Friday, February 22, 2013

Angels and Demons

Sermon preached February 17, 2013

Texts: Luke 4:1-13

When I think of old television shows, I think of programs broadcast only in black and white from the 1950s and early 1960s – “Father Knows Best,” Leave It To Beaver,” “The Honeymooners.” I have seen reruns of all these shows over the years. Most of us have seen popular entertainment that is a little older than we are. We are aware, I think, of popular entertainment that is even more distant in the past for us. I know that before such programs as these, radio was the popular medium, and I even know the names of some radio shows, though I never listened to them. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
What boggles my mind, when I think about it, is that “The Shadow” was closer in time to me that television programs like MASH or The Mary Tyler Moore are to today’s children and youth. The other day I was sharing with my medical ethics class about taking a girl to a Gordon Lightfoot concert when I was in high school and none of them had ever heard of Gordon Lightfoot.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" The temptation story of Jesus is a story about angels, and demons, and shadows. If you thought you were going to hear something about the Dan Brown novel or the Ron Howard movie, sorry.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” The wilderness. In the Bible and Christian tradition, the wilderness is a provocative image. It is a place of danger, “the howling wilderness waste” (Deuteronomy 32:10). But is it also a place of discovery. In the wilderness, the desert, one discovers oneself. In his brief book on the Christian Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton wrote, “What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ” (5). They went to the desert, the wilderness, to find it. And in that place of self-discovery, God is found. From Deuteronomy 32, God sustains God’s people “in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste.” Our Lenten theme is pathways to God, and this text suggests that one such pathway is the pathway of self-awareness, self-discovery, the kind of self-discovery that happens in wilderness places.
Led by the Spirit in the wilderness. This is a story of angels and demons and shadows. Jesus is tempted by the chief of the demons, the devil. He is tempted, in one instance, with angels. He confronts shadows.
The shadow, not the pulp fiction radio character Lamont Cranston, but the human shadow, comes out in this story. The human shadow consists of those parts of ourselves we struggle with and tend to hide. The poet Robert Bly uses the image of us putting things in an invisible bag that we carry behind us – those things about ourselves that we are told are not so good or so nice, yet they don’t go away. (Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow; Zweig and Abrams, Meeting the Shadow). We need to deal with them.
One element of the shadow that is part of us is the shadow side of our strengths. Our strengths have negative dimensions when they are overused. Our strengths can be misused. We are uncomfortable acknowledging that. It is part of our shadow.
Jesus has wonderful creativity. He could turn stone into bread. Too quick a use of such creativity to feed a hunger may hide deeper hungers. We can be satisfied with too little. Sometimes over-reliance on one’s own creativity does not allow room for the creativity of others. If Jesus had given in to this temptation to turn stones into bread would he later have been able to say to the disciples, confronted with a hungry crowd, “you give them something to eat”? (Luke 9:13)
Jesus has charisma and power. How often do we see charismatic people, powerful people, get caught up in their own power, misusing it for narrow gain, hurting others? Henry Ford could not give his son, Edsell, proper credit for the good work he did on the Model A. Religious figures like Jim Jones or David Koresh would rather have their followers die than deal with their own abuse of power. Jesus has to keep his own charisma and power in check. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Even piety and religiousness can have a shadow side. How often the language of religion is used to put down, to hurt. Christian language has been used to justify slavery, the subjugation of women, the exclusion of gay and lesbian persons. Islamic language is used to justify suicide bombing and killings. The temptation is there to use the strength of our religious language and bend it the wrong way. Surely angels will come to rescue you , Jesus, if you throw yourself off the temple.
In the wilderness, cut off from distraction, we can discover more about ourselves. We can begin to see the shadow side of even our strengths. I remember an incident from my seminary days. My first seminary field placement was in a supervised hospital setting working with a clinical pastoral education supervisor. At the end of the year, he did a group evaluation. There was a woman who he recommended do some therapy around anger issues. There was a man who he thought should do some reading to open up his thinking a bit more. I remember asking, “what do you think I should read,” and he told me to stop reading. It was not a literal suggestion, but a recognition that I can rely too much on my head. I love words and language and concepts. I love to use language to paint a more complex picture of the world. That’s good. That’s helpful, but there is a shadow side. Reality is richer than even the concepts. Explanation can be important, but just being there for someone without explaining matters a great deal. I haven’t stopped reading, but I haven’t forgotten that encounter either.
We wrestle with angels and demons and shadows in the wilderness and in discovering the depth in ourselves, we find God in new ways. The poet Rilke once wrote, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well” (quoted in Rollo May, Love and Will, 122). God has given each of us wonderful gifts. Affirm them, but also acknowledge that even good gifts have shadow sides.
A second dimension to the human shadow that I see in this story and want to touch on, but more briefly, is our vulnerability. We tend to hide our vulnerable places, put them in the invisible bag we carry behind us. Yet when we are willing to be vulnerable, we discover God more deeply. About the Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton wrote: These monks insisted on remaining human and “ordinary.”… The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. (The Wisdom of the Desert, 22-23)
Now I happen to think each and every one of you is extraordinary, but there is a shadow side to the language of extraordinary. If everything is always extraordinary, it can be difficult to be open to the vulnerable places we have, to the ordinary moments. Yet such openness seems a pathway to God. I recently read this simple sentence that had a powerful impact – yes, I am still reading! Messing up is a part of existence, perhaps a needed part (Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 94)
We hunger, yet we need not be defined by our hungers. That is a radical word in a society that would like to see us act on most of our hungers, typically by buying something to assuage them. We hunger, and that is o.k., but if are willing to admit our hungers, perhaps we have a better chance to sort them out and discover which hungers are deepest. Perhaps we have a better chance of discovering that letting go of some lesser hungers helps feed deeper ones.
We are confused about our own power. We want to control more than we can control. We don’t always want to acknowledge the power we have, because with power comes responsibility. From our baptismal liturgy – “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?’
We have questions about our faith. When should we take leaps of faith and when are such leaps simply foolishness? It is o.k. to admit we have questions and that some matters of faith and life don’t admit of easy answers.
We would hide our vulnerabilities, but being open to them opens us up to God’s Spirit in new ways.
Awhile back I came across this poem by Rilke that speaks to me about hanging with vulnerabilities. It is printed on the bulletin insert.

How dear you will be to me, then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home
(“Original Version, Tenth Dunio Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell)

The reason the Spirit leads us into the wilderness, where we have the opportunity to deepen our self-awareness is that in so deepening, we discover something new about the closeness of God. In the wilderness, in our self-discovery, God meets us. We find God loves us, shadow and all. God gives us gifts to be affirmed and calls us to use those gifts, in spite of their shadow side. God is there to help us overcome the most destructive sides of our shadow. God uses us to touch the lives of others with beauty and grace and love, even as we continue to wrestle with angels and demons and shadows. The wrestling doesn’t end. The devil only departs for a time. The wrestling doesn’t end, but we discover in the wilderness that neither does God’s love for us. Amen.

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