Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.

This is the first Sunday of Lent which is a period of forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. (Lent does not include the Sundays that fall between those two days.) It is reminiscent of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after His baptism. We aren’t sent into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, but then again the world is temptation enough for us.

Lent is a time of fasting and prayer, repentance and renewal. During Lent we focus on the ministry of Jesus Christ while learning about ourselves and the faith which we have been given. It is a time of discipline—not punishment, but training. It is a time when we can develop better habits of prayer and healthier ways of living. It is a time for growing closer to God, to learn who we are and to whom we belong. It is a time to face the temptations of our lives (our flesh, our hearts and our egos) and to conquer them with God’s Word as we delve more deeply into the scriptures.

We hear about Jesus’ wilderness experience in today’s Gospel lesson. Isn’t it interesting that the temptations Jesus faced were not about those things we normally consider ‘sinful’? Jesus wasn’t tempted by the typical lusts of our flesh. He was tempted by the things He would face during His ministry.

Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. It is good to eat. Carbs were not an issue in Jesus’ day so this isn’t a temptation to break a special diet. It isn’t even about the sin of gluttony. Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days. The temptation is about putting the needs of the flesh first. Jesus was in the desert to prepare for His ministry. It was an act of obedience to the will of God, to strengthen Him against the things He would face in the days to come. The temptation was not only to feed His own hunger, Satan said, “Command these stones.” Jesus would not have needed more than a loaf, but with many loaves of bread He could have fed all the hungry in Jerusalem. Jesus’ ministry was not about beginning a food bank. He did feed the hungry. However, He did so first by speaking God’s Word.

The second temptation was about fame. Imagine what an impact Jesus would have had on His world if He had actually gone to the top of the temple to take a flying leap? The appearance of angels and the miraculous landing would have made Him the talk of the town. People would have come flocking to hear Him speak, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Him doing something else amazing. How many ministries focus on the impact they have in their cities and neighborhoods without caring about the message they are giving to the people? Jesus responded, “Do not test God.”

Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. If only Jesus would bow down to Satan, He could rule over all the nations of the world. Of course, this is a promise Satan can’t keep, even if Jesus would worship him. Jesus’ purpose was not control or power. It was not to be a worldly king. His purpose was to teach the kingdom of God and then to die for our sake. He would eventually face all those temptations: feeding the hungry, making a spectacle of Himself and becoming the king which the people longed to crown. He would refuse each time, keeping the focus of His ministry on what matters—God.

Martin Luther understood what it meant to be a sinner, perhaps a little too much. He often spent hours on his knees confessing every possible sin which burdened his heart. He repeated the same confessions over and over again in an effort to ensure that he hasn’t forgotten something. He went back to childhood indiscretions and other long forgotten offenses even though some considered him one of the most upright monks. He was constantly working to earn God’s love, fasting to prove his worthiness and seeking peace from all the wrong places. The more he tried to be righteous, the more he knew he could never be righteous enough.

To Luther, sin was an ever present power that he could not overcome. To him, that sin made him unworthy of God’s love. He was tormented by his fears and doubts. Johann Staupitz was Luther’s confessor and Luther’s confessions wore him out. His encouragement and reminders of God’s grace fell on deaf ears. The only way Martin Luther would know God’s gracious love and forgiveness was to find it himself in the scriptures. Staupitz resigned as a Bible teacher and gave Luther the position, forcing him into the scriptures in preparation for the classes. It was through study of the psalms and the epistles that Luther finally realized that he could not do anything to merit God’s love. God’s grace gave that which could never be earned through human effort.

Lent is often a time of human effort. It is a time of discipline when we try to develop better habits of prayer and healthier ways of living. It is a time for growing closer to God, to learn who we are and to whom we belong. It is a time to face the temptations of our lives (our flesh, our hearts and our egos) and to conquer them with God’s Word as we delve more deeply into the scriptures.

Discipline may mean sacrifice. Athletes eat a special diet when they are in training. Students give up the games of childhood as they prepare for college. We do these things so that we can do our best and become the best we can be. Spiritual discipline might also mean sacrifice: giving up the things that keep us from seeing God. This is called fasting. Maybe there is something that in itself is neither good nor bad, yet you find it distracting your focus away from God. Perhaps there is an addictive or bad habit you should give up.

Unfortunately, many people choose to give up the things that they love the most like soda, chocolate or video games. Others give up the television or their morning cup of coffee from the café. They suffer through the forty days without their ‘fix’ and then binge on Easter Sunday without having been changed by the experience. They fast but do not do anything to experience God in the midst of their wilderness. They fast out of duty or tradition, but do not see to understand their temptations or meet them head on with God’s Word. If chocolate or coffee or video games are so sinful that they need to be given up during Lent, why do we return to them so quickly after Lent is over?

Luther might have taken fear of sin to an extreme, but our modern world has taken it to the other extreme. Ask many people today and they will tell you that too much is made of sin and that we do not have need to concern ourselves about it. God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin. This is even apparent in some of the Lectionary texts during the church year. Have you ever noticed how many times verses that talk about sin are left out of the readings?

What need is there of repentance or Lent if there is no longer a problem of sin in our lives? We could easily go from Christmas to Easter without this season. Though I doubt anyone would say that we have reached perfection, I suspect most people think that we are good enough. Why do we spend the next few weeks focusing on our sin? After all, we are good people. We are probably better than most of our neighbors. We do good works. We are moral and upright. We might make a mistake here and there, but isn’t that part of being human? Isn’t it too harsh to say that we are sinners?

It is so much easier to look at the world as dualistic. White verses black, tall or short, fat or thin. These are ways we can define people and things, but are there really only two choices? When we consider good and evil, we think again in dualistic terms. There is good and there is evil and neither the twain shall meet, right? However, the reality is that we live in a world where it is difficult to separate good and evil. In some places, theft is considered evil. In other places, theft that serves a virtuous purpose is good. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do only good, all too often the things we do turn out to be less than good. If it is less than good, is it still good or is it evil? Where do we draw the line?

In the Old Testament passage from Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. It is like saying that Adam and Eve would be like God, knowing everything from A to Z. There is not only good and evil, there is good to evil and everything in between. There are times when we have to choose the better of two evils. Which is better—to shoot a dying horse or allow him to die naturally? Both options are evil, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.

Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world purposefully sinning against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if we have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge of forgiveness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good” as He did for all of His creation. They lived in harmony with God and with the rest of creation. Then the serpent (representative of human desire) made them aware that there is more than ‘good’ in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that being like God would make them better, to give them insight into more ‘good’, but the reality is that only God is good. Everything that isn’t God is less than good.

We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him. But we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. The sin in the Garden of Eden was eating the apple that God told them not to eat, and yet the sin goes even deeper.

The serpent found the woman and said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Here the serpent twists God’s word to put doubt in the minds and hearts of God’s people. They were allowed to eat of any tree but one. Even proclaims God’s word to the serpent, with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” She added the part about touching the fruit.

How could this be a bad thing? After all, if the fruit of the tree was not to eat, then it would be best if she did allow herself to be tempted by touching it. Even already knew that the fruit looked good, she saw it with her own eyes. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist God’s word. So he went a little deeper. “Ye shall not surely die.” He was right, in a sense. Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically when they ate the fruit. But it was only a half truth. He convinced them to believe his word about God’s by giving them the final reason to eat—they would become like God.

This is the sin of which we are all guilty. We do a lot of things wrong. We sin against man and nature daily with our use and abuse of God’s created world. While it is good to check ourselves and discover the things that we do wrong daily, it is not those individual sins that are the focus of our Lenten journey. Fasting can be a good and powerful discipline during Lent, but it is useless unless we also discover the real sin in our lives. The sin that we can’t overcome with fasting or discipline, repentance or prayer is our own desire to be something we are not.

In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to make His ministry and purpose on earth about doing good things for people—meeting their physical needs. He offered Jesus the chance to establish a powerful ministry to feed the hungry, draw people to Himself and rule over all the nations. To do so, however, Jesus had to ignore God’s Word, test God and turn from His true purpose. To achieve this great ministry, Jesus had to accept Satan’s word above God’s and turn from God to go His own way. This Jesus would not do. He answered the words of Satan with God’s Word. He got His strength from the scriptures.

Did God really say there is such a thing as sin? Sure, God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin. Jesus ensured forgiveness by His act of willingness to climb upon the cross and die. The cross brings reconciliation. But He calls us to repentance, encourages us to live holy lives. There are things in this world that still tempt us away from God. We are sinners, even while we are saints. We are men and women just like Adam and Eve who have heard God’s Word and twisted it to make it sound good to our ears.

Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to do so in our own lives. The freedom we have to reason and make decisions also gives us the freedom to reject God and go our own way. In doing so, we find ourselves in the position to do specific things which are against God’s Word that will harm our relationship with Him and with His creation. We are like that pool – no matter how “clean” we appear to be, the threat of corrosion, stagnation and filth is always part of our life. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.

Jesus Christ is that Savior. At the cross, He started a new process. This is like what we did on Memorial Day. He took all the crud, scrubbed us down and filled us with fresh clean water. Unfortunately, the old process still exists in our flesh—we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. Unlike our family, though, Jesus never gives up. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes. Then, in that wonderful day, we will begin again and the things that make us imperfect now will be gone forever.

For now, we live remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior. And we live knowing that our Savior has come and He is Jesus Christ. We are saints and sinners, going through this life experiencing the free gift of grace and the frailty of our human condition. Joy and pain, blessedness and suffering are what it means to be a Christian in the world today.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” There are three steps to forgiveness in this passage. This first stage is perhaps the easiest part of forgiveness, saying “I forgive you.” But forgiveness requires much more. see the second stage of forgiveness, the stage which the psalmist says, “whose sin is covered.” This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest. This is the part when we forget the sin.

The psalmist says, “Jehovah imputeth not iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it. When we get into a battle with someone, we bring up those old sins and remind our ‘enemy’ of the things that they have done to hurt us in the past. God does not do that. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets. It is by God’s grace that we are set free from the burdens of our sin and in this we rejoice.

Those who live according to their own ways will suffer the consequences of their self-centeredness. Those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. We are reminded that Satan does not only tempt us with the things that are obviously wrong. Sometimes he tempts us with things that seem good. That’s why we join with Jesus in the wilderness of Lent, to recognize the frailty of our human condition and face our imperfection.

Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We can’t confess that which we do not accept to be true, so we must realize that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Yet, once we have made that confession, we can rest in the promise of God’s Word that we are forgiven. We are blessed because our sins are forgiven, our transgression is covered and our God has forgotten our sin. We are blessed because our Lord Jesus did not fall into the temptations He faced in the wilderness. Yet, we are also reminded by the psalmist that when we do not confess our sins we suffer the burden of guilt and God’s hand of discipline. Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.

Lent need not only be a time of fasting. More importantly, it is a journey in which we seek God, seek His will for our lives and face our unworthiness so that God can build us up to be the people He has created us to be. It is an inward journey as we come to know ourselves better. It is also a journey that is taken within the community. Many churches offer extra worship opportunities. Some even plan a meal to be shared. As we look more closely at ourselves, we can see our failures as well as our successes and discern the ministry to which God has called us as individuals within the community of Christ and the world.

I encourage everyone to commit time each day to spend with God during this Lenten season. Choose a time and a place, whatever works best for you. Pick a time when you can focus completely on God. Be consistent as you build this habit into your day. Find a place away from distractions so that you can concentrate on prayer, study and worship. Structure your time with God because it will help you stay focused. Find a Lenten devotional online or in a bookstore that will help guide the direction of your study. Or, choose to read through certain books of the Bible. Study the Lenten lectionary texts as we do in this devotional. Begin your time with prayer. Read some scripture. Listen to what God and others have to say about faith in our world today. Hear what God is saying to you personally for this time and place. Discover your own temptations. Discover your gifts. Let God transform you by His Word and His Grace.

Whatever you decide to do throughout this season of Lent, remember that God’s grace is greater than our failure. If you break you fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to keep trying. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the whole point of Lent, to realize that we need Jesus and the cross to be in relationship with God. Begin each day as if it is a new day. Try and try again. Training is a process of growing. Let the discipline develop over the next few weeks so that it will continue long after Easter Sunday.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page