First Sunday in Lent
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: MATTHEW 4:1-11
1Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
As I read and studied this text to prepare, a title came to mind:
You’re so vain, you probably think lent is about you 🙂
And as the Carly Simon song shows how words can be about one thing and at the same time about another, this text is the same, we will see with this text that Lent is and is not about us.
Each year we come to this first Sunday of Lent and some of us have planned what to give up or take on for Lent since the new year and some of us are like, oh, Lent again already? And on this Sunday each year we hear this story of the temptation of Jesus. A story of a time when Jesus was challenged physically, mentally, and spiritually and seems to have sailed through it like a pro. It is one of those moments where the humanity of Jesus is attacked and the divinity of Jesus seems all too real as he swiftly and firmly tells the devil to go away.
So often we then hear this story as a proof text for our lives–Jesus resisted temptation even when he was starving, even when he was challenged by scripture and the traditions of his faith, even when he was threatened with not being seen as the real son of God. So we ask ourselves in the face of temptations that we encounter each day, what would Jesus do and we know even in that question that we will fail. Fail to not want to survive on bread, fail to not know how to defend our faith, fail to realize from where and from whom our own true importance comes from. And in that split second, we are vain enough to think this story of Jesus is somehow a commentary on the choices we have made and will make this Lent and for the rest of the Lents in our lives.
That is simply not true. This scripture is not about humans at all. It is about God. It is about spiritual powers and human reality meeting and living together in a both/and kind of way. The devil comes to Jesus who has been fasting 40 days–the number of days in Lent, the number of days of fasting as a deep ritual and spiritual practice, he can really be done and eat without taking any challenge and yet, the devil says, IF you are the son of God–you would turn these stones to bread. Prove it. And Jesus says no, humans do not survive on bread alone. And more than that– no, you do not define who God is or how God works. God does.
Then again, IF you are the son of God you would know the scriptures, the faith, the very commands of God are that angels will protect you and keep you from harm even if you throw yourself from a high place, IF you believe in God, you will do this to prove it. And Jesus again says no–this is not how we know God, God does not need or use scripture as a means for simplistic proof texting. God reveals Godself again and again and God will decide how that is defined.
And once more, IF you are the son of God you would want all the kingdoms and all the people to actually follow you and be handed over to you, taken and placed at your feet, so prove it, prove you are divine and have the power you proclaim. And Jesus says no, God alone defines who I am and whose I am and therefore God alone will be worshipped.
Each time, the devil tries to make Jesus prove who he is and each time Jesus does prove who he is, just not in the way that the devil lays out how it should be done. Now this, This is a human experience–how many times has another person, a job, a task, a stereotype of this world reached out and challenged you and tried to define who you ARE without your consent to their definition? I would venture to guess this has happened in some way to all of us– a clique in school or the workplace, being categorized by our religion or our gender or our sexuality or the size of our home or the amount in our bank account. Our sisters and brothers in this country from non white races and skin colors know this as a daily perhaps even hourly experience. And we know it’s not right, we can feel it when it happens…
And yet, there are times when we fall into the trap of believing someone else’s definition of our being, believing the world’s definition of our being. And in that belief we are tempted to live and act from that definition and from that space. And we are so vain that we begin to think that we can live from this type of bread alone, that we can live the right way to please God if we just follow the exact commands, that we can be in control of our world if we just do more and more and more. We become so enmeshed with these definitions that we don’t even see them for what they are- the game of “If you are this, then prove it” that comes from a place of despair and evil and not from the space of grace and love from which we were created.
And so we come to Lent, a time of returning to the source from which we were made in the image of God. We come to this text and expect to find condemnation, expect to be asked what will we give up like Jesus did? But really, instead, we find hope. Because even as the temptation story is not about us it does offer us the gift of knowing who Jesus is, which has everything to do with us. Jesus says no to any other identity than the one that was pronounced upon him at his baptism–you are mine, you are my beloved. This is Jesus, come from God to be with us-with us in despair and with us in hope. With us IN the world and to remind us we are not OF the world, we are not defined by it but sent for the world in the hope and light of God.
The spiritual practice in Lent of ‘giving something up’ is a practice of sabbath which is meant as a gift from God to remind us who we are and what truly defines us. We come together in worship on the sabbath, as a reminder together of who we are and also as theologian Walter Brueggemann says,
Sabbath in the first instance is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawl from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well being. Walter Brueggemann
Lent invites us to withdraw from definitions and systems that keep us trapped and instead to come to a place where God frees us in the Holy Spirit to return our focus on the freedom we are granted in the promise of the cross. The freedom to care for the neighbor, the freedom to be who we were created to be, the freedom to live not by bread or power but to live through the word of God and the connection of the Holy spirit.
So yes, Lent is about you and it is about more and beyond you. Our confession throughout the season of Epiphany had a beautiful assurance of forgiveness where it was stated–You are not given the spirit of the world, you are given the spirit of God. The holy spirit is given to you, is in you, is a part of you and that is an assurance and a promise from God. The world is not what defines you, the temptations of the devil do not say who you are. It is the promise of grace, the gift of baptism, the surrounding of the spirit that says who you are–and who you are is God’s own beloved.