Opening Prayer: Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the fire and burn. Come as the wind and cleanse. Convict, convert, and consecrate, until we are totally thine. Amen.
Old Testament: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Epistle: Romans 10:8b-13
Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
In case you are looking for a Netflix recommendation, there are two great shows about hip hop that just came out with their second season: The Get Down, a fictional retelling of hip hop’s beginnings in New York, directed by Baz Luhrman; and Hip Hop Evolution, a documentary hosted by Shad. They both focus on the moment hip hop was born, when a brand new thing entered the world. But like all things that are born, it was also a reflection of its past, of the great musical traditions that blended together to create it. What these shows demonstrate is that, perhaps uniquely, hip hop was quite self-conscious about the borrowing it was doing. It remained underground for nearly a decade because “sampling,” stitching together songs from other artists, rapping over their rhythms, was such a major copyright issue. The first real commercial hip hop song, “Rappers Delight,” recorded in 1979, was a huge hit; but it had to use an almost silly sounding band, and didn’t rely on any of the DJ sampling, scratching, and synthesizing that had really birthed the art.
In other words, our brains are hard-wired to sample, to blend, to take old themes we love, and mix them together with a twist to make something new and beautiful. Music’s evolution most clearly turns on this axis. The joy of listening to Mozart’s “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is that it is at once familiar and strange. There is the underlying simple melody that holds the whole piece together; but layered on top are unbelievably complex variations that delight us for how the leave and return to that simple theme. A symphony from Beethoven will have a melody passed around from one section of the orchestra to another, evolving in little ways, as each section turns it around differently, adding its own twist, setting up a massive convergence at the end, where all the different perspectives collide in a grand climax.
The Bible is written the same way. Just as it is hard to appreciate hip hop without understanding funk or soul; just as hearing “twinkle, twinkle” as a child prepares you to appreciate Mozart, so each passage of scripture must be heard as the confluence of what has come before. This is particularly true in the gospels, where paragraph by paragraph whole books and all the great themes of the Old Testament flow in and out of each other like a DJ seamlessly mixing two songs, or the finale of a symphony calling back to the very first chords of the first movement. To say that the Bible contradicts itself is to say that the notes of a chord played at the same time contradict each other. They are different, but in relationship to each other, they create a truth and a meaning that is separate from their individual sounds. A single note has no particular feeling, but in combination with a few others it expresses sadness or joy, clarity or instability. The Bible is perfect, not in the way a formal mathematical proof is correct, but in the way that a series of chord progressions, the same simple notes, strung together in just the right way, create a perfectly transformative experience.
So within this small, famous passage of scripture today, we have to hear all the other music that has come before. For example, when the devil tempts Jesus, the archetype here is not the medieval, Western European cartoon with horns, a tail, and a red pitch fork, stoking flames. Instead, this an archetypal inversion of the story of Job, where Satan is better translated as “the accuser,” more of a heavenly district attorney, out to cross-examine otherwise innocent-looking humans, testing people with God’s blessing.
In that story, Satan puts Job through trials. A trial is a test where bad things happen to good people. It begins with God and Satan having a casual conversation, in which God essentially brags to Satan about how good of a guy Job is. Satan essentially argues that Job is just spoiled by living a good, comfortable life, and he’ll curse God the minute things take a wrong turn. God essentially makes a wager with Satan, and says “let’s see.” He lets Satan kill all of Job’s livestock, servants, and family—so long as Job isn’t harmed. Job passes that test. Then Satan argues that it was too easy, something bad has to directly happen to Job for it to be a real test. God agrees, on the condition that Satan doesn’t actually kill Job. So Satan gives Job open sores from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, and Job is resigned to sitting around with a broken piece of a clay pot, to pick at his wounds while sitting in ashes. In some ways, Job is portrayed as even more righteous than Jesus, with his story the archetype of what theologians call a “theodicy,” an exploration of why bad things happen to good people—even when a good, all-powerful, all knowing, God exists.
The story of Jesus today, however, is the inversion. Instead of a trial, it is the story of a temptation. Instead of someone living a good, comfortable life having to finally deal with injustice, it’s the story of someone who has already suffered a lot being offered good things that they must refuse. And while theodicies and trials are much more discussed, I think temptation is actually much closer to our human experience. Most of us are not like Job: perfectly innocent, leading a good life, suddenly experiencing injustice for the first time. We are a lot more like Jesus fasting in the desert. He grew up acquainted with injustice in an impoverished country, ruled by a tyrannical Roman empire, and no doubt—like everyone else in Israel—witnessed regular public torture and even periodic genocidal violence. Regardless of his individual righteousness, his psyche would carry with it the deep scars of trauma, primary and secondary. On the day of his temptation, he would have been in a particularly weak state, having just fasted for forty days and forty nights in a barren desert.
Obviously, the retreat into the desert has deep echoes throughout all of scripture. Adam and Eve exiled from Eden. Abraham and Sara, strangers in a strange land. The Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. But to me, the story that sounds closest to Jesus in the desert is from 1 Kings 19, where Elijah journeys to the cave in Horeb.
Elijah came to the desert as one of the greatest successes of his career as a prophet led to deep sadness and isolation. Israel had turned to false gods again, in this case Baal, killed all the true prophets, and begun to follow a host of false prophets, and God sent a drought to punish the people. But Elijah boldly challenged King Ahab and all the false prophets to a contest to see which god was real. He and the false prophets both sacrificed bulls, and put them over a pile of sticks, an unlit fire. The false prophets were allowed to use any dancing and incantations necessary to call down Baal to light the fire. None of it worked. The cocky Elijah—like street kid in a rap battle–mocked them, asking if Baal was sleeping or meditating, or on a journey. The false prophets were humiliated, unable to kindle their fire.
Then Elijah, just to really prove his point, poured water all over the wood he was supposed to kindle—not once, but three times. Then he said one prayer, and a giant fire ball consumed all the wood and even all the water that had been dumped around it. Then the people helped Elijah round up and slaughter all the false prophets. Their turn back to the one, true God caused the drought to end. It was a classic display of the “signs and wonders” that our scripture in Deuteronomy refers to, something that we think of as stereotypically Old Testament. And if it sounds anti-modern, vengeful, and violent, remember that it is just one chord in a progression, not really to be judged on its own. We may not like seeing the world this way, but it does describe a basic human experience with shockingly contemporary applications: a people who know better, worshipping the false gods—say, of carbon-producing industrial capitalism, not Baal–cause a dramatic change in their climate that threatens their whole civilization—sound familiar? It’s violent, terrifying depiction of the universe, but it’s also real.
Ditto for New Testament stories of “signs and wonders” that precede the desert experience. The miracles of the Christmas story, contrasted with Herod’s slaughter of all the first-born infants in an effort to kill the baby Jesus, depict active, supernatural powers fighting a cosmic battle of good and evil, of involving miracles. But after these “signs and wonders,” there comes a world that feels much more post-modern, the world of the desert: forty days alone, no excitement, no cosmic interventions, just hunger, nothingness, and irresolution.
Elijah becomes depressed. He flees to the desert because, now that the famine is over, everyone in power just wants him dead, because they are threatened by him. As he tells God, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” After forty days, he just stumbles into a cave. Then, God brings a great wind that shatters all the trees, but God was not in the wind, and depressed Elijah just stays in the cave, uninterested in a theology of signs and wonders that ultimately left him worse off than before. Then there was an earthquake, and then a great fire, but God was not in any of those either, and Elijah still stays in the cave. But finally comes “the sound of sheer silence.” And this is where God is. The sound of silence is itself a voice, through which Elijah discerns his calling, his next mission.
Similarly, Jesus is presented with three things, but they are not displays of God’s power, they are opportunities to use his own, to become a hero or a matyr. He is asked to turn stones to bread, and who could say there was anything wrong with Jesus solving world hunger with one miracle? But Jesus samples scripture, saying that we are to live, not by bread, but by the word of God—whatever that means. Then Satan offers him rulership over all the kingdoms of the world, in exchange for worshipping Satan. Here again, Jesus turns it down, sampling scripture, saying we should worship only God. This is the classic “devil’s bargain”—achieving an undoubtedly good thing through an evil compromise. When it doesn’t work, Satan turns from tempting Jesus to be the hero of all humanity to becoming the martyr that brings everyone to their sense, really another form of the egoism of the hero temptation, in disguise. He asks Jesus to throw himself off the highest point in Israel’s biggest city, the temple in Jerusalem. To really make his case in this rap battle, Satan even samples his own scripture, noting that a host of angels will protect Jesus from even dashing his foot against a rock. Jesus just quotes a much briefer scripture back: “do not put the Lord your God to the test”—a hypocritical, incomprehensibly unjust standard, given that God and Satan were testing Jesus as that exact moment. Somehow heavenly beings can test humans, but not the other way around.
Jesus, like Elijah, has used his desert experience to reject a theology of interventionist spectacle, a faith based on “signs and wonders.” His three temptations were like the wind, the earthquake, and the fire—the resolution of human problems through the brute force of a divine hero or martyr. We are filled every day with the internal noise that is the voice of Satan tempting us with the narrative of heroes and martyrs, stories about how the world would be better if we could just call down fire on this or that person; stories about how, one day, we will show everyone about just how special and important we are, and how wrong everyone else is; or simply through our talent and sheer specialness fix everyone’s problems. These stories constantly running through our heads and hearts are not the voice of God. We should not waste time handwringing over them, running from them, or indulging them. No, our job is to sit like Elijah in the cave, quietly waiting for them to pass, confident that the voice of God will come and we will know it. And remember, that voice is silence. Yes, it is where we find our purpose and mission. But it is not like George W. Bush’s saying that God literally told him to invade Iraq. Remember, Jesus did not even claim to hear specific words from God at the end of his temptation. He was simply “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and seemed to know that it was now time to return to Galilee and begin his ministry.
At the end of all music, any song, there is silence. One moment, maybe a little more. The notes hang and fade, resolve, disappear. The whole song is both present and gone at the same time. The voice of God is like that. It is not a listing of directions like a recipe or a manual. It is what has changed in you as the result of that experience of all the melodies and harmonies and rhythms and tempos of life, properly listened to, coming together. The Bible is like the sheet music or the lyrics or liner notes or Netflix documentary that help us make sure we really know what we just heard. And notably, it tends not to call us to heroism or martyrdom, but to humble work and the lifting up other people. Elijah goes being an itinerant prophet, and finds Elisha, who will eventually replace him. Jesus begins working to heal people, one by one, with an eye towards calling the twelve disciples. Our work is fulfilled as it disappears into others.
We begin Lent this way because the cross is not the story of a hero or a martyr, a strategy that relies on using or being used by brute force. Instead, it is that last, powerful chord in which a theology of signs and wonders resolves into the more complex themes of our lives like loneliness, longing, and doubt, somehow both true in relation to others. Job is the opening theme of God’s symphony, raising the question of injustice. Rather than a syllogism to answer the question, the Bible’s subsequent stories and poems transform it into another one: how do we hear God’s voice, even in the midst of noise of temptation and trial? In Lent, we learn to sit patiently with emptiness, the hollowness of both our greatest successes and failures painfully clear. That is the faith that Paul describes in Romans 10, the belief that God’s voice will come, that we will one day hear our calling, even if it is nowhere near. If we prepare in Lent, if we have really listen to the symphony, when Easter resurrection comes, it will be that moment after the final note, when God’s absence somehow becomes God’s presence and triumph; when we will be “filled with the spirit” certain of the way forward, even though we may not be able to say how or why, only certain that we must spend our lives in supporting others, even as the story of our own lives remains a mystery. After the wind and the earthquakes and the fire, the sound of death and life resolves together: silence.