What’s The Angel Constant?

This morning’s sermon is one of those sermons that benefits from being preached once at the early service before I arrives for the main service of the morning. (Sadly, I didn’t preach at the early service today.) There are a number of edits I would make to tighten it up, to underscore some points I’d want to make sure were clearer. Although the congregation received it very warmly, it would have been significantly more satisfactory with a slightly longer gestation period.
Interstingly enough, one of the choir members came up after the service to show me that he had in fact been calculating the number of angels required to catch Jesus before he hit the ground. He and his friend and I had a convivial visit, discussing numbers we remember from science classes (Avogadro’s Number = 6.02 × 10^23 = the number of molecules in a mole, along with the Quadratic Formula and of relevance this morning, the rate at which falling bodies accelerate). I spent the rest of the day, though, wondering how one knew exactly how much force to reverse Jesus’ downward accelaration we could assign to each angel. Sermon after the fold….


Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, Glasgow
Dt 26:1-11/Ps 91:1-2, 9-16/Rom 10:8b-13/Lk 4:1-1
1 Lent C, 21 Feb 2010
No one who believes in him will be put to shame.

In the name of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — Amen.
   I love a good theological argument. So when Jesus and the devil launch into a debate in the wilderness, you can imagine that I’m paying particular attention. The back-and-forth between Jesus and the Devil, though, turns out something of a disappointment. The devil doesn’t make his strongest possible case: he might have challenged Jesus to feed other people; or he might have challenged Jesus to cast a really wicked demon out of a possessed child; the tempter might have told Jesus that he, the Devil himself, could pull the Roman troops out of Jerusalem if only Jesus asked him “Pretty please.” Instead the devil proposes a series of offers that not only Jesus, but indeed many other people I know, could comfortably decline. “Turn stones into bread!” “Rule the world!” “Jump off this steeple, so that angels will catch you!” Jesus — and some of you sitting here, if you had the same encounter — simply answers, “No, thanks.”
   Of course, the devil didn’t have the advantage of having read the recent books by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins; they could have given him some helpful prompts for ways to flummox God, if only they believed in God. Or the devil, for that matter. Perhaps all three of them — Hitchens, Dawkins, and the Devil they don’t believe in — could gang up in the wilderness on Jesus as he’s fasting, interrogating him with querulous questions, demanding that he acknowledge their superior intelligence, morality, and sense of justice. Yet even with fiercer cross-examination, even with tests that touch Jesus closer to his own heart’s interests, even then I expect Jesus would turn them down.
   Why not just say, “All right,” and conciliate the devil, satisfy the sceptics? Would it have done anybody any harm if Jesus had eaten a loaf of stony rye? Would Jesus not have been a pretty good world ruler? Would it have made a big difference if angels rescued Jesus as he fell from the steeple? Why was it so important that Jesus answer, “No, thanks,” to such inconsequential stunts?
   I suspect that it matters so very much for a particular reason, integral to Jesus’ identity and mission. If he was God’s Holy One, presumably both he and the devil knew it. In a chapter or two, even minor demons will be screaming that they know who Jesus is; we can’t suppose that the ringleader of the cosmic diabolical operation couldn’t tell, or had been conducting a random survey of wilderness pilgrims, going up to one after another and saying, “If you’re the son of God….” So the devil’s challenges arise presumably not out of genuine ignorance, but from some other motivation. I suspect that the hinge of this story turns on the question, “Will Jesus take power and authority into his own hands for any reason, even for good purposes?” And the over-arching answer, the answer that lies behind the three explicit answers that the story tells us about, the overarching answer is that Jesus trusts God’s providence, and will not take any of his cues from the devil. The Father is his refuge and stronghold; his God, in whom he puts his trust.
   And in refusing the devil’s offers, Jesus affirms his solidarity with us. Jesus used no superpower to deflect his enemy’s Evil Temptation Beam, nor did he punch the devil out with divine strength, and he certainly didn’t turn aside from his mission to satisfy the devil’s capricious suggestions. Jesus kept his eyes firmly fixed on God’s will and God’s ways, and refused to allow the devil to distract him. But in his steadfastness, Jesus is not complacent; he actively resists evil by keeping to the path set before him. That path leads him onward to people suffering, whom Jesus consoles; to people hungry, whom he feeds; to people shackled and beset by demons, whom Jesus sets free. Jesus pushes back the power of evil by relying on God to bring him through whatever trials may befall him; Jesus trusts that God hears the voices of all who cry out, and sees their toil, and affliction, and oppression. So Jesus didn’t need to prove anything to the devil; he had more important things to do.
   Jesus’ trust in God exemplifies the way of discipleship that Paul affirms in the epistle lesson. When Paul says that “if we confess with our lips and if we believe in our hearts,” he hasn’t set out a test, as though we ought constantly to be fretting over whether we believe enough, or as if we should perhaps disavow our faith because the details perplex us. And Paul certainly doesn’t mean that the words, “Jesus is Lord” constitute a magical incantation that renders us immune to falling away from the gospel. Paul is pointing toward Jesus as the one whose self-giving life defeats death; Paul assures the Romans that even though some of them are Gentiles, and some are Jews, and that even though they don’t see eye to eye on every matter of liturgical, dietary, hygienic, or social practice, Jesus has gathered them all to himself. And as sharers in Jesus’ own life, sharers in his focused devotion to the one God of heaven and earth, we need not fret over the precise calibre of our belief — Jesus answered those fearful worries himself, when he refused the devil’s distractions with the simple reminder that these testing games belonged to the devil, not to the God of grace who has been redeeming and giving gifts to people ever since the time a wandering Aramean pulled out of affliction and oppression in Egypt, and settled in a land flowing with milk and honey. “There is no distinction,” not because who we are doesn’t matter to God, not because God doesn’t welcome our loving faith, but because God doesn’t play favourites. Everyone who wants to join this divine party, who cares enough to say, “This is my heart’s desire,” who turns to God with a hoping, trusting heart, everyone who learns from Jesus to set aside distractions, and focus (as best we can) on the the ways of the God who will save us — to all who trust God, God responds in the words of the psalm: “Because they have set their love upon me, therefore will I deliver them. I will lift them up because they know my name.”
   We don’t know exactly what that deliverance looks like, or when it will arrive, or any of a million other details. God says in the psalm, “Because they have set their love on me,” not “Because they have micromanaged my efforts in creation and salvation.” That temptation to take into our own hands the parts of the operation that properly belong to God alone counts as one of the devil’s ingeniously effective distractions, a lure and a snare that have tripped up well-intentioned folks from long ago, till today and beyond. “No one who believes in him will be ashamed” isn’t good enough for some people. They want to make darn sure that God brings about this salvation in the right way, and saves only the right kind of people, the people who say the correct magic words with their lips, or who believe exactly the right dogmatic formulations with their hearts. They build for themselves a conference centre in the wilderness where they can conduct long-range planning and enter into negotiations over the terms on which the right people — people such as they are — can rightly call on the name of the Lord.
   And Jesus walks on by. He has more important things to do. He doesn’t even see the “i”-dotting and “t”-crossing conference centre. He has his heart firmly fixed, unwaveringly fixed on a vision of a kingdom in which people from every tribe and language and people and nation gather to share his heart’s desire of peace and harmony. Jesus walks past the quibblers and hair-splitters who have fallen for the temptation to presume to determine in Jesus’ holy name who is good enough, who is faithful enough, who is pure enough. Jesus walks on by tests and distractions.
   And on our behalf, bringing us along in his train, Jesus heads directly for the path that leads into the toils and frustrations and disappointments and confusions and griefs and deprivations and suffering and death, even death upon a cross — so that we who trust in him, who unite our destiny with his, who give up our selves to him as he gave himself for us, we all may be brought through any miserable pains of this life, to a kingdom where there is no distinction, but where all share harmoniously in the life of the world to come.
   As we follow along in the wake of Jesus, we will of course argue about some of the details, and some of us theological debaters will get side-tracked by arguments or concerns that pull us away from the glorious procession of dusty-foot disciples heading for Zion. And if you become distracted, we will tug at your sleeve, and I will count on you to tug at mine, and if we get so side-tracked that no other force can pull us back on track the very power of truth itself will sweep us up and draw us onward, for the love with which we turn to God, the trust we place in God only, the hope we vest in the vision of life set right can only be resisted by determined minds who persist in their stubborn refusal to go there, together.
   I hope that tempting conference centre in the wilderness suits them; I suspect it actually does, more’s the pity. But while they’re haggling over the recipe for the stone-to-bread à la carte option, while they’re writing the constitution for their new wilderness government, while they’re counting the number of angels required to break the fall of a twelve-stone man who has jumped from a height of a hundred meters — you and I, we have more important things to do. We’re invited to enter into the faith of Jesus Christ, to trust that he will bring us along with him, to call upon him, allow him to still our anxious distractions and heal our afflictions. We’re brought along to share in his unwavering reliance on God’s grace and mercy. And we will not number the days or count the cost, because we have more important things on our mind — and we know we have some walking to do.

In the Name of God,

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