By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. The coming of Lent always seems a bit jarring, a time of disorientation and discontinuity. And this discontinuity is reflected in the lectionary. For today’s Gospel reading about the temptation of Christ in the wilderness takes place a full thirteen chapters before last Sunday’s Gospel reading, which featured the Transfiguration of Christ on a mountaintop. Just to reorient you, let me remind you what takes place just before Jesus’ temptation. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit has descended upon him. Then, a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” You might think that Jesus would now go forth and proclaim the Good News. But instead, before beginning his public ministry, he undergoes a time of testing. It’s at this point that today’s story begins
And it begins on a rather odd note, with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tested by the Devil. I say “leads” because that’s the word Matthew uses; in Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that the Spirit “casts him out” into the wilderness. In any case, one thing is clear: the whole episode takes place at God’s behest, not the Devil’s. We’re never told why, but I have some ideas on the subject. I suspect that this time of testing was necessary for Jesus to work out for himself just what kind of Messiah he was going to be, to figure out what kind of Kingdom he was going to proclaim—and to come to terms with the possible consequences of those decisions, such as death on a Roman cross.
In the first of the temptations that Matthew relates to us, the Devil preys on Jesus’ desperate hunger. Jesus hadn’t eaten for forty days and nights, and the Devil approaches Jesus and dares him to magically transform stones into loaves of bread. Jesus’ response begins what looks like a scriptural debate between two rabbis. In good rabbinic tradition, Jesus responds by proof-texting from Holy Scripture—in this case Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem, at first glance, that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do anything even remotely sinful. But I suspect that the Devil is hoping that, if Jesus gives in to this one small thing, it will eventually lead down a slippery slope to a Messiah who feeds himself, rather than a multitude of 5000—a Messiah who ultimately serves only himself, rather than a world in need of salvation.
In the second temptation, the Devil dares Jesus to jump off the roof of the Temple in what would undoubtedly be a spectacular display of his special relationship to God, with hosts of angels bearing him gently to the ground. Note that the Devil knows how to quote Scripture, just like Jesus! Again Jesus quotes Deuteronomy in his refusal: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” But what if Jesus had given in to this second temptation? What kind of Messiahship would he have been manifesting in that case? Well, one thing is certain; it would have been a Messiahship without the Cross. For the Devil is tempting Jesus to force God to protect him from suffering and self-sacrifice. The consequence of such an action would have been a Messiah who would never redeem humanity by his blood.
In the third and final temptation, the Devil really lays his cards on the table: “Worship me, and I will give you political power beyond your wildest dreams.” Once again, Jesus refuses the Devil by quoting Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” As before, the Devil is trying to divert Jesus’ Messiahship along a different path, to make a political ruler out of him like the Roman emperor. He’s trying to reshape the Kingdom of God into a worldly kingdom that is just like any other.
So we see that the common thread throughout this Gospel story is that the Devil is trying to divert and derail Jesus’ Messiahship and to deform and distort the kind of Kingdom that Jesus would proclaim. But thankfully Jesus remains faithful to the calling that he received at his baptism in the Jordan—even though such faithfulness will come at the cost of his very life.
Jesus endured the Devil’s testing, and he triumphed. He renounced Satan once and for all, and there is no biblical account of Jesus’ enduring such temptation again. Like Jesus, at our Baptism, either we, or our Godparents on our behalf, definitively renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” But unlike Jesus, we can expect to experience the temptation to turn away from God every day till the day we die. Now, this temptation may come to us in a variety of insidious ways: the urge to cheat “just a little” on our taxes; to tell a little, white lie to get out of a sticky situation; to turn our back on someone in need; or worst of all, to completely give up on the whole idea of God and Church. Whatever your form of testing may take, there are steps you can take to strengthen your spiritual resolve. Let me commend to you four spiritual weapons to wield in your own battle with the Tempter. The first weapon is prayer (either with or without forty days of fasting!). Although today’s Gospel reading doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ praying, I think it can be taken as an absolute certainty that Jesus spent his time of fasting in the wilderness in prayerful communion with his Father in heaven. The second weapon I would commend to you is the reading of Scripture. There is no better way to know God’s will for us than to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s Holy Word. In today’s Gospel story, Holy Scripture was Jesus’ primary weapon in his battle against the temptations of the Evil One. The third weapon is Holy Communion. Through the Blessed Sacrament, our daily sins are forgiven; our souls are fed; and our union with Christ and one another is strengthened.
Now, like our mythical progenitor Adam, all of us at some time or other will fail to resist temptation and will give in to sin. That’s where the fourth spiritual weapon comes to play: repentance. All you have to do is confess your sins to God and repent, and you will be forgiven. Trust that this is true! Never doubt it for even a moment! God’s forgiveness is the greatest source of our hope, and like love itself, it is a divine mystery.
Now, there may be times in your life when you find it hard to believe that you are, in fact, truly forgiven. In those times, you might consider coming to a priest and making a sacramental confession. In the Roman Catholic Church, such confessions are required at least once a year as a matter of church law. In our tradition, sacramental confession is never required, but is always available. There may be times when you want the advice of a priest about how to deal with besetting sin, the kind of sin that just keep coming back. And there may be times when you just need to have another human being hear your sins, look you in the eyes, and tell you that God loves you and forgives you. Should you ever wish to make a sacramental confession, you may come to any priest in this parish and make an appointment—it’s that simple! You can rest assured that you will not be judged and that nothing you say in confession will ever be repeated.
So, let me conclude my homily with this Lenten exhortation: prepare yourself to resist life’s many temptations by the practice of daily prayer, the regular reading of Scripture, and weekly Communion. And when you fail to resist temptation and give in to sin, repent and turn back to the Lord, trusting that God will forgive you and that he will find a way to bring good out of evil—just as he did with the “sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.”
© by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.