Sermon: “Mighty to Save” (February 22, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Mighty to Save” (Mark 1:12-13)
February 22, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am preaching about everyone’s favorite topic, temptation. The collect for today is one of the most powerful collects in The Book of Common Prayer:

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save” (BCP 218).

It is true that we are “assaulted by many temptations,” as I heard someone quip recently, “Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation knocks on the front door forever”—or as the brilliant and controversial nineteenth century Irish writer, Oscar Wilde puts it, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

And when it comes to temptation, we all need God’s help; we all need to find God “mighty to save.”

Jesus was no stranger to temptation. Every year the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is an account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not go into specifics about the nature of these temptations, but simply writes that after Jesus was baptized “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” and “he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12-13a).

There are so many aspects to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that relate to the temptations we face in our lives, but today I am focusing on the circumstances within which Jesus was tempted. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, while he was isolated, and while he was deeply fatigued. Although I wish I could tell you that being a priest includes magical powers that make one impervious to temptation that is not the case. I have learned over the years both in the ministry and in my own life that all of us are particularly vulnerable to temptation when we, like Jesus in today’s passage, are in the “wilderness,” isolated, deeply fatigued.

It is not uncommon that after people experience a mountain-top experience of some kind—perhaps a life-changing encounter with God at a retreat or in nature or at a particular church service or some other experience—to then enter a “wilderness season” of some kind. This is precisely what happened to Jesus as he was baptized in the Jordan River and proclaimed by his Heavenly Father as the Beloved with whom he was well pleased, and anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah…and then led into the wilderness to be tempted.

Even non- spiritual mountain-top experiences like getting married, or graduating with a degree, or receiving a promotion, or accomplishing a major personal goal, or completing a prolonged medical treatment are often followed by a wilderness season, a malaise. And it is during these seasons that we are particularly susceptible to temptation.

C.S. Lewis memorably addresses this in his classic 1942 book The Screwtape Letters, an apologetic of the Christian faith in the unique form of a series of thirty-one letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew and demon in training, Wormwood. Wormwood has been assigned a certain Christian “patient” to tempt, and in one letter Screwtape encourages his nephew to tempt this person especially during wilderness seasons:

“My dear Wormwood, I hope my last letter has convinced you that the trough of dullness or ‘dryness’ through which your patient is going at present will not, of itself, give you his soul, but needs to be properly exploited…I have always found that the trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex…The attack has a much better chance of success when the (person’s) whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. And it is also to be noted that the trough sexuality is subtly different in quality from that of the peak—much less likely to lead to the milk and water phenomenon which the humans call ‘being in love’, much more easily drawn into perversions… Do not let him suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition…Your Affectionate Uncle, Screwtape” (43-44, 45, 47).

Most of us may find it difficult to withstand temptation during wilderness seasons of forty hours or forty minutes or even forty seconds, but Jesus was tempted for forty days in the wilderness.

And yes, Mark notes that Jesus was with wild beasts and angels, but as far as human companionship goes, Jesus was isolated. And when people are isolated, or feel isolated even if surrounded by others, they are especially vulnerable to temptation.

The late Roman Catholic priest and professor Henri Nouwen wrote a gem of a book called In the Name of Jesus (1989) in which he discusses Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He correctly identifies the reality of isolation even in our crowded and busy world:

“Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world” (Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 33).

Temptation often arises when people feel isolated, and when they yield to this temptation, one of the results is further isolation, a sense of being cut off and alone in their sin.

After forty days and nights in the wilderness you better believe Jesus was also deeply fatigued—and again, when people are deeply fatigued they become more prone to yielding to temptation.

During his 2011 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paul Simon played his masterpiece, “American Tune.” Its melody is derived from one that Bach wrote and is the same melody often used in the hymn, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.” He brilliantly portrays such deep fatigue:

“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American Tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest”
(from his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon)

Sometimes when we face temptation while deeply fatigued what we need the most is not a creative proactive means to overcome the temptation—what may need is simply to take a nap, what we may need is to get some rest.

What about you today—are you in a wilderness season (the trough of “the human undulation”) or somehow feeling isolated or deeply fatigued?

In the collect for today we are reminded that when it comes to temptation, God knows the weaknesses of each of us. God knows different people have different weaknesses and are more prone to certain temptations than others.

Where are you the weakest?

Satan knows your weaknesses—but infinitely more importantly, God knows your weaknesses—and not only that, Scripture tells us that Jesus was tempted in every respect that we are, and yet did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).

And not only was Jesus tempted in the wilderness, where thankfully he overcame those temptations, there is reason to believe that he was tempted again in the dark hours before he was betrayed and arrested.

In the powerful 2004 film The Passion of the Christ there is an unsettling and haunting sequence in which Jesus is tempted again by Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is on his knees, shaking with fear, gasping in prayer, “Hear me, Father. Rise up, defend me. Save me from the traps they set for me.”

Then, just as in the wilderness years earlier, Satan again appears on the scene. “Do you really believe,” he asks Jesus, “that one man can bear the full burden of sin?” Jesus continues to pray, “Shelter me, O Lord. I trust in you. In you I take refuge.” Satan does not relent—“No one man can carry this burden, I tell you. It is far too heavy. Saving their souls is too costly. No one. Ever. No. Never.” Jesus persists in prayer, “Father, you can do all things. If it is possible, let this chalice pass from me, but let your will be done, not mine.”

Jesus then falls on his face, prostrate before God. Satan leans in close to Jesus, “Who is your father? Who are you?” Jesus does not answer these questions, but remains prostrate in prayer. Then Satan releases a serpent that slivers right up to the prostrate Jesus. Jesus then slowly arises, looks Satan in the eye, and in answer to those questions stomps on the serpent’s head.

And the good news of the gospel is that the next day on a hill in a much harsher wilderness, isolated and deeply fatigued Jesus died on a cross to fully atone for all the times you and I succumbed to temptation, which means as Scripture tells us, we are free to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

And at that throne of grace we find that Jesus Christ is indeed “mighty to save.”

Amen.