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Sermon for first Sunday in Lent

2012/04/09

Quadragesima, First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

We have now entered into Lent, and are headed for Easter. Lent is a period of repentance, contrition and review. It is a period of self-denial. It is a period in which temptation and asceticism are placed in focus. It is a period in which we are expected, required, to ask of ourselves some searching questions about our life with God and with our fellow human beings.

Lent is a period of fasting, and fasting is about dying to the world. The Lententide readings over the next several weeks tell us about how Christ went up to Jerusalem to be captured, tried, judged, scourged, and crucified by the world, for the world. Our Christian tradition in Lent is to symbolically crucify our own flesh, so that, on resurrection Sunday, as St Paul writes, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Rom 6:4).

But there is more than mere symbolism involved, there is a profound spiritual dimension to fasting that has been considered salutary and edifying from the very foundation of the church. In the Old Testament, the psalmist talks about fasting as a way to humble (Ps 35:13) and chasten (Ps 69:10) the soul. We heard in the reading from Joel how the Lord demanded of the people, return to me with all your heart with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning and then added rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2.12-13). Christ himself not only fasted before going up to Jerusalem, but talked about prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29)—always those two together—as means of spiritual strength. In Acts (19:29) we read about how the appointment of new elders in the congregations was sealed, so to speak, with, prayer and fasting.

St Josemaria Escrivá wrote: “I am going to tell you which are man’s treasures on earth so you won’t slight them: hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, dishonor, poverty, loneliness, betrayal, slander, prison…” Why? Because the “savory fruits of the mortified soul [are] tolerance and understanding toward the defects of others; intolerance toward his own.” (Escrivá, The Way, §§ 194, 198)

Indeed, prayerful fasting in Christ aids us spiritually in two main ways. In part, it fosters neighborly love and compassion by putting our slight discomfort in perspective. It really is a time when we ought to read the news every day, and look at the state of the world. 850 million fellow human beings across the globe—created by God each and every one of them—go to bed every night on an empty stomach. Every 3.6 seconds someone starves to death, three out of four of them are children under the age of 5. In the one hour that it takes to complete mass this morning, 1,000 people will have starved to death, including 750 children. A wise man once said: “Only a hungry man can truly understand the cries of a hungry man.” Fasting should open up our hearts to those who literally have nothing to give up for Lent.

This neighborly compassion and the various realizations that should spring from that—of our responsibilities toward suffering neighbors, everyone a creature of our heavenly father, wherever they may be—is the happy byproduct of putting our relationship to God in right perspective. If we reflect on the Lententide readings, praying and fasting, it is virtually impossible to not compare our own pitiful sacrifice and discomfort to the passion and sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The liturgical set up in the next six weeks is such that we are forced to realize that the suffering of Christ surpasses anything we can ever imagine. We are then called upon, by this insight, to humble ourselves; to submit ourselves to God’s mercy without reference to our own merit, achievements, or, above all, to our own suffering. As we wait for Easter, we lift up the Son of Man, he who redeemed the ash heap that is the world, in order to raise us all in fullness of life in and for him. Remember always: Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… great is your reward in heaven (Luke 6:21b, 23a).

In today’s gospel reading, we see a clear and important pattern; a method to the way in which the tempter goes about his craft. So let’s start there this morning: with the ways in which temptation came to Christ in the desert, and let’s then look at how he triumphed, and at what this may mean to us and our own struggles with sin today.

We read in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13). This is the good news about the tailor-made nature of temptation—the measure of it allowed by God is determined by our own strengths—something that God knows better than we ourselves do. The bad news about the tailor-made nature of temptation is that it is crafted by the enemy according to our individual weaknesses and dispositions. Temptation, the inclination to veer from God’s word, latches on to different sorts of things in each of us. What I mean is this: for a rich person it may be greed—hoarding money without regard for the poor. For a poor person it may be envy—griping about what he doesn’t have rather than rejoicing in the things he does have. For a military man it may be pride—it is in the nature of the military profession. For a preacher or pastor it may be self-righteousness—dealing “professionally” with God’s Word every single day is a great blessing but it also presents a very specific set of challenges. This is how temptation and sin works: it finds our weak spots and strikes when our defenses are down; when we’re preoccupied or caught up in something else.

With Christ, this was clearly a more than average difficult challenge, but the tempter tried his best. There is a little phrase in the reading, three wordsthat make a lot of difference to how we must understand the text. It is the mention, almost as a throw-away phrase, that after Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights, he was hungry (Luke 4:2). This tells us two very important things. First, that we are reading about Jesus’ human nature. We confess him to be fully God and fully man; true God from true God, and also taking flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. If you read this gospel passage, and many other for that matter, thinking only of Jesus as God, as one of the persons of the Holy Trinity, then the meaning is lost. Satan tempts God and God withstands the test—big whoop. Of course he does—he’s God! But this little sub-clause—he was hungry—calls our attention to Jesus’ human nature. Like us, like we would be, he was hungry. He is not going into mortal moral combat with Satan as God the Son, but as the Son of Man, as one of us; as our proxy.

He was hungry. Since this means that he had bodily needs he must have also been thirsty and tired. Fatigued. The mention of his hunger is immediately followed by: the devil said to him… At his lowest, at the ebb of his human strength, the tempter struck. And how? By going after the very things that make Jesus, Jesus the Christ.

He starts out by questioning Jesus’ status as the son of God. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread (Matthew 4:3). It must always start with doubt. “Are you really God’s son? Do you really need to worry so much about what God wills for you? Are you sure—are you really sure—that you are the one meant to die horrifically and gruesomely in Jerusalem in a few weeks time? Well—if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…if…

“If” is a powerful word, one of the most fearsome in any language. There is a story from ancient Greece that is too good not to tell. When the Macedonian king, Philip II (the father of Alexander who would go on to become “the Great”), had subdued all key Greek city states, he turned his attention to Sparta, an awesome warrior society and a very dangerous enemy. Philip felt he was on a roll and wrote to the Spartans: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city”. The Spartans sent back a note with a one-word reply: “if”.

Neither Philip nor his son Alexander the Great ever tried to pick a fight with Sparta again. Sparta’s answer had brought doubt into the equation and this doubt terrified the Macedonian king. All that was needed was “if.”

“If” is what we get, too, when we struggle with the temptation to wander astray. What if we’re not redeemed by Christ? What if we’re not God’s children? What if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right? What if its not really a sin to—fill in the blank? What if I only try it once? What if… For a lot of people around the world this is no mere academic musing, but a life and death decision; for those who are imprisoned for their faith in China, or executed for their faith in Saudi Arabia, or persecuted for their faith in other parts of the world, “if” is real. “What if I am about to be executed and the Lord really isn’t God and I am not really his child?” “What if it is all falsehood and all this perseverance-to-the-end business is simply pointless?” “What if…?” The enemy of souls knows when to strike for maximum effect and it always starts with doubt.

As Matthew renders the encounter, the second effort by the devil is to quote Scripture back at Christ. But of course, he misquotes Scripture, mangling Psalm 91 by removing a key part of it to suit his purpose.Having failed to introduce doubt and knowing how closely Jesus clings to Scripture—he goes on to try to tamper with Scripture itself. This is of course something that we, too, encounter as a last ditch effort by folks who are somehow and for some reason offended by classical Christian faith. How often don’t we hear these sorts of things: “surely Paul writes that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6). “How can you be so certain—doesn’t Scripture say that God is love, and also that love does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5). Or the reverse; “surely Scripture has no specific prohibition against…” fill in the blank with a modern word describing whatever whomever wants approved by God. People, when you hear this sort of thing, stand fast and remember: It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Luke 4:12).

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is finally tempted to idolatry, another way of perverting all that he is about. Showing him the whole world, Satan tells him if you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours (Luke 4:7). After sowing the seed of doubt, and after seeking to pervert Scripture, he seeks to trick Jesus into idolatry: worship of the dazzling attractions of the world. “Wouldn’t you much rather have all these other things; all this instant, material gratification?” This choice is one that a lot of people have to make every day, deciding whether it is more important what the world thinks of you, or to remain true to the end. Tension between the world and the Word is not limited to struggles against authorities in China or Saudi Arabia, but takes place in our places of work, in our social life, everyday. This is why Christ tells us, All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13).

But none of these temptations stuck to Christ. The tempter didn’t even get past “if”. Christ never took the bait and therefore he never dangled on the hook. How? First, knowing what was going on, that he was being offered ideas and powers and tempted to act contrary to the will of the Father, he rejected them outright without so much as a brief debate. There was no argument or discussion. Christ knew that it was wrong and simply said “no.

He did explain his rejection, though. Notice that every reply begins with the words it is written. Christ himself stood on the foundation on Scripture. In fact, in fending off temptation he clung solely to the written word. It wasn’t a question of whether he disliked this or that, if it didn’t suit him in some way; there was no cost-benefit analysis—but exclusively a matter of whether it accorded with God’s will, which is revealed to us in Scripture. It is written

How do we know if something is right or wrong? We too look to Scripture. This is what Christ did, this is how he averted the dangers of temptation, and we really must not try to imagine ourselves cleverer or more advanced, or more socially Enlightened than he was—although a lot of churches seem to be making that argument these days, that they understand the world better than folks did back in the time of Christ. That is a temptation to which we must answer: it is written, a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master (Mat 10:24). As we move toward Easter, may the strength and victories of Christ be also our strength and final victory.  May the lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen.

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