Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A) – March 5, 2017

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

 As Lent means Spring in Old English it for sure favors the later Lent timeline of this year; it is always strange when the season begins during the heart of winter.

For well over a millennium Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Communities would fast in various ways, abstaining from food or certain kinds of food, abstaining from various kinds of recreation and utterances. People would dress differently, engage differently and find many other ways to make their lives more austere. All of this resulted in a fast that aided in spiritual preparation and also made the great Feast of Easter so much more exciting.

While Lenten practice is often less vigorous than it was centuries ago the spirit of this fast remains, this is a time when many churches forgo cake at coffee hour, where some do not have coffee hour at all and many individuals take time to abstain from treats, to abstain from social media, to abstain from television or from other kinds of entertainment, to abstain from anything that can feel like a guilty pleasure.

This is not limited to the Christian community either, the movie 40 days and 40 nights and other pieces of pop culture capture people engaging in Lenten fasts who are not Christian and throughout social media it’s easy to see just how many are hopping on the fasting bandwagon. It’s great. It is an example of our Christian tradition enriching lives well beyond our churches and yet, if this is the only depth to which people and communities of faith engage with it, there is a major opportunity lost.

The first lesson for today features an invitation to abstinence. Adam and is given very clear instructions not to eat of the fruit of good and evil. All is well until the Devil tempts them and they eat of the fruit and suffer the consequences. While frolicking in paradise, presumably enjoying immortality, enjoying the felt physical presence of God and getting to eat from an abundance of delicious fruits may not seem like a fast, it really was.

In the midst of abundance the sense that there was something that was not for them was too difficult for them to bear. The rule around the tree of good and evil was an opportunity for Adam and Eve to deny their desire so that they could remain in right relationship with God. When they didn’t, they suffered the consequences. This lesson makes sense on the first Sunday of Lent as we are reminded of just how blessed we are and how discipline in some things can increase our joy in all things and keep us closer to God. Adam and Eve offer a cautionary tale for us as temptation creeps in.

The Gospel passage for today affirms this message and adds to it in important ways. Jesus, coined the ‘second Adam’ in years to come by the Apostle Paul, is lead by the Spirit into a time of extreme fasting and temptation. While Adam and Eve had to avoid one delicious fruit in the midst of paradise, Jesus braved an austere wilderness and consumed nothing. It is here that Jesus is offered three distinct temptations. In the first, Jesus is tempted to assuage his hunger by using his power to turn the stones into bread. The mere mention of bread was probably difficult for him to handle given how hungry he was. Jesus says no, citing that it is not by bread alone that one lives, but by the word of God.

In the second temptation Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple and invited to throw himself down in order that the angels may save him. Now this might seem like an easier one to resist at first until it is taken into account just how isolated Jesus must have felt from everyone and especially his heavenly company after an eternity with them. Just how wonderful it would have felt to experience their embrace and a reminder of his place in the midst of this difficult time for him. Jesus again says no, refusing to put God to the test.

Finally, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world, which are offered to him in exchange for worship. Jesus, on the precipice of embarking on his ministry and building his movement could have much more easily taught and influenced the world from this place but instead said no again, affirming the need to worship God and only God.

Unlike Adam, Jesus resists temptation, passes the test, and goes onto live a ministry that changed the world and brings life to many. The message, in contrast to Adam, is clear: spiritual discipline is good, so is abstinence, may Lent be a time to practice both and be right with God.

That is true, and yet, if we pay closer attention we can learn so much more about how we might live a Holy Lent and for what reasons.

Looking again at the first temptation we see Jesus deny a desire of the flesh, but for what reason? Jesus does this to strengthen his focus on God. While avoiding cookies might be good for physical health it is not the path to everyone strengthening their focus on God. As we consider what we might give up let us think about what may actually give us the opportunity to focus more on God. Perhaps the offering is time in prayer.

In the second one Jesus denied the opportunity to be reminded just how much he mattered. Jesus was in the midst of horrible isolation and often times, isolation can lead people to manipulation of those around them in order to feel reminded of their connection and importance in community. How often do we find ways to test and manipulate those we love to fill the need for connection and mattering?  To put it another way, what are the things that we do when we aren’t feeling appreciated, or connected, or valued? It would be good to consider these things and consider how we can embrace community and seek connection in healthier ways.

Finally, Jesus denied personal power so he could continue to embrace power with God. While power with God does not offer the same pride benefit and certainly made Jesus’ life and ministry more difficult it ultimately saved our world. In this we come to understand how embracing power with, as opposed to power over, can ultimately enrich our lives and ministries.

And so, given all this, our call is to live a Holy Lent, beyond fasting and abstinence, to embracing the truths that will set ourselves and our churches free to live out the fullness of God’s mission.

May we all seek to find the abstinences that will strengthen our focus on God and find ways to meet the hunger needs of others.

May we all seek community this Lent and give of our time to give community to those who are particularly isolated.

Finally, let us all consider how we might empower each other and have power and influence together in order to create positive outcomes for the world.

It is this kind of Lent that will truly live into the Spirit of Spring; regardless of what the weather might be doing. It is this kind of Lent that will take us towards an Easter Season full of resurrection and new life. May all the church, with God’s help, engage in Lent this way.

Amen. 

Written by The Rev. Edwin Johnson, a self-described “smiling, dancing, fitness-obsessed Jesus-Freak who is taken by the way that God continues to manifest in the world.” Johnson serves as the Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, MA. In addition to a fulfilling ministry and family life Johnson also teaches and performs latin dance and trains for competitive weightlifting.

Download the sermon for Lent 1(A)

Choosing to lose paradise, 1 Lent (A) – 2014

March 9, 2014

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

In our Old Testament lesson, we find a test case for free will in the Garden of Eden. We humans usually have good excuses to offer for the bad choices we make. Like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” who steals bread to feed his sister’s family. Or we can look to someone who kills in self-defense finding justified an action he or she would usually condemn. But the Garden of Eden is paradise and the only two human occupants have everything they need. All excuses are removed.

They don’t want for food. They don’t need clothes, as they don’t even realize they are naked. No animal will harm them. Adam and Eve were created as perfect companions for each other. The Hebrew describes Eve as equal and corresponding to Adam, the King James Bible translated that the closest by calling her his “Helpmeet,” meaning a helper who was meet, or equivalent to him. God even walks in the Garden with them. What need could they have?

Into this perfect situation comes a single choice. In the middle of the Garden is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve tells us that it is a nice-looking tree, with very tasty-looking fruit. On one level, the only choice in Eden was to decide whether to avoid eating from that one tree or not. But at another level, the real choice in the Garden of Eden was to decide whether or not you can trust God.

Looking more closely at the text, the conversation with the serpent proves interesting. Eve tells the talking serpent that they could eat of any tree in the Garden but one. Then Eve herself expands God’s prohibition. Eve says that not only can they not eat of that tree, they can’t even touch it. This is more than God told Adam. Now in Eve’s words, they can’t even touch the tree or they will die.

The serpent goes on to tell Eve that they won’t die, and we should note here that the snake is right on this point. Neither Eve nor Adam dies. In fact, the snake is right in telling her that what will happen is that they will know the difference between good and evil. The snake says that eating of the tree will make them like God, and on this point God agrees later on, in the section past our reading for today.

The snake uses the truth to lure Eve into checking out the fruit, much as Satan will quote scripture to Jesus in seeking tempt him away from God’s will. Eve gets a nice piece of fruit, examines it closely and finds that it is a delight to the eyes, and, knowing that it can make one wise, she takes the fruit and eats. Then Eve gives some to her husband. Notice that Eve does not go track Adam down to bring him up to speed on everything. Adam was there all along, going along with everything first by not speaking up, then by eating. Adam was together with Eve in desiring the forbidden fruit. They both chose not to trust God.

The fruit did give them knowledge. Now Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. That cheap knowledge is all Adam and Eve got for their disobedience, and they go from eating forbidden fruit to wearing fig leaves in nothing flat. Adam and Eve were given one choice to make. They chose not to trust God and to eat of the fruit of the one tree God said could kill them.

While the fruit did not kill them that day, through disobeying God, Adam and Eve became mortal. They were destined to die for their wrong choice. But that is not the end of the story. When our Old Testament reading for today ends, Adam and Eve are hiding in the Garden, fearful God will find them, cowering behind their fig leaves.

God will make Adam and Eve own up to their wrong choice. They will confess and be punished for their disobedience. The cost is mortality and expulsion from the Garden. But God does not leave them alone. God fashioned clothes for Adam and Eve, and caused them to settle East of Eden. Innocence was gone. Paradise was lost. The way back into the Garden was barred forever, and yet with all that said and done; God did not abandon his first two humans. Even in expelling them from Eden, God provided a future for Adam and Eve.

As a test case, Eve and her quietly consenting husband Adam show that, given everything they could ever need, humans would still choose to disobey. Some claim that this proves that Adam and Eve were teenagers. While funny, that claim is neither fair to teenagers nor honest to adults. All of us can be given every chance in the world and still make bad choices.

Unlike Adam and Eve, we already have the knowledge of good and evil. With that knowledge, most of our choices, the ones that matter, boil down to either trusting God or not trusting God. God warned you not to murder, steal or commit adultery, among other things. Just look back through the Ten Commandments. God says that if you do those things you will die. Do you trust God or not? If you trust God, you will try to keep his commandments. If you do not trust God, you will ignore them as you go through life.

Know that you have a real choice. You can decide not to trust God. You can live your life as if God does not exist, make your decisions without ever putting God in the picture. However, that choice will come with a cost. Just as Adam and Eve made the wrong choice and found death, you too will one day find death further down the road of not-trusting-God.

But notice that even in your wrong choices, God will not abandon you. The grace in Eden was that even when Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, God still cared for them. In God’s story, wrong choices have bad consequences, but God still offers us a chance to make the right choice. The way God tells the story, you can go your own way and choose to lose paradise, or you can trust God and live.

During this season of Lent, you are called to examine your life. Do you trust God? Are you willing to live your life as if God’s promises in scripture are true? God offers you a chance to give your whole trust. God is still holding out hope that you will one day come home to the Garden.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Temptation, 1 Lent (A) – 2011

March 13, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 42; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

“Temptation” is a word that has absented itself from this culture’s vocabulary and thinking. It’s so much easier to just give into it. “Save us from the time of trial,” the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer has substituted in place of “Lead us not into temptation.” But everything in the current culture points to permission to enter into temptation immediately, without any hesitation, at times with admiration; there is a tendency, especially among the young, to make bitter fun of those who resist temptation. This is the environment that surrounds the Christian who is urged not to yield to temptation.

What does it mean to be tempted? It is to be pulled away from our Creator by substituting the temporal for the eternal. We are pulled away from the purpose for which we were created: to live in God, to be one with God, to delight in God, to know the mind of God. Temptation also means to disregard the words and commandments we have been considering during this liturgical season: to ignore the fact that the Beatitudes of Jesus are indeed addressed to us, to forget to walk humbly with our God, to forget to love mercy and to do justice, as the prophet Micah urged us. All temptation centers at keeping us from the observance of these injunctions. And even though we don’t face temptation alone, we still find it easier to simply give in, forgetting the promise in Hebrews 3:18: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Today’s gospel report of the temptations of Jesus, testified to by Mathew – and by Mark and Luke in their gospels – is of vital importance to each one of us because it is so much a part of our own experiences.

The first temptation deals with the immediate physical needs of the body – an inescapable reality for all of us. In all ancient cultures the word “bread” stands for all that feeds us physically. It still remains so in the languages of these old cultures as evidence that, in the past, if the harvest of wheat failed, the people died.

It is significant that this particular temptation comes when Jesus is famished and physically at his weakest. The tempter doesn’t say, “All right, I’ll give you bread, but you will have to work for me today.” That would have been a rational request. What makes it temptation is the shortcut to the miraculous: “Use your powers as the Son of God to change these stones into bread.” What is implied is that if it doesn’t work, then he will doubt his relationship to God and also doubt the Godhead.

How many times do we, too, look for shortcuts? “O, God, if this bad government were not in place, then so many people would not suffer from malnutrition or starvation. Why are you not deposing this dictator in such and such a land? Are you really God?”

Have you not heard people say again and again, “I can’t believe in a God who allows suffering to take place.” All of us fall into that temptation especially in times of disaster. Jesus puts us to shame. Even when his own physical survival is at stake, he clings to the assurance given to his faith ancestors – that we do not live by bread alone; that the word of God, the truth of God, if only we could see it, if only we would acknowledge it, leads us to life! Of course Jesus did know the necessity for human nourishment; otherwise he would not have felt compassion for the poor and hungry. He commands us to feed the hungry. It is the emphasis we put on this temporal body that he warns us against; and how right he is. These days, with gyms and personal trainers everywhere, with the emphasis on a toned body, with surgical interventions to make it perfect, the body has become an idol for millions of people the world over. We have been warned against this kind of idolatry. Not living by bread alone means that we must not give into the temptation of allowing the needs of our bodies to overwhelm our need for the word of God.

The second temptation – the use of scripture in order to put God to the test – is painfully familiar to us, if we only stop to examine our expectations with honesty. The human tendency to bargain with God is quite prominent. We complain, “But Jesus said, ‘Ask and it shall be given, knock and the door will be opened,’ so why doesn’t God give me my heart’s desire? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Why doesn’t God punish the evildoers and reward the righteous?”

These are legitimate questions, but they almost always end up in the form of bargaining or testing. “Answer this prayer, God, and I’ll be good forever and ever.” Or “Do what I think is right, God, and I will believe in you.”

Unfortunately, we do not take into account the interconnectedness of creation when we put God to the test. We don’t know the mind of God. We cannot enter into the mind of the Creator who sees and understands the consequences of our requests. What if God answered the prayers of those who want this country destroyed? What if God answered the prayers of so many in our own country who claim the name of Christ and who ask for the destruction of enemies? What would happen to the world? The answer that Jesus gives, He who could have thrown himself from the pinnacle and survived, is that even when we ask for things using the words of scripture, putting God to the test is yielding to the temptation of the easy fix without considering the consequences.

The third temptation is the one that has brought us to the brink of disaster again and again – the terrible, seductive call of power. How easy it would have been for Jesus, weakened from hunger, all alone in the unforgiving desert, to forget to whom he truly belonged. How many human beings can you name who have turned their backs to the terrible seduction of power? Look at the inequality of wealth in our country and the world. Look at people starving while their leaders hold on to power, storing billions in the banks of Switzerland. Oh, the temptation of power that comes with wealth. How well Jesus knew the fatal results of giving in to the worship of other gods – the gods of greed, of luxury, of controlling others. All you have to do, Satan tells him, is forget that you belong to God.

As George McDonald wrote in his sermon “Kingship,” “The one principle of hell is –‘I am my own.’”

Jesus rejects this temptation outright. Only God is worthy of our worship, he tells us; only God deserves our service. It is after this firm answer that the devil departs and leaves us alone. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” Job cries. “I know in whom I have believed,” Paul declares even from prison. Do we know who it is who made us, who loves us, who asks us not to forget that God loves us and will not abandon us in the desert of temptation?

The great secret of the story of temptation in the Garden of Eden is that God did not abandon Adam and Eve. The promise echoing through the centuries since Paul preached it is that even if we fall into the temptation of forgetting God, Grace will not forget us. But oh, the sweetness of knowing how to say no to temptation and yes to God!

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.