First Sunday in Lent
I need to begin with a confession—which is probably appropriate on the first Sunday in Lent. I need to acknowledge that I’ve spent way too much time thinking about what spiritual discipline I would adopt for Lent this year. I’ve considered whether a strict diet or a more regular gym regimen would be more fitting. Or some kind of a combination. I’ve thought about giving up a meal a week and contributing to a hunger charity the money I would have spent on it. I’ve weighed the pros and cons of adding journaling, more theological reading, or other good deeds to my daily schedule. And on and on. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but let me tell you, I’ve been quite worked up about this. I got so caught up in finding the right way to honor Lent that I almost ended up missing the whole point in the process.
I’d fallen into the trap of making this 40-day journey all about me. I got so caught up in thinking about how to improve my behaviors, my faith, my SELF that I nearly domesticated Lent into some kind of self-improvement plan, which is surely not its true purpose. Which begs the question, what is the true purpose of Lent?
The season of Lent is the 40 days preceding Easter, intentionally mirroring the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. And it’s plain to see in Matthew’s description of that event that the temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness had very little to do with whether or not he was going to lose 20 lbs. or spend less time on Facebook or walk by every slice of pizza presented to him. The root of the temptations Jesus endured—much like the ones Adam and Eve struggled with in our first reading from Genesis—had everything to do with identity.
It’s important to remember that this story of his temptation immediately follows Jesus’ baptism, which concludes with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. The heavens had just parted, and Jesus had just heard God’s affirmation, “This is my beloved son, and with him I am well-pleased.” The devil’s target, in the weeks that followed this declaration, is undermining Jesus’ security in that identity. The Tempter wants Jesus to feel so tenuous in his relationship with God that he would willingly test it by throwing himself off a mountain. Or go his own way, creating food for himself because God could not be trusted to provide for him. Or agreeing to the devil’s patronage and protection instead of God’s.
At each point of this struggle, Jesus is able to resist, not simply by quoting random passages of Scripture, but by quoting Scripture that reminds him of God’s trustworthiness and God’s constant care for him. He turns to the assurances of God’s promises to care for him and all God’s children. He turns again and again to his own identity as God’s beloved child to keep him grounded in this time of personal turmoil.
That’s exactly what Adam and Eve were not able to do in today’s reading from Genesis. When faced with temptation, they could not hang onto their identity as God’s beloved children. They forget whose they were and so lost who they were when the time of testing came. They gave in to mistrusting God and each other, accusing one another of being the reason their relationship with God and each other was in trouble.
Jesus, on the other hand, was able to rest on his relationship with God by reminding himself whose he was and so remembering who he was. Each time he was tested, he remembered he was a beloved child of God, dependent on the providence, care, and protection of the God who promised to do anything to care for him and all of us. He did not give in to the temptation to show he was bigger, stronger, smarter, and holier than the Tempter. He just stood firmly in his own shoes and said, “No.”
But Adam and Eve were mortal, like us, and could not withstand their time of trial. Like Adam and Eve, we face temptations every day—though, at least in my case, very few of them show up as fruit hanging from a tree. Usually, in my experience, temptations tend to be subtle messages seeking to undermine my identity, inviting me to forget I am God’s beloved.
Commercials suggest we are inadequate without XYZ product. Headlines suggest that there is not enough of whatever it is (love, prestige, money, power) to go around so we should grab what we can We are tempted continually to satisfy our own hungers while millions around us go hungry. Way too many politicians—of all parties—want us to believe that we have a great deal to fear, and that the only way to be safe is to get rid of those who differ from us. Daily we are presented with the temptation to give into the fear. We struggle with obedience to God instead of choosing the power that the world values. We sometimes find ourselves wanting to take the easy way instead of the right way.
In the face of these identity-obscuring messages, God proclaims again and again the baptismal promise that safe-guarded and empowered Jesus in the wilderness: “You are God’s beloved. With you God is well pleased.” Wandering in the wilderness with Jesus during Lent, we return to cling to this reminder that we are totally enough, and that there is plenty to go around, and that we do not need to live in fear, ever.
Our identity comes to us as a gift and a promise. It is shaped and nurtured by the people with whom we surround ourselves. It is important that those people be ones who can remind us who we are when we start to lose track. That’s one of the reasons it’s good to hang out at church, to be surrounded by the family of faith that will keep telling us we have value, worth, and purpose, no matter what. Our identity doesn’t come from being thin enough or strong enough or smart enough. We do not become God’s beloved children because we can go 40 days without alcohol or swearing. We are not God’s beloved children because we can resist temptation through our own pious efforts. We are God’s beloved children because God is steadfast and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
In the end, Lent is not about our passing the little tests we set for ourselves. It’s not about what we will give up or add on. It’s about being intimately connected with God, with God’s world, and with God’s people. It’s about remembering whose we are, re-turning to our home in God’s heart. It is from that place of security and love that that we can determine what it is we children of God will live for, and how we might begin today.