The Road to Easter with God in Lent
A Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA
The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, March 1, 2020
The First Sunday in Lent, Year A: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 (NRSV): The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV): 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 angels 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.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a special season of preparation for Easter, one that shifts the mood and focus of the church year, so our style of worship shifts dramatically. Today we begin our worship with the Great Litany, a stately old series of prayers that arouse our penitence, help us plead before God, that draw from us the reverence that we know we need with God.
I am always fascinated by how people are drawn to this great and solemn season, how we are drawn to the Great Litany with all its accountability, how we are drawn to the season of Lent with its accountability. Lent is so counter-cultural. And yet we are drawn to Lent and drawn to God through Lent.
Lent is counter to the cultural pandering to feelings and scoffing at anything uncomfortable. Lent is counter to the cultural knee-jerk defensiveness in response to self-examination or responsibility. Lent is counter to the cultural identity politics that values labels and cliques over facts and responsibility. Lent is counter to the custom-made version of truth, instead of starting with honesty and a hard look at the real truth, even the truth we may not like.
Lent is counter-cultural in these ways, and yet we are drawn to Lent—drawn to Lent because we know we can find God there—we can find the one who loves us and who walks with us, and who desires to re-form and re-make us more beautifully than before. God wants all that is good to thrive in us, and Lent is a path toward that thriving, the path to Easter and resurrection and new life for us.
Today’s readings show us the challenge we face in turning away from our sin and toward God. Today’s readings show us that sin is often more subtle than we think. Sin and temptation usually take a good thing and ask us to misuse it. We think about the good of the thing, but we forget God’s wisdom given to us, and we allow the good of the thing to be an excuse for our misuse.
Look at the scene in the Garden of Eden from the first reading. Most of what the serpent says is true, but there is poison in his words as well. Trees are good. Fruit is good. This fruit looks good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise. All mostly true about how God made that tree. But the sin is found in turning away from God, and putting ourselves in the place of God. The man and woman knew they were disobeying God, but acted anyway, seeing only the partial good, and misusing the gifts that God had given them. And despite God’s warnings, their actions led to their own injury.
Look at Jesus in the wilderness and how the devil tempted him. Usually, the temptation started with something true and good. The Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness after his Baptism, and he was hungry. Well, feeding the hungry is good—Jesus later fed the hungry. Jesus has the power to make bread—we see this later in his feeding the five thousand. So why not make some bread for himself—isn’t that good?
Then, of course, catching on to Jesus’ defense by quoting scripture, the devil himself quotes scripture. “It is written” that God will save you if you fall so why not jump from the pinnacle of the temple? But there is more that is written, and taking one piece of scripture out of the whole is an old trap that can take us away from God. In the third temptation, the devil gets a little too out in the open, but I wonder if there is a lot more going on that makes his offer so tempting. I wonder if the message that Jesus heard fed on other things that were mostly true: ‘Jesus—you are a king! But the Father wants you to be a slave and to die in disgrace! Why not take the kingdoms that are yours?’ But that decision would mean turning from God and worshipping something else.
Jesus could have faced these temptations on the devil’s terms, buying into his premises about what is good. Jesus did indeed respond to the devil, quoting scripture three times “it is written.” But the core of Jesus’ strength in facing temptation lay in his surrender to the Father, trusting in the Father’s claim on him, and trusting in the Father’s calling to him, the Father’s guidance and commandment, even when that would take him to the wilderness, to conflict with the rulers, and even to the cross.
That surrender to the Father would easily reject an alternate way of kingship that turned from God. That trust in the Father’s calling would hold him steady to the Holy Spirit’s call to him to the wilderness, even with its hunger. That surrender would lead him to the cross, yes, but also to resurrection and victory.
Being a Christian, being one who follows Jesus, means surrender to Jesus. We surrender to God in Christ. We trust in God, trust in God’s guidance and wisdom, and trust in God’s commandments. We trust in God to follow Jesus even into the wilderness, or out to the cross. We trust in God enough to give sacrificially and to share the divine life with others.
In our own lives, we face temptations. We face temptations that also start with good things and misuse them. For instance, we value freedom, and freedom is good. But we misuse and abuse our freedom to destructive results. Look at how in our culture we misuse the precious gift of intimacy that God gives us, turning it to pornography or the use of people as objects for our personal pleasure. In the name of freedom, we destroy others, we destroy ourselves, and we destroy the gift of intimacy itself, taking the good of freedom and turning it into a new slavery.
In our society, we have a high value on individualism, and respect for the individual is good. But individualism has become an idol so that we defend human choice even that makes life disposable, from the womb to the hospital room to the dorm room when depression sets in.
Relief of need is a good thing, but our sense of what we “need” has expanded beyond bounds. Our culture now seems built on satisfying our desires without questioning where those desires lead us. Expecting that we have a right to whatever we want, we demand satisfaction to every hunger. But the human heart always pushes for more, and we have forgotten how to be content with our hunger, and we become slaves to our desires.
This is the post-modern confusion in which evil reigns. This is the confusion that leaves us spinning in circles, pursuing freedom and desires and individualism, only to lose ourselves, our freedom and contentment. Through this confusion, the season of Lent cuts like a knife.
In Lent, God will hear no excuses or self-justification for our actions (though God will justify us through the grace of Jesus). In Lent, there is no dodging responsibility, no placing the blame on the system or our oppressors. We have made our own choices, and if we live long enough, we know we’re likely to fall again.
So why are we here again this year? God, in Lent, gives us a chance for truth-telling, and to receive God’s word that clarifies and that leads to true freedom and true life, with our identity rooted in our creator, and where what we desire is life-giving. We walk the road of Lent not as an end in itself, but as part of the road to Easter. In Lent, we do our truth-telling before God who loves us, in the embrace of God who forgives us, renews us and restores us. We walk the road of Lent to prepare us for the celebration of Easter.
In Christ, the truth-telling about our sin is part of the path to reconciliation and renewal, turning away from our misuse of good gifts and toward God the true giver. Walking with Jesus each day, God forms and shapes our desires toward God, toward what is truly good, and toward life-giving actions that bring reconciliation and renewal to others. In Jesus, individuality is about discovering and celebrating each person as a child of God, honored and loved. In surrender to God, we find the perfect freedom to receive God’s love and share it with others.
Lent is the journey of the prodigal son back to the Father! Unlike the prodigal son in the parable, however, we already know that the Father is waiting for us, and that the Father runs out to greet us, to embrace us and lift us up! The journey of Lent is a journey toward Easter. We bring ourselves to God in honest accountability, surrendering ourselves to the one who can heal us, opening ourselves to God’s restoration and renewal.
May God bless you in this journey of Lent, filled with promise, and leading to new life in Christ.