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March 1, 2020
1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15 – 3:21; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
Adam and Eve’s bite of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge illustrates Albert Einstein’s observation that: “The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” The snake enjoyed his manipulation of the power couple in the Garden for a short while before he lost his legs and was condemned to slither in the dust, perpetually fearful of his demise at the hands of humans. Adam and Eve were excited at the prospect of being as knowledgeable and powerful as God for a short while before they suffered the consequences of crossing that one boundary God placed on their freedom.
They had it all, purpose, security, loving relationships. But they wanted the power that knowing all that God knew would give them. Adam and Eve were tempted by the possibility of being like God. The bible’s account of God’s first relationships with humanity set the model for God’s Ten Commandments, the first being “You shall have no other gods before me.” Each of the Ten Commandments relate to power, the first five are about accepting God’s power over us and the next five about establishing relationships with others based on mutual respect and equality.
Before the Fall, there was only one abstinence God demanded – eating the fruit of one tree. Accepting God’s boundary for Adam and Eve serves as a metaphor for our need to understand that we are dependent on God for life. Adam and Eve refused to accept the natural bounds of their creaturehood. Just as the snake first tempted Eve, our consumer-driven, power-driven culture entices us to desire more than God’s natural created boundaries allow. The result has been toxic competition for resources created to be shared. The consequence of our exceeding the delicate balance God created is a planet in peril from pollution; overuse of the land; taking more than we need; and resource disparity creating a few mega-rich and a multitude of homeless, hungry people. Without limits, we deny the sovereignty of God.
In our gospel story, Jesus has finished his forty days of fasting in the wilderness, the time and subject upon which the forty days of Lent were established. Jesus had received the power of God’s Holy Spirit at his baptism and was introduced to his role as God’s Son. By the Holy Spirit, he was led into the wilderness to discover how he was to use his power. Spiritually, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures during those forty days strengthened Jesus, but physically, his fasting weakened him. Satan appears at this opportune time to test Jesus in this vulnerable condition. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, Satan played the role of the tempter.
The temptations Satan offered were those that have always seduced humankind. Jesus was uncomfortable due to his hunger. Human beings are wired to avoid physical discomfort. It is important to note that Satan came to Jesus after he had fasted for 40 days. Jesus was very hungry, and thus most vulnerable to Satan’s temptation to use his power to turn stones into loaves of bread. Notice the plural words: stones and loaves of bread. Here Matthew adds an even greater temptation – one that could be justified. With loaves of bread, Jesus could feed many hungry people besides himself. Would that not be a good thing? A win-win situation? But, Jesus saw the temptation, we often miss, the temptation to abuse our power for self-interest disguised as altruism. In his spiritual journey in the wilderness, Jesus had discovered a hunger greater than one for food – the hunger for God, the hunger for a purpose for living beyond anything the world can offer.
With the second temptation, Satan dared Jesus to throw himself off a high pinnacle to test God’s power and desire to keep him safe. Surely one who had no cause for fear would impress people. We all yearn for freedom from fear – security. Fear leads us away from God and away from relationships with others. Fear can lead us to break every commandment, to distrust God, and to treat our neighbors unjustly and even hatefully. As Jesus proceeds in his ministry, he loses many disciples when their security is threatened. Jesus’ miraculous feat of landing safely from a tall pinnacle could bring in many people to hear his message and make more disciples. Security is the false promise used by manipulators to gain power over us.
The last temptation was the power of authority and control. This desire is closely intertwined with our desire for security. Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – the ultimate in worldly power – if only he would bow down to Satan. What wonderful things Jesus could accomplish for the world if he were the king of all earthly kingdoms! Again, the story shows that a seemingly good result can lead one to justify the abuse of power. We see public figures, political and religious leaders, who abuse their power, lie, and hurt vulnerable people because of their belief that the goals they want for others, as well as themselves, justify their unethical, malicious or criminal acts.
History, as well as current events, shows the dire consequences caused by the willingness to forsake what is right under God and embrace evil to gain worldly power. As individuals and as a nation, what good have we failed to do and what evil have we ignored or perpetrated to retain power or control? And, is not demanding privilege based on anything we have earned, such as gender or race, a form of power and control? Jesus refused to be fooled by Satan’s offer, because he understood if he accepted, Satan would be the one in control.
In response to each of Satan’s temptations, Jesus declined by quoting scripture passages from Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives speech after speech to the Israelites preparing them to live in faith and obedience to the one true God in the Promised Land. It is in Deuteronomy that God gives Moses the Ten Commandments to take down the mountain to the people. The people are instructed to worship and give authority over them to no one or nothing but God. Scripture is inspired and revealed by God. Particularly in the Reformed tradition, Christians are encouraged to read and study Scripture during Lent.
In the early church, the period of time that became Lent was not considered a time of gloom and self-denial. It was a time to return to a state like that before the Fall – to push the “reset button” for humanity, starting with oneself. It was a time to join with new Christian converts preparing for baptism, which would bring them in the community of faith. Lent was, and still is, a time to restore the intended relationship between ourselves and God.
Jesus’ victory over Satan, the personification of evil, foreshadows his ultimate victory over death-dealing human sin with his Resurrection. Satan left Jesus that day, not gone but now the established weaker power. Day in and day out we find ourselves in situations of vulnerability. The temptations before us are so subtle we may not even see we are making choices. It takes a hunger for God, the hunger Jesus discovered in his own forty days in the wilderness of self-examination, to alert us. When Christ invites us to his table to eat the kind of bread that will satisfy our physical hunger, he points us to himself – the Bread of Life that was broken to share with us who hunger for God.
May God be with you on your Lenten journey!
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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“As a newcomer to Westminster (in September of 2014), I’ve found it to be a most welcoming fellowship. I look forward to going to services and events and find the warmth of the congregation to be most helpful to a newcomer to the entire area. I find sermons challenging … music beautiful and well prepared … and a dignity in the worship that is all too lacking in most Protestant congregations. Mix this with an open atmosphere where it is OK to question and still be seen as a good Christian, and I know I’ve found one important ‘home’ in Central Illinois.”