Sunday, March 5, 2017
First Sunday of Lent
As we begin this season of Lent, the question before us this morning is this: How do we grow in our faith and draw near to Jesus throughout the forty days of this Lenten season? (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Kimberly Bracken Long, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2013, page 99) The account of Jesus in the wilderness which comes from our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew provides us with a guide for our journey. (Preaching Through the Christian Year, A, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1992, page 147)
When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, we were made aware of Jesus’ identity and his relationship to God. God’s affirmation was clear: “ . . . a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:17)
Immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness where he was severely tested for “forty days and forty nights.” (“Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 45) We know that Matthew was directing his account of the temptations of Jesus to a predominantly Jewish Christian community, one that easily resonated with what happened to Jesus.
They knew the story about the rain of the great flood that fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights while Noah and his family waited for their deliverance, as God promised. (Genesis 7:4, 21; 9:8-16). They knew the story about how Moses fasted alone in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights atop Mount Sinai was he wrote the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:27-28)
They knew about how Elijah followed God’s urging and fasted for forty days and forty nights on Mount Horeb where he encountered God. (1 Kings 19:7-12) They knew that the number forty was rooted in Israel’s struggle to remain faithful to God while they were in the wilderness day and night. (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:2-21; 24:18; Deuteronomy 8:1-20)
It made sense then that Jesus endured forty days and forty nights of fasting and solitude. It made sense to them that Jesus was tested not for any of his weaknesses but that he might come to rely upon the strength of God.
As for the three temptations spelled out by Matthew, each is reflected in teachings recorded in The Book of Deuteronomy. “One does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) “Do not put the Lord to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16) and “The Lord your God you shall fear . . . you shall serve.” (Deuteronomy 6:13)
But of what consequence is the story to us – to me and to you – that Jesus was tempted and tested? It was in an essay by Wendy Wright on the three temptations of Jesus that the Rev. Nurya Love Parish of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Belmont, Michigan realized for her: “The tradition teaches that these temptations stand for pride, power and possession.” (The Christian Century, February 15, 2017, page 21)
The story about Jesus wasn’t just about what he faced. It was about what we all face. We give in all too easily to our own pride convinced we are better than others. We crave the power to control not only our own lives but the lives of others and in our pride and power, we are convinced that we deserve all that we possess.
The Rev. Robert Bryant, Associate Professor of Religion at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina points out that in his first test, Jesus is encouraged to turn stones into bread. He is tempted to use his power for himself rather than trusting in God.
Jesus immediately recognizes the deception and knows there is more at stake than food. Professor Bryant rightfully concludes: “Jesus will not misuse his power for (his own) personal material gain.” (“Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 49)
In his second test, Jesus is faced with his own “vulnerability and need for safety.” (Op. cit.) Jesus is tempted to make himself secure from the threat of injury, even death. But again Jesus recognizes the deception but he is not deceived. He will “not misuse his power to make himself safe and secure.” (Op. cit.) Instead, he will trust in God’s protective grace.
In his final test, Jesus is offered control over all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his allegiance. He rejects what is offered. He will not misuse his power to gain privilege over others.
Jesus was faced with each temptation but he did not succumb. If we are to grow in faith and draw near to Jesus throughout this season of Lent, it will come as we “live by the word of God.” (Matthew 4:4) It will come as we seek reconciliation and a right relationship with God and others by not putting God to the test. (Matthew 4:7) It will come as we remain active and intentional in our service to God and our worship of God. (Matthew 4:10)
The temptations Jesus faced are not foreign to us as individuals. They are not foreign to us as a people or as a nation. For Wendy Wright, it was pride, power, and possession; for Robert Bryant it was material gain, safety and security, domination and prestige.
What are the temptations for you?
Let us pray: God of the wilderness, as we devote the forty days of this Lenten season to you, shape us by your Holy Spirit into the image of Christ our Lord, so that we may be ready, by your grace, to confront the power of death with the promise of eternal life. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for we pray in the one who is the Son of God – ma ka inoa o Iesū. Amen.