Posted by: dacalu | 15 February 2016

Quoting Scripture

Today, I had the privilege and pleasure of worshiping with the Episcopal Church at Princeton (Chaplaincy). I shared these words for the sermon.

 

Collect for the first Sunday in Lent

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; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Deuteronomy 26:1-11: (“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground”)

Psalm 91: (“For he shall give his angels charge over you”)

Romans 10:8b-13: (“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”)

Luke 4:1-13: (“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”)

 

Sermon

We used to joke in seminary that the lectionary should come with difficulty ratings, just like ski slopes. What we have here is a double black diamond – expert skiers only. Much like Matthew 23:9: “Call no one your father on Earth” any time you hear someone explain this gospel, especially someone who goes by the title “father” you should be suspicious. Say it with me: “even the devil can quote scripture.” Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (I.iii): “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. … O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Now you know where the saying comes from: today’s gospel. This is one of only a few appearances of the devil in the New Testament. Jesus, wandering in the wilderness after his baptism, encounters the tempter, who presents three opportunities for sin.

First, Jesus has been fasting. The devil suggests he use his power to turn a stone into bread. Jesus refuses, saying he lives not by bread alone. The full quote would be Deuteronomy 8:3:

God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Moses and Jesus are recalling that God feeds us in God’s own time, and this was not the right time for Jesus to eat.

Second, Jesus was bringing about salvation the slow way or so it seemed. When the Israelites passed through the Jordon River, they immediately went about conquering Judah; When Jesus was baptized in the Jordon, by all Biblical precedent, we would expect him to do the same; God spoke, this was his moment of triumph. But that’s not what happens. Instead the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. The Devil says to Jesus, “just do it my way, and you’ll be in charge today.” One can imagine even a good intentioned Savior being tempted to go about salvation quickly. Jesus says Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Again a quote from Deuteronomy, tying rule of Judah to following God. Moses and Jesus are recalling that God rules in God’s way, and this was not the way for Jesus to rule.

Third, Jesus is being annoyed by this pesky adversary. As if it weren’t bad enough to be hungry and impatient. The Devil places Jesus at the top of the Temple, and dares him to step off into the air; would he, the Son of God, not be saved by the angels? Honestly, I’ve always interpreted that as the temptation of publicly showing off his power, but as I look at it this week, a different interpretation comes to mind. Given how smarmy the Devil is in this passage, especially quoting scripture back at Jesus – that is a quote from psalm 91 – I think the Devil is tempting Jesus to strike back; I think the Devil is provoking him. Jesus responds – as Jesus always responds – on point. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Deuteronomy again (6.16): Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah.” For at Massah in the wilderness, the Israelites lost patience with the Lord. And started whining (Exodus 17). Moses and Jesus are recalling that God works in God’s ways, and not in the ways we expect. I think it was also a bit of a dig, after all, what was the Devil doing but putting Jesus to the test and through Jesus, God. We should never underestimate the subtlety of Bible characters; Jesus makes many witty and pointed remarks. We need not think him dull, to find him wise and sincere. Indeed, wisdom and love often speak more clearly when couched in thoughtfulness and good cheer.

I am told one of my more interesting traits is that I study science and religion. Some of you might want to hear about that. By way of introduction, I have a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology and consult for NASA on interdisciplinary communication and the search for life in space. I am also an Episcopal Priest and am currently working at the Center of Theological Inquiry over at the Seminary on questions of Astrobiology and Theology. I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and write and speak on related subjects. So I think about this sort of thing a lot.

My experience has been that debates around evolution – and our place in the universe, and gender, and climate, and a host of other issues – have little to do with religion versus science per se and more to do with our theology, how we interpret the Bible, and how we think about authority. Anglicans have never been too troubled about religion versus science, but starting with the assumption that they belong together, have asked how do we do religion and science well, at the same time. That’s the tricky bit. That whole Darwin business was touch and go in the late 19th century, but there were theologians and scientists on both sides. They wanted to know how to think about anthropology and biology, using the best of science and the best of theology. Likewise, stepping beyond Anglicanism for the moment, the Galileo affair was all about interpreting scripture. I highly recommend reading Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. He quotes Augustine and Cardinal Baronius in saying that in the Bible, the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven not how heaven goes.” And,

“But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

At that time, again, there were theologians and scientists on both sides of the debate. The question was this: who has the authority to interpret scripture? And on what matters?

Stepping farther back in time, one of my favorite quotes comes from Augustine of Hippo, some 16 centuries ago:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?”

The authority of the Bible is very much at stake; but don’t be fooled. It is not simply a matter of believing the Bible or trusting science. It is a question of how we read the Bible, how we reason with it, and what we are willing to learn. Lives and souls are at stake as well as opinions. Let no one fool you. Bad theology and bad exegesis leads to loss of life. Hope, faith, and charity are at stake in how we read the bible. What we do here, in this place, it’s more than discovering the truth, it is discovering the truth in the hope of serving both God and neighbor.

So let us return to the gospel, bearing these things in mind. 1) The use of scripture matters to the world. 2) At stake are questions of truth and meaning that will require us to bring both reason and faith to bear – in fact all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. 3) God can be doing something straightforward and something subtle at the same time.

Let it not be said that I ignore the plain reading of scripture. There is much to be learned from this story of Jesus and the Devil, at the surface level. For the record, I do think Jesus is a historical figure, I am willing to believe he was baptized in the river Jordan and fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. The biologist in me did have to look that up, and, with water, this is near the limits of human endurance, but doable. It would somewhat dull the point if Jesus’ survival was already miraculous. I am willing to believe he encountered the Devil in person and was tempted, though I confess, I’m also open to this being an internal dialogue or a hallucination. Those seem consistent with good storytelling. Still, let us say it really happened.

Jesus was polite, if pointed, when talking to the Devil and clearly near wits end. Try arguing after fasting; it’s not fun, and it’s really not easy to be kind. Let no one fool you about what the Bible says. Jesus did get mad and accusatory, but neither persecution, nor evil, nor dire straits call for this. Jesus got mad for other reasons, which we can talk about at other times. To the devil, he was polite.

Jesus stayed on point. As Paul would say, he kept his eyes on the prize and pressed on towards the goal of the heavenly call (Philippians 3). Jesus brought the conversation back to God’s time, God’s ways, and God’s work: the redemption of the world.

I do not encourage arguments, but I do encourage you to talk to people about God and faith and reason  and how they go together. Anglicans have always been people of faith and reason, and people of words, quotes, knowledge, the refined and subtle English of the King James Bible and of Shakespeare, the insightful words of theologians and scientists. We have always believed that Jesus, The Word, is the type of all words; and, therefore, all words are worth hearing, in their time and place. We have always believed that Jesus, the logos, the divine order is the type of every order, every law and regularity and harmony; and, therefore, all laws are worth knowing (though we may not always obey).

Have you read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection? It is another very well written book, if long and detailed. Few people know about the quotes on the inside front cover. Without going into Darwin’s beliefs about God, a topic of some debate, let me share this quote from Francis Bacon, a founder of modern science. It appears in the front of Darwin’s book.

“Let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both.”

I do not know what Darwin himself thought of his religion. He said a variety of things that defy easy category. I will say that I am proud he had the Anglican tradition to draw on. And I am proud we saw fit to bury him in Westminster Abbey, just to the left of Isaac Newton. We value wisdom and knowledge and words. We listen when people speak. And we try, very carefully to be thoughtful and of good cheer, while being well informed to the best of our ability. This means reading the book of God’s word – scripture – and the book of God’s works – science – and doing our best to fit them together in a meaningful whole while keeping our eyes on the prize, the redemption of the world. What we do here, in this place, it’s more than discovering the truth, it is discovering the truth in the hope of serving both God and neighbor.

Who has the authority to interpret scripture? We do, together, bringing all that we are and all that we have. This lent, I challenge you to talk more about your faith with reasonable people. I challenge you to talk more about your reason with faithful people. If there was ever a time when we needed both faith and reason, it is today.

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Responses

  1. This is a fine sermon for what my reflections are worth, Lucas. I have about four or five different thoughts about the development of your ‘argument’, but what I especially like is your use of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ here. There is this dramaturgic quality to the passage from scripture. It’s almost breathtaking the way we are taken from the height of the mountain to the pinnacle of the city in the context of the three temptations. Sort of the way we move from scene to scene in Elizabethan/Jacobean tragedy with only poetry to make the quick and imaginative transitions. I never felt that the power of evil in Luke’s passage is weak or a sham, as I have heard some say. To me, it is one of the most Manichean passages in the New Testament, that is, good and evil on almost even terms (footing?). And it is only because Christ is portrayed as very human with his hunger from fasting and the like that he is almost but not quite at a disadvantage. It is the scope of this moral struggle that makes it seem that there is hardly anything or anyone else in Universe except for Jesus and Satan. And similar to Elizabethan tragedy, Satan is like the ‘Vice’ of Medieval moralities, somewhat comic but a most dangerous adversary nonetheless. The brooding choices that Christ makes quoting Deuteronomy, for instance, lead to his ultimate triumph. But is it a victory over temptation or over the evil that the temptations give rise to? And in the end, is there bread enough for us? But I think your approach is fascinating, and I love the reference to Francis Bacon just for starters.

    I’ll likely go into the other points elsewhere, but I really enjoyed your approach here.

  2. Sean Johnson at COTA. It was I who entered the previous comment of your homily, but you probably realized that. I must update my account. ffsjarts is for my social justice non-profit.

  3. Notably, I think Shakespeare wants us to sympathize with the application of the argument to Shylock at the beginning, but call it into question by the end. As I note in the sermon, though do not call forth, it cuts both ways. We must ever approach the text with great humility. I had not made the connection with mountain and city. Thank you for that. I believe that this passage from Luke really brings front and center the difference in priorities between Jesus and the Devil. It isn’t even a conflict in some sense because the Devil is offering things he does not have in exchange for things that Jesus knows are not his to give. So, I see it as temptation, but not battle in a Dualist sense. It is remarkably stark, however, and yes, it really does leave us face to face with “is there bread enough”? A very thought provoking passage. Thanks for the comments.

    • That’s great, Lucas. The devil is showing something he doesn’t have to give. Yes, in the end what he proffers is without substance, and Jesus is heroic in his refusal to take the bait. Like the assessment of Shylock and how our p.o.v. changes with the action of the play. Thanks for the observations in reply. Your remarks are always bread for thought…


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