Sunday, March 1, 2020,

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 3:1-21
Psalm 32:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after His baptism. It was a time of preparation, prayer, and temptation. The devil came to him during the forty days and tested Him, tempting Him to feed His flesh, His heart, and His ego. Jesus stood firm on the Word of God, and came to know more clearly who He was and whose He was, discerning His purpose in this world. We enter into Lent with the same purpose, to prepare, pray, and face the temptations of our lives so that we can learn more clearly who we are and to whom we belong. We may even discover God’s purpose for us.

The temptations Jesus faced do not seem sinful, especially according to the ways of the world. Our bodies are naturally in need of food, our hearts need the love of other people, and our egos need success. Jesus was tempted by the things He would face during His ministry.

Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. Bread is good to eat and Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days, and Satan tempted Jesus to put the needs of His 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. Though He did feed the hungry, Jesus did not begin a food bank. He fed the crowds with the Word of God.

The second temptation focused on the heart; it 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, they would have loved Him. 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.” He spoke to draw the people to God.

Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. Jesus could rule over the nations of the world if only He would bow down to Satan. This is a promise Satan can’t keep, even if Jesus did worship him. Jesus knew His purpose was not control or power. He was not sent to be a worldly king. He was sent to die, and nothing Satan could do would stroke His ego to follow another path. He eventually faced all three temptations during His ministry. He refused each time, keeping the focus on what mattered: God.

Our Lenten journey is meant to be a time when we also focus on what matters most: God. Why do we do this? What set our lives on a path where we would need to understand our own unworthiness to be in the presence of God?

It all began in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good.” They lived in harmony with their Creator and with the rest of His good creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than “good” in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that they could be like God and that it would make them more than “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, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. They sinned in the Garden of Eden by eating the apple fruit that God told them not to eat, but the sin goes even deeper.

The serpent found the woman and said, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” The serpent twisted 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. Eve proclaimed God’s word to the serpent, with a twist, adding her own interpretation to what she’s heard. “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you 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 good to eat, then it would be best if she did allow herself to be tempted by touching it. Eve already knew that the fruit looked good; she saw it with her own eyes. The serpent heard her twist God’s Word and knew he had caught a live one, so he went a little deeper. “You won’t really 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 above God’s by giving them the final reason to eat: they would become like God.

They did die, though. They were sent outside the Garden, into the dangerous world where they would no longer live under the protection of God or in His fellowship. They were sent into the realm of death so that they would not have access to the Tree of Life which gives them the ability to live forever. If they continued to eat that fruit, they would spend their lives in fear of their Father and Creator.

We join Adam and Eve in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning: sins that focus on our bodies, hearts, and egos. Jesus faced those same temptations, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the Garden and in the fellowship of our Father and Creator.

“The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write. A child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight. A beautiful sight.” This song was made popular in 1972 by the group Three Dog Night and was a statement about the Brown vs. Education decision of the United States Supreme court which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Sammy Davis, Jr. made the original version of this folk song using a verse that was not used in later versions. “Their robes were black, their heads were white, the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight, nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.” The issue of segregation demanded that people be seen as opposites, just like the colors black and white. However, we can’t separate people so easily. Though skin color makes us different, there are too many things we share to think that people can be separated by just one trait.

It is easy to look at the world as dualistic. White or black, tall or short, fat or thin, these are ways we can define people and things, but are there really only two choices? If you go to a paint store and ask for white paint, he will ask what type of white you want. Can we really tell the difference? Yes. Compare ecru to ivory and you’ll see a difference. Most people would not know if you’ve painted ecru or ivory on your wall, but if you place them side by side you can see the difference. Are there really just black and white people? How do we discern one from another?

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? The reality is that we live in a world where it is difficult to separate good and evil. Theft is considered evil and yet there are those who believe that theft which serves a virtuous purpose is good. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do good, to many 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 this passage, the serpent told Eve that she would be like God if she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by its fruit she know good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. If they ate, Adam and Eve would know 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 to purposely sin 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 you have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So, what is forgiveness?

If you do an online search, you will find that many websites talk about forgiveness in terms of healing and psychology. Many people agree that if someone is going to experience wellness after a difficult situation, they have to get through forgiveness. This means forgiving others, but sometimes we also need to forgive ourselves. Sometimes we even need to forgive God. Many of the websites list stages of forgiveness, much like the stages of grief. They suggest that it is necessary for someone to recognize hurt and experience a form of hate before they can even begin to forgive.

While I agree that there is a need to face the hurt and the hate, I think our passage for today gives a more narrowed focus on how to forgive. This psalm shows us God’s example of forgiveness, which is more than simply offering words of absolution. This first stage is perhaps the easiest part of forgiveness, saying “I forgive you.” But forgiveness requires much more.

William Gladstone was Prime Minister of England in the late nineteenth century. Earlier in his political career he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British cabinet minister responsible for economic and financial matters. One day he asked for the statistics necessary to write his budget proposal from the Treasury office. The clerk was always very precise with his calculations, so much so that the chancellor did not bother to verify the numbers. Unfortunately, the clerk made a horrible mistake and the budget using those numbers was entirely wrong. Gladstone did not notice the mistake until the budget was presented to the House of Commons. He looked like a fool before the House and the entire nation.

Gladstone sent for the clerk. The clerk was terrified, certain that he would have been fired immediately. Mr. Gladstone said, “I sent for you, because I could imagine the torture of your feelings. You have for many years dealt with the bewildering intricacies of the national accounts, and you have done your work with such conscientious exactness that this is your first mistake. It was because of your splendid record that I did not trouble to verify your calculations. I have sent for you to compliment you on that record and to set you at ease.” In this story of William Gladstone, we see the second stage of forgiveness. The psalmist says that the one whose sin is covered is blessed. Mr. Gladstone did not focus on the mistake but covered it with the compliment about the clerk’s good work so that he could experience forgiveness in a very real way.

The third step is probably the hardest for us: to forget the sin. The psalmist says, “Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” God does not hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it against the one who sinned against us. 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.

Unfortunately, we continue to sin. This is why we go through Lent every year, remembering our need for Jesus Christ the Savior.

I grew up with a pool in my yard and learned to swim at a very young age. In the beginning we had an above ground pool that was three feet deep, but as my siblings grew older, we added a larger pool that was four to seven feet deep. It was impossible to take that pool down each winter. We didn’t bother with it for those colder months, which meant the water became dirty and gross. We spent Memorial Day weekend cleaning the pool for summer use. We removed all the water, washed the vinyl sides with soap and water, and then refilled the pool with fresh clean water. Only then could we add pool chemicals to make the pool ready for another season. We kept the pool clean and safe with those chemicals and regular cleaning until the season was over.

Year after year, however, we still let the pool go and we had to start over again the next Memorial Day weekend. It only takes a couple of weeks of missed maintenance before we could see the water turning nasty. Even though we could kept it clean during the season, the threat of stagnation, algae, and built up foreign matter was always possible. It would have been impossible to restore the pool after a long winter’s rest with a few chemicals. We had to take out the old and put in the new. We had to stop the process of decay. We had to start over.

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 the same. God created us to be able to reason and to make decisions, which means we have the freedom to reject God and go our own way. This means that sometimes we do act against God’s Word in ways that harms our relationship with Him and 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.

Ever since that day in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word for that of the serpent and their own desires, we have suffered from the consequences of sin. We see it in our everyday lives. Small lies lead to bigger ones, bad habits lead to health problems, anger leads to violence, greed leads to thievery and lust leads to improper conduct. Some would like to believe that there are victimless sins, but all sin affects all people. We live in community in a fallen world. Everything we do will affect others.

Jesus Christ is the Savior we need. 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 again. For now, God will continue to speak words of forgiveness, cover us with Jesus’ righteousness, and forget our sin every day, filling us with His grace so that we can do His work in this life.

In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who died because he fell to the words of the tempter and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s. 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, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.”

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. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by proclaiming God’s Word. We can do the same.

Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This calls us to a season of confession, but we can’t confess that which we do not accept to be true. The world may not be black and white, good and evil, but we are reminded by the Lenten journey that we are not good. We need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and His grace to be restored into a right relationship with God our Father.

Once we have made our confession we can rest in God’s promise. 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 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. As we look more closely at ourselves, we can discern the ministry to which God has called us as individuals and the body of Christ.

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 your fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to stop 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 because with God it is.

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