Luke 4: 1-13
(Homage to CSL)
Once upon a time, there were four passengers on an airplane: a pig, a cow, a squirrel, and an eagle. As they were cruising at 30,000 feet over the Himalayas, the pilot suddenly clutched his chest and slumped over ... dead. The plane didn’t go into a sudden nosedive, but it was clear that, with mountain peaks looming on every side, the passengers were in some danger.
The pig and the cow looked at the squirrel and asked, “Do you know how to fly?” The squirrel replied, “Well, some of my cousins are ‘flying squirrels’, but, no, I don’t know how to fly.” Then the pig said to the cow, “Do you know how to fly?” The cow shook her head sadly, and said, “I’m told I have an ancestor that once jumped over the moon, but, no, I don’t know how to fly.” Then the cow and the squirrel said to the pig, “How ‘bout you? Do you know how to fly?” The pig exclaimed, “Me? Fly? Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘when pigs fly’? It means ‘impossible: never gonna happen’.”
Throughout this conversation, the eagle had been silent, just taking it all in, and glancing out the window. Finally, the cow, the pig, and the squirrel all turned to the eagle and said, “What about you? Do you know how to fly?” The eagle took a deep breath, looked them all in the eye and calmly said, “Sure, I can fly. In fact, this very moment strikes me as a good time to do just that.” And before the other animals could respond, the eagle opened the door of the passenger cabin and jumped out of the plane, flying gracefully down toward an outcropping of rock that, to him, looked just like home.You and I, and every other human being that walks the face of the earth, are in trouble, just like the animals on board that plane with a dead pilot. Somewhere, some time, some way, in the mist of our pre-history, something went wrong. The human race contracted a fatal inclination toward ignoring the one who made us. In the once familiar language of traditional Anglican liturgy: “We have erred and strayed from [his] ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much that devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against [his] holy laws (laws which were established for our benefit), we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” “We have not loved [him] with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And once in a while, the remembrance of it all is “grievous unto us, and the burden of it is intolerable.” We’re sinners—there’s no other word for it. We quarrel with and wound those we love. Sometimes we kill each other. And as a society, we fight wars—wars that are sometimes just and necessary—but which nonetheless kill thousands of innocent people. There are sins, and then there are sins. Which is to say, there are symptomatic sins like shoplifting and gossiping and adultery, and then there are root sins, fundamental sins, like pride, envy, and lust. The ancient people of Israel spent forty years or so wandering in circles through the Sinai desert before they finally entered the land that had been promised to them. One of the reasons, so the scriptures tell us, that they spent such a long time travelling such a short distance was that they were judged severely by the Lord for indulging in some of these fundamental, root sins. When they were only a few days out of Egypt, having been led miraculously through the waters of the Red Sea, they began to bitterly complain to Moses, not because their stomachs were empty or they were starting to drop dead from hunger, but because their taste buds craved the richer and more varied cuisine they had gotten accustomed to—they desired the “fleshpots of Egypt.” They sought food apart from the Lord, the God of their ancestors, food other than what was provided them by the one who had rescued them from slavery and who had promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, food for its own sake, in and of itself, life apart from the giver of life, who is life itself. There’s an expression for this fundamental sin: it’s called “biting the hand that feeds you.” A little later, it looked like they were going to run out of water. They were getting thirsty. And they told Moses to tell God that they want water, they want it right now, and they want it right here. Or else. They put God to the test: “If you are who you say you are, prove it!They collectively had a temper tantrum characteristic of a two-year old: I want it, and I want it my way, and I want it now! Then, when they finally got close to the Promised Land, they ran into other peoples, who worshipped other gods. Some of the Israelite men found some of the Canaanite women rather attractive, and one thing led to another, and, well, you know how some men are willing to change their religion, or look like they’re going to, in order to make points with a woman. What did the Israelites need to do in each of these cases? They needed to stick with, to adhere to, to follow unswervingly, the God who had led them out of slavery and who promised them a bright future. They needed to turn away from their ingratitude, their petty temper tantrums, and their chasing after the bogus gods of their pagan neighbors. There’s a word for this kind of basic, essential turning, and it’s repentance. What do we need to do? The same thing! We need to repent, to turn away from our ingratitude and our pettiness and unfaith and shallow values and unworthy objects of worship —toward the one who made us and delivered us from the power of evil and death and promises us a bright future with him. This is what we need to do. But how well do we do it? Are we any good at it? Not really. In fact, human beings, by and large, are lousy at repentance. We’re in the same shape as the cow, the pig, and the squirrel on board that airplane with a dead pilot: they had the need to fly, they recognized the need to fly, but they lacked the ability. We have the need to repent, we recognize the need to repent, but we lack the ability. Only one being in the universe has the ability to repent: to resist temptation, to “just say no” to both the fundamental and the symptomatic sins. This being is the one we call “God”. The only problem is, God is also the only being in the universe who has no need to repent. He’s like the eagle in the distressed aircraft: he was the only one who knew anything about flying, but he was also the only one who had no need of the plane. So, we have the need, but not the ability. And God has the ability, but not the need. “What do to?” Is there a plan? What if—you guessed it—what if God, without relinquishing his divinity, without sacrificing his “god-ness”, therefore retaining his ability to repent—became one of us, a human being. What if God took on our need in order to share with us his ability? And what if this God-Man, the one in whom the need to repent and the ability to repent co-existed in a single person, went into the desert to face and do battle with the power that made the whole thing necessary, the power that introduced sin and evil and sickness and death into the world. What if all this happened—what would we have? What we would have, of course, is the good news for the First Sunday in Lent: Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. What we would have is a cosmic boxing match: In one corner, the power of Sin and Evil, represented by the tempter. In the other corner, God’s plan for the world’s redemption, represented by Jesus. The Power versus the Plan. Ding! Round one begins. The Power strikes the first blow, trying the same opening gambit that had been used against the Israelites twelve centuries earlier. “You’re hungry! These stones could feed you. Why don’t you try them?” But Jesus knows just the right counter-move: “Sure, I could eat these stones and fill my belly. But that wouldn’t satisfy me; it isn’t what I’m here for; it isn’t what my Father calls me to do. If I ate them, I’d be denying his care and concern for me.” The tempter backs off. Ding! Round one to the Plan. Round two begins, and the tempter comes out charging. “You’re powerless. Worship me and I’ll give you everything.” Jesus repels this move even more directly and efficiently than before: “No! You are powerless. Your power is an illusion, a lie. You are not a worthy object of worship. Only God is powerful; only God is God.” Round two goes, once again, to the Plan, no question about it.Ding!Round three. The tempter opens the attack once again: “You’re thirsty for recognition. You’re all alone out here. You’ve been away from civilization so long people have forgotten you exist. Why don’t you jump off the pinnacle of the temple. Surely your Father will send angels to catch you. People will think you’re a great guy and you’ll get all the recognition you need.” But Jesus responds as quickly as ever: “If I jump, I will be denying the wisdom of God. He’ll determine when the time is right for me to get recognition. I trust him.” Round three—the Plan. The devil gave Jesus every opportunity to do what the eagle in the airplane did, to fly away, take care of his own needs, and let the other passengers perish. But Jesus didn’t do that. He “repented” perfectly. He kept his focus centered on the Father, and adhered perfectly to his identity and his mission: who he was and what he was called to do. Jesus was the perfect penitent. In that desert battle with Satan, he charted the course of his ministry, an unswerving course of obedience, obedience unto death, even death on a cross.This wasn’t the final battle between the Power and the Plan, between diabolical evil and divine redemption. The tempter returned, as Luke tells us, “at an opportune time”. But Jesus’ victory in the desert paved the way for his victory in the garden, on the cross, and in the tomb. Game, set, and match to the Plan. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your victory over temptation you did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In your victory is our victory. Amen.