This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A. G. Vogele on Sunday, March 5, 2017, First Sunday in Lent. The readings and Psalm: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11.
I want to begin with a preliminary remark about Lent – a longish quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, author, and excellent preacher. About Lent, she writes:
Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary. There was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 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…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.
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 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust the Lord. Elijah spent 40 days there before hearing the still, small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God give the law. There was also the story about Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness during which he was sorely tested by the devil. It was hard. It was awful. It was necessary, if only for the story. Those of us who believe it have proof that it is humanly possible to remain loyal to God.
So the early church announced a 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 ourselves.
(Barbara Brown Taylor “Settling for Less (Lk. 4:1-13)” in Religion Online. Also published as “Lenten Discipline” in Home By Another Way.)
What do you think of her comments? Do you think that they ring true for today? For the church in general? For us as individuals? It rings true for me, personally. I want a springtime for my soul. And I know that means there are things about my life that I have to get more serious about, have to bring before God more fully and ask more earnestly for his guidance.
I am too much like Augustine of Hippo who wanted to get right with God, “just not yet.”
So Lent gives all of us a time to stop procrastinating and get on with it. It is about deciding whether we will continue to sit on the bench – or soft comfy couch, as Taylor writes – or join our teammates out on the court.
Lent – like life – is a journey. We enter or begin the journey through our baptism and are fed with the bread and wine of communion. We are called daily to take up our cross and follow Jesus but that is not the end point of the journey for Jesus and for us – resurrection is the end point – the springtime for our souls.
So if you are ready for a journey, let’s begin.
And what does the first week bring us but Temptation!
No sooner do we decide to get up and really try to take our faith seriously and we are tempted.
This word, “temptation” can also be translated as “test.” Remember that it was the Spirit of God that drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. It might just be God’s way – the Spirit’s way – of helping us – forcing us to remember our purpose – our telos – that Greek word from a few Sundays ago meaning that toward which we are headed, the goal, the whole point of it all.
One commentary said that God tests us so that we know and see the good, but Satan tempts us away from God’s good. And Satan does so by cunning, by twisting the truth – he’s sneaky, that one! Martin Luther called him a “rogue”!
Perhaps God tests us, not to delight in flunking us but to help us discover what we know and don’t know, what we can do and what we can’t do. God tests us so that we see what’s actually in our hearts. There is a necessary cleansing that needs to happen before healing and strengthening take place.
Let’s have a closer look at Eve and Adam’s temptation by the devil, personified by the snake, and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness?
- both are tempted by the devil/snake
- the devil is crafty – “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3)
- the devil engages in conversation with the one he is tempting
- the devil strikes when the person is most vulnerable – Eve is alone, Jesus is famished and alone
- both have divine encounters after the fact: Adam and Eve with God; Jesus with the angels.
- There are consequences.
- anything else?
- Jesus resists the temptations; Eve doesn’t.
- Setting for one is the garden of Eden; the other is the wilderness
- Jesus doesn’t engage in conversation with the devil; Eve does.
- Jesus resists by quoting scripture; Eve does repeat what God told them but that doesn’t stop the devil
- Jesus seemed ready for challenge – he had scripture “at the ready.”
What seems most strikingly different – besides the fact that Jesus successfully resisted temptation while Eve and Adam didn’t – is the way Jesus resisted: He didn’t get into a conversation with the devil as Eve did. He didn’t try to reason with him or out argue him. He quoted scripture. For every challenge the devil enticed him with, Jesus had an answer, not based on his own wisdom or reasoning, but on God’s wisdom and reasoning. And he had it ready.
Lutheran Pastor Brian Stoffregen commented, “I wonder how any minister or congregational leader (or Christian) can faithful perform their duties if they are not steeped in the word of God.”
Mind you, the devil – “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” – can quote scripture as well. And he does in his second temptation of Jesus. So we must do more than memorize Scripture – we must be steeped in it.
Steeped in the word of God so that we may more fully know the mind of God and be motivated and equipped to do the will of God.
So I thought, earlier in the week, that this would be a very straightforward sermon for once. But the more I thought about it, the more I struggled with this: how do you know when you are faithfully resisting evil by not engaging it in conversation and when is that just being close-minded, stubborn, even prejudiced?
Many people quote scripture and not always in the right way.
About 150 years ago, people quoted scripture to justify slavery.
Not even 50 years ago in my denomination, people were still quoting scripture to prove that women could not be ordained a priest. Some folks still quote the same scripture as justification for not allowing women to serve in leadership roles in their churches.
Many people have quoted scripture to me and to people like me to prove that my lifestyle is sinful.
And some preachers quote obscure scripture passages to promote their own “prosperity gospel” – proof that God intends to give us all good things – material things like houses and cars and high paying jobs. And if we aren’t enjoying this prosperity, we are either not asking right or have sin in our life.
So how can we know if we are steeped in the word of God in a good way vs. just knowing enough to use it to support our own opinions and prejudices?
Jesus said that no bad tree can bear good fruit and no good tree can bear bad fruit. That you will know by the fruit.
And what is the fruit? Paul writes to the Galatians, that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things” he adds, “there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
If you use scripture to be argumentative, that is not what God intends.
If you use it to demean or oppress, that is not what God intends.
If you use it to tempt a weaker brother or sister, that is not what God intends.
There is a collect – or prayer of the day – in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that says,
“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…”
Being steeped in the Word is crucial in this journey of faith – as individuals and as a congregation.
This journey is not about where you are starting or how far or long it’s going to take for you. It’s about where you are headed and to what end – or telios. So won’t get bogged down in how out of shape you may be, spiritually, or how far back in the pack you are compared to others. Just keep fixing your eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith. Keep considering him, so that you will not grow weary or lose heart (Hebrews 12:2).