First Sunday in Lent

I have a relative who has been a pastor for many years. He told me once about a teen-aged boy he’d befriended. One day the boy approached him and said: “Pastor, I’ve decided I’m going to sleep with my girlfriend, and I wanted to tell you first.” 


The pastor responded thoughtfully, with words the boy probably didn’t expect to hear. “That’s your decision, son, but first consider this: Once you begin, you’re not going to stop. And so this decision will take you to places in your life that you did not plan to go.” 


The two perspectives on this decision are very different. The boy no doubt saw the decision as occasioned by an opportunity, even if it was one for which he felt a need for pastoral guidance. But the pastor saw the decision as occasioned by a temptation, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for the boy’s future. 


Unless we’re talking about our favorite rolls at our favorite bakery, there’s nothing “sweet” about temptation. The temptation itself is painful, because it introduces a painful tension within us. It divides us against ourselves: the one side that wants to do the thing against the other side that does not. 


And yielding to the temptation is even worse, because it strikes a blow at our self-image. The way we acted is not consistent with the way we see ourselves. We find it very hard to “own” what we did, because we cannot make it fit into the image we have of ourselves. That is why we are inclined to deny what we did, or at least to claim that our agency was somehow compromised at the moment of yielding to temptation, so that we are not entirely to blame for what we did.


But the worst thing of all about temptation is the spiritual danger to which it exposes us. This consists in the power that it has in derailing us from our purpose, from distracting us from our life goal. 


This is what is at the heart of the pastor’s concern for his young friend. And it’s exactly what’s at stake in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  


To go out into a desert to pray is a good thing. Fasting added to prayer can make the experience even more spiritually productive. Jesus’ entire ministry lies before him, so he spends solitary time in the wilderness to prepare himself spiritually for the events to come. 


Let’s imagine that the first several days of his spiritual retreat went very well. Jesus is already feeling spiritually recharged. He’s ready to return from the desert, at the leading of the Holy Spirit, to begin the ministry to which he has committed himself. 


But as the days turned into weeks, it’s become harder. Jesus discovers that the longer he’s in the wilderness, the more he has to contend with boredom. Monotony breeds restlessness, and restlessness discontent. And all these negative mental states go into a Petri dish in which temptation can be perfectly cultured, as I’m sure we all know from our own experience. 


The tempter then appears to Jesus. It’s worth pointing out here that temptation doesn’t usually stalk us out when we are strong, well-fed, and well-rested. It’s when we’re feeling weak, hungry, and tired that we are most vulnerable to temptation. 


The tempter presumably cannot tell Jesus that he has completed his retreat, but he can suggest how to make it more bearable. So he tells him to turn some stones into bread. 


After forty days of fasting, Jesus is really hungry. It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus is really tempted to do this. 


Note that the tempter appeals to his relationship to God as God’s own Son. Did not Jesus receive affirmation of his identity as God’s own Son at his baptism in the Jordan River? 


And if so, would it not be Jesus’ prerogative to perform this miracle? After all, he is the beloved Son of the Father. Would not God want him to satisfy this most basic need? 


Or maybe Jesus has it wrong. Maybe he is not the beloved Son. Real need, real deprivation can make us doubt that God really cares for us. “How long, O God, will you forget me forever?” cries the Psalmist in his anguish (Ps. 13:1).  


Maybe you have been wandering in the wilderness for a long time, maybe far too long, at least as far as you can tell. And you have wondered whether God has forgotten about you there. You pray, but you get no answer. You find that your heart has become less confident. And before very long, you doubt that God hears your prayers at all, that God even cares. Then temptation comes and whispers to you that God does not provide for you, and that therefore he must not love you. 


Did Jesus ever doubt? Not only here in the wilderness, but also during those hard times when it must have appeared to him that the God he called Father abandoned him in his need?  


“Are you really there, God?” Have we not all asked this question in difficult times? The Gospels show us that Jesus has known and experienced the anguish of our doubt about God’s presence when we need him most. This comes to full expression at his crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus dies with a cry of dereliction. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matt. 27:46). To be sure, this is a difficult text, but that he has known and experienced the anguish of our doubt is comforting to us. 


But even more comforting is that his doubt did not bring him into that disastrous place to which it has led us: the breaking of our faith with God. 


God is silent in Jesus’ wilderness, but he will not always be silent. Jesus is confident that his Father will speak to him, and when he does, Jesus will be ready to hear him and only him. This confidence is reflected in his reply to the tempter: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).  


Note that after this temptation, and those afterwards, Jesus turns to the Scriptures. In them he hears God’s voice—a voice that he must hear and obey. He will trust God to provide for all his needs and to instruct him and teach him in the way he should go (cf. Ps. 32:8).  


The tempter does not give up. He tries again. He brings Jesus to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” (Matt. 4:6). 


If you move in religious circles as I do, you overhear people ask one another at this time of year: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Maybe someone has already asked you. People give up things for Lent. It’s act of devotion. It’s an act of remembering Jesus in our own body, the one who denied himself and his own comfort for us. 


Whether or not we follow this Lenten act of devotion, whether or not we give up anything for Lent, we will acknowledge that it confers a benefit. It develops in those who practice it self-control, self-discipline. 


If we do not have self-discipline, we cannot be self-directed. And if we are not self-directed, we are more easily knocked off our course by those who suggest alternatives to us. Weak and unsure of ourselves, we are more easily led astray. We are more vulnerable to temptation.  


This temptation comes to Jesus here, but it also comes later, when, as he and his disciples are heading up to Jerusalem and Jesus tells them that he is going to be handed over to his enemies who will crucify him, Peter takes him aside and says: “This will never happen to you!” Similar to what he says to the devil later in our lesson, Jesus commands Peter here, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt 16: 21-23).


Jesus felt in Peter’s words the spiritual power of the temptation to derail him from his purpose, to distract him from his life goal, as we have been .  


The tempter here perceives that devotion to God’s will is Jesus’ most vital concern. He knows that he adheres to every word that comes from the mouth of God. But did not God say in his Word: “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’?  Why not demonstrate this devotion to God and to his Word by this dramatic gesture? To throw himself down from the parapet of the temple—no greater, more heroic gesture can be imagined! 


But Jesus is not unsure of himself. He stands firm in his trust in God and in God’s Word. He does not need to do the devil’s bidding to prove that his heart his loyal to God. He does not test, but trusts. He knows what to do and when to do it, the supreme mark of a confident man on his purpose.  


With this tempter is defeated. Jesus stands firm, sure of his God, unwavering in his commitment to God’s will for his life. The third temptation represents an act of desperation, a hail Mary pass. “All the kingdoms and their splendor” in exchange for God and God’s will. Not a chance. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matt. 4:10). 


Author Mark A. Villano writes that in the wilderness Jesus sums up the whole human experience before God. Jesus wants to experience it all: the deepest yearning as well as the greatest obstacles. He is tempted as we are to fall back when things get tough, to forget who he is, to solve his problems with quick fixes, to make compromises along the way to his life goal. 


Yet, in each temptation he does not fall back. He rests confidently in who he is as God’s Son, trusting in God as his good and faithful Father. 


In our Gospel lesson, we have witnessed an impressive contest. But there is still the lingering question. What about us? If we are honest, we have known defeat in this contest. Against the serpent, who seduced our first parents to disobey God’s command in the garden, to break our faith with God, we have proved to be no match, as we saw in our Old Testament lesson for today. 


From Adam’s disobedience, which each of us repeats and makes his own, come sin, condemnation, and death. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” as the old Puritan rhyme has it.


The good news is that Jesus wins this contest not only for himself. He wins it also for us. The one life that he lived in perfect obedience to God, even to death on the cross, undoes the consequences of the disobedience of many lives. 


In this connection, the Apostle Paul tells us: the trespass is not like the gift. For while the judgment followed the sin of Adam and brought condemnation, the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification (Rom. 5:15,16). 


Because of what Christ has done on our behalf, instead of sin, condemnation, and death, we receive, through faith, all that flows from his life of perfect obedience, even to death on the cross. 


This includes the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit was with Jesus to help him endure the hard things in the wilderness, that same Spirit is with us, helping and supporting us in our trials and temptations. With the Holy Spirit, we are able to do more than we could ever possibly imagine (Chelsea Harmon).


Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we renew our commitment to follow Jesus on the way.  That way begins in the wilderness, the place of temptation. But let us not be afraid, because the one who goes before us has overcome temptation, neutralized its danger, and rendered perfect obedience to God on our behalf. 


And if while in the wilderness we are burdened by our need and feel vulnerable to temptation, we can turn to him. 


The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, and yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15). The author invokes this very precious truth to assure us that we don’t have in Jesus a high priest unable to sympathize with us in our weakness. He knows what it’s like. That is why we should not hesitate to go to him to obtain mercy and to find grace in our time of need. Amen. 

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