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March 6th, 2022

This morning, in our gospel, Jesus tangles with the devil in the desert. It is one of the great scenes from the gospel. For Jesus, having gone out alone into the desert for mindful contemplation, for a moment to think on his own, what creeps into his mind? The temptations the devil presents. We imagine Jesus standing with the devil at his side, taunting him to play along with his riddle game. The devil is wily; he knows humanity’s weaknesses well. He begins with a good one, the one that whispers its larger question: Are you good enough? Can you prove it? “If you are who you say, turn this stone to bread.” But Jesus declines: One does not live by bread alone. (Translation: I don’t need to prove myself to you. I know my worth and don’t need to show off.) So the Devil goes with greed: “Look at these kingdoms; join me and they are yours.” Jesus answers, Worship God and only God. (Translation: the path you promise might lead to riches, but the cost of my soul and morality is too high a price.) And finally the Devil tried doubt: does this God really exists? Does God even care about you? He tells Jesus, “Throw yourself off this mountain and see if you are saved.” But Jesus says: I don’t need to test God. By which he means: my faith is enough for me; it keeps my feet on the ground and my eyes looking forward. The tests are passed, and at an opportune time, we are told, the devil gives up and goes away. Still - those challenges! What tests they were: pride, greed, doubt! Temptations that have long plagued humanity before and since, whispers that reach out to us at night, or slip in when our minds are quiet. Am I good enough? (And how to show it?) Am I rich enough? (And how to get richer.) Am I loved enough? (And how to test it.) The devil chose those challenges well. For they lead us down a path of despair to focusing on what we don’t have and losing site of what we do. Even more, they distract us from the gospel. If we are worried about showing how good we are, we are not lifting up others. If we are worried about how rich we are, we are not sharing with others. If we are testing the love of those around us, we are not focused first on loving those around us. The devil is a formidable adversary. Jesus outsmarts him, but we shouldn’t underestimate that. And yet, what happens when the devil is challenged – when instead of hubris, greed, and doubt, the world chooses the opposite? What happens when we don’t give in, when we resist temptation? This week, The Atlantic Monthly published a piece online with the headline “The Impossible Suddenly Became Possible.” The essay explored the world’s unexpected reaction to Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine. “Human beings,” the author wrote, “do not always act the way they are supposed to act.” They don’t always “duck and cover,” take the easy way out, give in to an easier path. Sometimes, as we have seen, they stand strong, and together, and face the devil. Sometimes a leader who everyone underestimated refuse to be cowed, and shows remarkable bravery; sometimes, in response to that bravery, other countries step up, and companies sacrifice their bottom line for a greater good. Sometimes, people who were supposed to run refuse to run. They refuse to run even in the face of all but certain defeat because not to fight at all is a more terrible loss. And so the impossible becomes possible. In that moment, whatever happens now, the devil has already lost. This is what we are seeing right now: the power of courage, loyalty, and faith. What happens when a leader stands by his people and risks everything? What happens when people say there are things in life more important than money and profits; qualities such as integrity, that, as we see now, are priceless? What happens when we say let us not doubt and dither; let us act in the way we know we should? In this, whatever happens now, the devil has already lost. So it was with Jesus. We know that after those days in the desert, whatever was to happen next, the devil had already lost. Jesus had prevailed; he had kept his soul, and held to his beliefs, and remained true to himself. Those values would carry him all the rest of the way. I wrote the first draft of this sermon on Thursday; just as the port city of Mariupol fell to the Russians. The convoy outside Kyiv was still stalled, but that wouldn’t last. Putin, in a TV appearance, was vowing victory no matter what. The President of Ukraine has said the Russian plan is to erase Ukraine, and yet they are still here. What’s more, the Ukrainians who refuse to bend to a tyrant have already changed the world. And yet, they fight on, as Andrew Coyne, a columnist in The Globe and Mail wrote this week of the people of Ukraine. “Because they have no choice?” he asks. “No. Because they have chosen.” On that day in the desert, Jesus was playing a game of wits with the devil; he was making choices. He was deciding his path. When we choose courage, faith, and hope, we are making a choice; we are deciding our path. When we need reminding, we might look to the example of everyday Ukrainians – baristas, and grandmothers, and businesspeople – who are defending democracy. Not because they have no choice. But because they have chosen. Amen

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