A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2023. The scripture readings are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.
On Thursday night, we began our Lenten online book study of Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Rohr begins the book by meditating on the icon by Andrei Rublev, which we have a copy of in our memorial chapel. It depicts the story from Genesis 18, when three strangers greet Abraham and Sarah with the news that God is about to do great things in their lives. The strangers turn out to be angels, and Christians have read into this story, a foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity.
In the Rublev icon, as in ours, the three angels surround a meal of some kind and there’s space for us at the table. Some people look at the central angel as representing Christ, and with this, they note his two downward facing fingers.
In Christian art and iconography, Jesus is often shown with his hand in the form of a blessing, or perhaps ready to anoint us, or holding two fingers. Theologians suggest that the two fingers reminds us of the two natures of Christ: one divine and one human, but through the miracle of God, both natures are full and complete. Jesus is fully human, and fully God.
If we’re able to conceive that there may be “God,” most of us can probably understand Jesus as the way in which God reveals in our world. But it’s harder, sometimes, for us to remember that Jesus is fully God AND fully human.
It’s this very human Jesus who is led into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts, and because he is human as well as full of God, he gets hungry. The devil appears to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil has good insight: surely if Jesus is of the God who parted the seas, who made manna fall in the desert and who enabled Jesus to be born to begin with, then a little magic trick with rocks into bread should be no problem.
Next the devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the temple and taunts him with the psalm that promises the safety of angels’ wings. Again, it must have been tempting, but again, Jesus quotes scripture to the devil.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and promises him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—but there’s one little detail: Jesus just needs to bow down and worship the devil. I can imagine the devil saying, “It’s just pro forma, really, just to fulfill the contract, a show of allegiance, a symbolic act—it doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t overthink this.” And again, for Jesus, it must have been tempting. Perhaps it even could have sounded like it might fit within God’s will. Especially with the disciples constantly suggesting to Jesus that his could be a worldly kingdom, Jesus must have wondered. But again, Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, and the devil goes away. For now, at least.
I think Jesus must have been tempted a lot. At least, as I read the scriptures and imagine my human response to some of the situations he encountered, I certainly would have been tempted. When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law—don’t you think Jesus might have been tempted to really let them have it—to level them with an argument so astounding that it would make them cry, or simply to have the building fall on them and be done with them? When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, don’t you think Jesus, at some point, was tempted to respond with impatience or exhaustion or in some other all-too-human way?
And yet, in the face of each temptation, Jesus made a choice. And he chose for God.
Temptation is like that for us, as well—it always asks us to choose.
D.T. Niles was a twentieth century Sri Lankan theologian who suggests that temptation really comes down to our making a choice between God (with a big “G”) and every other god (with a little “g”). He writes, “The choice between God and every other god is a real choice. Both make promises, both demand loyalty. It is possible to live by both. If there were no real alternative to God, then all humanity would choose God.”
Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God. Jesus knows that God will provide bread in its time. He knows that God’s promise of the angels’ care is not meant as an instant solution to a random moment of whim. And Jesus knows that God is using his abilities and talents in a way that is appropriate to God’s will.
We should not think for a minute that the devil isn’t still around today. But instead of looking for a little red guy with a tail, often we should pay attention to what appears as light—but light that misleads or distracts. A key to dealing with temptation is to remember that one of the most powerful names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin for “light.” It is the great trick of the devil to play on our humanity, so that when we are most vulnerable or most afraid of the dark, light presents itself. It’s natural for us to be drawn to the light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. But look around the edges of the light. What is its source? What is its intention? There is the possibility that what first appears to be light is only a flash that will lead us into deeper darkness. Temptation presents us always and everywhere with the choice between God and gods, sometimes experienced as the choice between true light and the false light made of bright, shiny things that are really just reflections or distortions of light.
The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between light and shiny things.
Spiritual disciplines help us to do this. The church reminds us of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.)
Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.
As we move through these forty days together, let Lenten disciplines inform us, shape us, clean us and put us at peace.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen