holy Lent high points

In case you didn’t notice the Great Litany at the start of today’s service, I’m here to remind you that Lent is upon us.  On Wednesday, almost one hundred seventy-five of us gathered across three services to take part in the Ash Wednesday call to repentance.  With ashes upon our brows, we confessed our sins, recalled our mortality, and gave thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.  In her sermon, Mother Becca invited us into a season of fasting, not in a self-help kind of way, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the redemption of the world by the loosening of the yoke of oppression.  It is interesting how, when one hears a sermon three times over, different things stick out.  On my first hearing, I was very much in tune with her use of the yoke metaphor.  At noon, I was wondering about my own fast and what I am called to do to loose the bonds of injustice.  By six pm, as the day grew long, I was caught short by the reality that Lent lasts 40 days.

I’m sure this never happens to you, but instantly, my imagination went off on a wild goose chase. I began to think about the ways in which I have marked time and waited for things in the past.  One favorite way that we’ve used with our girls is the paper chain.  When we’re just so excited about a future event that we can’t even stand it, we pull out the calendar and count how many days until the event.  Once we know how long it is until Christmas, Spring Break, or a visit from Uncle Nate, and since each child needs their own paper chain, we’ll cut twice that number of paper strips, staple them in intertwining loops, and voila, a countdown mechanism.  Every morning, another ring comes off until the big day arrives.

Last week, we heard the story of Moses entering into the cloud of fire atop Mount Sinai.  The lesson ended by telling us that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  I wonder if he made a paper chain?  Or, since paper wasn’t really a thing yet, did he weave together strips of papyrus or mark off the days on a stone tablet of some kind?  When Jesus was sent out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Devil, I wonder if he knew how long he’d be out there?  Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days, so I’m guessing he didn’t bring a whole lot out to the desert with him.  Certainly, he didn’t have a stapler, but perhaps he marked his days on the rock he used as a pillow.  I don’t know, the imagination is a funny thing.

The Season of Lent makes paper chain making challenging.  In our tradition, the forty days of Lent actually take forty-six days to get through.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the lighting of the Great Fire at the Easter Vigil, the season itself lasts forty-six days, but the fast is only forty.  Sundays are a free day, a mini-Easter, a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, even as we await the fullness of that celebration on Easter Day.  The six Sundays are in Lent, not of it, so you can maybe cheat and have dessert on Sunday, but you shouldn’t pull a rung of the paper chain unless you want Easter to fall on Monday of Holy Week.

The Lenten fast lasts forty days in line with Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Noah’s rain storm, and of course, the Gospel lesson for every first Sunday in Lent, Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  In Judaism, the number forty marked periods of transition and preparation.  As inheritors of that tradition, Christians define Lent as a forty-day period of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus.  This morning, on our first cheat day, 10% of the way through the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we might live in preparation for the joy of Easter Day.  In the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent, we were invited to self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Jesus’s fast was heavy on self-denial, but if we look closely at the story from Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus hit all the holy Lent high points.  Remember that immediately before being led into the wilderness, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  As he came out of the water, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Gospels don’t tell us much of what happened to Jesus before this moment.  We don’t really know how confident Jesus was in his calling as the Messiah leading up to his baptism.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus really needed to hear those words from heaven.  Maybe his forty days in the wilderness was an extended opportunity for self-reflection.  These forty days were for Jesus, and can be for us, a chance to spend some time listening carefully for God’s call upon our lives and to repent, to turn our attention away from self and toward the mission of God to restore all things to right relationship.  In order to engage in a time of intentional self-reflection, many people will choose to give up one or more of the distractions of our world like social media, television, gossip magazines, or video games.  With more space for silence, we have a greater chance of hearing God’s still small voice.

As I said, Jesus was heavy on prayer, fasting, and self-denial during his own personal Lent.  Matthew goes so far as to tell us that by the time his forty day fast from food was over, Jesus was famished, which is where the Devil saw his chance.  It was through Jesus’ stomach that the Tempter first tried to get Jesus to overstep his bounds.  It was because of his forty days of fasting and self-reflection, however, that Jesus was able to be clear about his call.  God hadn’t yet called him to perform such a miracle.  It wasn’t his time.  I find that fasting is where the Devil can get me as well.  Being hangry is no good for anyone, but the act of intentionally going without can be an opportunity to be reminded that everything we have comes from God. Going without for a while is a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for what one has.

Finally, this lesson from Matthew reminds us of the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Jesus didn’t have an iPhone to kill time on in the desert.  Instead, he probably spent his days going through the stories from the Hebrew Bible that he knew so well.  Stories that his mother had taught him since his youth; stories that he had studied intently as a rabbinical student; stories that had become written on his heart, so that, even when the Tempter tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was ready to respond.  As you maybe set aside one of life’s many distractions in order to make space for God, I invite you to pick up your own Bible and to read and meditate on God’s great love story contained therein.

There are 42 more days in Lent and 36 more days of it.  I pray that, rather than just biding our time until the celebration of Easter, this holy season might be for each of us an opportunity to be still, to listen, and to grow deeper in our relationships with God.  Amen.

Driven Out

Mark is notoriously skimpy on the details.  It is part of what makes us pretty sure that Mark’s Gospel was the first.  The story was still so fresh. It was still being told, word of mouth, passing down from those who lived it to the following generation.  The world was still very early in the transition away from scrolls and to the codex.  Most folks would remain illiterate for another 1,500 years.  Important things were passed down by story, and not by text.  Yet, Mark decided the key details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection needed to be saved.  And so, he put pen to parchment.  The story he told wasn’t meant to be the full story, it was but the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Yet, there are occasions when, for reasons unbeknownst to us, Mark includes a detail or chooses a specific word, that makes us wonder.

In our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, we have one of those words that makes the exegete scratch her head and wonder.  It is easily missed in a story that jumps over months of time in just a few sentences.  From our third encounter with Jesus’ baptism by John since the liturgical year started to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness to John’s arrest and Jesus’ first sermon, these six verses certainly get the story moving forward.  As preachers know, however, Mark’s pace can be deceiving, and this rush through the wilderness is no exception.  After God the Father declares Jesus to be the beloved Son, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

In digging into the word “drove,” I noted that Matthew and Luke, who are thought to have had Mark in hand when they wrote their own Gospels, didn’t keep Mark’s emphatic word, choosing two more passive verbs that are both translated into English as “was led.”  Further, the word Mark chose is the word repeatedly used to describe what happened when Jesus “cast out” demons.  In Mark’s understanding, the period of testing in the wilderness (more on that word later this week), wasn’t something Jesus was politely led by the hand out into, but rather he was compelled, even propelled, away from the comfortable words of the Father into a time in which his faith in God and himself would be severely tested.

I can think of times in my own life when there was a clear distinction between God leading me somewhere and God driving me in a certain direction.  Maybe you have too.  I’m sure at different times in his earthly ministry, even Jesus needed more of a push in a particularly challenging direction.  As we approach the season of Lent and take extra time to listen for God in our lives, what do you think?  Is God’s call in your life today more of a gentle leading or do you feel driven?

Customizable Temptation – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.

One of the great joys of living in 21st century America is that we live in a world that is increasingly customizable. For roughly the last half century, advertisers have been helping us move from the “one size fits all” world that came out of the industrial revolution to a world where anyone can have it “your way, right away.”  Believe it or not, it has been 43 years since Burger King introduced “Have it your way” as their slogan.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, there were 1,024 ways to order a Whopper in the early 1960s, but now you can get it any one of 221,184 different ways![1]  In 2014, there were at least 80,000 different ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.[2]  Think about that.  It wasn’t that long ago that your choices were black, cream, and/or sugar.  Domino’s Pizza advertises that their menu allows you to choose from any of 34 million possible pizza combinations!  34 Million!  Madison Avenue has long since figured out that the best way to get us to buy their widget is to make sure their widget can meet our specific and varied tastes no matter what our whim might be at any given moment.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that all marketers are evil. What I am willing to suggest is that the art and science of marketing has at its root the Tempter who has been working on humanity since the very beginning.  The contemporary shift toward a fully customizable world is built upon a foundation of customizable temptation.   That is to say, the Tempter has been using various approaches to tempt human beings toward sin since the very beginning.  I can say that with some confidence seeing as we just heard the story of that first temptation in our Old Testament lesson this morning.  Our lesson opens with God giving Adam the only rule of the Garden.  “You may eat freely of every tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on that day you eat of it you shall die.”

With the first rule comes the first opportunity for temptation, and the Tempter had his first goal: get Adam to eat from that tree.  The Tempter was hard at work long before the conversation between the serpent and Eve.  We can tell this is true because the serpent finds the first couple standing close to the forbidden tree.  Like telling a child not to eat a piece of candy, the only thing Adam and Even seem to be able to think about is that tree.  What beautiful fruit it has.  What would it be like to know the difference between good and evil?  Why would God hold this back from us? The Tempter had these questions swirling around in their minds as the serpent made his next move: twisting the words of God. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

She might not yet know the difference between good and evil, but Eve knows that the Tempter is wrong.  He gives Eve her first opportunity to stretch her discernment wings.  She corrects the serpent, and boy did that feel good.  He presses further, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  That’s what that feeling was?  To be like God is to feel the power of correction and reproof?  The Tempter had found the right combination, and Adam and Eve ate.  His customizable approach to temptation had produced its first fruit.

Generation after generation, the Tempter continued to seek out ways to tempt God’s children away from right relationship.  For Noah, it was wine.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was impatience.  For Moses, it was frustration.  For David, it was lust.  For Solomon it was idolatry.  For Samson it was pride.  Again and again, the Tempter found the perfect way to turn the attention of Israel away from God, until finally, God had had enough, and he sent his Son to restore all of humanity to right relationship.

The Tempter did not give up with the birth of Jesus, of course.  In fact, just like in that moment when God first said, “you may not eat,” the Tempter saw his big chance come at the baptism of Jesus when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God knew what was to happen next.  God was familiar with the Tempter’s work and knew that he would immediately begin to sow the seeds of sin, so without any hesitation, the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness to allow the Devil to try his best, and try he did.

“If you are the Son of God…”  The Tempter was in for a challenge with Jesus, and so he went dirty right from the start – pushing Jesus to question the identity that had just been spoken so clearly in his baptism.  “Are you really the Son of God?  Because if you are, then you shouldn’t have to be out here starving to death in the desert.  God’s Son should be treated better than that.  In fact, you have all the power you need to make bread from these stones.”  Jesus is not swayed by the Devil’s tactics, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God…” The Tempter tries a different approach.  Still calling into question Jesus’ primary identity, now he turns his focus to just how strong that relationship really is.  “If you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further?  You trust God to feed you.  Do you trust God to keep you safe?  Prove it by throwing yourself down.  God has promised in scripture that ‘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.’  By jumping, you’ll simply be demonstrating your total confidence in your Father’s promise.”[3]  Jesus again stands firm.  He won’t allow the Tempter to twist God’s words: quoting instead a passage from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

After two failed attempts, the Tempter changes tact one more time.   Rather than trying to get Jesus to question his identity, the Devil goes after his patience.  It will take years and an agonizing death on the cross for Jesus to be given all authority on heaven and earth.  Why wait?  “For the low, low price of worshipping me,” the Tempter offers, “all that you can see will be yours.  All the kingdoms, riches, and power on earth will be yours.”  Here again, Jesus withstands a third uniquely customized temptation.

The Tempter left, but not for long.  Again and again during his lifetime, Jesus came face to face with Temptation, and he resisted it each and every time.  This is because the Devil isn’t the only one who knows the power of customization.  As we prayed in our Collect for Today, God knows the weaknesses of each of us, and stands ready to help us stand firm.  Again and again in our lives, we will find ourselves in the Tempter’s snare.  Like Adam and Eve, we won’t always be successful at avoiding his wiles.  We will forget to turn to God for help.  We will allow our fears to be used against us, our pride to make us foolish, or our envy to bring us down.  But the Good News is that God is always ready to overcome our temptations and forgive our sins.  The Devil is tricky, and uses any means necessary to drag us into sin, but God is all the more crafty: knowing the weakness of each of us, God has a fully customized plan so that every one of us might find God mighty to save.  Save us from the time of trial, dear Lord, and deliver us from evil.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whopper

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/starbucks_n_4890735.html

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1973

Led into Temptation – a sermon

My Lent 1C sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it below.

Have you ever wondered why when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he included a line that says “lead us not into temptation”?  I have.  I’ve always thought that was a really strange thing to ask of God.  Why would God lead us into temptation?  Isn’t God all about saving us from the time of trial?  Isn’t God’s dream that we might be restored to right relationship with him and with all of creation?  Why on earth would it be so important for Jesus that we pray “lead us not into temptation?”  It was important because it is exactly what happened to Jesus.  He knew how hard it was when you have been led into temptation, knew how easy it’d be for us to find temptation all by ourselves, and so, in his short example of what prayer should look like, he included the all-important line “lead us not into temptation.”

Still, in my experience it isn’t God actively leading me into temptation, but rather in being led toward God, I find myself running headlong into temptation.  See, the Devil isn’t worried about lukewarm Christians who show up at church on the occasional Sunday morning, throw a five in the offering plate and consider themselves covered for a week or three.  Instead, he spends his time worrying about those who are actively seeking the will of God for their lives and for the world.  Maybe that’s why we hear this lesson each Lent 1.  Many of us have taken on practices of discipleship; have given up distractions that keep us from focusing on God; or have committed anew to following God into the world to share the Good News of his forgiveness and love.  The season of Lent invites us to a closer relationship with God which in turn, invites the Devil to forty days of trying to lead us into temptation.

I first came to realize that temptation seems to grow the closer we get to God while I was in the discernment process before heading off to seminary.  Thanks to a great Bishop, I was able to do discernment in Central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, instead of having to start all over in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I moved after college.  Once a month, Cassie and I would make our way from Grove City to Lancaster where I attended the Diocesan School of Christian Studies on Saturday and meet with my discernment committee on Sunday.  I can’t remember if it was our first or second trip east, but it was October, and western Pennsylvania was getting crushed by an early snow storm.  We borrowed Cassie’s dad’s four-wheel drive truck and the five hour trip took something like eight hours as we crawled along the snow-covered Turnpike, stopping at every rest stop to knock off an inch of ice and snow that had accumulated on the headlights, making it almost impossible to see.  I don’t know how many times I was tempted to call it quits, but we kept going.  We made it, obviously, and we did so again in November, December, January, February, AND MARCH.  Every month for six straight months, we drove through snow and wind and the temptation to just call it quits.

It was after the sixth snowstorm that I finally came to realize how temptation lurks when God is at work.  It didn’t take Jesus nearly that long to figure it out.  Immediately after his amazing baptismal experience: where the heavens tore open, the Spirit descended upon him, and the voice of his Father said, “you are my beloved”; he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and for forty days he was tempted by the devil again and again and again.  Luke gives us three examples of what the ongoing temptations looked like.  The contents of those temptations seem miraculous and Son of God-y, but the crux of Jesus’ temptation is the same as what the devil uses on you and me: he calls into question our trust of God.  “If you really are the Son of God, then turn these stones into bread.”  “If you really are God’s beloved, he will protect you.” Do you really trust God to love you that much?

As we continue our forty day journey through Lent, temptation will be nipping at our heels, constantly goading us with questions of God’s love for us.  The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s dream for you.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  I’m not arrogant enough to think that the devil made a snowstorm happen for six months in a row to keep me from being a priest, but I can guarantee he used the freakish winter weather to his advantage.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, then he won’t mind if you quit this discerning for the priesthood foolishness, turn around, and go home.”

Maybe you’ve decided to take on a few extra minutes of prayer during the season of Lent.  I promise that your life will seem busier in these next forty days than ever before.  Be prepared to hear the Deceiver at work in your heart.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, he’ll forgive you for not saying your prayers today.  You’ve just been so busy, relax, it’ll be fine.”  Maybe you’re trying to read your Bible more.  The words of Scripture will never seem more convoluted than during this time of special intention.  Be ready to hear the Deceiver at work in your mind.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, don’t worry about meditating on the Bible, it’s just an old book of stories anyway.  Just curl up with a good Tom Clancy novel instead.”  Perhaps you’ve decided to give something up this year: maybe its chocolate, wine, potato chips, or road rage.  Be prepared for whatever it is you’ve given up to be in front of your face constantly for the next 36 days.  Every event you attend this Lent will be at the end of a long line of traffic and all they’ll serve are chocolate covered potato chips and red wine.  Be ready for the Deceiver to be at work in the pit of your stomach.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, he won’t mind if you indulge just this once.  Certainly he’ll forgive your trespasses again this time.”

Temptation is sure to follow any attempt we make to get closer to God, so how are we to overcome it?  Jesus was Jesus, and I most certainly am not.  Rather than standing here and saying “just be like Jesus,” I thought it might be more helpful to look at how Jesus is able to resist his forty days of temptation.  First, Luke tells us that Jesus was filled up with the Holy Spirit.   Like each of us, Jesus received the gift of the Spirit in baptism, and the Spirit continued to work in his life, calling his human will to seek the Father, reminding him of God’s never failing love, and comforting him in those moments when it all seemed overwhelming.  The Spirit does the same for each of us: celebrating our accomplishments, reminding us of God’s grace, and holding us close when we fall into sin.  Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh; resisting temptation required a healthy dose of help from the Spirit.  Second, Jesus relied on his knowledge of the Scriptures.  Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation.  Even when the deceiver tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was able to discern good interpretation from false teaching.  Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for this world and what is not, and that requires coming to know the story of God in the Scriptures.

Finally, Jesus prayed.  Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, but we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer.  As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least three times daily, following the customs of his tradition.  Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because he was in regular conversation with his Father.  We too should rely on prayer, being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives. Nobody said this Lenten journey was going to be easy.  By committing to a closer walk with God, you’ve led yourself straight into temptation, but through prayer, studying God’s holy word, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can find a way to resist the work of the devil and follow God’s dream for you, his beloved child.  Amen.

40 Days of Temptation

I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed this before, but some how, in my rush to figure out what the three temptations of Jesus might mean, I’ve failed to notice that, in fact, Jesus has been tempted constantly for 40 straight days.  Don’t believe me?  It says so, right there in Luke’s Gospel:

After his baptism, 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.

Luke gives us a sampling of what Jesus had to endure: temptations of bread, power, and safety; but what really strikes me is how 2/3rds of the sample temptations start with a question of trust.

“If you are the Son of God…”

As we begin the 40 day season of Lent, temptation will be nipping at your heels.  At least I know it will be for me.  You see, every time I find myself getting closer to God’s dream for me, I realize that the devil is hard at work tempting me to give it all up and follow my own dreams.

“If you really are a beloved child of God…”

The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s love.  He’s always there to make you question God’s dream.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  If you’ve decided to take on a prayer practice, be ready for your life to get busier than ever.  If you’ve given up chocolate, wine, or potato chips, be prepared to have them offered to you again and again.  If you’re seeking a closer relationship with God this Lent, be prepared to wonder if God is a target moving ever farther away.  That’s the job of the Deceiver.


Withstanding 40 days of temptation isn’t going to be easy.  There are bound to be days when you fall short of whatever ideal you’re striving for this Lent.  When that happens, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and for goodness sake, try again.  Lent is a marathon, 40 days of temptation were almost too much for Jesus, but with God’s help, even when we fail, we won’t lose our status as a beloved child of God, no matter what the Devil says to the contrary.

Resist the Temptation

As I started research for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, one of the members of the Thesis Committee suggested that I read a book called The American Jeremiad.  The suggestion was that perhaps America isn’t changing in such a dramatic way as I was suggesting, but rather the words of William Reed Huntington, Brian McLaren, and others were merely a rehashing of the old fashioned jeremiad, the prophetic voice of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella that the American enterprise was God’s Kingdom come, and that any moral failing on the part of the Puritans that were making their way to New England, would bring about not just the failure of the nation, but the failure of God’s dream.  I ultimately disagreed with this argument, but in reading Sacvan Bercovitch’s dense prose, I came to realize where much of the prudish, moralistic bent that makes up vast sections of American society comes from.

As Americans, moralistic thought has been in our DNA since before the Arbella landed at Salem, Massachusetts in 1630.  As such, there remains a temptation to read stories like the Temptation of Jesus that we hear read on the First Sunday in Lent as a moralistic text.  We hear how Jesus withstood temptation at the hand of the devil for 40 days and say, “Just as Jesus withstood temptation, you should too.”  Here’s the thing, none of us is Jesus.  Jesus is a special case, and while I believe it is important that we emulate his life’s witness of loving God and neighbor, I don’t think we can use him as the measuring stick for successful discipleship.

The Temptation of Jesus

Do not try this at home. This sort of thing only works for Jesus.

Instead of lifting Jesus up (no pun intended) as the exemplar of faith that we should all just try to follow, I wonder if we might look at what makes Jesus the example which we should all try to follow.  This may be splitting hairs, but bear with me, as this seems to be the difference between asking our congregations to do the impossible, i.e. be like Jesus, and asking our congregations to be disciples, i.e. the very real struggle of everyday life.   So how is it that Jesus is able to resist temptation?

First, he is filled up with the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the guide.  Jesus is just off his his profound spiritual encounter in the waters of the Jordan River, with the Spirit hovering over him as a dove and a voice coming from heaven, when that same Spirit propels him into he wilderness.  Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, it require the help of the Spirit to resist temptation.  Second, he relies on his knowledge of the Law, or as we might call it, the Scriptures.  Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation.  Even when the deceiver tries to use the Bible against, him, Jesus is able to discern good interpretation from false.  Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for us and what is not, and that requires coming to know as God has been manifested in the Scriptures.  Finally, Jesus prayed.  While Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer.  As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least thrice daily, and would have followed the customs of his tradition.  Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because they were in regular conversation with one another.  We too should rely on prayer, and by that I mean being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives, which will ultimately keep us from being led into temptation.

It’s Temptation Sunday!

You can listen to what I actually ended up saying on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on to see where I jumped off from.

Have you ever felt envious or jealous toward Jesus?  I mean, in about six weeks’ time, as he’s sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, getting arrested, and hanging crucified on a tree, we won’t wish we were him, but this morning as we hear about his 40 days in the wilderness, maybe you’re getting just a tinge of jealousy. Jesus’ wilderness experience isn’t easy, but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Two-thousand years later, the Church invites us into a 40 day wilderness experience every year. Jesus was able to focus solely on his spiritual journey during his time away. Lent happens in the midst of the busyness of life: work, kids, grand kids on spring break, tax season, and, to add insult to injury, just four days into Lent this year we’ve lost an hour of sleep in the name of “Saving Daylight.”  It probably isn’t rational, but sometimes, I’m tempted to feel jealous of Jesus’ wilderness experience.

Of course, that’s what this day is all about, isn’t it?  Temptation is the overarching theme of the First Sunday in Lent, and probably with good reason.  We’ve got four full days of Lent under our belt, and if Lenten disciplines are anything like New Year’s Resolutions, then by now nearly 20% of you have already given up on what you’ve given up for Lent[1].  Couple that with the peculiarity of Lent that Sundays, as mini-Easters and Feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ, don’t count, and your personal Lenten devotion is in for a real challenge today.  I guarantee, you’ll be tempted to give up that extra 15 minutes of Bible reading, or to take back up that morning Coca-Cola before the day is over.  Temptation is alive and well here on the First Sunday in Lent.

It can be said, for many different reasons, that there was great wisdom in the members of the Standing Liturgical Commission that created the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but this morning I am particularly grateful that they chose to pray for God’s help against temptation when they made the decision to replace the Collect for Lent 1 that had appeared in every Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s first in 1549.  Somewhere, in the midst their negotiations, someone brought up a collect buried deep in the Appendix of a book published in 1864[2].  After more than two-hundred pages of history, theology, and devotional reflections on the Collects of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, William Bright, the author of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, was brave enough to offer several collects he had written himself.  Third from the end was a prayer “For the Tempted” which reads, “Merciful and High Priest, Who didst deign for us to be tempted of Satan; make speed to aid Thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and as Thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find Thee mighty to save, Who livest and reignest with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”[3]  Like I said, thankfully there are Churchnerds out there who are nerdier than even I am, and found that collect that, with only a few minor revisions, became the Collect for Lent 1 which Keith prayed on our behalf this morning.  A prayer which calls us to keep alert for the ways in which the tempter will make himself known in our lives.

The deceiver gets to work early on in scripture, seemingly within hours of Eve’s creation out of Adam’s side, sewing seeds of mistrust and doubt into their minds; finding a particular weakness that he could exploit.  “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks Eve, ignoring her nearby partner Adam, the one who was actually around to hear God give his short list of rules.[4]

“No,” Eve responds, “we can eat the fruit of almost all the trees in the garden, there’s just one, the one in the middle of the garden, that God said we couldn’t eat from, in fact, I don’t think we’re even supposed to touch it, or we’ll die.”

“Die!?!” the serpent snorted, “No way!  God wouldn’t kill you over some silly fruit, but he knows that if you eat of it, you’ll gain knowledge, you’ll have your eyes open, you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil. God hasn’t told you the whole truth,” he goes on, “you can have it all, all you have to do is eat this delicious, beautiful piece of fruit.”[5]

And eat they do.  The tempter invited them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracked open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fell into the trap, ate the fruit, and had their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body is the gift that came from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them, lost in the moment of temptation.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, this time as the devil, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the fortieth day.  Whether it is day two or day forty, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food, but take notice of the subtlety of his work.  Satan doesn’t begin by hitting Jesus’ growling stomach, but rather seeks to crack the perfect relationship between the Father and the Son.  In effect, he wants to test whether or not Jesus believed the voice that spoke at his baptism, “you are my son, whom I love.”

If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “then why are you out here starving to death?  Command these stones to become bread.”

When that didn’t work, he moved on to further test the relationship of the Godhead.  “If you are the Son of God, and if your Father loves you so much, then certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  Throw yourself off the top of the Temple and watch as he sends an army of angels to catch you.”  Jesus is not swayed.

Realizing that Jesus’ divinity is nothing to mess with, finally, the devil focuses his attention back on Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us: that piece that seeks after power and glory.  From the top of a high mountain, Satan shows Jesus every kingdom in the world, every stockpile of gold and jewels, every country club membership, every hundred-foot yacht and says, “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”

In the end, Jesus doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations of Satan by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again late one Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane and again on Friday morning in the court of Pontius Pilate and again just after noon as he hangs gasping for breath on a cross.

As the Collect for this week makes clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus does not make us immune to the work of the tempter.  Even now, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities, he knows our vices and our areas of excessive pride, and he will not stop in attempting to exploit them in order to turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.  Again and again, he’ll welcome us back into fullness of life.  You will be tempted today, I guarantee it, but rest assured that God stands beside you as a merciful and high priest ready to forgive and restore you.  Amen.

[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 174.

[3] Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, 237-8.

[4] Note that Genesis 3:6 suggests that Adam and Eve have been together through this whole story.

[5] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft/axpx?post=1488 (accessed 3/3/14).