Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection 17, 2019
"Lenten Thoughts" - Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Sunday, I preached a sermon based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). I’d like to add part of that sermon in this week’s The Advance (the full sermon can be found posted on my personal Facebook page and on the church’s Facebook page).
Why do we see Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil (depicted in Matthew, Mark and Luke)? By going out to the wilderness, Jesus is going out to the place where the demons and devils supposedly lived. Jesus is, in effect, bringing the fight into the enemies’ camp.
The Holy Spirit of the Living God leads Jesus into this forbidding place so Jesus might be tested/tempted. But why? God’s hand is obviously at work here but why?
One reason is to show how Jesus, as the New Adam, is able to resist what Adam (and Eve) could not resist. Jesus is seen as passing the test that Adam and Eve failed.
But there’s something deeper at work here. Jesus was being tested to prove one thing: that Jesus’ heart was set on God and God alone. (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul….”)
To love God with one’s whole heart and soul means one’s focus is on God alone. One’s heart, one’s soul, is not divided. This is what underlies Satan’s three temptations. The first temptation is the pursuit of money and wealth (“turn these stones to bread“). The second temptation is the pursuit of power. Satan will give all the nations to Jesus if Jesus will only worship him.
We might wonder how Satan got control of all the world’s nations in the first place. Don’t they truly belong to God? A passage from John’s Gospel (14:30) gives us a clue. At the final supper, Jesus announces “I won’t say much more because the world’s ruler (sometimes translated as “the Prince of this world“) is coming. He has nothing on me.” Who among us can say “the devil has nothing on me?”
The third temptation is to prestige. Satan tempts Jesus: “Jesus show us how special you are to God! Let everyone see this as you thrown yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple.” Don’t many of us want to seem more special than we are? Jesus passes the third and final test and the devil leaves him until a more opportune time.
Where does evil come from? Here are the opening words from Jacob Needleman’s Why Can’t We Be Good?: “This most important question has taken many forms throughout the ages, but the words that cut through all the worlds and across all the epochs of human history are these: Why do we not do what we know is good? Why do we do what we hate? This is the question we never really ask and it is the only question that can make a difference in our lives.”
Paul knew this conundrum well: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom 7:19) So we are left pondering: from whence comes evil?
I believe there are three, and only three, options: 1) evil comes from the hand of God; 2) evil comes from a malevolent force opposed to God, usually spoken of as the devil; 3) evil comes from the hearts and hands of we humans.
I believe all three options are at work. Throughout the Scriptures, God is portrayed as testing us, as Jesus was tested, to see if we have divided hearts or hearts set on God alone. While this testing comes to us all, I’m unhappy with portrayal of God.
Whenever we set our heart on anything other than God, we go astray. Our hearts become divided. Our hearts become stony. But there’s another piece that must be brought to bear on this issue.
I believe the human heart is nourished and strengthened by the soul. It is the soul that keeps the heart focused on God. The soul is the deepest, dearest, most divine part of who we are. It’s from the soul that all prayer arises. It is from the soul that we are in constant contact with the Holy Spirit.
Sin, in all its forms, in its many devilish manifestations, damages the soul. “What does it profit one to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul?”
One’s soul can be damaged by cruelty and hatred. Children’s souls can be damaged by abuse and neglect, by bad parenting. Someone with a damaged soul is less able to resist evil. The heart, unnourished by a damaged soul, necessarily seeks power, prestige, wealth. A heart unnourished by a healthy soul will more easily turn to violence and to every form of inhumanity.
Nourishing the souls of our children is our most critical task as parents, grand-parents, disciples, citizens. Our current political landscape is ravished by those with fragmented souls. Many walk this world with severely-damaged souls, souls on life-support. We’ve much to fear from them.
Jacob Needleman in Lost Christianity, argues that Christianity lost its way when it envisioned the human soul as fully formed, as a finished entity, in each person. Rather, the human soul grows when it is nourished and it withers away when it’s starved, abused, attacked, or neglected. Souls, unfortunately, can also be murdered.
One can argue that we’re in such a dire place today because our places of worship have neglected the critical task of nourishing the soul. Nourishing the soul is not easy. Neglecting the soul is easy.
This Lent I’d like to suggest a practice for all of us, myself included: 1) Avoid whatever damages your soul; 2) Seek whatever nourishes your soul. I’ll be examining both sides of this practice throughout the coming weeks of Lent. On Sunday, I concluded the sermon with a few things that damage the soul and a few things that nourish the soul. I hope to “flesh” these out throughout the sacred season of Lent.
No Advance Next Week: Due to my absence, there will be no issue of The Advance next week. Pastor Thomas