And So It Begins
Sunday, March 5
First Sunday in Lent
And So It Begins
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.
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
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”?
6. Is there a difference between being “nice” and being “holy”?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
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, Lent’s not in the Bible–it’s really more of a “church thing.” Many years after Jesus had not returned as quickly as expected, Taylor explains, the followers of Jesus had learned to accommodate their own lives to the surrounding culture, finding “no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian.”
So much for martyrdom, bold witness and challenging the powers that be, speaking out or standing up for the poor and the marginalized. Instead, Taylor says, our ancestors in faith “decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud.”
Finding a connection with our tradition
So 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. In response to this hunger, this emptiness, this longing, the church, Taylor says, created Lent as “a springtime of the soul.” (In fact, the English word “Lent” comes from the word for “spring.”)
Like our own urge to clean house in the spring, the church recognized the need for a spiritual spring cleaning as well and, Taylor says, it offered “[f]orty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is goneÖto live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply ourselves.”
What does it mean to be human?
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 to what we need “to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone,” a space that we can’t possibly fill on our own, by our own efforts and wits. Alas, we seem unable to recognize that deep hunger for what it is, “the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered room of the Lord our God.”
So here we are, at the beginning of another season of Lent: it sometimes feels like “[groan] Lent Again,” but Taylor’s account of its origins is fresh and strangely inviting, if one can find the desert inviting. In another sermon, actually on this Matthew text, Taylor recalls her own time spent in the desert, a place “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.” (Taylor’s sermons are in her two wonderful books, Home by Another Way and Bread of Angels; they’re sermon collections that are also great for Bible study and reflection).
A long way from that scene at the river
This lonely struggle in the barren wilderness follows immediately, the very next verse, after the amazing incident down at the river when Jesus 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 all of 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.”
Feeling the pressure
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, Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who tempted Jesus and continues to tempt his followers even today with the belief that being Christian should somehow make life easier and better (and perhaps even more entitled).
Seriously, we really should pause and wonder whether easier and better is really what “blessed” means. 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 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.
The words of that voice were true
According to David Bartlett, 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 (both bread and the Word feed us), in the taunts at his crucifixion, and in the authority he has after the resurrection, “the authority of his presence.” 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 as something that’s not just a physical condition but a measure of “what it means to be a human being.” He remembers that God breathed into Adam and made him “a desiring being” subject to everything that “(hunger) brings to life.”
Faithful to the task
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”–in other words, at his core. Lueking suggests then that we focus not on the sins and weaknesses of others but on our own “inner places of the soul, where the real and daily struggle becomes absolutely personal.”
Perhaps that is a good way, then, 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.” 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.
The possibility for so much pain
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, when the devil suggests that Jesus keep his own vision “too small–satisfying hunger–and the recipients of his work too few–only one, himself.” Of course, we know that Jesus’ mission was anything but small, and that God’s love was reaching out to the whole world through him, as it continues to do today. Long connects this to the situation of the church today in a powerful way, for we are often tempted to focus narrowly on our own needs, our own beliefs, our own plans. “Jesus is hungry, very hungry,” Long says, “but he will not allow the devil to restrict his diet, or oursÖJesus 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.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Henri J.M. Nouwen, 20th century
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection….When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
Jonathan Martin, 21st century
“But that’s one way we can identify the devil’s voice: It always plays to our fears. It is the voice that tells us we must do something to prove who we are, to prove that we’re worthy, to prove that we are who God has already declared us to be. When we know we are loved by God, we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we are.”
Billy Graham, 20th century
“The devil doesn’t need to invent any new temptations; the old ones work as well as they ever have.”
“It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.”
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, 21st century
“We can never be gods, after all–but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.”
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.”
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