1st Sunday in Lent

March 6, 2022

“So Much More than Just Say No” — Rev. Martha Moler

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it all will be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God’”. Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  …. When the devil had finished these tests, he departed from him until an opportune time.

So much more than just say NO.”

Good morning this is a first for me,  to preach with actual people setting here in our sanctuary beside our friends on Facebook … I like it better.  When I said ‘Yes I would be happy to preach’ I hadn’t considered it was the first Sunday of Lent or that the Gospel lesson from Luke would be one so very familiar to most of us.  So I have referred to the wisdom of 1 Presbyterian, 1 Catholic and 2 Episcopalian clergy beside my own thoughts to come up with this reflection on ‘The Devil tempting Jesus in the Wilderness’

  As I talked to friends last week about how they were going to honor Lent, or not, I also found that our church family includes members that come from other faith communities where Lent is not even celebrated and they didn’t have a clear idea of what was. Since every week we begin worship with “wherever you are on your journey you are welcomed here.”  I’ll try to include all that might be listening to my reflection.  So listen to Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent Intro to Lent:

   “Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary, because there was no such thing back then.  There is some evidence that early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.

  “When the world did not end as Jesus himself had said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves.  They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth.  Oh, to be young again, and to believe everything is possible.

   “Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary.  These things made them feel safe and cared for-if not by God, then by themselves.  They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large.  They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another.  They did not get arrested for championing the poor.  They blended in.  They avoided extremes.  They decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud.

    “Hearing that, someone suggested it was time to call Christians back to their senses, and the Bible offered some clues about how to do that.  Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to trust the Lord. 

Elijah spent forty days there before hearing the still small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent forty days listening to God give the law.  There was also Luke’s story about Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness—a period of preparation between his baptism and his ministry—during which he was sorely tested by the devil.  It was hard.  It was awful.  It was necessary for believers so had proof that it is humanly possible to remain loyal to God.

   “So the church announced the season of Lent, from the old English word Lenten, meaning “spring”—not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul.  Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone.  Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for our selves.”

    Rev. Taylor continues by saying she thinks of Lent as an Outward Bound for the soul … but that is for another reflection”

When we turn back to today’s reading:  When Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness.  He made it possible for us to overcome our temptations.   Be like Jesus and just say NO.   Does that sound familiar?  I wonder if that’s our shorthand for today’s gospel.  I’m guessing that most of us know the just say no story or some variation of it. Maybe it’s what you were taught on a felt board here in Sunday school or have come to believe.  I think it’s often a theme underlying Lent and a common approach for dealing with temptation in our lives.  Just say no and if you can’t then try harder..

     For those of you who are here this morning, who always choose something to subtract from your life every year there is a handout on the table in the narthex but for our Facebook friends let me share a couple ways to honor Lent by fasting this year:

     Fast from hurting words and say kind words

     Fast from anger and be filled with patience. 

    Fast from grudges and be reconciled.      The author is Pope Francis

Is it really that simple?  Is that all there is to this story?  By now those of you who know me, know that if I am asking those questions—I don’t think it is: and you’re right, I don’t.  It certainly hasn’t been that simple in my life, I don’t think it was in Jesus’ life, and I suspect it’s isn’t that simple in your lives either.  Our lives and our faith are more than the sum of our choices, and our temptations are rarely a simple choice between this and that.  So I want offer up some questions and consider a different way of seeing temptation.

    (Pay attention this is your homework for the next six weeks if you should choose to come up with your own answers)

  • What if temptation is more than a yes or no question to be answered?
    • What if temptations are not a pop quiz from God testing our love and devotion?
    • What if our temptations are more about our learning than God’s score keeping?
    • What if our response to temptation is more about a diagnosis than a judgment?
    • What if temptation is necessary  for our salvation, wholeness, and restoration?
    • What if instead of only asking what we will do with our temptations we also asked what we are willing to let out temptations do with us?
    • Or what if temptations are the disguises for the good the devil unwittingly does?

   Have you ever thought about temptation in those ways?  I know that’s not the usual perspective but it offers a different way of engaging life and our faith. It tells a very different story about temptation than “the just say no story” but it neither changes nor distorts the Story of Jesus in the wilderness.  It is the story of Jesus in the wilderness. That becomes more clear when we see what comes before and after today’s reading in Luke’s Gospel.  The baptism of Jesus is the story immediately before today’s reading.  Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and his teaching in the Nazareth synagogue is the story immediately following today’s Gospel.  I want us to see and consider temptation, Jesus’ and our own, in light of that pattern: baptism, wilderness, public life and ministry.

 In the 3rd chapter of Luke; Jesus went to the wilderness immediately

 after having been baptized.  Remember what happened at his baptism in the Jordan?  The heaven opened, the Spirit descended (we see a white dove) and God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  God claimed and identified Jesus as his own, just as God does at each of our baptisms.

    After that Jesus entered the wilderness with God’s words echoing in his ears.  His identity and relationship with God were a given before he went, even before he faced or responded to the first temptation. Whether Jesus said yes or no did not determine his relationship with God, his belovedness or that God was well pleased.  They already were thereality. Jesus could neither earn them nor lose them, and neither can we.

  The temptations and struggles in the desert, did not determine how God would see Jesus but how Jesus would see himself.  “If you are the Son of God,” began the devil’s temptation of Jesus.  It was less a yes or no question about making bread and more a question of Jesus knowing himself, and knowing for himself.

  In struggling with his temptations Jesus began to know himself to be filled with and led by the Spirit.The truth of his baptism and the truth of his Father’s words were confirmed through his temptations in the wilderness.  The truth no longer echoed in his ears but in his heart, in the depths of his soul.

   The devil had unwittingly tempted Jesus into knowing and experiencing the truth  of his identity, his belovedness  and God’s pleasure with him.  Jesus’ identity and relationship with God were no longer only words spoken from heaven but a truth and reality experienced in the wilderness, a truth and a reality Jesus would speak to the people of Nazareth.

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  After his time in the desert Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth, and read to the people from prophet Isaiah beginning with those words and finishing by telling them, “Today this scripture has been filled in your hearing”. This is Jesus’ self-understanding and it was formed by the temptations and his wilderness experience.  He is telling the people of Nazareth who he is and what he is about, his identity and mission, the direction and work of his life.  Temptations teach us that about ourselves.

   Our own temptations, struggles, and wilderness experiences offer an opportunity to become more whole, more integrated, more fully ourselves.  That is what they did for Jesus and it is what they can do for us.  The desert monks certainly saw it this way.  St. Anthony the Great, sometimes called the father of monasticism, goes as far as saying, “Without temptation no one can be saved

   We tend to focus on the person, thing, or situation that is tempting us, right there in front of your face, but it’s really about us.  Our temptations say more about what is going on within us than we is happening around us.  That’s why ‘just say no’ is an overly simplistic understanding of the gospel lesson and an inadequate response to temptation.  Father Michael Marsh wrote our silent meditation this morning, “Temptation is less about a choice and more about our identity and direction in life.”

   Who am I?  Where is my life headed?   We answer those questions every time we face and respond to our temptations.  We face ourselves and learn the ways in which our life has become disfigured and distorted, disconnected from the original beauty of our creation and the transfiguring presence of God.   They type of temptations we experience and the circumstances by which they come are unique to each one of us because they reveal what’s inside us, what fills us. 

  Jesus, Luke says, “ was full of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s for us to know as we read and hear the temptation story.  Temptation offers us something to be discovered and the opportunity to recover ourselves.

So let me ask you this, and I mean it in the best sense, What are you full of?  What fills your life?

   Look at what tempts you.  What causes you to stumble and fall?  What distracts you, other than all the electronics in our world?  Who are the people who PUSH YOUR BUTTONS?  Where do you get caught and trapped?  What circumstances force a reaction other than the response you’d like it to be?  This is not about the people, situations, or things.  This is about you and discovering what fills and directs your life.  What is going on in you?  What do you see?  In some ways this is the introspection that Lent traditionally calls for.

   Regardless of what you see there within you, it’s just information, a diagnosis.  It is not the final judgment, a conclusion, or your grade on God’s final exam.  We don’t pass or fail our temptations. We learn the truth about how we see ourselves.  We learn the truth about the direction our life is headed and who we are becoming.This learning is neither easy nor pain free but it is necessary learning by which God reshapes and redirects our life, each day.

  So what if this Lent we follow our temptations? I don’t mean we just say YES and give in to them.  And I don’t mean we just say NO and turn away from them.  What if we follow the learning they offer us?  Where would they take us?  What would they give us?  Like I said at the beginning you have 6 weeks until Easter to come up with your answers, but I believe they would give us back ourselves.  They would return us to the truth of who we are, the beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased.  That’s the gift of temptation and the good the devil unwittingly does.    Amen.