40 Days! First Sunday of Lent 2023
Sermon notes from February 26, 2023, the First Sunday of Lent at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Good morning, again, St. Timothy’s family and friends and all who have gathered for worship. As we gather around our scriptures on this the last Sunday of Black History Month and the First Sunday of Lent, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel story this morning is important to us today for several reasons, the first being because the 40 days in which Jesus fasted in the wilderness is the model on which we have created and practice the season of Lent, 40 days of preparing for Easter, 40 days of self-denial, reflection, prayer and repentance. Just a quick review of the math… Lent began on Ash Wednesday this past week and if you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays of Lent, you have 40 days.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward 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 glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then 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.
Matthew 4:1-11, NRSVue
Let’s Talk About the Text
These 40 days in the life of Jesus are recorded for us by Matthew and Luke, in chapter 4 of both Gospels. Mark mentions that Jesus was tested for 40 days, but doesn’t tell us any of the details. Matthew, Mark and Luke all give the story of John baptizing Jesus and the Spirit descending as a dove with a voice from heaven just before the temptations, but in John’s Gospel he has John the Baptizer tell the people about the baptism and descending Spirit in a bit of a flashback.
Between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the temptations we have substantially the same stories, but with a slight variation. They change the order of the the second and third temptations, and Luke doesn’t specify a mountain for the high place where Jesus is taken up. In Luke’s Gospel, when the tempter leaves Jesus, Luke says the tempter leaves until an opportune time. That’s important and we’ll come back to it. In both Matthew and Luke the tempter begins twice with “If you are the son of God…” and all three times Jesus answers the temptations with scriptural quotations.
Now, in the context of his day, this story is happening as Jesus moves to begin his public ministry, and it feels a lot like a right of passage, doesn’t it? It feels like a proving ground of sorts to show that he’s ready to do his ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this event immediately precedes the beginning of his public work. So for Jesus I don’t think we can completely dismiss how powerful a testing and beginning this was for his ministry.
Picture for a moment the sequence of events… Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends and a voice proclaims Jesus the beloved and pleasing Son, and then *BOOM* that same Spirit drives him or leads him into the wilderness time of testing.
That Jesus was in the wilderness place for 40 days is a possible parallel to the people of Israel wondering in the wilderness for 40 years after God brings them up out of Egypt, referenced several times as 40 years in the book of Deuteronomy. I feel like most Jewish readers of the Gospels would have caught that parallel from the stories they had heard and studied all their lives.
The meaning and message is that something important is happening here, something is about to begin! The temptations are a middle space of sorts, a liminal space, the space between God witnessing to Jesus at his baptism and Jesus being ready to start his work.
The three temptations are most important, I think, in their relation to the life of Jesus: 1) Jesus is tempted to break fast and miraculously create bread, if he is the Son of God, 2) Jesus is tempted to prove God’s promise of protection by attempting self-harm, if he is the Son of God, And lastly, 3) he is offered the world, if he will renounce God and worship the tempter.
We may wonder at the temptations, and they are bit exotic compared to the temptations that so often come our way, right? I mean, we might be tempted to cheat a little in tax season, roll a stop sign when we think no one is watching, tell a lie, have an extra slice of cake, or on a really bad day we are tempted to give into our temper, anger and frustration. But testing God? Miraculously creating bread? Worshipping some other god? Not so much.
It’s crucial for us to recognize that these temptations have everything to do with the ministry Jesus is about to start. They have everything to do with the way Jesus is about to go and call people to “take up their cross and follow” him. Let’s look at it:
- His ministry will not always be a warm bed and a full belly, and if those are his priorities then he wouldn’t be ready for starting his ministry.
- His ministry will be full of opposition and danger, but not the thrill-seeking or irresponsible testing God instead of faithfully following God.
- And certainly, if Jesus was getting into ministry for fame, glory and riches, for personal gain, he wouldn’t have been ready or able to do the ministry to which God had sent him.
So our Gospel writers are giving us this clear and unambiguous picture of a Jesus who is ready; he’s named by God at his baptism and tested in the wilderness as the very people themselves were tested, and is ready to begin his work for God.
And Identity Issue
And that brings us to where I think our lives and the life of Jesus begin to cross and overlap in this testing story. I think that this is very much a story about identity. First we have the baptism, the Spirit descending and the voice proclaiming the identity of Jesus. Then the tempter would sow doubt with that “if you are the Son of God…” business. And we have Jesus rooting his answers, his heart and mind, in the scriptures. He establishes his faith and trust in God in the face of the temptations.
This is an identity issue here at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus: Jesus is showing who is he and who he will be. Will he be able to keep his focus on God and the kingdom business for which he was sent, or will he be tempted to seek self-satisfaction? Will he trust in God or have a fickle heart which questions and tests God’s love and care? Who is Jesus? Who will he be?
You know, Lent is an identity issue, our identity issue. Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? This season is our chance to again take stock of our lives, review our hearts and minds, and make the changes needed to head in the direction we want to be going. We are reminded that God has proclaimed divine love for us and named us daughters and sons, children of the Most High… and God calls us to a Holy Lent, a self-testing of our motivations and priorities and faith in the love and work of God in us and the world around us.
Who we are and who we will be are questions for us to decide.
If you have not begun a fast, it’s not too late. If you have not yet thought about a practice of self-reflection and internal examination, it’s not too late to begin. If you’re just now thinking about the Lenten Season as an opportunity to go deeper into who you want to be and the direction you want to be headed, today is the perfect day to get started.
No Novice to Choosing God
Remember that we mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, Luke makes sure to mention at the end of the temptations that not only did the tempter leave Jesus, but left him until an opportune time. These temptations were a struggle for Jesus, even if it looked kinda easy to us in the way the story is told. Truly, it looks like Jesus had no trouble at all with these temptations, doesn’t it? Rapid fire scripture quotes, no hesitation… and yet, having fasted, being so weakened, this had to have been an opportune time for the tempter. I think, if we step beyond the stylized way the story is told, Jesus looks like he handles it so easily because he has prepared himself. This is not his first time to choose God. He’s been choosing God for some time now, and so when the testing gets tough, he’s able to continue to choose God, to stand firm in what he’s chosen.
Just quoting scripture isn’t enough, nor does simply quoting scripture necessarily show wisdom or relationship with God; the temper finally resorts to it in trying to catch Jesus. But I believe we see that Jesus has made the effort to know scripture in the context of loving God and choosing God, so it is a strength to him. Jesus has chosen God and grown in God before the temptations, and that gives scripture the power to strengthen him and uphold his faith.
Let’s Put in the Effort
Let’s do the work of choosing:
- Let’s choose a fast that makes room in our lives for good things to happen. Let’s choose a fast that creates space and recognition of our desire for God. Fasting is not just denial, but it’s about making room for opportunity and potential.
- Let’s set aside time for prayer, setting alarms and creating space in our lives that prioritize prayer, so that it’s not just an afterthought or forgotten intention. Prayer is not just asking for God’s help, but also living in God’s presence.
- Let’s prioritize opportunities and resources for going deeper with scripture and our faith; let’s lean into our midweek study times and our Morning Prayer times on Mondays and Thursdays. If you’re a reader, get a good book. Find some uplifting and strengthening music. Make time to talk and pray with a trusted spiritual friend. Use the time of Lent to create helpful and faithful routines that will carry on into the rest of the year!
Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? These are not questions we ask and answer just one time, but every day and with each breath. And the more we choose God the better able we are to hold onto our choice when the wilderness times and storm times and times of weakness come our way. So may our Lenten practices and observances strengthen us in our choice of God, of faith and of one another. May our faith be made strong and our choice of who we want to be in this world made firm.
May God, the God of wilderness places and the God of difficult times, be our help and strength when moments of testing arise. And may we practice choosing God and following the example of Jesus who knew who he was to be and wanted to be. In the love, the grace and the calling of God. Amen, amen and amen.