Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent - March 5 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A
March 5, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Eugene Boring says this passage in Matthew about the temptations of Christ at the conclusion of his forty-day fast brings out a central theme, mostly hidden, that underlies and defines the entire Gospel:  a theme of conflict between the Kingdom of God on the one hand, and the kingdom of the world, the kingdom of sin, the kingdom of Satan on the other.[1] 

The words “test” and “tempt” used in this scene, are only used again when Jesus is disputing with the religious leaders – the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and elders, and even at times with his own disciples:  The phrase, “Away with you Satan!” we find here is repeated to Peter – who, you may recall, responded to Jesus’ statement that he must suffer “at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” by saying, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.”[2]  “…[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

But today the conflict is out in the open. 

I would like to pause here to clarify something – Jesus did not see either Peter or the Jewish leaders as personifications of Satan, and we should not, either.  We may consider them both to be victims of the temptations to put their own ideas and understanding in the place of God’s revealed and divine word, a sin to which all of us are prone, and of which all of us may be guilty more or less frequently.

But God’s response to sin is manifested in Jesus Christ in his life and ministry, and sin and death are vanquished on the cross.  Their power over us is broken – which is the point Paul makes in his letter to the community in Rome.  The gift of life we receive from God is greater than all that sin and evil can destroy.

So, let’s take a closer look at what passed between Jesus and Satan:

Satan said “If you are the Son of God turn these stones to bread”: but the word “if” here does not mean “maybe you are and maybe you’re not” – it means “since,” “as,” “because.”  As you are the Son of God, you can do these things. 

Jesus had this authority and power available to him, we know, because at the proper time, he exercised it, in feeding the thousands, in the proper way, by sharing it with the hungry, for the benefit not of himself but of others.

Had he claimed this power and the others Satan “offered” him, based on his own bodily need, he would have failed in his task and purpose, that purpose for which God the Father had sent him – and there would be no way of salvation for us, no escape from sin and death.  No hope.  Not even reason for hope.

All our lives would be untempered by hope.

Jesus’ great gift for us began with his refusal to ever exercise his authority for his own benefit.

That authority truly became his when he rejected it.

Satan knew he already had the authority – certainly Satan could never provide it – it was not Satan’s to give.

All the gifts, all the grace, all the wonder, all the majesty, all the power that were his by right – he used only for the benefit of others.

What came first for him, above all?  The word of God.

Living by the word of God, he gained the strength of God.

Living by the word of God, he embodied the honor of God.

Living by the word of God, he did the will of God.

Living by the word of God, he became the mercy of God for others, for humanity, for creation, for the world. 

Christ came into the world to save sinners, not himself.

His purpose was to show people God’s love for them, God’s desire for them, and the right way – God’s way – to BE in the world: in mercy, justice, kindness; in caring, sharing, loving; in good times and bad, in self-giving and sacrifice.

There’s a hymn: ”All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; so thank the Lord, thank the Lord, for all his love.”

But it can’t stop there – all we have, all the power and authority we possess, that we might claim for ourselves by right?  These were not and are not for ourselves.

These are to use for the benefit of others.  This is how it has always been and will always be.  Not mine.  Theirs.  To the death.

That was Jesus’ response to Satan.

There’s a flip side – what would things be like if Jesus had yielded to Satan’s way of thinking?  He would have failed in his purpose.  No hope for us.

It’s like that with the dominion granted to humanity in Genesis – it was never intended to be for ourselves alone – and if we claim it for ourselves alone, we fail in our purpose.

And when we fail in our purpose, the results are plain to see:  hunger, homelessness, addiction, ignorance, abuse, oppression, pollution, poverty, and pain.

These things arise because not just because others do not follow the word of God, but because we all fall short in that regard.  If we believe that all the things that exist are for our benefit, as some do conclude from the grant of dominion found in the Book of Genesis, and if we claim them with no thought for others or for the rest of creation either now or in the future, all we can create is ruin.

Just as the conflict between the two kingdoms is hidden in Matthew’s Gospel – though if we know it’s there, we can see it cropping up all over the place – the conflict in our own day is also hidden, but also crops up all over the place.

In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes – which we read back in January, but which actually comes quickly after today’s reading – Jesus speaks of “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and the “persecuted.”

MOST of these characteristics are less physical than metaphysical – ethical, spiritual, emotional…

It’s not just the action, it’s the thought behind the action that’s even more crucial.  Later in the same sermon, he says that one who looks at a woman to whom he is not married with lust is already adulterous, those who are angry at their neighbors are murderers…  it’s not simply about the action, it’s about the way we think.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression: “The thought is father to the deed. “ Jesus refused to conceive the thought of turning away from God, and therefore he never did: even though, as we know, he did suffer and die because he held true.

But we are tempted to think all the time of things that are not God.  And we are constantly in conflict with ourselves. 

Therefore we are told: turn back, repent, return.  In the words of the psalmist:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

It’s all about putting the Word of God first, and God’s word is never selfish, or self-righteous.  God’s word is always one of compassion and mercy and grace and salvation and love, of putting others and the needs of others before ourselves and our needs.


[1] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew.”  The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VIII.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 162-166.  (Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University)

[2] Matthew 16:21-22. NRSV.

[3] Psalm 32:13-16. BCP

  January 2018  
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