Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – March 1st, 2020

Text:  Matthew 4:1-11Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Temptation of Jesus

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And 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, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

The central ideas for this first Sunday in Lent are temptation, sin, right and wrong, and how we respond to each. The familiar story of the temptation and sin of Adam and Eve is no less relevant today than when it was first told, and Paul uses this story as a primary foundation for his doctrine of Christ’s atonement for the sins of humankind. Our call to worship this morning is taken from Psalm 32, in which the psalmist sings of the joy and relief of forgiveness, which comes from acknowledgment and confession. Finally, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit and armed with only God’s word, Jesus confronts temptation at the end of his forty days and nights of fasting without yielding to it.

Sin is not a popular topic. We don’t like it when the word is applied to us. We’re much happier when it’s applied to someone else. That is just human nature. So this season of Lent is that time of the church year when we do need to take a spiritual inventory and come to grips with our own shortcomings.

And the lessons for this morning focus on one of the main causes – maybe the cause – of sinful behavior: Temptation. Starting all the way back at the beginning of our human story as recorded in Genesis, we see that giving in to temptation and eating that forbidden fruit was the moment that sin became a “thing,” as we say nowadays.

Temptation. You’ve probably heard that old one-liner “I can resist anything but temptation.” Temptation is a multi-billion-dollar industry, except we call it “advertising.” Anybody who’s ever turned on a TV or a radio, or has ever gotten a newspaper, or has gotten an armload of flyers in the mail, knows this. It pervades just about every nook and cranny of modern life. Everything from chocolates to mufflers, from shoes to vacations, is brought to our attention – And every ad from every vendor has the same goal: To entice, to tempt, us to visit their store or website and buy what they’re offering.  We’re so used to this that we think it’s normal. The use of ads goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, but modern advertising, or “professional tempting,” as you might call it, didn’t begin until the 1920s. Most advertising is not necessarily “bad”; and when you think of public service announcements, for example, you recognize that sometimes advertising helps our common welfare.

Generally, though, when we hear the words “tempt” or “temptation,” we tend to associate them with something bad; when we’re tempted, it always seems to be in the context of being led astray, or being seduced to do wrong.  

That’s certainly how generations of Christians, including this one, have always understood this passage. After all, the heading for today’s lesson states in bold print “The Temptation of Jesus.”

 As it happens, though, the Greek word that is translated as “tempt” is “peirazo,” (πειράζω), which is more correctly rendered as “to test.” So, instead of reading “the tempter,” we should more accurately read “the tester” in this passage. The difference in meaning might seem subtle, but it really isn’t. There’s a huge difference in meaning between “tempt” and “test.”

How many times have we heard that old line, “Life is a test”?

Maybe, instead of dwelling on that word “temptation,” we should instead think in terms of testing. Life is a test, and it is so because God did not create us to be a bunch of robots. God created us to be thinking, reasoning beings who can make decisions. God gave us the awesome and terrible gift of free will to choose whether to do what God wills, or not.

So, yes, Lent is the season of the church year when we all are confronted with the recognition of those times in the past year when we have gone down the wrong path. This is not supposed to be a chore, or a reason to wallow in despair and sadness, but an opportunity to clean out the clutter in the attics of our souls, and make amends.

The tests in our lives mostly come, not because God deliberately puts challenges in our way, but when we are faced with the choice to use our God-given free will to either “walk humbly with [our] God,” to quote the prophet Micah, or to use that  free will God gave us to strike out on our own.

The story of Adam and Eve is probably the tale of what happens when we go off the rails. God told Adam and Eve that the entirety of creation was at their disposal except for that one single tree. That was off limits. So what happened? That was the one thing they had to have, even though they knew that eating of that fruit would cause their destruction. They manage to avoid eating of that forbidden fruit – until the Tester comes along and lies to them by saying, “God just said there’d be punishment because he knows you’d become just like him – so go ahead! Eat your fill!” So they do, and the rest, as they say, is history. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote a short story titled “The Imp of the Perverse,” in which he describes exactly that impulse we have to do those things which we know full well we shouldn’t do, but do anyway: “I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution.”[1] That is to say: We know we shouldn’t do it. Our minds tell us that we shouldn’t do it. We can think of numerous reasons why we shouldn’t do it. But we do it, anyway. We are faced with a test, and we fail.

This morning’s lesson sound the theme we will hear again and again throughout these forty days: Fasting, abstinence, spiritual discipline, temptation, and testing. But we’re not left to figure all of it out on our own when it comes to resisting temptation – we have the example of Jesus to guide us. Unlike Adam, Jesus resists temptation, passes the test, and goes onto live a ministry that changed the world and brings life to many. The message, in contrast to Adam, is clear: spiritual discipline is good, so is abstinence. May Lent therefore be a time to practice both and be right with God.

“Spiritual discipline” might sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as two minutes of prayer in the morning or two minutes before bed, or a moment of silent devotion anywhere at any time during the day. If you do it regularly, over time, it will change you – and you will change the world you live in.

But the lessons don’t stop there. Jesus is sent out into the wilderness to strengthen his focus on God. He was in the wilderness in a physical, but also a spiritual, sense. There was no help for him to combat the testing but this reliance on God. So, for us, “giving up something for Lent”– like coffee, or chocolate – for example, is pointless unless it leads to a deeper awareness of our relationship and reliance on God. That’s the point of the exercise. Whenever we find ourselves in a wilderness of our own, whatever shape that wilderness takes, we can take heart from recalling that the one thing we can always rely on is the relationship we have with God, who never fails, who never lets us down. Next time you’re having a moment of stress, just say these words to yourself: “Jesus, I turn my burdens over to you,” then take a deep breath, and relax. I do this myself, and it works. The burdens might still remain, but we no longer have to bear them alone, which makes all the difference.  

Jesus was able to withstand the tests thrown at him because he remembered both who he was and whose he was. When push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem really from one primary temptation: And that is to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once we forget who and whose you are, we’ll do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that is part of any human life and to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy. “If only I had _____” or “if only I did _____” – you can fill in the blanks. Whatever it is that we wish had, or wish we did, will not, in the end, give us that security we crave.  

The most unrelenting test we face in life is to remember that we are the beloved children of God. Sometimes we don’t feel too beloved. Sometimes we feel as though our shortcomings are so big and so numerous that we are outside the circle of God’s people. But Jesus gives us the rock-solid assurance that we belong to God, forever, and that nothing that happens to us in this life can ever change that.

Lent is the time for us to really clarify that knowledge in our own minds. These 40 days are our time to remember who and whose we are, to make amends where we need to, to place our trust in God, and to get ready for that Great Day of Easter – for, on that day, the gates of heaven will be thrown open wide, the golden light of Christ will wash like a tsunami over us!

Let us face those tests in our lives with courage and prayer, and with the knowledge that God will and does give us the strength to overcome them – for he loves us as his children, and we belong to him!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Imp of the Perverse,” in Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems, New York, New York, Castle Books, 2002, p. 212