When I pulled up my file on the 1st Sunday of Lent for Year A, I saw that the last time this cycle came up, I preached on the story of Eve… and I confessed that and, well, now that you know me better this should not come as a surprise – but…… if I was Eve, I too, would have eaten the apple. Heck…. I can’t even prevent myself from eating all the cookies in the house when I buy them from the Girl Scouts. Oh, I would have felt guilty not following God’s directions, but the temptation of that beautiful red fruit offering me the gift of all wisdom would have been too great. I would have weighed God’s warnings and reached for having my eyes opened and knowing good from evil. I would have wanted to be God-like.
So, this year, I thought I would look at the Matthew text and see what message it has for us today. As we know, in the Gospel stories, Jesus was just baptized by John and then is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. My thoughts on this part of the story are to wonder what Jesus was thinking at this point. Was he at all frightened? Perhaps, filled with the Holy Spirit from his baptism, like a person filled with the Holy Spirit at a Christian revival meeting, he went with total trust and faith into the desert and an inhabitable land. Did he know he would not be eating for 40 days? Did he know he would be tempted to not follow God’s plan while there? Did he know the whole story of what God had planned for him and how it was going to end? We don’t really know. But I ask….What would you do? Not being a camper and feeling safer in the city than the wilderness, I know I would have tried to bargain with the Holy Spirit here. Is this really necessary, God? Can’t we just work this faith struggle out in the comfort of my home? I hope I would trust God at this point and put my faith in God’s plan…. but it’s hard to know.
So listen now to the Story of Christ’s 40 days in the desert as told in the Gospel of Matthew and the temptations with which he wrestled while there:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘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.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
In the Presbytery’s e-newsletter, our General Presbyter often writes a short commentary or a statement on a lectionary reading for the week. This week, he reminded us that the temptations with which Jesus was faced while in the wilderness, were actually the same ones faced by the Israelites during the 40 years they were in the wilderness. They are, in so many ways, the temptations all of humanity throughout time must wrestle. The temptations involve putting our faith to the test. Do we trust God to provide us with what we need? Do we work out ways to put God to the test and try and control our Deity? Do we involve ourselves in the false worship of things that are not of God? Do we deny where God is calling us?
And the human part of Jesus must have wrestled with all this. The temptation story has always been a test of Jesus’ and, of course, our will. In an odd way, the best descriptive parallel I can come up with about this has to do with hiring the best employees for jobs. In the list of things they did not teach us in seminary along with #1 how to hold a baby during baptism, #2 what the right amount of oil is in the ash mixture made for your foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and #3 is the business part of running a church including the role of ‘head of staff’ that comes with being the minister at a church. The skillset of how to hire the right staff, how to motivate your personnel, and how to end an employee relation (which is a nice way of saying firing someone), all are leadership gifts ministers need that must be developed on the job and come with, well, experience. And after being at this for a while, one thing I have found to be absolutely true about hiring is it isn’t necessarily the skill set of the person that will make them a great employee, as most people are teachable….it is their will. Are they motivated in their work? Having the will, the loyalty, and perseverance to be a good person at your work is … well, THAT is key.
And when I read the temptation story this year it seemed that Jesus’ ‘will’ is what is being tested here during those forty days Jesus spent in the desert. You see, the tempter never questioned God’s abilities. Satan tempted Jesus. It was Jesus’ will that was tempted. Can Jesus follow God’s path? Satan tempted him by offering him control of everything. And it sure would have been easier to take control of life and not follow where God directed. God called Jesus to a ministry few of us would be able to accept and here Jesus is tempted not to rely on God, but to go another direction. To not accept God’s word, God’s promise, and God’s authority.
And the happy ending to the story of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus got it right. Jesus had the will, the faith, and the perseverance to do what God called him to do. But, I am most glad that Jesus was tempted. That Jesus had to wrestle with the same temptations we do every day. As Presbyterians, we are comfortable saying we are sinners. We confess our sins to God each week in worship. We know we need God’s forgiveness and grace. And this story lets us know that Jesus knows our temptations. The things Jesus was tempted with were the same things that people were tempted with throughout the stories in the Bible and are still now. Jesus experienced standing in the front of evil and being offered all and he rose above the temptation. Knowing this gives us the courage to stand in the face of God and confess our shortcomings, knowing that Jesus was there. We can confess our shame, our guilt, and our secret fears knowing that we will be helped with them, that God has already forgiven us, and God will always love us. And it is with that knowledge that we can try again to be the person God calls us to be. We are not deflated in our imperfection, but we are instead like a child who is lost and has stumbled and fallen, and God, who loves us unconditionally will pick us up, kiss us and dust us off, and set us free to try and move on the right path yet again.
Lent allows us a period of time to look at where we have fallen short of where God calls us to be. We can be honest with ourselves and with God, about who we are because we are not alone. So, as we begin the season of Lent, I invite you to take on a Lenten Discipline that might help you with a character flaw you possess. Or you can commit to daily Bible study and prayer, using one of the resources available in the back of the sanctuary. You can look honestly at a personality flaw and try for 40 days to correct what you see to not be a Christ-like behavior. I know from experience it will change you. AND it will help us experience a greater joy on Easter morning when we sing our songs of praise! Amen.