Sermon: First Sunday in Lent

You know I love stories. I love them in any form—movies, plays, books. It is very rare for me to love a story that doesn’t contain at least one character with whom I can identify. And since this tends to be my strategy, it is normal that I look for myself when I read the Bible as well. When I read today’s Gospel from Luke, I started—as usual—with the main character: in this case, Jesus. At first glance, Jesus’ temptations—to turn stones to bread, to have the adoration of the world, and to throw himself off a cliff so that angels have to catch him—left me pretty much unmoved. (And you might remind me, and correctly so, that is because I am not God.) But since my other option in this story was to identify with Satan, I was determined to put myself into Jesus’ struggle.

Because this was my tactic for entering into the Gospel, I need you to understand that the struggles I’m about to share with you are, in fact, mine. I firmly believe that Satan figures out exactly the right temptations for each of us, probably by trial and error. Sometimes, like Jesus, we are able to see the temptation for what it truly is, and turn away. But once Satan lands on a technique that works on us, it seems like it is sent to us again and again—maybe in different forms, maybe in exactly the same form that worked the first time! The three temptations I’m going to share today have worked consistently on me. They are the ones that can produce the results Satan is after in me, I guess.

The first temptation Jesus faced in the desert was the temptation to turns stones into bread. After some consideration, I realized I know this one well. In my case, it is the voice in my head that says, “Be useful. Be productive. Be effective. Then you will be worthy. Then you will belong in the family of God. Of what use is a stone? If you could just do something practical and valuable for humanity with this stone, then you would be worthy, then your life would matter.” This is the voice that tries to make me forget that it is by baptism I have been welcomed into the kingdom of God, and that it is by God’s grace that I am redeemed. My worth is not predicated on my efficiency, but on God’s. Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Scripture, reminding the Devil—who is also known as The Deceiver—that we do not live on bread alone. God has need for both stones and bread, as does the world that God loves. Sometimes what God most needs, what the world most needs, what I most need, is not my usefulness. Sometimes what the world most needs is my ability to be as solid and still as a stone while God is at work.

Jesus’ second temptation comes when Satan offers him the “glory and authority” of all the kingdoms of the world. It turns out I know this temptation too. It is the temptation to do whatever it takes to be popular and influential and well-liked. Maybe even loved. Again, faced with temptation, Jesus quotes from the Hebrew Bible that he knew and loved: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” You know that Jesus must have come back to that verse again and again during his ministry, as he was so often greeted not with glory and authority but with anger and ridicule and resentment. Jesus’ response to this temptation reminds me that being true to the Lord my God may mean there will be times and circumstances in which I will be called to do or say things that will be unpopular, that may cause hurt feelings or frustration. I may have to do things that will not be favorably acclaimed. But following Jesus example and with his help, I know that if I try to be faithful and act with integrity, I can trust that at least God will greet me with a smile at the end of day.

Finally Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple so that God will have to send angels to rescue him. This is perhaps the hardest one of all: the desire to be in complete control—to control even God’s actions. Satan, who obviously knows his Bible (let that be a warning!), quotes God’s promises to Jesus that God will send angels to bear him up. We are not told how long Jesus has to wrestle with this temptation. How difficult his struggle must have been, longing to prove that God is powerful and admirable, but not wanting to manipulate God! Finally he responds, “Let’s let God be God. Let’s not treat God like a gumball machine, in which you put in your quarter and wait for the candy to emerge.” In my experience, there’s not much harder than resting in God’s arms, trusting in God’s timing and right intentions, instead of trying to force God’s hand.

While there may have been others, these are three of temptations we know Jesus experienced in the desert. They are also ways that Satan sometimes preys on me in the lonely nights of my soul. What about you? Where are your vulnerable spots? I invite you, during this Lent, to explore your own desert. Knowing where you are weak may not always enable you to resist temptation when it comes along, but it can help you notice when Satan is at work in you so that you know when you are being nudged toward prayer. It can help to notice when we most need to be dependent on God’s power because our own is wobbly. Seeing our fragility for what it is can direct our prayer time in the Lenten desert. If Jesus was not exempt from this kind of struggle, there is no reason we should expect to be. Every now and then we need to be in the desert, fully present to our weakness, so that it becomes clear to us again that God is God, and we are God’s beloved but flawed children. It clarifies our need for God’s nurturing, and forgiveness, and empowering Spirit.

How do we combat temptation when we encounter it? Taking our clues from this text, we see that Jesus’ strategy was to rely heavily on Scripture. In times of stress, he returned to memories of God’s enduring companionship with the people God has always loved. And Jesus’ ancestors in the faith are our ancestors too. If we look at the whole arc of the Bible, we will see repeatedly how God accompanies those who wander through the desert. Scriptures like today’s reading from Deut. are a perfect example. We are reminded that from the earliest of times, God’s people experienced times of alienation and pain. But they also experienced the comfort and presence of God. “We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” And we see it in our second lesson to, when according to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Jesus knew the stories of God’s enduring companionship, and had committed them to heart. In his distress, Jesus cried to the Lord too. And just as the Israelites were saved by God, so Jesus, when his struggles in the desert concluded, was delivered. He was greeted by angels who were sent to minister to him. I hope those came with armloads of bread and wine, with cold water compresses and a really good massage therapist. I hope they played soothing music and offered him clean clothes. Whatever they did, it worked. Luke tells us is that as Jesus left the desert, he was filled with the Power of the Spirit.

So this is my Lenten prayer for you. I pray that God’s angels come and minister to you in your dry and broken places this Lenten season. Sometimes we feel lost in the desert, but I pray you will know you are not alone there. Jesus is beside you, even when the voice you hear may be the voice of the Accuser, the Deceiver, trying to convince you that you are not worthy to be called a child of God. I pray that as you struggle to allow God to be God, as you strive to live into the fullness of who God created you to be, as you strain to hear the promise that you matter, you will find God’s direction and consolation on the journey.

I pray God’s traveling mercies on all your journeys. I rejoice that we get to walk through the Lenten desert together. Together we are able to celebrate our deliverance and bring God the first fruits of our labors. Together we welcome the strangers. Together we share the bread and the wine and the bounty of God’s goodness with all those we encounter. Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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