Friday, March 06, 2020

The First Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent on March 1, 2020.

The First Sunday of Lent


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

One of our universities here in Hong Kong wrote this in an online communication recently:

‘Your health and safety are always our top priority.  Please stay vigilant and continue to make personal health your top priority.’
Similar statements have been issued by other universities, organizations, and employers during the present situation.

On Wednesday, we began Lent and today is the first Sunday in Lent.  Lent is modelled on our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness.  Our Gospel reading this morning is St Matthew’s account of this time.  It is often described as Jesus’ ‘temptation in the wilderness’.  This, however, is a misunderstanding of what was, in fact, happening.

Immediately before his time in the wilderness, Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist.  As he was baptized a Voice from heaven had declared:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3:17)

At the same time the Holy Spirit had descended on him in the form of a dove.

The first thing the Spirt does after descending on Jesus is to lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil.  In other words, Jesus’ time in the wilderness and his encounter with the Devil is something that God wants to happen.  The purpose of this examination is not to tempt Jesus to see whether Jesus can resist sin, but to test him to find out whether he understands the true nature of what it means to be God’s Son.

Even at the age of 12, we are told by St Luke, Jesus knew he should be about his ‘Father’s business’, and he left his mother and father to spend time in the temple, his Father’s house.  After they found him, he went back with them to Nazareth where he stayed with them and where nothing is heard of him until his baptism by John.

During this time at Nazareth, he must have been reflecting on the business that God had for him.  His time in the wilderness then is like a final examination to test whether he is ready, and God has given the job of testing him to the toughest of examiners.

There are three tests.  They are all to do with what it means to be God’s Son and his readiness for the business God has for him.  Some translations give the wrong impression here.  The Devil doesn’t say, ‘If you are God’s Son …’ in the sense that there is some doubt about it.  A better translation would be, ‘As you are God’s Son …’  The Devil is picking up on what the Voice from heaven has said and asking Jesus if he understands what it means to be God’s Son.

As it happens, there is indeed a temptation here.  There is nothing the Devil can do about the fact that Jesus is God’s Son.  That’s a given.  What the Devil desperately wants is for Jesus to be a particular type of God’s Son; one who will ultimately serve him, the Devil, rather than God himself.

The first test is quite a straightforward one.  Jesus has been fasting, that is, not eating so he can concentrate on praying.  Naturally, he is hungry.  Very hungry.  There is, says the Devil, an obvious solution: turn the stone into bread.  You are God’s Son, the Devil is saying, you have the power to do so.

Jesus famously answers:

‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4)

Jesus has passed the first test.

We need, however, to see the full significance of this test.  It is, of course, about Jesus’ hunger on a personal level.  But also, at the very beginning of the testing, it is a test that gets to the heart of what kind of Son Jesus is going to be.  Will he be one who will prioritize physical need?

By satisfying his hunger in the way the Devil suggested, Jesus would be showing where his priorities lay.  The Devil must have thought this was a good test to use.  After all, he had caught out the first man and woman by tempting them with something to eat.  The people of Israel, during their 40 years in the wilderness, had complained against God because they were hungry.

Jesus, however, shows right away where his priority lies.  It is not because he doesn’t care about physical need.  Much of his ministry will be about healing people and bringing people to health and wholeness.  He will have pity on those who are hungry, and he will perform an amazing miracle in the wilderness to feed five thousand hungry people at one time.  He will not, however, put physical need before hearing the Word of God.

For the second test in Matthew’s Gospel, the Devil suggests that Jesus should throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple.  The Devil points out that this would involve no real risk because God had promised to look after his Son so that he came to no harm.  There is then no real risk here and think of the benefit.  It would show everyone at a stroke that Jesus was indeed God’s Son.

Jesus replies, again quoting scripture:

‘Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Matthew 4:7)

If Jesus had done as the Devil suggested, it would have been like a student going into an examination and rather than sitting the exam, instead questioning the examiner.  It would have been to miss the point.  And it would be to imply that Jesus’ personal safety is what counts and that God will preserve him from all harm.  It would be to put himself and his need for recognition and popularity at the centre of his mission.  This Jesus refuses to do.

And so to the final and most difficult test.

The Devil shows Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world and all their glory.  All Jesus has to do is worship the Devil and they will be his.  As God’s Son, he has come to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.  He will teach his disciples to pray for this very thing whenever they pray.  What the Devil will offer is a short cut.  One that does not involve the pain and suffering of the Cross.  The end the Devil offers is what the mission God has given Jesus is to achieve.  The means the Devil offers to Jesus to achieve it is not.

No-one would have blamed Jesus if he had taken the Devil’s way.  Later in his ministry, it is the way that his own disciples want him to take.  It is the way his Church and followers throughout history all too often were to take.  Popularity, power, and glory are sought by everyone from athletes to entertainers; from politicians to business leaders; from popes to preachers.  Television programmes gain massive audiences by offering contestants the path to glory.  The Devil offered Jesus the same and he refused.

But why?

‘Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” (Matthew 4:10)

As God’s Son, he is not only to put God at the centre of his life and mission, he is to serve God in the way that God wants and that means to the exclusion of anything or anyone else that demands or desires worship or gets in the way of worshipping the One true God.

I love the way Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness ends.  St Matthew tells us:

‘Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.’ (Matthew 4:11)

I don’t know if you have seen how, at some universities, when the final exams are over, friends will gather and wait outside the examination hall to celebrate with the person who has been taking the examination.  The Devil has tested Jesus in the way the Holy Spirit wanted now for a moment there is a brief celebration.  Jesus truly does understand what it means to be God’s Son, and he knows not only what his mission is, but also how it must be achieved.

Its been a tough series of tests.  As God’s Son, he had an absolute right to food, protection, and power.  The question has been whether as God’s Son this is what he is going to prioritize and pursue and whether this is what he is going to offer his followers.  Now we have the answer.

But it is not necessarily the answer we want or like to hear.

We quite like the idea of a God who feeds us, who looks after us, and who makes us successful.  After all, what’s the point of believing in God and going to all the trouble of worshipping him if there is nothing in it for us?  We like a Gospel that promises us physical and material well-being.  And to a greater or lesser degree, this is exactly the sort of Gospel that all too often is what is on offer in our Churches.  The irony is that it is the Devil’s Gospel.  It is the one he offered Jesus in the wilderness and which Jesus so emphatically rejected.

It is one that would certainly have got Jesus more followers in the same way we believe it will get us more church members and, indeed, it often does.  Jesus speaks about how it is the only few who take the way he offers, precisely because his way is so hard and often painful.

So why make it so difficult?  Well here’s the thing: because ‘our health and safety are not God’s top priority’.  Saving us from our sin is.

Lent began on Wednesday with the words: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.  St Paul tells us in today’s second reading that from the time another son failed the test, human beings have been infected with a deadly virus that has a 100% fatality rate.  The problem is sin and the result is death.

This is simply something that we do not want to hear.  What we want to hear are soothing words about how important we are and how important our health and safety are.  We don’t want to be told we are ‘dust and to dust we shall return’.  And the life advice we want is to be told take ourselves seriously: ‘to stay vigilant and to continue to make our personal health and well-being our top priority’.

What instead we are told is that ‘we should turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.  We are to worship the Lord our God and serve only him, even if serving and doing other things would bring power and success.  We are to trust God even if trusting him seems to put our physical health and safety at risk.  And we are to put our desire for God’s word and spiritual food before our desire for physical satisfaction.

When the friends of a man who could not walk lowered him down through the roof in front of Jesus, Jesus said to him:

‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ (Matthew 9:2)

What the man’s friends thought he needed was to be able to walk.  What Jesus thought he needed was for his sins to be forgiven.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about his physical suffering.  He healed him after all.  It was just that only healing the paralyzed man would simply have meant that he became a sinner who could walk as opposed to one who couldn’t.  The man’s need was to be forgiven so that he had the opportunity, if he wanted to take it, to walk with God.

So today, ‘please stay vigilant and make your relationship with God your top priority’.

‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’
‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’


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