3/1/2020 1st Sunday of Lent The text is Matthew 4:1-11.
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we find ourselves in a forty-day period of self-examination and acknowledgement that we are utterly dependent on God. Forty is a number that appears rather frequently in Scripture. It’s a period of time that holds strong significance for our Jewish forbears. Noah spent forty days and nights on the Ark after the flood. Moses fasted for 40 days on the mountain while receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land. And this morning Matthew recounts that Jesus spent forty days fasting in the wilderness.
He has retreated into the barrens to fast, reflect, and prepare for the beginning of his ministry. The lectionary readings over the last few Sundays have recounted Jesus calling his first disciples, preaching The Beatitudes, and his teaching on the significance of salt and light. However, Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness and the temptations we read about this morning actually take place right after his baptism by John in the Jordan. His withdrawal into the wilderness is the seminal event taking place immediately after he hears God’s affirmation of his identity as the Beloved Son of God, and declaration that the Father is ‘well pleased’.
After these forty days Jesus is tempted three times. First, the satisfying of a basic human need-hunger; ‘if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread’. Next, he is provoked to test God’s faithfulness; ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down’ and God will send angels to protect you. And finally, worldly power; the devil promises Jesus dominion over all the nations if he will worship Satan and forsake God. These temptations center around human traits, wants, and needs; sustenance, faith and trust, and the desire for power. But more importantly, what was really at stake there in the wilderness was Jesus’ identity. ‘If you are the Son of God’ is the devil’s taunt. But there is no hesitation from Christ; Jesus knows full and well who he is; and whose he is. Just before the forty days began God pronounced Jesus’ position as God’s son.
Yet, even in his human incarnation Jesus doesn’t hesitate to dismiss the enticements of the tempter. After forty days and nights of famishment the fully-human Jesus retains the strength to resist the cajoling to succumb to worldly desires. Even one as basic and necessary as his daily bread. Jesus never doubts his identity, or his mission for the world. ‘Away with you, Satan!’, he says to the one who tempts him. Would that we had this same confidence in our identity as children of God, along with the strength to resist the draw into our individual temptations. If only we were able to state with boldness and conviction, ‘we don’t need only bread, but we live according to God’s Word’. ‘We refuse to test God’s faithfulness, mercy, and grace; we have faith that we are loved and cared for’. ‘No matter what illusions of power or dominion we’re promised in this world, we will always worship and serve our God’.
As we begin our Lenten journey, we ought to strive to be the ones who rise to that level of boldness and conviction. To declare that we are able to state our intention to live according to the word of God. To affirm that our faith in our God is sufficient for us to trust without the need to test God’s faithfulness toward us. To recognize that our worship of, and service to God cannot be diminished through promises of power or dominion over anything or anyone. During these, our forty days in the wilderness of our Lenten self-examination, let us remind ourselves of our identity in Christ, our dismissal of the temptations of the world, and of our absolute dependence on the God who provides for all our needs.
Of course, this will require that we acknowledge exactly what constitutes our individual wilderness. And we must each of us address this for ourselves; only we can know for certain the nature of the temptations we each face. There are as many varied internal wilderness places as there are individuals. Each of us must struggle with the temptations that result simply due to our humanity. As Jesus was tormented by the Satanic tempter in the actual wilderness in the Judean desert, we must strive to address whatever it is that seeks to diminish the fullness of life that our Father wishes for us.
Mother Teresa, who devoted decades to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying in the dirty streets of Calcutta; even this devoted servant of God faced her wilderness. From her letters; “Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart – and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, – please forgive me”. Jesus didn’t flinch when facing his temptation; Mother Teresa, one of the most saintly women of our time examined herself and often found faith lacking. Yet, she continued in her work among the most needy and destitute of God’s people. I daresay, she was so distressed with what she was surrounded each day, that the wilderness she witnessed around her may have found its way into her own innermost self.
Yet her identity was rooted in Christ, she resisted the temptations of the world, and she maintained an absolute dependence on the God who provided for all of her needs; and who provides for ours.
Over the next forty days we will travel with Jesus, arriving in Jerusalem to witness his death on the cross, and three days later, his rising. We are invited during this period to spend some time examining our individual wilderness, recognizing our brokenness, and acknowledging our need for the mercy and grace of God. We may find boldness and confidence to declare our unwavering faith, resisting any temptation that we encounter; in our way, responding as Jesus did. Or, like Mother Teresa, we might feel despair and doubt, and ask God’s forgiveness for our shaky faith. Either way, or somewhere in-between, if we are willing to undergo an honest self-analysis, the end result is the same for all of us. No matter the depth of our temptations, and whether or not we resist them, on Easter morning we rise along with Jesus. And that’s the beauty of Christ’s understanding of his identity. As God’s Son, sent to secure our salvation, we are forgiven for his sake. The starkness of our own wilderness, the demons that tempt us, and whether we overcome them or succumb, the God who confirmed the identity and purpose of Christ Jesus, bestows the same label on us. We too are the sons and daughters of God; we may struggle in our personal wilderness and we are tempted. But we are assured that the God who is ‘well pleased’ with Jesus accepts us just as we are. The Father sent the angels to attend to Jesus in his wilderness; he will do the same for us, as we struggle in ours.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we are called to reflect on our sinfulness during this season of Lent. And you remind us that we are totally dependent for you for all that we have and all that we are. Reassure us that at the end, we remain your sons and daughters and that you will replace our wilderness with the paradise that awaits us with you and Jesus in the heavenly places.
And in Jesus’ name together the people of God say…Amen.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen.