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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Just get rid of it.

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2024 at Holy Communion

Deuteronomy 12:1–7


“You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:2). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


Several months ago, and after a long time of thinking the issue over, and over, and over, I made a good decision and ditched my smartphone. Now I walk around with a flip-phone in my pocket that is surely at least ten years old, on which it takes me approximately two and a half years to write a text, and I couldn’t be happier.


For me, the problems with carrying around a smartphone were the same as for everybody else. It became an easy “off-ramp” from what I was supposed to be doing to a million different forms of distraction. I would have to look up the time, and suddenly I’m reading the comments on the news. I have to write a two-sentence e-mail and suddenly I’m half an hour into looking up the photos of friends I haven’t seen in a decade. And it was worse when I was tired: when I was exhausted, or bored, or stressed, the phone was always throwing media at me that always promised that I would feel better and more relaxed if I vegged for a while, but it never lived up to that promise.


I hadn’t anticipated how much making the switch to a dumb phone would give me clarity of mind. I had never realized how much I was on constant alert for a buzz in my pocket: without that, I could work without distraction and rest without disturbance more than I had in a long time.


Now, I’m not trying to argue that you have to all get rid of your smartphone: you know your weaknesses better than I do. The point is that, in order to achieve freedom from the constant mental dissipation that was disturbing me, I simply had to get rid of the thing. For a long time I thought that if I just exercised a little more discipline, I wouldn’t need to actually get rid of it. What a subtle self-deception that was!


In our Old Testament reading, the Lord instructs the Israelites about how they are to treat the worship sites of the people whose land they are about to conquer. The instruction is simple and stark: destroy them. Don’t leave one stone upon another. Deconstruct their altars and scatter the stones. Chop down the statues. Remove all signs that any pagan worship ever happened there. And then worship the Lord alone in the way the Lord prescribes.


In an age where we have a sense of history and a great respect for foreign cultures, this can be terribly difficult to understand. So first of all, these places of worship were not quaint cultural sites. These were places where the Canaanites offered human sacrifice, usually of children. These were places where married men would be told that it was spiritually important for them to have ritual sex with enslaved boys and girls. Ancient Canaanite paganism was not a pleasant affair.


But still, why destroy the sites? If their form of worship was really so disgusting, was there really any danger of the Israelites joining in? Unfortunately, yes there was.


Although in our reading the Israelites are instructed by God to destroy these “high places” where the pagans worshipped their gods, they never actually followed through. If you read through the books of 1 and 2 Kings, every king is judged based on whether he finally got around to removing the pagan worship sites, and, again and again, the refrain is “So and so was a decent king, but the high places were not removed” (for example, 1 Kings 15:14, 22:43, 2 Kings 12:3, 14:4, 15:4, 15:35).


And in the course of time—it didn’t take them long, really—the Israelites got curious. Maybe there was something in this ancient, local spirituality after all. Maybe worshipping the Lord alone is exclusive, restrictive. Maybe its fun to play with the boys and girls up at the local Asherah tree. So they did. But when Israel is ultimately abandoned by God to be conquered by her enemies, the prophets let us know the reason: it was because, as Psalm 106 says, “they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood” (v 38). In the end, even child sacrifice was curiosity they were willing to explore. And all because they didn’t get rid of the thing they knew they were supposed to get rid of.


When I was younger, I used to resent the biblical idea that we should flee temptation. I thought that running away from the sources of temptation was cowardly: surely it would be better to stand firm in the face of temptation, resolutely refusing to give in. And what if the same object or part of my life is both a source of temptations and a source of good things? We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.


But Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and he knows that this argument is just so much confusion and misdirection. He taught his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). It’s one thing to know that we ought to resist temptation, or even to have a desire to resist temptation—”the spirit is willing”—but actually resisting it is another matter for which we are often not prepared—”the flesh is weak.” More than we pray to heroically stand firm in the face of temptation, we pray not to be led into situations of temptation, because we know that we are feeble.


This is why Jesus taught that “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30). Keeping a source of temptation close to you is simply not worth it. The price could be very high. Just get rid of the thing.


We all know our own weaknesses—and if we don’t, then examining ourselves to figure out what are the biggest sources of temptation in our lives will be time well spent. The challenge from our readings this week is to find the courage to uncompromisingly banish sources of temptation from our lives. It is not worth keeping them around.


But there is one more word: the readings we have heard, as always, are readings for the eucharist. We draw courage, strength, and clarity for the difficult work of banishing our comfortable sources of self-destruction by approaching this altar to feed on heavenly food, renewing our fellowship with Jesus. The first step may be casting out your demons, but as Jesus says in our Gospel reading, unless someone else takes up residence, the demons will simply come back (Luke 11:24–26). Approach this table and invite Jesus take up residence in your spirit, casting out the Tempter as he comes.

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