Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Better or Best”
Matthew 4: 1-11
Lenten Vespers at
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Just one little question for you this evening: do you believe in the devil?
Call him what you wish, Satan, Lucifer, the Evil One—you pick the name. Do you believe in the devil, the one who, according to the gospel accounts, tempted Jesus in the wilderness?
Let me quit playing sophomoric games with you. I believe in the devil.
Now, not for a minute do I think this wily one has a tail, dresses up in a red suit, and totes a pitchfork. The devil—at least the one I believe in—is far craftier than that. The devil I believe in is a devious virtuoso.
I fear we do not give the devil his due. He weaves his diabolical magic with a technique almost impossible to detect or, at least, to call evil. The devil loves to get us believing we are doing so well when, in fact, we are up to our necks in evil. Martin Luther claimed the Satan does his most malicious work when we think all is going swimmingly.
Soon after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan by John and God had announced from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” just when Jesus had the world at his fingertips, the devil pounced.
Again, give the devil his due: he had done his homework. The only way he could get close to Jesus was by making a few proposals too good to resist. The devil wove his wicked web by offering Jesus an opportunity to solve the world’s worst problems; all Jesus had to do was make a few paltry concessions.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil played to Jesus’ loving side, the side yearning to feed every hungry soul in the world. If you could feed just one starving baby with a distended belly—or even a few—just by doing a little dance with the devil, wouldn’t you mull over the proposal?
Satan tempted Jesus to be spectacular as well. The whole world could belong to Jesus if only he bowed ever so slightly Satan’s way…just slightly mind you, not so terribly far.
The devil is ingeniously shrewd: he tempts us with choosing between better or best, not between worst or best. The devil tempts us to make a little compromise here, a tiny concession there, nothing particularly offensive and, in sacrificing the best, this world might just be a better place in the process.
The earliest Christians were wary of the colossal dangers of opting for better rather than best. The emperor asked them to offer just a pinch of incense on his altar and he promised all would well—just a smidgeon; no one would ever know the difference or care that you had bowed just a little Caesar’s way instead of God’s and you would soon forget the ugly compromise you made anyway.
I promise you, the devil is coming our way if he hasn’t already. The devil knows how fond we are of power and prestige and yes, of doing the right thing even if for the wrong reasons. All this, of course, to care for the world—nothing unsavory or vulgar. Churches often measure success by the friends we have in high places: we know the price exacted, the silence we must observe, and yet rubbing elbows with such lofty folks is so intoxicating that the price of not speaking the truth seems well worth it.
Better or best…You know the choices; you face them every day. A little compromise here, a slight bow to evil there—nothing much and all for the good of the cause—kind of like jumping off the temple top in order to save the world. Not too much to ask, wouldn’t you agree?
Being a child of God is almost always costly unless, of course, we opt to just get along. We can make believe there are two sides to every issue, never making a decision that is costly and never siding with the downtrodden if it might upset a solitary soul.
Jesus’ wilderness journey was a painful one that led straight up Calvary’s hill to the cross. He could have saved himself but that would have been opting for better rather than best; he could have received the adulation of adoring throngs by playing footsies with a few brawny politicians and a handful of smooth operating, compromising religious officials. Jesus would have none of it. He refused to turn his back on the outcasts—you and me, declining to make concessions to the devil in the process.
We are now on a forty-day journey called Lent. We will face countless opportunities to choose better or best. We can say that jobs matter all the while letting poisonous gases suffocate God’s good earth; we can say that tough cuts must be made to the poorest so that the ravenous appetites of the deadly military are fed in the name, of course, of peace.
The real Lenten journey occurs, not just for forty days, but throughout our lifetime. It is an arduous sojourn. We stumble and fall, scrape our knees and bloody our noses. God understands how hard it is and God welcomes us home every time we have been satisfied with better rather than best. And at that very moment when God embraces us, we know what is best, God’s son dying for us even when we have tried and failed.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
When we moved to San Diego twelve years ago, we were thrilled to be living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, we never dipped our toes into that great expanse of water, not once. We fell in love with something else instead, the desert, a place we had no idea existed in California until we arrived. We went hiking and camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley every chance we got.
The desert, at least for us, is hauntingly beautiful: sand as far as you can see, like the ocean in a way; the only disruption, a prickly cactus here and there. The sun beats down unmercifully, the wind howls, the sand bites; it is utterly quiet, maddeningly so at times.
Jesus went to such a fierce landscape, the place where the devil chose to weave his diabolical web. Give the devil his due: he waited until Jesus was hungry and thirsty, until there wasn’t a peep of noise. He came knocking when Jesus was susceptible to a tempting deal or two.
The desert’s ferociousness can cause you to hear strange voices and see bizarre things, especially when you are thirsty and disoriented. That’s when the devil strikes.
“Jesus,” he said, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus was hungry, the world was hungry; this was a good deal for everyone involved.
“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus was feeling helpless so why not opt for this offer of power and glory?
And then, in perhaps the craftiest of deals, the devil said, “All these I will give you”—pointing to the lands that stretched as far as Jesus could see—“if you will fall down and worship me.” At a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jesus was offered the world. Imagine what he could have done with such authority at his fingertips: he could have fed every hungry heart and ruled the world with his own vision of love.
There was a catch to these enticing, devilish proposals as there almost always are when supremacy and grandeur are offered. Jesus would have had to sacrifice a few of his ideals—just a few—for an apparent greater glory of ruling the world. Was the trade-off worth it? What do you think?
As we gather for our Sacred Conversations downstairs in the community room immediately following Mass today, we will engage in an exercise which will reveal how brutally difficult it is to listen amidst solitude and loneliness. Most of us prefer the incessant chatter of radios, Smartphones, and television talking heads to soothe the evening just a tad. The ruthless New York City Desert exacts a brutal toll at three in the morning, in our bedroom, with its own cruel silence: our minds run wild and we are terrified. We ponder our looming deaths, our shortcomings, our failures. Absolute silence…except the winds howling…the hawks circling overhead…and an occasional screaming police siren. Being all alone in the harsh urban desert, even for ten or fifteen minutes, is grueling.
Our Quote for the Week in today’s bulletin says: “Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside…Our wilderness is an inner isolation. It’s an absence of contact. It’s a sense of being alone—boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone” (H.A. Williams).
It was in such isolation that Jesus was tempted; it is in such isolation that we are tempted as well.
Here’s an invaluable Lenten learning, a gift for you: the way Jesus withstood every devilish temptation was by reaching for Holy Scripture on his desert nightstand. Of course, the Bible was not exactly there for Jesus simply to pull down from the nightstand but it didn’t matter: Jesus had committed God’s word to memory for such a time as this, words like “One does not live by bread alone…Do not put the Lord your God to the test…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—all these memories of God’s Word bolstered Jesus to find solace in the fierce landscape of life.
These forty days of Lent are our desert in the city. We have stripped our liturgy to barebones: the “A-word” (you thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?) has been buried until Easter; the crosses are draped in purple reminding us how our sin blocks out the splendor of God’s love; Jesus’ words from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echo deep in our souls. Ashes, purpled cross, loneliness, tomb, mortality…We can barely stand this fierce landscape and yet, if we face the silence with God’s word at hand, all will finally be well with our souls.
Ivan Illich writes, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.” Yes, in our uselessness we reach for God. At our most desperate and vulnerable, we discover our salvation.
When all our tricks have been tried and failed—our intellect, talents, and winsomeness, all that and more—only then do we feel compelled finally to reach out for God’s hand.
The quirky New York poet, Walt Whitman, said it so well in his “Leaves of Grass”:
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
That, my dear friends, is why you have come here this morning. You have tried everything and you still live in this desert called “Manhattan;” you are still hungry and thirsty. Here the true son of God comes singing his songs. These songs are your hope; they are your friend when you are all alone and all else fails. Reach across your bed stand for the poet worthy of that name, Jesus Christ. Tasting his bread of life and sipping his cup of salvation come down from heaven, may you be lifted up on angels’ wings.