while to get through it all, and while most of the content is good, some of the language definitely takes us back to 1544 when this particular litany was authored by Thomas Cranmer, the theologian and helper of Henry the Eighth. Cranmer took many traditional litanies, long prayers such as this that were traditionally chanted in procession, and created this litany, written in English so that those who heard it knew what they were chanting. Cranmer then went on to compile and build the Book of Common Prayer, which came out five years later. Other than some edits and tweaks here or there over the years, including taking out prayers for the British royalty and deciding that we don’t need to chant over and over again “have mercy on us miserable sinners”, this litany remains largely as it was compiled by Cranmer. All aspects of our common lives together are prayed for. We pray for ourselves, our community and the world using this litany to mark the beginning of our Lenten journey together, a journey where we draw near to God, giving all our lives and hearts over to the one who is willing to give his life and heart for us. 

I think this litany also goes well with our Gospel reading today. Jesus, like us, follows in a tradition of his ancestors. Moses, after receiving the ten commandments from God was on the mountain with God forty days and nights, eating and drinking nothing. Elijah, having just defeated the prophets of the god Baal, as he was fleeing from Jezebel the queen who wanted him killed, was fed by God and given the strength to run forty days and forty nights though dangerous territory to Horeb, the mountain where he will meet God. There is a pattern to this ancient formula. The prophet experiences something miraculous, they spend a forty day time period in a liminal space, an in-between time, then something miraculous happens again. The forty days is a space of fallow ground, of waiting with expectation, learning more about who God is, and expanding the mind to see God even in the wilderness. Our own forty days began with the recognition of the miraculous last Sunday, Jesus transfigured on the mountain top. We marked the beginning of our movement into the wilderness with ashes, an action of turning towards God and away from those things that keep us from time with God. We expect the miracle of resurrection to fill our hearts and change our lives in Easter at the end of this journey. 

But Jesus’ forty days breaks this pattern. It begins with the miraculous, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, but ends with a confrontation with the devil. Rather than experiencing a miracle, Jesus becomes a miracle. His full divinity shines through and wins out against the deceiver, the accuser, the liar. The power of Christ overcomes the power of evil. 

We are confronted with the devil in this passage. We Episcopalians don’t typically spend much time with the devil. We can think about the devil in a number of different ways. It need not be that little red guy with a pitchfork, but sometimes we can see evil so powerfully embodied in the actions of another that it takes us by surprise. The word devil in the Bible can be  translated as accuser, deceiver, liar. We can find those sorts of actions in the works of others. I want to be clear, people aren’t the devil, they are God’s children, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be tempted and turn towards evil. People are always loved by God, but that doesn’t mean our actions are always godly. 

No matter how we view the devil, there do appear to be forces in the world that are evil. There’s no reason to deny that this world is in some serious trouble. There are many ways that we see evil in the world. We could make a laundry list of evil things that have happened even within the last week. But I think our interactions with Jesus and the devil today highlight a particular evil: the lust for more power from already powerful men. They live with a sense of never having enough when they have more than their fair share in front of them. Their lust for more, their drive to have it all and then some, damages and creates disparities. People are dying in the world every day because powerful men want more. That’s not God’s way. 

So Jesus confronts this deep lust for power. The devil first starts small. Just some bread. Jesus has plenty of power to create bread, he does it for five thousand people later in the gospel, but this bread the devil asks him to make is just for him alone. He can create all that he needs. He can fabricate everything that ever wanted, all the material items of the world could be his, he could become fabulously wealthy by producing whatever he needed at his fingertips, becoming a fantastic replicator, but he says no. He need not create things for the sole purpose of benefiting himself. He trusts God will provide. 

Then the devil goes big. Jesus is shown all the nations of the world. He can rule them all. He can have complete dominion. Christians are told that the Gospel is to be spread to all the corners of the earth, and Jesus does not deny this. But to force himself on everyone? To subjugate them? That’s not the good news of salvation. We’ve seen the harm that causes. That’s the devil at work. Jesus passes. 

Finally the devil shows him Jerusalem, the heart of faith. Jesus could take over the temple, prove himself to be the Messiah, make all those in leadership, those whom Jesus criticizes throughout the Gospels, recognize and see him for who he is. All he has to do is let the devil throw him from the pinnacle of the temple. The angels would carry him down and the proof of who he is would be revealed to everyone. But Jesus doesn’t need this display of power to show who he is. In fact, it is his display of humility that will win over hearts and lives. Jesus doesn’t need flashy, showy power. Jesus needs the power of solidarity with the oppressed. Jesus turns down the devil. 

The devil doesn’t vanish after these temptations. The devil retreats and waits until an opportune time. Evil didn’t disappear with the arrival of Jesus to the scene. Jesus just proved that God was greater. Those temptations live with us today. They are still a part of our world. 

When I was in college, I went to a church leadership conference at a megachurch. The lead pastor and founder of the congregation stood up, shared the story of the congregation, of why he thinks they have been able to grow so exponentially, with thousands of people packing their auditoriums each Sunday. Then he said this, “Each day I wake up, I go to work and I remind myself that I am disposable. Someone else can do my job and someday someone else will do my job. This isn’t about me.” 

I think that each person given great power needs that balance, needs to reflect upon their own disposability. Yes, they are important, they hold great sway, but in the end, we are dust and to dust we shall return. This life isn’t to be lived for power and greed. It’s to be lived for others. 

We give power to certain people not so they can have more, but so they can represent all of us and help make decisions that benefit all. They are asked to look at things from a higher point of view so that we can discern which direction to turn next, faithful to the God who calls us to love and care for all. It’s not about the people in power. It’s about how they help us all communally come together and seek the best direction to go. The person up front can and will be replaced. God willing, the community will live longer than any given leader. Power properly used is power that cares for and seeks the best for all. Jesus gets that. The devil doesn’t. 

I’m sure we all could make a list of where we see evil and abuse of power. It would be longer than the great litany. We know how evil can take a hold of someone and tip the axis of their lives so their needs and desires outweigh the needs of the poor and oppressed. We know the damage that causes. People die, they are wounded, they suffer greatly because of power used in evil ways. The problem of evil can feel insurmountable at times because of just how much power is invested in those causing harm. Not even our Gospel lesson today says that Jesus kicks evil’s butt and buries it. Evil simply moves to the side. 

But the way of Jesus shows us the way of properly used power. Jesus shows us love and humility. He gives us the ability to come alongside those who are most vulnerable in society. Jesus promises that even if the most powerful humans put you to death, God’s true power is able to raise you again. There is hope, not in trying to look at the world through rose colored glasses, but in accurately assessing the world situation and believing that we all have some power within us to make a difference. God calls out to the leaders of our world to recognize that they are not gods themselves. God calls the rest to remind leaders of their disposable nature. They do not work for themselves. Humility must be practiced, not primarily by those who have little, but by those who have much. 

When the world seems upside down, more evil than good, we cry out to God, praying in protest, “We beseech thee to hear us” or in today’s language, “Listen to us God!” It is one of the oldest acts of our expression of the Christian faith, part of our heritage. We may use polite language when we say it, but we call out to God to remember us, to save us, and to help us through. The Great Litany is a call for God to break open the hearts of the powerful, to protect us from harm, and to help see us through. Today, may God save us, redeem us, and help stop the spread of evil in this world. Amen.