March 1, 2020; 1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; Matthew 4:1-11
I think I was in fifth grade. It was recess time in the gym and two girls in my class were being mean to me. They were laughing and pointing at me from a little distance away and it hurt my feelings and made me angry. When recess was over, we went into the locker room to change our shoes and I watched as one of those mean girls started picking on someone younger than them. And it’s like a switch got flicked in my head. A voice inside told me it was time to put her in her place and because I was furious, I not only listened to that voice, I agreed with it! I took my shoes and swung around, walloping her on the face with them…hard. But as soon as my shoes hit her face, the enormity of my actions overwhelmed me and I could see very clearly the terrible thing I had just done. I had hit my classmate. I had hurt her. I had been mean. It all happened so quickly it caught everyone off guard. Very few kids actually saw what happened and would never have imagined that the shy girl they knew would have hauled off and smacked anyone. I started sobbing loudly and soon had a whole group of girls gathered around me trying to make me feel better while the person I had hurt stood in stunned silence as quiet tears trickled down her cheeks.
Unfortunately, I can call to mind far too many times when sin has tapped me on the shoulder and whispered tempting words in my ear. And too many times when I have listened. This is just one of the memories that came to mind when I reread this well-worn story from Genesis. Think about those moments when you want to do something that deep down inside you know you shouldn’t. But there is this voice of temptation, kind of like an ear worm that won’t go away. And when that voice offers a rationalization for the wrong thing you really want to do or say, “You know if you eat that fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil.” In that moment, you conveniently forget to question the source. You listen to the voice and act. Sometimes when you succumb to temptation, in that very moment you are overwhelmed with the enormity of what you have done, with the repercussions your actions will set off. Your eyes are indeed opened and shame makes you want to cover yourself, maybe even makes you want to disappear.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time for real honesty. A time for God to show us some of those hidden places we don’t like to look at too often. A time for us to ask Jesus to please show us a safe hiding place in the midst of temptation. A time to take an unflinching look at the condition of our heart and get down on our knees and pray for forgiveness and grace. You see, we often tend to do a much better job at seeing how our neighbors and friends fall short. We nurse our righteous indignation. Occasionally, we even allow someone else’s shortcoming help us feel a little better about ourselves. “I know I blew it, but at least I haven’t messed up as bad as…” It’s way easier to focus our energies on someone else’s sins. But Lent is a season, to take a long hard look at ourselves. I believe we all struggle with right and wrong. We all fall short on a pretty regular basis. Sometimes the sin is more fleeting and ordinary – impatience, a bad mood, a thoughtless word, an unkind laugh. Sometimes sin is more deeply rooted – addiction, unfaithfulness, unresolved anger or bitterness, pride, an unforgiving spirit, festering unworthiness, willful ignorance.
Our gospel text for today is about the temptation of Christ. One of the really comforting things I take from this text is that Christ was tempted. Jesus had been fasting for forty days and forty nights. After fasting for that long he was strong, but he was also weak. The devil knew just what to offer to make our fully human Jesus think twice. Jesus wrestled with temptation just like we do. But Jesus, above all else, tuned his heart to the voice of God.
The story that immediately precedes this temptation account is Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. The last line in this story brings us God’s voice ringing from the heavens, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So Jesus has God’s voice of love and assurance echoing in this ears as he heads out to the desert to fast and to pray. When the devil comes to talk with Jesus, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God…if”. Jesus has just been told by God that he is indeed God’s son. But the first thing the devil tries to do is plant a seed of doubt.
How often does the tempter speak to you in these terms, working to make you question yourself, your abilities, your worthiness? When we begin to question our beloved status as children of God, weakness inevitably finds a foothold. And can I just say that it’s rare the person who does not struggle in some way with this voice of temptation urging us to doubt ourselves. I think what is most amazing about this story is not the way Jesus resists the devil’s three offers – one for food, one for safety, one for power. The most impressive resistance Jesus mounts is his ability to withstand the temptation to doubt his own inherent worth.
Episcopal pastor, Judith Jones, writes, “Immediately afterwards, Jesus is tempted by the devil, who treats Jesus as if the reality of his identity is the question: “If you are the Son of God…” Are you really? Can you prove it? Jesus’ responses show him pondering an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world? By defining “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross.”
Lent is a time to humble ourselves in confession, acknowledging how we fall short and where we need to focus our energies in trying to do better. But this is just one side of confession. Confession also means naming our truth. We confess God is Lord of all and Jesus is our Savior. We confess these truths shape our lives in miraculous and redemptive ways. We confess we are all beloved children of God. We are loved by God beyond our understanding. Do we accept and embrace this beloved status? Do we believe this? Because stepping into this all-encompassing and holy love is a call to obedience. How do we respond to the Love that created us, the Love that laid down his life on our behalf? We listen for God’s voice and we follow Jesus in grateful obedience.
The tempter’s voice is always there demanding to be heard. And we all struggle with our own serpents in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This season of Lent we look within and work to be honest, recognizing the struggle. We confess Jesus is our Lord and Savior and ask him to show us the way forward when it all seems kind of dark. We ask Jesus to show us his power and lend us his strength when temptation’s grasp feels consuming. We ask Jesus to show us God’s love that we might be moved to a faithful obedience, claiming our rightful heritage as God’s beautiful children.