Friday, February 27, 2009

First Sunday in Lent

On Monday night we plan to set off for Chapel Hill N.C. where I will serve at St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church. I am busier than sin (a good Lenten theme), so here is a sermon I wrote and preached in the Phoenix Valley back in 2006.

Matt. 4:1f

Earlier this week, while driving, I heard a news report on the radio about a funeral for a family from Mesa (Arizona) that had been murdered. The only comforting thing in the story is that we live in an area of the country where these things are noticed by the larger community, instead of what I am used to from the news in Baltimore and Washington. In those towns the murder and the funeral would go largely unnoticed. As I listened to the report, the Pastor of the church where the funeral was taking place was offering a prayer about how hard it is to make sense of this terrible tragedy. But, thank God, he then went on to say that their purpose that day was not to make sense of it, but to know the love of God.

I cannot help but think, when I hear Christians trying so hard to make sense out of the evil in the world, that they need to read my younger brother’s second book, The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart. Because in that book he states the most liberating truth of all about the evils that happen so often in the world. Namely, that we should not try to make sense out of them. Christ did not come to make sense out of the evil in the world, neither to justify God against the charge that suffering and tragedy must indicate some kind of flaw, or lack of true goodness. Christ did not come to show that evil and woe, whether by human malice or natural disaster, fit a larger and higher purpose that is somehow necessary in God’s scheme of things. Indeed, he never suggests that it does. The Gospel for today shows that a time comes to resist temptations that are spiritual in nature; and the internal pressure to commit bad theodicy is one that I wish most clergymen would resist.

What Christ did in fact actually come to do, is told to us by Saint John: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the Devil (I John 3:8).” The cross of Christ made use of the evil that is done by violent men and unjust authorities; but it does not fit into a pattern that needs evil in order to balance the scales and make the universe work. On His cross He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In His resurrection he destroyed death. The liberating truth of the Gospel is not that God will make sense of evil and tragedy; but rather that Christ has won the victory against the senseless, meaningless condition of suffering and death, of sorrow and tragedy, that we experience while we live in this condition of being fallen, being made subject for the time being to pain in a world that knows death because it knows sin. The fact that we will die, and that life is "this vale of sorrows,” that illness, poverty and disaster fall upon all sorts and conditions of men, will yield and give way at Christ’s coming again to the fullness of complete victory over every consequence of Adam’s Fall. Death will be no more, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Our hope is not that we will someday make sense of evil; Our hope is in the Living Christ Who was dead and is alive forevermore, who holds the keys of Hell and of death; Who will, when He returns in glory, destroy the last enemy- Death- and share with us the spoils of His conquest over the grave.

So, I cannot make sense of the murders in Mesa. I cannot make sense of the Holocaust, or the American Holocaust of millions of innocent babies murdered by abortion. And, as my brother’s book was dealing with quite directly, I cannot make sense of the Tsunami that killed so many people on December 26th of 2004. I am free to mourn, and to face sorrows, not because I believe they must make sense, but because I know that they make no sense, ultimately- even when they are used for good by Providence, as the selling of Joseph into Egypt, and the good use made of Christ’s cross. In my article for Touchstone, titled Her Mother’s Glory, I related the fact that my beloved adopted daughter was conceived by rape. After my wife’s courageous battle to have and to keep her daughter, against all the forces that were trying to pressure her to abort the child, I married Diane and adopted Hannah (who is now grown up and happily married). God alone is the Author of Life, even when something as hideous as rape has been committed; and no child is unworthy to see the light of day because of someone else’s sin. This is what I wrote about that:

“What if the Author of Life takes the opportunity to do good from someone’s evil? The injustice done to Joseph resulted in the saving of his life, and that of millions of people, foreshadowing the good done for the whole world by the unjust crucifixion of a young rabbi from Nazareth. It is ever the way of God to make good come from the evil that men do.”

Providence is always at work, and so, yes, God takes the evil that men do and turns it into good. This is not because He needs the evil; He is not dependent upon anything- certainly not evil. It is simply that He always wins, and His goodness cannot be deterred or overcome. When evil is as evil as it can be, God is still good and is also All-powerful, able to give life and to act by His eternal character of Love. As Joseph said, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 50:20).”

All of this relates to the last of the three temptations we read about today. The Devil tempted the Lord to enter right away into His kingdom and, as clichés go, to “make the world a better place.” The temptation was to avoid the cross, and to put an immediate end to the apparent problems of the world, but not to the real problem of the world. He could end hunger and poverty and injustice and make the world safe for Utopianism, and also avoid the suffering, humiliation and death that was an inherent part of the cross.

Let us back up and take a good look at these three temptations. The scriptures tell us that our Lord Jesus Christ was “tempted in every point like as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” This can be misunderstood. He lived in the real world as a real man. But, even in His human nature He did not have the problem we have, namely that thing called concupiscence. His human nature was not deprived of the grace to live above “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:16).” The point of the Gospel for today is not that we can follow His example and be perfect. We cannot. We are supposed to imitate Christ in His life of obedience to the Father’s will, of self-denial and of holiness. We also find, at the end of the day, that no day has gone by in which we have lived without sin by thought, word or deed. Not so Christ. He lived His entire life without sin, born of a virgin and having come into the world from above as its Lord.

In terms of the weakness that the Devil sought for in Christ (but could not find) the temptations we face are similar in that the Devil tried to use those weapons, the things that St. John calls “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.”(I John 2:16) Remember the words from the Book of Genesis that show these tools used against Eve. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen.3:6). The tree was good for food, that is, it could satisfy the lust of the flesh. It was pleasant to look at, and so the Devil used the lust of the eyes. This is covetousness, the sin of wanting to take what is not rightly one’s own, wanting even to take it from someone else. The implication is clear: They could eat fruit of all the trees in the garden, except this one. This tree belonged to God; and now she coveted its fruit which pleased the eyes. The fruit of this tree was desired to make one wise, to satisfy the pride of life. The Devil did use these elements in the desert when trying to tempt the Lord himself, aiming his weapons at the human nature of Christ, making these three suggestions: To turn the stones to bread in order to satisfy lusts of the flesh; to covet the nations of the earth as his prize possession before the time when the Kingdom of God is meant to come, aimed at the lust of the eyes; to prove his true Divine nature by an unnecessary, show-off miracle, landing on his feet from the pinnacle of the temple, aimed at the pride of life.

The temptations about which we read in today’s Gospel are, in another sense, not the kind that most of us face. I have never been tempted to turn stones into bread, nor to leap off of a high pinnacle to dazzle a crowd as I land safely (not being the Son of God, and having nothing to prove). And, I have never been tempted to become the king of the whole world. I have been tempted to use what feeble powers I have to satisfy my flesh; I have been tempted to end or compromise my fasts (sometimes having yielded), but the temptation to turn stones to bread is something unique to Christ.

So, looking again at the third temptation, many people are tempted to “make the world a better place” by worshiping the Devil; or even if by worshiping some thing they give in to the Devil, the idolatry still serves his end. Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon worshiped themselves; Marx worshiped economic power as the only true force; Hitler worshiped racial purity; and many modern American Utopians worship some form of education or some ideology. Even people who believe that the only hope for the world is to spread Democracy, must face what happened when the Palestinians elected the terrorist organization, Hamas, to run their affairs. Democracy cannot work in a psychiatric ward.

Christ was tempted by the Devil to rule the world with perfect justice, and to end man’s outward troubles. But the real problem of the world is not ignorance and injustice; it is not inequity and woe, hunger and unequal distribution, or whatever evil you can name. Christ will rule the world with perfect justice when He comes again in glory; but first He took away sin and overcame death; just as the Old Testament first speaks of Messiah as the priest who offers sacrifice for sin, and only after that as the King. For, ultimately, all that really plagues us are those two things that are always connected: Sin and death. He came the first time as the Suffering Servant, and will return as the Lord of Glory. And, He will not make sense of those things that plague us. He will take them away forever, and wipe away the tears from off all faces.

For now, we must overcome in this life, "all that is in the world," hoping not to have our questions answered about how God could allow suffering; hoping, rather for something better and eternal.

And now, unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty dominion, power and glory, henceforth world without end. Amen.

4 comments:

Millo shaw said...

Best wishes to you in your new parish, Father.

An excellent sermon, as usual. As long as we don't become passive or indifferent to the evil and suffering that confront us in this world, and about which we actually can do something, I think your main point is well taken.

Its unswerving attention to the realities of temptation, sin, and suffering reflect, I think, the depth and breadth of Christianity's grasp of ultimate truth and reality - and, paradoxically, help to explain its attractiveness. Did not our Lord say, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me"? But, personally speaking, I find it also one of the most terrifying aspects of Christiainity: the reality that we cannot escape suffering in this world, even to the point of the hellish torment suffered by Jesus - so well brought out in Mel Gibson's film. I can personally attest to the accuracy of T.S. Eliot's observation, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." The reality is, however, that there are no real alternatives; Christianity's way really does offer the "only hope or else despair" as Eliot says. I pray that I may have the faith, and courage, and perseverance to see through the crufixion to the resurrection - and that I never have to experience crucifixion myself!

A blessed Lent to all.

Millo Shaw

FrTomVA said...

Blessings as you begin work in your new parish, Father Hart.

Tom McHenry+

Albion Land said...

My best wishes, too, on your new ministry. But is it not Chapel Hill you are going to, rather than Hills?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Oops, yes that is only one Hill (habit from living in Fountain Hills Az.). I have edited it. Snow storm delay: It will be Wednesday evening, arriving on Thursday.