1 Lent, Year A: Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Ps 32; Rm 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, AL March 9, 2014
Its here! Can you feel it? The time has changed, the trees are beginning to bud, the tulips have sprung up, the birds are making loud, joyous racket in the mornings”its Lent! And it’s the beginnings of spring. We suffered an extra long epiphany this year, so instead of the more natural parallel of lent and the dead of winter, this year we get the dichotomy of Lent and spring.
Lent is a penitential season, one in which we put ashes on our heads and sit around remembering what terrible sinners we are by not eating chocolate or giving up alcohol for six weeks.
Spring is a time of renewal, new life, rebirth. It is joyous, not a season characterized by doldrums and the remembrance that we will return to dust. Mixing the start of Lent and the beginnings of spring just doesn’t seem right. But maybe, it is more right than we realize.
Lent is a season of preparation”preparation for the passion and resurrection”preparation for our own understanding of what salvation means. Spring is also a time of preparation”preparation of the ground for the new life that is soon to appear. We spend this time of year outside, raking up dead leaves, cleaning out flower beds, removing that which has died in trees and bushes in order to make way for new growth. In this way, our labors in spring become a metaphor if not a model for our labor in Lent. How are we cleaning up our own lives; removing that which is dead and weighing us down to make room for new growth?
On this first Sunday of Lent, we can turn to scripture for help in understanding what sin is and how to prepare for salvation, how to make room for new growth. We are sinners”Paul defines our sin and Adam demonstrates it this morning. Sin has an easy definition but a difficult translation. In it simplest form, sin is disobedience. Adam and Eve take and eat of the fruit of the tree that God told them not too. They disobey God and in this way they allow sin to enter in to the world.
But this level of obedience and disobedience does not fully communicate what sin is or how to find salvation. Sin is introduced through disobedience, but it develops, spread, and infects us like a disease through doubt. Disobedience has introduced the dominion of sin and allowed for death to invade creation.
By the time of Moses, we see the consequence of the dominion of sin played out in the lack of trust and the intense doubt of a people saved by God again and again.
For forty years, Israel wanders lost in the wilderness, crying out for bread and for meat, tempted by golden idols, terrified of God who they keep bound in the tabernacle, desperate to invade and rule the promised land filled with milk and honey. They put God to the test at Manasseh and so it is not that difficult or overly creative to hear the tests that Satan designs for Jesus, they are the tests that Israel has already failed.
The three temptations Satan has designed are calculated to prove that this so called Messiah, this man who has been named God’s son at his baptism is nothing more than Israel, herself”a people lost, easily distracted, disobedient and faithless.
But where Moses and the Israelites attempted to establish and rely on law for righteousness, Jesus relies on faith. Whereas the Israelites are distracted by their desire for comfort, power, and authority: Jesus demonstrates how to be obedient to God in the face of comfort, power and authority.
It is in this obedience, this faithfulness that Jesus defines who he is. Jesus gets vetted by the devil himself and demonstrates not only his righteousness and faithfulness but defines himself as Messiah, as the Christ, the one who will face the cross, the only one who can face the cross, and not be tempted to avoid it, but instead embrace it and die for our sins, for our disobedience.
Jesus is baptized and named the beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. The Spirit then immediately leads him into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and forty nights. It is then, in a weakened condition, that the devil comes to tempt him, to test him. Jesus is famished, this first temptation is easy, maybe too easy”turn these stones into bread. But Jesus knows that man can suffer death by bread alone. People can be well fed and never truly live. So he responds with Scripture, man can not live by bread alone. If Jesus had secured his own survival in that moment, if he had turned the stones to bread and eaten there would be no need for the cross”Jesus would have succumbed to the self-indulgent temptation that plagues us as humans. But he doesn’t succumb, he passes this first test and so the devil strikes again.
In the second temptation, the devil takes his cue from Jesus. You can almost hear his brain whirling”Ok, so you want to play it that way. Well, I can quote scripture with the best of them. Throw yourself off this pinnacle for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. But Jesus is not fooled. He will not allow the Bible to be used as a weapon against him, a weapon to be used in opposition of God’s will. Jesus says no.
In the third temptation, the devil offers him worldly power and domination. All Jesus has to do is yield to the devil, yield to domination and darkness. But Jesus knows something the devil knows not. He knows that true power is not held in the kingdoms of this world. He tells the devil no and in so doing Jesus resists the powers of this world. His no is a no to the ideologies they hold fast and the false security they promise. Jesus knows that the powers of this world only deliver death and destruction. It is not a choice he would ever make. The devil would have been wiser to offer him a timeshare.
This wilderness temptation story is not about us. It is about Jesus. Jesus establishes his identity for us. He distinguishes himself from Israel and places himself squarely in the position of Messiah, the one who will deliver us. And he sets the tone for what that deliverance will look like. He does not throw stones at the devil; he simply refuses to acquiesce to the devil’s request. He does not push the devil off the pinnacle; he chides the devil for testing God. He does not supplant the devil’s power, instead he names Satan for who he is and declares God to be Lord.
This is who our savior is, God humbled to be man, refusing to fight on Satan’s terms, rejecting comfort, power, or authority as it is defined by this world and instead relying on that world, the Heavenly kingdom, that is to come.
How do we know sin and from whence will salvation come? It really is a simple answer”whenever we choose this world over worship and serving the Lord our God, it is sin. Whenever we allow ourselves to fall victim and prey to doubt and distrust, we are disobedient just as our ancestors in the wilderness so long ago. In other words, anything that separates us from God is sin.
But thanks be to God, Jesus has defined himself as our salvation. Whereas our disobedience and failure lead us into sin and death, Jesus’s obedience and faithfulness brings us life. Our garden home became a wilderness because of sin. But Christ’s faithfulness has brought that wilderness full circle into a garden once again.