First Sunday in Lent Luke 4:1-13
Introduction: Today is the first Sunday in Lent. As you know, those of us who grew up in the South pronounce our ‘e’s and our ‘i’s the same, which can get a bit confusing. If you ask someone for a pen you have to specify whether you want something to write with or to stick something with. I bet I’m not the only one who wondered why we have a season of Lint in the Moravian church. It always sounded like a special time to clean out your lint baffle in your dryer. But even when you know the difference between the season of Lent and lint in your dryer, you can still be confused. To be honest, Lent baffles many of us.
Lent The word “Lent” or Lenten comes from the old German word for springtime. It probably referred to the fact that days are growing longer this time of year, that the days are lengthening, but in England this old word for spring was used to describe the annual time of fasting in the church year. In other countries, this period is known as the 40 days. Just to make things as confusing as possible, the 40 days of Lent actually last 46 days because you don’t count the Sundays. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which in America is known as the day after Mardi Gras. Lent ends on Easter morning.
Different churches observe Lent with different degrees of intensity. For the most part, the Baptists I teach at Wake Forest have never heard of Lent, while the Episcopalians take it very seriously. We Moravians are somewhere in between. Some of you may have “given something up for Lent.” People often choose Lent as a time to go on a diet or give up smoking. I tried giving up sarcasm one Lent. That went well. Originally, Lent was a time when Catholics were required to give up meat and even milk and eggs. One reason Easter eggs became so popular was because people had not been able to eat eggs for nearly seven weeks before Easter. In the old days, giving up meat for Lent was a way that everyone in the church ate like poor people who rarely had the luxury of meat. Our Moravian ancestors rejected church fasts and rituals imposed by the pope, especially if they were not founded on the teachings of Christ. One of our founding theologians complained that priests were more concerned with someone eating a sausage during Lent than they were over Christians taking human life. Protestants sometimes made a point of cooking meat on the grill during Lent just to prove that they were free from oppressive church laws.
Like so many things in churches, Lent was a good idea that got out of hand and became another reason for people to fight and criticize others. Our Moravian ancestors studied history and the Bible to come to a better understand of things like Lent. What they discovered is that it took centuries for the idea of Lent to develop. Originally, there was a simple time of fasting on from Good Friday to Easter during which Christians remembered the sufferings and death of Jesus. This added to the joy of Easter morning. It became customary to baptize new Christians on Easter, and those being baptized went through a period of instruction and training that was called catechesis. For forty days before their baptism they would study, pray, fast, and meditate. We do something similar in confirmation today. In ancient times, those being baptized did not bath or change their clothes during the forty days, which meant everyone was really glad when they were bathed in baptism and given a new white robe to wear on Easter. What our ancestors learned was that Lent was not simply a time to give up meat or eggs; it was a time to learn how to be a better Christian. Rather than giving things up at Lent, perhaps we should take new things on, such as reading the Daily Text or memorizing the creed, or volunteering at Sunnyside Ministries. Lent is not a time to make ourselves more miserable than we already are; it is a time to grow closely to our Savior.
Forty Days Why does Lent last 40 days, not counting Sundays? Our Gospel lesson for today should give you a hint. After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. When he came back he began his public ministry of healing and preaching. The story of Jesus going into the wilderness is told in three of the four gospels, but only Matthew and Luke give us the details. All Mark tells us is that Jesus fasted during that time and was hungry.
It is easy to get bogged down thinking about how anyone could go 40 days without food and water and miss the most important points about this story. Don’t picture Jesus sitting in the desert with a calendar marking 40 days off his calendar. It was not a test to see if he could go 40 days, beating the old record of 34 days set by a rival prophet. 40 is a symbolic number in the Bible. It means a really long time. More important, it means a really significant long time that leads to a change in history. Think back on the Old Testament. The flood lasted 40 days and nights, according to one account in Genesis. Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mt. Horeb or Sinai before receiving the 10 commandments. Elijah the prophet fasted for 40 days and nights before meeting God on Mt. Horeb. The Babylonian Exile lasted roughly 40 years. All of these stories point to a wilderness experience; a time of preparation before God’s chosen servants do something new and wonderful. The story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness fits this pattern. And the season of Lent is a yearly reminder of Jesus’ struggle and temptation in the wilderness as we prepare ourselves for the miracle of Easter.
Luke’s Version This year we read the story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, but Luke does not tell us why. We have to make an educated guess. What is it that makes a wilderness a wilderness? In America we think of the wilderness being dense woodlands filled with wild animals, but the wilderness can be a desert wasteland. The key thing is that there are not many people in the wilderness. There are no cities, villages, or farms. There is no civilization; no restaurants or laundries or coffee shops. When I was a Boy Scout, Marty Haga took us on a 50 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, and I was prepared for the wilderness. I had all of my trail foods and a canteen. I did not bring any money because I knew we were going to be in the wilderness. Imagine my surprise when the trail went through mountain villages and the whole troop stopped for hamburgers and milkshakes. So much for wilderness!
Jesus went into the wilderness so that he could be alone with God. He fasted because there was no one to give him food. It was a dry land so there was little water. He went out into the wild so that he could think about what he was going to do with the next stage of his life. Alone with the wild thinks, Jesus hoped to hear the voice of God, which is what Lent is all about.
But what happened? Instead of hearing the voice of God directing his way, Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness. You know what that is like. You know what it is like to stay up in the wee hours of the morning all alone, struggling with decision you need to make; struggling with questions; straining to hear the voice of God and instead hearing the voice of the tempter. You hear your own body begging you to indulge in unhealthy, unwholesome appetites. You hear the voice of your own fear urging you to take the easy path instead of the right path. You hear the voice of your own doubt telling you that you are a failure and you should just give up. You hear the voice of your greed and ambition telling you to sacrifice those you love so you can make more money. I don’t need to tell you about the voices you hear when you are all and vulnerable surrounded by the emptiness of despair.
What I do need to tell is that your Savior knows what this is like. He was in the wilderness. He was alone and hungry. He heard the cries of the wild animals and knew what it was like to have no safe place to sleep. He faced the tempter and heard the voice of the devil telling him to give into his selfish urges.
We do not have time this morning to discuss in detail how the devil tempted Jesus. Luke and Matthew tell us there were three temptations. This does not mean that there were only three, just that three were so significant that Jesus later told his disciples about them. Yes, we would not know about these temptations if Jesus had not told his followers what the devil had said to him. When he came out of the desert Jesus knew that he had won a great battle and he wanted others to know how he had struggled.
The first temptation is the one that is easiest to understand. Jesus was hungry and the devil suggested that he use his supernatural powers to turn the stones into bread. Notice that this is more than a temptation to break his fast or to feed himself when he shouldn’t. The devil was not tempting Jesus to break his diet, like the devil does in TV commercials. He began by saying, “If you are the Son of God.” The temptation is all in the word “If.” Jesus has just been baptized and has heard the voice of God declare him a beloved child, but then the devil says, “prove it.” If you are who you think you are, prove it. Prove it to whom? There’s no one there but Jesus and the devil, and the devil knows who Jesus is. He is tempting Jesus to prove it to himself by using his power in a selfish way. He is raising doubts in Jesus’ mind just before he goes forth to serve. He waits until he is weak and hungry and lonely to raise doubts about who he is what he has to do.
The second temptation is one few of us face, but we sometimes think about it. The devil shows Jesus all of the splendor of the world’s kingdoms and promises them to Jesus. This time he does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” Instead he offers Jesus the chance to be the ruler of the world. That’s what the Messiah should be, the devil tells him. You should be a king like David or Solomon. You should go forth like Alexander the Great and conquer every kingdom and be proclaimed a living god by your awe-struck subjects. We do not know if the devil could give this to Jesus, but this is the kind of temptation we can understand. Sell your soul to the devil and be a success in the world. If your soul is little, you will get a small success, but sometimes great people sell their souls to achieve great things. You’ve seen some of them in your lifetime. Rich, famous, powerful men and women who have no heart, no compassion, no soul. Empty shells walking through fabulous homes and offices without even knowing they have lost their souls. They have their reward. Jesus was tempted to become the king of kings by following the easy path of conquest instead of the hard path of loving service and sacrifice. He is the Lord and Savior because he resisted this pernicious temptation.
The third temptation Luke tells us about is one that is harder for us to understand. Again the devil says “If you are the Son of God.” Jesus has refused to become king of kings by doing evil, so the devil tries again to undermine his faith. He sows doubt. If you are who you think you are, prove it to everyone. Jump from the pinnacle of the temple and show the world that God’s angels will protect you. Show the world that you are the Son of God so that they will follow you out of fear. Remove all doubts so that people will not have to rely on their faith. Demonstrate the power of God so that people will not have to trust in God’s love. Make God prove to the world that you are his son. But Jesus recognized the voice of the devil and resisted temptation again. He chose to obey God and do God’s work in the world rather than putting God to the test.
Luke ends his story by saying that the devil left him until an opportune time. That time was in a garden called Gethsemane when Jesus was again tempted to save his own life, and instead he chose the path of sorrow and death.
Conclusion This sacred season of Lent is not about finding ways to make yourself miserable instead of enjoying the springtime. It is not about becoming a temporary vegetarian or proving to yourself that you can go without ESPN for seven weeks. This season of Lent is a time to journey into the wilderness with Christ and boldly confront the tempter whose velvet voice undermines your faith, love, and hope day and night. It is a time to pay even closer attention to the many ways you are tempted to be less than a beloved child of God called to bring God’s mercy to a suffering world. It is a time to discover that you can do the right thing rather than the easy thing. With that in mind, let us prepare ourselves for Holy Communion. Amen.