Abundant Grace (Mar. 7 – 13)

Sunday, March 13
First Sunday in Lent

Weekly Theme
Abundant Grace

God of mercy, your word was the sure defense of Jesus in his time of testing. Minister to us in the wilderness of our temptation, that we who have been set free from sin by Christ may serve you well into life everlasting. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

All readings for this week
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Focus Questions

1. Billy Graham said, “It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.” Do you agree?

2. What setting helps you notice “how small and perishable you are”?

3. How often, and how, do you make room for God in your life?

4. Do you think all suffering should be relieved as soon as possible?  Why or why not?

5. What are the “pacifiers” that help you to keep “from feeling what it means to be human”?

by Kate Huey

In “Lenten Discipline,” her sermon on Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Barbara Brown Taylor gives a wonderful description of how Lent came to be (after all, it’s not in the Bible). Many years after Jesus had not returned as quickly as expected, church folks “decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was hard to pick them out from among the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud.”

The church dug deep into its faith story, recalling the time (always with the number forty involved) that Israel, Elijah, and Jesus each spent in the desert, wandering and suffering, longing and learning: hungry. “So the church announced a season of Lent…an invitation to a springtime of the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone…to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply ourselves.” Then as now, folks had their “pacifiers,” Taylor calls them, all the things and ways that we keep ourselves from feeling what it means to be human, even if that means being in pain or being afraid. Our pacifiers can convince us that we don’t really need God. In fact, Taylor believes that just about all of us struggle with an addiction, “anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone. That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying.”
So here we are, at the beginning of another season of Lent: it sometimes feels like “Lent Again,” but Taylor’s words are fresh and strangely inviting, if one can find the desert inviting. In another sermon, on this Matthew text, Taylor recalls her own time spent in the desert: “There is something about a desert that can suck all the self-confidence right out of you. It is so big, so quiet, so empty that you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is.”

Jesus’ lonely struggle in the barren wilderness follows immediately, the very next verse, after the amazing incident down at the river when he was baptized and the sky opened up, and the Spirit descended, and the voice of God pronounced him God’s Beloved Son. It’s striking, if you read everything that leads up to this desert time, that the dramatic moment at the river is the only indication that Jesus has received so far in the Gospel that he is someone special. He actually accepts baptism, humbly, from John, in fact, he insists on it “to fulfill all righteousness.” So we might wonder if Jesus was so affected by that dramatic revelation that he felt “driven” by a need to be alone and figure out what that exactly meant, what God was calling him to be and to do. That’s one way of reading that “the Spirit” drove him into the desert. Taylor says that out there, Jesus may “have wondered if he had imagined the whole thing.”    
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who “subtly suggested that Jesus deserved better than God was giving him.” Today, his followers may hear a “devilish voice in our heads [that] says things like, ‘If you are a child of God, shouldn’t things be going a little smoother for you? If you are really a Christian, I mean–shouldn’t you be happier, healthier, richer, safer?'” It’s a huge challenge to reconcile the spirit of this kind of Lenten reflection with the spirit of many of today’s theologies that seem to skip over the part of our spiritual journey that demands sacrifice, taking a detour around Calvary to enjoy the sweet, comforting time in the garden, alone, with the risen and glorified Jesus. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Jesus’ temptations echo those of Israel

Just as the time in the wilderness recalls the wanderings of the people of Israel during the Exodus, Matthew’s Gospel will “echo” these three temptations later on: “In the feeding stories Jesus does bring forth bread for the hungry, but even there he makes clear that it is God’s word that feeds even more richly than food. In the crucifixion those who taunt him echo the devil: ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’….Beyond death Jesus does receive all authority, not just on earth but in heaven, too, but it is still not the authority of princes and principalities…[but] the authority of presence” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). When Jesus does claim the power that is his, it’s exercised on behalf of others, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and give glory to God. And as he exercises that power, it begins to dawn on those who are watching that the words of that heavenly voice at the river were true.
Richard Swanson always gives an interesting perspective on the text: This “examination” of Jesus “begins with a ritual weakening of the candidate” caused by forty days of fasting. Swanson sees hunger not as “simply a biological state; it is a theological and anthropological index of what it means to be a human being.” He remembers that God breathed into Adam and made him “a desiring being. That means that Jesus, as a result of his ritual fast, has become fully alive, a human being at the most basic level, capable of the greatness and the depravity that aspiration (hunger) brings to life.” So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart. Learning this from the text of Matthew 4:1-11 brings an end to prideful finger-pointing at others whose transgressions are headline news and brings about a reflective examining of the inner places of the soul, where the real and daily struggle becomes absolutely personal.” 

The “possibilities for doubt”

Perhaps that is a good way for us to approach Lent: as “a reflective examining of the inner places of the soul.” According to Thomas Long, Jesus, like Israel, is tempted in ways that “symbolize all of the possibilities for doubt, misdirection, faithless choices, and unholy distractions to which God’s people are ever at risk.” Like those earlier Christians who settled into a comfortable faith, we’re tempted today to turn away from the suffering of the world, tempted to build our own defenses against doubt and risk, tempted to concentrate not only on our own needs but also our wants, before thinking of others. In doing so, we forget who we are, too, and fall prey to the tempter.

It’s not unusual for our focus to be limited, and perhaps it’s understandable when the world holds so much possibility for pain on the other side of our defenses. We’ll take care of ourselves, and our family, and maybe our church, and perhaps the neighborhood around it, but we really don’t have time or energy or ability to reach beyond those narrow lines drawn protectively around us and our loved ones, “the people we know.” Thomas Long sees the first temptation that way: “The devil is attempting to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his work too small–satisfying hunger–and the recipients of his work too few–only one, himself. As Messiah, Jesus is called to a ministry of great size…a sweeping ministry, encompassing the whole of humanity; but the tempter places before him another idea–make it narrow.” Long connects this to the situation of the church today in a powerful way: “The church experiences this form of temptation whenever it risks losing sight of the breadth of its calling or when we measure the effectiveness of the church according to how quickly it responds to our personal ideas and needs, our demand to be fed…Jesus is hungry, very hungry, but he will not allow the devil to restrict his diet, or ours…Jesus resisted the temptation to make the gospel too small.” The devil is all talk, empty talk. Perhaps we need to spend some time in those empty places within us that belong to God alone, listening instead to a gospel larger than we had ever considered, and opening ourselves for what is yet to come.

For further reflection

Winston Churchill, 20th century
One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!

Oswald Chambers, 20th century
God never gives strength for tomorrow or for the next hour, but only for the strain of the minute.

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
How little people know who think that holiness is dull….When one meets the real thing, it’s irresistible.

Christopher Morley, 20th century
The enemies of the truth are always awfully nice.

Bill Watterson, 21st century
Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man? Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help.

A preaching version of this commentary can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.