Sunday, February 13, 2005

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:1517; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

But he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about.

It is said that when Martin Luther was a monk and priest, he often spent hours at a time on his knees confessing every possible sin which burdened his heart and his mind. He was known to go 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. It has been suggested that Luther even practiced physical self-punishment as part of his spiritual disciplines.

To Luther, sin was an ever-present power that he could not overcome which made him unworthy of God’s love. He was tormented by his fears and doubts, so much so that he wore out even his confessor Johann Staupitz’ patience. While Johann tried to encourage Luther, to help him understand God’s grace but nothing he said made a difference. Luther even said that he had wished himself never to have been created and that he hated God. Johann knew the only way Luther would come to understand God’s grace was for him to see it in God’s word for himself. He resigned as Bible teacher and gave Luther the position, forcing him into the scriptures in preparation for the classes. It was through that study – in the psalms and in the epistles – that Luther finally realized that he could do nothing to merit God’s love. God’s grace gave that which could never be earned through human effort.

While Luther seems to have taken fear of sin to an extreme, it seems like our modern world has taken it in a far different direction. 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 with it in this day. Certainly God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin, but should we ignore the subject altogether? It is interesting to read some of the selections in the Revised Common Lectionary when verses are skipped. Those verses often contain references to sin.

What need is there of repentance or even Lent if there is no longer a problem with sin in our lives? We could easily go from Christmas to Easter without the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting if we had already reached perfection. Yet every year as we find ourselves gathering for Ash Wednesday, I am reminded of my own humanness.

We could certainly spend the next six weeks considering all the ways in which we have sinned against God and man, much like Martin Luther did in those early days, confessing every possible sin and agonizing over the knowledge that there must be other things we have done that we can’t remember. Yet, that is not the purpose of Lent. It is not meant to be a time to berate ourselves, to cast ourselves into some pit to be punished for our humanity. It is a time of testing and renewal.

The Old Testament lesson for this week is found in the book of Genesis – the story known to us as “the Fall of Man”. It begins with God placing the man in the Garden of Eden. “And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Here God speaks His word into the life of the man.

There are those who suggest that a loving God would never have put Adam in this position – why would a gracious God put such a temptation in the garden unless He did it with the expectation that Adam would fall? This brings up the age old debates about theological subjects such as free will. Yet, there is something far more important underlying the story of the fall than the fact that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree. If that tree had not existed, the serpent would have found some other way to deceive them and lead them into the true sin they committed. This story is about the trusting the Word of God and being who we have been created to be.

The serpent found the woman and said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” Here the serpent twists God’s word to put doubt in the minds and in the hearts of God’s people. They were allowed to eat of any tree but one. Eve answers with an additional 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.” Though she was not around for the original command from God, she obviously had been let in on it at some point because she knew that she was allowed to eat of any tree but that one. Unfortunately she took the command a step further adding, “nor touch it.”

How could this be a bad thing? After all, if the fruit of that tree was not for me to eat, then it would be best if I did not even let myself be tempted by it by touching it. Eve already knows the fruit looks good, she can see it with her eyes. The serpent knew he’d caught a live one because he heard her twist on God’s word so he went a little deeper, “Ye shall not surely die.” He was right in a sense, since eating the fruit did not cause immediate death, but it was only a half truth. He convinced her to believe his word above God’s by giving her the final reason to eat – she would become like God.

Now, this is the sin of which we are all guilty. We are certainly all guilty of doing things we shouldn’t do but it is not those sins which should necessarily be our focus this Lenten journey. Today’s scriptures help us focus on the root of the problem – our own desire to be something we are not.

Satan tried the same trick on Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today. After Jesus was baptized, He was sent into the wilderness for a time of testing and temptation. The testing came from God and the Holy Spirit, it was a time to gain self confidence and to ensure His will was indeed focused on the task at hand. Satan took the opportunity to make this time of testing an exercise in temptation. Three times he tried to convince the Lord to change His will and His course. Three times he failed.

The first temptation involved the stomach. Jesus was hungry as he’d been wandering in the wilderness without food for forty days. Satan came and said, “If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Satan is not questioning Jesus’ identity. As a matter of fact, a better translation of the first word of this sentence would be ‘since’. Since Jesus is the Son of God, He has the power to curb His hunger by changing stones into bread. But the temptation is much bigger than the filling of Jesus’ belly. Jesus would not need more than one loaf of bread, so He is being tempted to make enough bread to feed many.

In essence, Satan is tempting Jesus to make His ministry and purpose on earth about doing good things for people – meeting their physical needs. If Jesus spent all His time and energy feeding the poor He would have no time for meeting their spiritual needs and He may be tempted to take a different course than the one prescribed by God – the way of the cross.

Jesus answers this temptation, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” He stands firm in God’s Word. He does not refuse to meet the physical needs of the people. Throughout the Gospels we see many examples of Jesus’ mercy on the hungry, poor, sick, blind and lame. He uses His power to feed five thousand people on a few loaves of bread and fish. Yet, Jesus refuses to take His eyes of the purpose of His life and that is to go to the cross.

Satan tries another tactic. If Jesus won’t change the purpose of His ministry, perhaps he can get Jesus to test God. “Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and, On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.” This temptation is meant to cast doubt in Jesus’ mind about His identity. “Since you are God’s Son, let God show you how He will take care of you.” Satan even quoted scripture, twisting God’s Word once again to turn Jesus down another path.

Jesus refuses to put God to the test, once again turning to the scriptures for His weapon against the temptation. “Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God.” Jesus need not prove anything to Himself or to Satan about His identity. He is the Son of God as was revealed at His baptism. God’s Word is true and need not be tested.

In the final temptation, Satan does not precede his gift with the disclaimer “if you are the Son of God.” He takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain, much like the mountain we saw last week when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. There Satan showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” It can be argued that Satan did not have the authority to give Jesus anything, but that takes away from the true purpose of this temptation – to get Jesus to reject God for His own triumph. By worshipping Satan, Jesus would have no need to go to the cross. Satan was trying to give Jesus a kingship that did not need to pass through death.

Jesus answered this final temptation with more scripture, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus faced the temptations of Satan without turning from God’s Word. He held firm to His identity as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. He refused to turn His course from the cross, refused to change His ministry to one that would serve only flesh and He would not test God. His way was set and His purpose mapped. He would not allow God’s Word to be twisted, even when the reasons seemed well and good.

Feeding the hungry is not a sin. However, making the sole focus of our ministry in this world a matter of meeting the physical needs of human beings is still a temptation we face as a Church. It is much easier to organize a food bank or offer counseling than it is to show people that they are sinners in need of a Savior. I once led a group of ladies in a study of spiritual gifts and we took one of those tests to help each woman discover her own gift. Several of them were surprised to discover that they had gifts of preaching, evangelism and teaching. In the end however, they still walked out of that meeting with the idea that they were gifted for hospitality. Instead of identifying themselves with the gifts and callings from God, they followed the world’s expectations – to handle the kitchen and make the coffee.

We can also look around and see plenty of churches that are being tempted to test God’s Word. Certain preaching emphasizes faith in God’s miraculous powers over the world. In these churches it is expected that God will heal our physical dis-ease if we expect Him to. This leaves no room for the fact that God heals in many different ways and sometimes that means that our physical needs are secondary to the spiritual healing that God has promised. When the healing doesn’t come as expected, doubt is cast upon faith and God’s promises are questioned.

Finally, we are faced with the question of the mountain top experience – under which kingdom are we ruled and who are we worshipping? Are we truly fulfilling our calling from God, following the path which He has laid out ahead of us? Or are we flirting with the things of this world and giving in to the gods which would like to have control of our hearts and our flesh? We can take this back to the question the serpent asked the woman in the Garden, “Did God really say?”

Did God really say there is such a thing as sin? Sure, God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin, for Jesus Christ died on the cross to bring reconciliation to all men. Yet, He calls us to repentance, encourages us to live holy lives in the forgiveness we have received. There are things in this world that still tempt us away from being all that God has created us to be. We are sinners in need of a Savior, men and women just like Adam and Eve who hear God’s word twisted in a way that sounds good but which turns us away from what God intended for the world.

In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men – Adam who fell for the temptation and faced death and Jesus who faced death by not falling for the temptation. Through Adam we are all sinners in need of a Savior, through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to the other word and believed it more than that of God. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in today’s epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. 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.”

We were made sinners through Adam and we have continued to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. Jesus too faced those temptations but He was without sin. He stayed the course which God had given for Him and walked to the cross for our sake. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. In faith, though we are sinners we are called to live according to God’s good and perfect Word. We will be tempted – tempted to working the wrong ministries, tempted to test God and tempted to bow down to the world.

But God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and most especially through Jesus. Last week we were given the command to listen to Jesus, the week before He called us to follow. By His grace we can live free from the burden of sin and walk according to His Word. We do not need to be like Martin Luther berating ourselves over every sin, nor do we need to ignore the fact that sin is a very real part of our humanness. Grace overcomes and grace transforms, making us to be exactly what God intends for the crown of His creation.

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. Yet, once we have made that confession, we can rest in the promise of God’s Word that we are forgiven. David writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.” We are blessed because the Lord Jesus did not fall into the temptations He faced in the wilderness. Yet, David also reminds us that when he did not confess his sins he suffered the burden of guilt and God’s hand of discipline. “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, And mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; And thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.

Those who live according to their own ways will suffer the consequences of their self-centered ways. Those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. But those who trust in God will overcome the world and know His grace. “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.” Thanks be to God.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page