First Sunday in Lent
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
March 10, 2019
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 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. 3 The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’8 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 9 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, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 12 Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Seventy-six people gathered for our first ecumenical Ash Wednesday service last Wednesday at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Twenty-two members of our chancel choir sang, “Create in Me a Clean Heart.” Presbyterian and Lutheran liturgists read from the prophet Joel and Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Pastor Bryan read from the gospel of Matthew, with Jesus warning us not to be like the hypocrites, making a big show of their fasting, long prayers and charitable giving to impress human beings with their piety!
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that our God, who is love, breathed life into dust to create us in His image—for love. And when we fall short of God’s love, the Lord longs for us to draw near and confess our sins so that our relationship with God and human beings may be restored. Because our sin hurts the entire community and not just ourselves and our relationship with the Lord.
People often talk about what they give up or add on for Lent. It’s good to be intentional about living out your faith. Jesus tells us to love the Lord with all heart, soul, mind and might and our neighbors as ourselves. This requires thought, feeling, effort and action! But I want you to remember that what matters most to the Lord, at Lent and always, is the purity of our hearts.
The good works we do must come from a humble and faithful heart, seeking to be obedient to God’s will. It’s a temptation to do things to try and win approval from others and then be disappointed if no one seems to notice the good that we do. It’s also a temptation to value ourselves based on the good works that we do, and, if we aren’t able to do those good works, we might come to believe that we aren’t valuable! We might even begin to fool ourselves into thinking that something we do will lead God to love us more. Nothing we can do can change God’s love. And nothing we can do will ever compare with what God has already done for us through the cross!
So, I have said that Lent is about the condition of our hearts and not about what we give up. But now I am going to say that the Spirit may lead you to give up some things during Lent, if what you are giving up are things that fail to bring you life and energy, health or joy. Later today, look at your calendars and consider how you will spend your time in this Holy Season as we draw nearer to the cross with Christ. What are those things that just aren’t helpful to your spiritual growth and shalom—peace, wholeness and wellbeing? What have you been afraid to say no to because it might disappoint someone? What are things that are draining you that you could and should “let go?”
And, since Lent is about our hearts, it isn’t about what we add on, either, unless what we are adding on is something the Spirit is stirring us to do, such as making more time for prayer and meditating on God’s Word, engaging in creative pursuits that we have been wanting to do; making music and singing God’s praises; taking more time to fellowship with God’s children; encouraging one another through struggle and loss; and volunteering in our community.
Above all, please remember that Lent is about drawing nearer to the One who is our refuge in the wilderness.
Our gospel lesson in Luke today starts us off on the first Sunday in Lent with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, his preparation for public ministry shortly after he is baptized in the Jordan. In Luke, the Spirit fills Jesus and leads him to the wilderness to be tempted. This is all part of God’s plan. The Greek word for tempted or tested—peirazo–is used in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for the testing of the people by Yahweh in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4; 17:2; Deut. 8:2; Ps 94:9) and of their testing of him. So right away, we are taken back in time to Israel’s 40 years of wandering and struggle.
This desert wilderness in Judea in the vicinity of the Jordan is both a good and bad place. It’s good because it’s a place of contact with God; but it’s also dangerous—a rocky, daunting zone of cliffs and caves, the haunt of wild beasts, demons and outlaws (Lev. 16:10, Isa. 13:21, 34:14, Tob. 8:3 ) Diabolos himself—the devil or accuser—comes to try to lead Jesus astray.
Hearers in Jesus’ time would recognize in these 3 tests the 3 categories of vice that Jesus overcomes: “love of pleasure, love of possessions, love of glory.” (Luke T. Johnson, 76). These three tests are meant to correct any misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission as the Son. Jesus, the Son of God, refuses to use his power or authority for any other reason other than that for which he has been sent! The “unifying link” in these scenes is that they are quotations from Deuteronomy, coming from “passages that recall three events of the Exodus in which the Israelites in the desert were put to the test—and failed,” says author Joseph A. Fitzmyer. Jesus is, in effect, “redeeming the whole wilderness experience of the Israelites. Where Israel of old failed, Jesus succeeds.”
The first 2 tests address Jesus as the Son of God, recalling the baptism scene of Luke 3:21-22, when a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
When Jesus answers, “Man cannot live on bread alone,” he is quoting from Deut. 8:3. “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When Jesus answers, “Worship the Lord Your God, and serve only Him,” he is quoting Deut. 6:13. And when Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he is quoting Deut. 6:16.
I have heard sermons on how this passage is a how-to-guide for fighting the devil and temptation. That isn’t the point of my message today, although the New Testament does tell us we are engaged in a spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:11-12 says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The Word of God is, “alive and active.” says Hebrews 4:1. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” And 1 Peter 5:8-9 says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
I would rather you recall from my message that this spiritual battle isn’t for us to fight! And that we have nothing to fear. As Jesus says in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The battle belongs to the Lord, who is our refuge in the wilderness.
Lent has already begun differently for me this year. It was the first Ash Wednesday in 8 years that I wasn’t well enough to make the sign of the cross in ashes on my congregation’s foreheads and remind them, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” I felt bad about this—being sick on the night of this important service. But then I remembered that I am not a pastor because of the “pastor things” that I do! I am a pastor because, by the grace of God, I am called to be a pastor– and that is what leads me to do the pastor things! Just as we are all children of God, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ the Son has done for us. Our worth is not determined by what we do. We are precious to the Lord! Nothing can make the Lord love us more! Nothing can make God love us less!
The devil departs at the end of today’s passage in Luke, but he will return, as scripture says, at an “opportune time,” to fulfill God’s purposes. He will be back in Luke 22:3-4, when “Satan enters …Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he (goes) away and confer(s) with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them.” The devil will come up again in 22:31-32, when Jesus predicts Peter’s initial denial, then faithfulness. “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, (shall) strengthen your brothers.”
During this Holy Season, I pray that your faith may not fail, and that the Spirit will guide you to let go of some things that drain you and add on some things that bring you life, health, peace and joy.
Most of all, I pray that you and I will understand God’s love and grace in a new way. And may this understanding set us free to live more graciously.
There’s a spiritual battle going on, but the battle belongs to the Lord!
God is our refuge in the wilderness.
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for being our refuge in the wilderness and that we have nothing to fear from the devil. Thank you that the spiritual battle of this world belongs to you who has already conquered sin and death. Forgive us, Lord, for falling to temptation every day and turning away from you to satisfy our own desires, to accumulate more possessions, and to seek glory for ourselves. Help us, O God, to be the humble, pure of heart people you want us to be. Set us free from the burden of our sin so we may live more graciously. By the power of your Spirit within us, may we become more like your Beloved Son. In His name we pray. Amen.