The Church has entered the season of Lent, and she goes, with her Lord, into the desert for forty days, to pray, to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to fast, to be generous in almsgiving. We do this to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ passion, Death and Resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. We get ready to celebrate the holiest week of the Church’s year by having something of a spiritual spring clean. This is a very good thing indeed. We need to do it, so that we can be reminded where we need to put some work in.
Our first reading this morning take us right back to the start of the problem of human sin: Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. They are tempted by the serpent to do what God has told them not to do. Thinking that you know better than God, and choosing to do what you want to do is where the sin of pride comes from. Adam and Eve prefer to trust the serpent, who promises that they will become like God. They are disobedient: they do not listen to what God says, and act in accordance with it. But rather than knowing good and evil, all they know is that they are naked, and cover their nakedness. The serpent makes empty promises, and they are taken in by them. Such is the power of lies.
But while we have heard how sin and death came into the world, we also hear in our second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans how disobedience is countered by the obedience of Jesus Christ. It is obedience which will see Our Lord die on the Cross for us. Christ will bear the burden of our sin, to pay the debt which we cannot. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: one act of righteousness which ‘leads to justification and life for all men’ (Rom 5:18 ESV). To be justified is to be declared righteous in the sight of God. We are guilty, yet God declares us innocent. We deserve punishment, and yet are rewarded. It is remarkable. Such is God’s love for us that our slate is wiped clean. Each and every one of us deserves to be cast aside, for our sins, like those of Adam & Eve separate us from God and each other. Yet God did not leave us in slavery to sin, but sent His Son, so that we might have life in and through Him. This is the Good News of the Gospel.
In the Gospel this morning we see Jesus at a crucial point, between His Baptism and the calling of the first disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Christ goes into the desert for forty days, to be alone, to pray and to fast, and the church keen to imitate our Saviour likewise goes into the desert so that we may grow closer to God, that we may be purged and prepared to celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, a place traditionally associated with the prophets and with encounter with God. After fasting for forty days and forty nights He is hungry. This is no surprise at all. He has been fasting for forty days, Our Lord is starving – he is fully human not some superhero who is immune to human feelings and needs. So the devil tempts Him by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ (Mt 4:3 ESV). The temptation works on several levels. By doubting that Jesus is God and asking Him to prove it the devil is continuing to mock the God he refuses to serve. It is a temptation to be relevant: Jesus is hungry and needs to eat, but is being tempted to use the creative power of God simply to serve an appetite. The world tempts us to be relevant, and to conform ourselves to it, rather than let the world be conformed to the will of God. Jesus’ reply to the devil, that man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God, reminds us that as Christians we are fed by Word and Sacrament, nourished by God so that we may grow in faith, and hope, and love.
Christ is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and told to throw Himself down. This is the temptation to be spectacular, to do something for show, again something which the contemporary church seems rather keen on. But nothing should be done for show; we are called to follow Christ simply and humbly, trusting in Him. The devil wants to put God to the test, it is an act of disobedience, contrary to the humble obedience which sees us live trusting in God, relying upon Him, formed by Him.
Christ is finally tempted to turn away from God the Father, to worship a false god. He is offered much in material terms –- all the world and its splendour -– wealth and power –- a huge temptation for humanity, and one into which many people give. The Church too has given in, and continues so to do. We have to be weak, powerless and vulnerable, utterly reliant upon God so that God can be at work in us, as we humbly worship and serve Him. It may look foolish in worldly terms, but that is the point –- we are not meant to be conformed to the world, but as we seek to grow in faith, in humility, and obedience, we allow God to be at work in us –- taking us and transforming us into His likeness.
The temptation to worship a false God: money, power, or success is always there, and many in the church give in to feelings of ambition, and if they are not ‘successful’ end up bitter, cynical, and miserable. But success is itself empty, popular favour can disappear like a puff of smoke. It is fleeting, it does not last. Whereas in Christ we are offered something that will last: eternal life with God in heaven.
So as we undertake to follow Christ in our Lenten pilgrimage we do so in our weakness, so that we may rely upon God, and Him alone. We do so joyfully, knowing that Christ’s victory which we will celebrate at Easter is total and complete – it is justification and life for all.
Let us pray that we may receive grace to follow Christ so that we may prepare to celebrate His Death and Resurrection and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.