First Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angel concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
First Sunday of Lent - February 17, 2002
St. Matthew 4:1: "Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil."
The Gospel lesson raises two significant issues for us to grapple with this morning and during this penitential and reflective season of Lent: to know who we really are as a person of faith and how to deal with temptation. So, let us begin to explore first, "who we are as a person of faith".
Once upon a time there was a man who was falling out of love with his wife. He visited a counselor and he advised the man to think of all the ways he could make life happier for his wife and then do them. A few days later, the counselor received a phone call from the husband who related the following tale:
Every day I leave for work, put in a hard day, come home dirty and sweaty, stumble in the back door, grab an ice-cold beer, go into the rec room and watch television until suppertime. After talking to you, I decided to change my bad habits and would try being better than that in the future.
So yesterday, before I left for work, I showered and shaved and put on a clean shirt. On the way home I stopped at the florist and bought a bouquet of roses. Instead of going in the back door as I usually do, I went to the front door and rang the doorbell.
My wife opened the door, took one look at me and started to cry. When I asked her what was wrong she said: "It's been a horrible day. First Billy broke his leg and had to have it put into a cast. I no sooner returned home from the hospital when your mother called and told me that she is coming to stay for three weeks. I tried to do the wash and the washing machine broke and there is water all over the basement, and NOW you have to come home drunk!"
The moral of the story: giving up of one's favorite behaviors or patterns of life, can be the most difficult dimension of Lent: laying aside the "masks"-"those habits of life" we wear to hide -- not only from others but also from ourselves. Lent demands an almost painful honesty from us in dealing with our "human tensions": on one hand we are sinful; but on the other, we want to change -- want to transform our lives into becoming what God has called us to be.
I don't know how many of you have ever experienced "Marti Gras" or "Carnival" in New Orleans or Quebec. If you've experienced it you know what a wild time it can be.
Carnival celebrations go back centuries before Christ. Like many pagan customs and celebrations, the early Church "adopted" them and made them celebrations of their young faith. In fact, one of the merriest and funniest parts of Carnival makes a very important point about the holiest and sobering dimensions of Lent.
The end of Marti Gras/Carnival and the beginning of Lent are celebrated by putting "death" to "death". With infinite imagination, Carnival celebrants depict death as an ugly devil, or a grumpy-old-man-winter or the "king of fools". On the last night of Carnival, this figure of "death" is tossed into a lake or chased into exile or reduced to ashes during a midnight bonfire.
When "death" dies, Carnival comes to an immediate halt. Masks are removed, and greasepaint is wiped off. The past is left behind in ashes. Everything that is false and deceiving has been destroyed or exiled. In reality, the symbols of destruction - the ugly devil for one - are destroyed.
For me, the season of Lent is not only a pilgrimage towards Easter; it's rediscovering ME! Not through the eyes of Carnival masks, rather through the eyes of Easter faith. It is a time to discover who I really am!
The great theologian, Frederick Beuchner in his book, Whistling in the Dark, provided me with a series of thought provoking questions to reflect on this week about faith and about you and me. How would you respond to these questions?
- If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, on which side would you put your money and why?
- When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
- If you only had one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in 25 words or less?
- Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
- Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
- If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
After I first read them, I noticed how I was feeling and reacting to them. On some things, it was an easy - a lot of surface stuff that I know about and constantly work on. But, I was also feeling disturbed -- struggling to articulate what I would say or do. Then the picture of Jesus came to mind: after being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist and filled with the Spirit, He went off into the wilderness --the desert - like John, and spent 40 days and nights asking himself exactly what it meant to be Jesus, to be the Messiah. He went into the desert to "question and discover WHO he really was". The Christian season of Lent asks us to model Jesus' journey of questioning and discovery - a time to face the disturbance in our lives around what we believe and how we act on faith. Frederick Beuchner writes that such an inquiry can be a "pretty depressing undertaking, but if the sackcloth of honesty and the ashes of the openness of heart and mind are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end of it."
Let us not forget, however, that the Devil has a strategy too! To give you a sense of what it is, hear the words of the Senior Devil giving advice to the Junior Devil in the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters:
"Tell the people that God is real. Tell them that they should have faith in Him. Tell them that the Gospel is true, that Jesus Christ died to save them from their sins... But, tell them there is NO hurry."
The devil did not come to Jesus to tempt him when he was fresh at the beginning of His journey; rather, he came to him after 40 grueling days and nights in the desert. Jesus went out in the wilderness to find Himself - his wilderness experience was a significant part of his shaping and his destiny for his ministry. Through this "shaping" Jesus models to us the significance of our 40-day Lenten journey as well: if you do not know who you are nor been tested for what you believe -- you cannot lead.
Now, let us turn to the other key word in the Gospel message for this morning: "Temptation". I can imagine, if I asked a group of you to join me for coffee, food (Episcopalians always come for food), and conversation following this service, and began my remarks with these words: "Well folks, the subject I would like for us to talk about today is temptation", there would probably be a lot of nudging of each other and gnashing of teeth. Or, "let's eat and run!" Someone might even be adventurous and clever enough to quote Oscar Wilde, who once said: "I can resist anything but temptation." Or, if we felt vulnerable enough to share our stories, we may hear things like:
- One day when I was a child, I got so angry with my mother that when she was putting up clean laundry on the clothes line I threw a water balloon right into the back of her head, and said: "The devil made me do it!"
- How many times on those rainy, drizzly cold mornings when we want to succumb to the temptation of just pulling the covers over our heads and saying: "I'm not going to work, I'm not going to school, I'm not going to Church, I'll just sleep in."
- Or, we've gone out to a nice restaurant and the waiter comes by with a beautiful desert tray of German chocolate cake, key lime pie, pecan pie, carrot cake, double chocolate fudge brownies, and we're thinking -"just a bite .four forks . I'll walk it off tomorrow"---"Get behind me Satan!"
Listen to the text again: "Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil." Fact: Jesus was tempted. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. He was tested as we are tested. Fred Craddock, wrote in his book, The Cherry Log Sermons this about temptation: "Temptation is not a measure of your weakness; temptation is a measure of your strength. The stronger you are, the more capable you are, the more opportunity you have, the more power and influence you have, the greater will be your temptation. You are not going to have a sea storm, George Buttrick used to say, in a roadside puddle." But, for Jesus, what a storm! Not on a level of throwing a water balloon, or throwing the covers over your face on a cold rainy morning, or eating a fattening desert, but on a "reasonable level".
Fred Craddock speaks about "reasonableness": What we are into is something deeper. I can hear Jesus say, "Why don't you turn the stones to bread?" That was reasonable. I'm hungry; the Son of God is starved to death. Why not? After all, you've never worked a miracle, and it would be better for you try one out there in the desert. You might get embarrassed when you are in front of a large crowd. Give it a little try. Oh, by the way jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, too. The scripture says God will protect you: you won't be hurt. The scripture says that. It's in the Bible. You know, if I did that, it would make a lot of people believe. What is wrong with doing something that will get people to believe? Makes sense to me. It's reasonable!"
Then the tempter shows him the kingdoms of the world. "These are yours if .these are yours if ." Wouldn't that have been wonderful if Jesus had said yes and gained more influence over the social and political nature of our world? One could wish for it, right! A little more justice and fairness and equality in the world. That makes sense?
Jesus is approached and tested to the point of what is reasonable, what is helpful, and what is good. Fundamentally, temptation is not about the question, "Would you like to do something wrong?" When Adam and Eve were in the garden, the voice of the tempter said, "Would you like to be as God?" The voice did not say, "Would you like to be like the devil? I have a water balloon, a warm bed and a chocolate cake for you?"
Jesus' temptation was this: what am I going to do with my life? Real temptation is when you do not know right from wrong. It is not a matter of choosing the right and resisting the wrong. It is a matter of asking, "What is God's will for me?" There is the REAL test.
Let me share with you a story to illustrate my point:
In a remote Swiss village stood a beautiful church. It was so beautiful, in fact, that it was known as Mountain Valley Cathedral. The Cathedral was not only beautiful to look at - with its high pillars and magnificent stained glass windows-but was beautiful to hear. You see, this cathedral had the most beautiful pipe organ in the whole region. People would come from miles away-from distant lands-to hear the lovely tones of this organ.
But that's what the problem was. The columns were still there - the windows still dazzled with the sunlight-but there was an eerie silence. The mountain valley no longer echoed the glorious fine-tuned music of the pipe organ. In fact, the valley was either totally silent or worse yet filled with unbelievable horrible sounds.
Something had gone wrong with the pipe organ. Musicians and experts from around the world had tired to repair it. Every time a new person would try to fix it the villagers were subjected to sounds of disharmony-awful penetrating noises which polluted the air.
One day an old man appeared at the church door. He spoke with the sexton and after time the sexton reluctantly agreed to let the old man try his hand at repairing the organ. For two days the old man worked in almost total silence. The sexton was, in fact, getting a bit nervous. Then on the third day-at high noon-the mountain valley was filled with the most glorious music you would ever want to hear. Farmers dropped their plows, merchants closed their stores-everyone in town stopped what they were doing and head for the cathedral. Even the bushes and trees of the mountaintops seemed to respond as the glorious music echoed from ridge to ridge.
After the old man finished playing a brave soul asked him how he could have fixed the organ, how he could restore music and harmony when even the world's experts could not. The old man merely said it was an inside job: " It was I who built this organ 50 years ago. I created it-and now I restored it."
That's what God is like. It is He who created the universe and it is He who can, and will, and is in the process of restoring it in us. For us, the meaning of Lent and the message of the Gospel are: "it's OK to struggle with the will of God" Jesus is our helper and the example.
Therefore, asking ourselves, "what is my life and what am I all about?" is the Lenten meditation.
Being able to say "this is who I am and this is what I do" is the Easter miracle.