The First Sunday in Lent
17 February 2013
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This past Wednesday we began our Lenten journey. The Gospel that day gave us some very practical advice about how to conduct ourselves in a season of preparation and fasting.
Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them .... Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men .... And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men ... But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men ... But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I have always felt this to be very good advice and remember my college chaplain putting Wash-n-Drys (remember them?) in a basket by the door of the Chapel so folks could wash their faces on the way out and would, therefore, not use the ashes taken on as an act of humility as a badge of honour.
We are called in Lent to practice various disciplines that will draw us closer to God in Christ and that will help us better understand ourselves and better understand our God. They prepare us for what is to come in the liturgical year—the rigours of Holy Week and Easter—and for what might come in our lives at any unexpected moment. We are called to practice these disciplines—whether they are the traditional diets or “give-ups” or whether they are more unconventional commitments to action or study—with a real sense of humility and care. These are things we do for our spiritual nourishment and so we can better serve our God in Community.
Today on the first Sunday in Lent we hear a story from Jesus’ life, that of his temptation. This story, especially when juxtaposed with last week’s tale of the Transfiguration is, I would venture, as important for our understanding of Lent as the practical advice about discipline and fasting given this past Wednesday. We first begin Lent with a charge about how we are to conduct ourselves in this season and then we follow-up with a message about why we do it and how we can find encouragement and strength to carry it out. Right after Jesus is baptised—and this holds for each of the synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke—he is goes into the wilderness (or the desert) for a period of fasting. Right after he is proclaimed God's beloved son and the people are given a sense of who he really is, he retreats for a little while to prepare himself through fasting and prayer for the work that is to come. In that time away, we are told, he was “tempted by the devil.” This temptation was particularly fierce at the end of this time, when Jesus was tired and hungry.
We are told of this temptation with the particularly colourful story of the devil, personified—and we are certain to imagine some sort of red creature with a pointy face and wings wielding a pitch fork—taking Jesus and offering him first the opportunity to make bread from stones, then temporal authority over the kingdoms of the world, and finally demanding from Jesus a sign that he is the Son of God. We are given to imagine a scene of Jesus being led around by the devil himself and offered power over others, the temporal worship of others, and the chance to show off his power to the world. Each time Jesus is tempted, he refuses. Jesus places his hope in God, in God’s power to nourish and in God’s dominion over the world. Jesus refuses personal power and personal glory. Jesus knows he will eventually manifest his power to the world, Jesus knows that he will be killed and rise again, but Jesus knows that he does not follow this path for personal glory. He does not follow this path to show off and prove himself to anyone—let alone the devil. He follows this path to show forth the glory of God and to see that the world is reconciled with God.
Last week I spoke about that time when Jesus, having told his disciples that he would suffer many things and be killed and on the third rise again, decided that he needed to take Peter and James and John up the mountain to show them a glimpse of the Resurrection. Jesus decided that this was the time to share a vision of his glory with his unbelieving friends so that they would not lose heart, so that they would be able to continue on the difficult path, full of temptations, that would lead to Calvary and finally to the empty tomb. Jesus goes up on the mountain top, not as the guest of the devil, but as the host of his friends. He shows himself in the full glory of God to his friends in a way he would never show it to the tempter. He does this not to gain or show power, not to turn from God to a narrow self-interest. He does it to give his friends hope and strength, he does it for others, he does it as part of God’s purpose. In this way, the Temptation and the Transfiguration are inversions of each other. Both are mountain top experiences. In one, Jesus is asked to orient his power towards himself and away from God. In the other Jesus shows the fullness of the Glory of God.
Was Jesus tempted by a person, an individual tempter or devil? I am not so sure about that. What I am sure of is that Jesus did spend time in the wilderness, that he was tempted as human beings are tempted all the time with offers of personal glory and personal power, and that this time of fasting and prayer prepared him for what was to come. Jesus had a mountain top experience quite different from the one he offered his friends. In this encounter in the wilderness, on the top of the mountain, on the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus became the one who shares with us in our temptations. Jesus having been tempted to exploit his power for personal gain shows us how we can, like him, resist these temptations and how we can place God’s priorities, the priorities of neighbour love, and the love of God at the forefront of our lives.
Lent gives us a time to test ourselves, to allow ourselves to take on disciplines that are, perhaps, hard to maintain. We allow ourselves to be tempted as Jesus was tempted to give-up on our spiritual journey and shy away from things that are hard, to put self interest above God’s priorities. We, humans that we are, may not always succeed. We may not usually succeed. Nevertheless we have the chance each Lent to look to our Lord who was tempted in every way as we are, yet who is without sin. We have the chance to look to Jesus in his prayer and fasting, look to the challenges he faced, and gain strength as we work to do our best as we prepare ourselves to meet our Lord in his Passion, death, and Resurrection, and in our daily lives throughout the year face whatever the world, death, and, yes, the devil, throw at us.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ash Wednesday, 13 February 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume