The First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019
Fr. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
From the Letter to the Romans, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
So Lent has begun with quite a flourish. Wednesday evening, in an almost sacramental way, we marked our foreheads with ashes and prayed together Psalm 51 – one of the most beautiful penitential Psalms in Holy Scripture. Marking our foreheads was an outward and visible sign of a spiritual grace within – there’s that sacramental imagery – a grace that reminds us we are mortals prone to sin and wandering from the things of God, and our need for repentance and salvation. And yet, even as we recognized and affirmed that try as we may we still fall into sin, we were assured over and again that God’s grace is sufficient to meet every need for redemption and forgiveness, and God’s mercy is everlasting to those who will call out for God.
Lent with its call to 40 days of deep reflection and being honest with ourselves about every thought, word, and deed that separates us God and each other – everything described so well in this morning’s recitation of The Great Litany, is based upon Jesus’ own 40-day journey and temptation in the wilderness that we read about in today’s gospel lesson. But lest we think about Lent only in terms of Jesus’ 40 days, Lent also reminds us of Noah’s deliverance from the 40-day great flood, as well as the 40-year journey of the people of Israel from out of slavery and bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land. Throughout the Old Testament, God remained faithful to God’s promises to God’s people regardless of how they lived. Yes, scripture tells us that wrong choices have consequences and the history of Israel is rife with exile, destruction and dreadful times of judgment and yet, those same scriptures affirm that God will always forgive and restore those who call upon him. That is the essence of what Moses was trying to get his people to remember in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. And that is what St. Paul urged the church to realize in today’s reading from Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We need to remember that grace and mercy of God in the midst of our own Lenten journeys and discoveries: journeys and discoveries about ourselves that can often lead to despair.
That message of assurance in today’s Old and New Testament lessons is the perfect background for grasping the deeper message about life in Christ found in this morning’s Gospel lesson with its story about Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness. The timing of Jesus’ temptation is important. Each came about immediately after his baptism where the voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.” No sooner had those words been spoken and Jesus had moved on in his journey then the Devil appeared saying, “If you are the Son of God then do this …” “If you really are who you say you are do that…” Those words remind me of when I was growing up and our Sunday School teacher would say to me and my classmates, “If you really are a Christian then you will do whatever.” Usually such comments had nothing to do with our faith, but rather, the personal preference of the teacher. Temptation loves to go after our sense of identity and use it for its own gain.
The Devil says to Jesus, “If you really are the Son of God” turn these stones into bread. Has that ever happened to you? Probably not exactly, but I do wonder how often we are tempted to exploit relationships for our own gain, or to satisfy a hunger that is not of God. Then the Devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world – offers Jesus a position of power over others. How often we are tempted to use our positions of authority and power to lord ourselves over others, or to do so at the expense of those in need. Well, Luke tells us that Jesus deflected both temptations by citing scripture. And that’s a great defense. But, you know, the Devil is not stupid. He realizes what Jesus is doing and so now he also uses scripture as a way to tempt Jesus into testing God. Hmmm. Have you ever done that? Ever quoted scripture to get others to conform to your way of thinking or, even worse, tried to manipulate God into doing something? “Lord, the Bible says that you will grant us anything I ask in your name. So, God, if you really exist you will give me an A+ on this exam. And if I get that A+ I will love you forever. I might even study next time.” Jesus responds to the Devil’s trickery saying, “Do not tempt the Lord your God” and, in so doing, he reminds us that the supreme purpose of all life is obedience to God our Creator. And therein lies the true nature of temptation and the temptations described in this Gospel lesson.
See, temptation isn’t just the desire to stick our hand into the cookie jar. It’s about being led towards disobedience. It is a lack of discernment on our part — or the willing deviation from the discerned will of God. And oh, that deviation and movement towards disobedience can be so subtle, “It’s just a cookie … no one will notice. Go ahead.” I find that Jesus’ response to the Devil exemplifies the essence of Christian life: The Christian life is about seeking after God, listening for God, listening to God, and following God. And that is what we are called to do.
Any pursuit, any priority or preoccupation that diverts us from that purpose should be seen for what it is: the Devil’s temptation to seek after, listen for, listen to, or follow someone or something other than God. Jesus knows that as alluring and fulfilling as these temptations may be, this is not what he is called to do. He is called to be obedient to his Father, to fulfill the promises of scripture, to fulfill the intention of the Torah, and through his life, death and resurrection, to bring all creation to a place of restored relationship with God. “But if you really are God’s son do this instead.” That is not Jesus’ calling nor is it ours as daughters and sons of God. We are called to lives of obedience – to following and embracing all that God has taught us and especially, all that God has revealed to the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Well, that’s quite a calling Fr. Allan and, frankly, one that I don’t believe we can possibly fulfill twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I agree with you. After all, we are mortal and as we affirmed on Ash Wednesday, we are nothing more than dust. But that affirmation of who we really are is the joy of this Season of Lent – That’s right. I said “joy!” In our time spent in personal reflection, being honest with ourselves, recognizing how often we do fall short of God’s call to us and how much we truly need to repent and amend how we choose to live, Lent reminds us that yes, we are dust, but we are beloved dust. See, Lent is not about self-flagellation. It is about recognizing that God loves this world so much that God continues to invite everyone into life-giving and redeeming relationships with God and all creation. Lent asks us to answer God’s invitation: to choose to live differently, to choose to embrace again God’s ways, to remember that “Everyone – Everyone - who calls upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved.” And here’s what’s really exciting about that invitation and assurance of redemption: it is offered to you and even to me. All we need do is answer. May God grant us the grace so to do. Amen.