Below is my sermon from the First Sunday in Lent, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website. The manuscript is also included below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
This being the First Sunday in Lent, it seems a fitting time to make my confession to all of you. I love binge-watching TV: sitting for hours, zoning out the rest of the world, getting immersed in a show, and savoring those moments of escape from reality.
At the moment one of my favorite shows to binge-watch is the Fox comedy series Lucifer.
In the show, Lucifer, the original fallen angel, has become dissatisfied with life in Hell so he retires to Los Angeles where he becomes a famous nightclub owner. Eventually Lucifer teams up with a female detective and becomes a consultant for the LA Police Department. Throughout the show, Lucifer has this mysterious way of finding out peoples deepest, darkest secrets.
He leans in closely.
Stares them directly in the eyes, and in his smoothest voice he asks;
“What do you desire?”
While this motif is frequently used in the show to get criminals to confess their crimes, or informants to give up information, I find it to be a deeply theological question. In fact, the question, “What do you desire?” is the primary question we wrestle with in our lessons today.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This opening verse to the third chapter of Genesis introduces us to a new character – the serpent. The serpent is a wild animal, not a demon or the devil, who can speak to humans, and has understanding of divine things. The serpent bridges the boundaries between animals, humans, and God and effectively elicits the desire to break the boundary between human and God. In the exchange between the serpent and Eve we witness the unfolding of the human desire to be like God. The serpent, through this conversation, intentionally manipulates this desire and offers humanity an invitation to question the commands of God.
The serpent encourages Eve, “no you will not die if you eat this fruit, you will see.”
You will be able to stand in God’s place and determine what is good and evil.
You will be able to make decisions that, until this point, have been left for God alone to make.
You will be able to make decisions based on your desires.
When Adam and Eve give in to their desires to have their eyes opened, to gain more knowledge, to have power like that of God’s, there is a break in the relationship with God and humanity. The innate desire of humanity to desire God above all else becomes obscured by temptation. In this way, both the serpent and God are right in their declarations of consequences from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Indeed the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, but that new vision leads to sin, their expulsion from paradise, and ultimately it leads to death. From the very beginning of creation we see the human capacity to give way to temptation and choose something other than God.
This struggle is one for all of humanity: from that moment in the garden until this very day. No one escapes the dangers of wrestling with temptation. Not even Jesus.
This morning’s Gospel passage focuses on Jesus facing the very same temptations that all of humanity struggles with. It focuses on Jesus encountering Satan in the wilderness. But who exactly is this Satan character Jesus encounters?
Commentators have noted that Satan in this passage, is the same as the Hebrew Satan found in other parts of scripture particularly in the opening chapters of Job. This is actually a very important distinction. The Satan we encounter in Job, the Satan we encounter here in Matthew, is not the same Satan that has captured our contemporary culture’s imagination. It is not the character with horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork. It is not the mythical beast associated with the Book of Revelation that torments and tortures sinner for all eternity.
It is Haśśatan.
Haśśatan, translated the Satan, is an agent of God. In the Book of Job we learn that the job of Haśśatan is to test humanity on God’s behalf – to see who will stay faithful to God and who will fall to temptation. If the Satan that Jesus encounters in the wilderness is in fact this same Satan we encounter in Job that means Jesus is being tested to see if he will truly stay faithful to God or become trapped by the weight of temptation. This testing is an important aspect of where this story falls in Matthew’s narrative.
This morning’s passage is the final part of a section in Matthew sometimes referred to as The Commissioning of the Messiah:
First, the coming of the Messiah has ben heralded by John the Baptist.
Second, Jesus has been Baptized and proclaimed the Beloved of God.
Now, before Jesus begins his public ministry he must be tested.
Can Jesus stay faithful to his call – to his identity – as the Divine Son of God?
Can Jesus be tempted in every way as we are – sharing fully in what it means to be human – and not sin?
Prior to the completion of his commissioning, Jesus shows us exactly how we are to respond to temptation. Jesus shows us that as children of God – as beloved of God – as baptized persons it is our job to stay faithful to the call God has given each and everyone of us.
In the first temptation, after Jesus has fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, Satan tempts Jesus with food, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to becomes loaves of bread.”
In this response Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent upon God.
In the second temptation, Jesus is transported to the top of the mountain where Satan tempts him to test God – to see if God will really protect him. Satan even quotes scripture to try to trap Jesus.
Again Jesus refuses.
Jesus’ answer points to the reality that honoring God excludes every kind of manipulation, including putting God to the test.
In the final temptation, Jesus is yet again taken to the top of a very high mountain and is offered the power to rule over the entire world in exchange for worshiping Satan.
One final time, Jesus refuses.
In this Jesus’ commissioning is complete. Jesus has proven his undivided loyalty to God.
The very same things that Jesus is tempted by tempt us as well: food, protection, power. But beyond each of these individual categories the underlying temptation is to treat God as less than God. To take on power that belongs to God alone. To make ourselves like God. To have our eyes opened that we might decide what is good and evil based on our own personal desires.
Jesus’ witness through these temptations offers us the perfect image of our humanity. Jesus shows us what is possible if we only trust in God with the fullness and entirety of our beings.
This is the struggle we are forced to wrestle with in this Lenten season. Our Lenten penitence engages the dark places in our lives – the places where we choose to see through the lens of our desires instead of choosing to see through the eyes of God – that we might come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It is not about guilt. It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us all. Lent is the most brutally realistic liturgical season of the year – it is a time when we tell truth about ourselves, our brokenness, our mortality, and nevertheless trust in God’s redemptive love. This is exactly what Paul is trying to draw our attention to.
In this section of Romans, Paul gives a powerful reflection of the magnitude of sin and death, and on the even greater abundance of God’s grace in Christ. Paul writes, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It does not matter how many times we choose to be like Adam, God’s saving grace through Jesus redeems us all. Through the saving act of love on the cross, God takes all of our sinfulness, all of our brokenness, even our morality and transforms them into righteous and everlasting life with God. Paul is reminding us that through the abundance of God’s grace we have the ability to no longer choose ourselves but to live as servants of God and inheritors of eternal life.
This is the completion of the journey that began with Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit. From the moment of that initial division between God and humanity, God has desired for us to return to our full and right relationship with God. It is a return that is made possible in the person of Jesus, but will not be completed until the Kingdom of God has been fully realized, until we enter the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem; until we return to the garden.
As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage again, we ask God to strength us that we might not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity. We ask God to transform our desires so that they might be God’s desires. We ask God to be with us in our prayers and in our fasts that we might experience once again the grace and joy of seeing the face of God. May our journey never end, may our hearts never be satisfied, until we are fully restored in God’s image.