Lent 1C, 2019

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


On Wednesday for our Ash Wednesday observance, I shared the etymology of one of my favorite words.  It is a word that is relatively new to me.  I want to share it again this morning because it is a word that is packed full of meaning and I skipped over one of those meanings.

The word is Paraprosdokian and at root it means “From Ancient Greek παρά (pará, “against”) + προσδοκία (prosdokía, “expectation”).

If you were here for Ash Wednesday, you learned that this is a literary term that describes a comedic technique like the ones Groucho Marx used.  So, for example, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”  That’s a paraprosdokian.  It’s where the second phrase or sentence takes a spin on the first part.  Here’s another example: “Hospitality is making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.”

See how that works?

On Ash Wednesday I had some fun with that as an example of the ways Jesus gets our attention with similar plays on words.  He did this a lot, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

But today I want to dig a little deeper and look at the very basis of the word paraprosdokian: Against expectation.  That  simple, two-word phrase explains so much about life, love, the Bible, and our Christian faith.  We frequently expect God to do things our way, on our schedule.  The disciples expected Jesus to be a warrior king and raise up an army to defeat the Romans and send them packing.

And the Holy Spirit always seems to lead us in directions we don’t see as possible or as best for our career or dreams or other aspirations.  But when we are courageous enough to follow, hind sight usually shows us the Spirit knew best all along.

So we have learned, throughout the history of the church that God doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t do things the way we want.  God sometimes doesn’t seem to even answer prayer.  God seems to allow evil to continue to reign.  And we end up disappointed, angry with God and confused.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that our capacity to repent and to resist temptation comes from our relationship with God and the grace of his deliverance rather than from our own strength and initiative.

Jesus started his ministry in the wilderness.  Just after his baptism, he went into the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit and spent forty days and nights there fasting and struggling with temptation. 

This story takes place in two significant locations: the wilderness and Jerusalem. The wilderness was the place where God met the Jewish people at Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt. In the wilderness God shaped them into God’s covenant people, cared for and led by God with cloud and fire.  Forty years in the wilderness then, frothy days for Jesus later.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is also led, this time by the Holy Spirit, through the wilderness and he faces temptation by his adversary, the devil.

Jerusalem, the city of David, is the center of Jewish power, identity, and worship. This place of power and worship is the setting for the final temptation where the devil takes Jesus to the pentacle of the temple and tempts him with power.

Underlying the dialogue between the devil and Jesus are two competing storylines. The devil offers a storyline of self-indulgence (make yourself bread from stones), self-aggrandizement (all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me), and self-serving religious identity (if you are the son of God cast yourself from the top of the temple). Meanwhile, Jesus responds with quotations drawn from the Old Testament that show awareness of the true source of life and identity (he knows that life is more than food), his reliance on God (the one worthy of true worship and service), and his understanding of God’s character (not one to be tested). Jesus’ responses are rooted in an underlying narrative that he is dependent on God rather than self for life, power, and identity.

That which Jesus resists, his “passing of the test,” his resistance to temptation, in the end for Jesus, is a bold “no” to power as we know it. Power that dominates. Power that controls. Power that lifts up for the sake of idolatry and ideology. Power that insists on your own power. And the temptation not only to power itself, but what the claim of power then leads to, has a hold on, or determines. Our attraction to power is often unable to see the consequences on the other side.

The first words of this story are that Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is hard, so very hard, to resist the power that the world loves and values. But how this story starts is the promise of this text. You do not do this on your own. Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And you are too.

This is your promise too.

One of the temptations we struggle with is our expectations.  We have expectations of each other that leave us disappointed and we have expectations of God that leave us angry.

Another temptation we struggle with is what I call the Lone Ranger-ism of American values.  We are influenced by that famous rugged individualism of our culture and we each do our own thing and go our own way.  There’s noting wrong with personal growth and strength, but we err in the direction of losing community when each of us goes our own way and forsakes the community.

We always read this story the first Sunday of Lent (or any other time we may read it) and try to imagine how difficult it must have been for the fully human Christ to suffer these challenges of fasting and fighting with the devil by himself for forty days.  And we try to try this on and use it as a measurement of how short we fall in emulating Jesus in his ability to forego temptation.

Well, we’re missing the point when we do that.  While Lent is a time to examine ourselves, each of us, individually, Bible stories about Jesus were usually parables and examples for the community (or nation) as a whole - not the individuals therein.

So my Lenten challenge for the good people of Grace Church, is to consider, rather than giving up chocolate and wine, or maybe along side those personal disciplines, my challenge is that this year during Lent this parish works on being a better community, not just a collection of better individuals.  Because Jesus calls us to be a community of disciples, not factions in competition.

Previous parishes I have served struggled with internal conflict.  We don’t have that problem at Grace. Everyone gets along with each other here. The problem we have at Grace is our conflict with our Bishop and diocese.  We need to stop being strong out of an us-versus-them stance with the diocese and return to the never ending work of tending this garden, in this community. We need to tap more deeply into the power of the love amongst us and then ask what God is calling this parish to do, collectively, to reach out to our neighbors in need. Each of you are very busy and doing lots of good works, but what good work is Grace doing as a parish?

If it feels like I’m stepping on toes, that’s not my intention.  I’m not trying to spread a guilt trip.  I’m just challenging us to consider where the Holy Spirit is leading this parish. We’ve seen enough wilderness around here.  I think it’s time to move into our next era of working with each other, side by side.  Just as Jesus did when his time in the wilderness was over.  He went to work.

One of my favorite Garrison Keillor stories is not one of his most popular or even remembered stories.  It is a story about adultery and I was left wondering, especially in light of recent news about Garrison, how autobiographical this story might have been.

It was an early story in his career - sometime in the 80’s - and it was about a business man packing to go on a business trip.  The journey was a business conference, a conference in a hotel, away from home, a conference which his younger, sexy co-worker was also attending.  I really don’t remember the set up.  I just remember the image of a mid-life, married man backing out of his driveway and coming to the sudden realization of what he was about to do.  Keillor listed a montage of images like so many dominos falling, that happen at the moment of such sins; a little girl spills her milk, a horse a mile away goes lame, a car crashes on the road at the edge of town.  This series of events, the storyteller implied, were directly related to the sin at the crux of the story - these two adults, off to seek selfish pleasures, ignoring their commitments and actual real love for those left at home and in the dark.

In this mostly forgotten story, Garrison Keillor painted an image of the wilderness of temptation.  And his protagonist, in the end, resists this temptation in his realization of the fact that all hearts are interconnected, that sin has a ripple effect like that of a drop in water, that encouragement and truthfulness are interconnected too.

So, communities are called to repentance together so that they can grow and change and clear up the confusion, anger and disappointment - together.  That’s the point of our Lord’s love story with us.  The story within the larger story begins and ends with sacrifice.  It is not just one man against the devil, it is Emmanuel, God with us - all of us - giving all God can to model for us and to live and die for us because of God’s love for us. 

It is the “us” part we need to work on in response.