SERMON for First Sunday in Lent (March 6, 2022)
Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
Temptation (and Pickles)
How do we keep our balance in a world that threatens to swamp us completely? Of course we must pay attention to the needs around us—near and far. This morning, the war and the fear are palpable. It’s easy to get caught, whether we are doomscrolling or just watching with one eye. Easy to be paralysed in the face of such horror.
Then (I don’t think this is just me, but I’ll speak for myself) I sort of shake myself and say “what’s going on? This isn’t who I want to be, and how I want to act!”
This is temptation in a nutshell, isn’t it—something that pulls me away from who I am. What gets us through times like this?
And—this morning–what is scripture teaching us about temptation?
The first Sunday in Lent always includes one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted shortly after his baptism. Today, it’s from Luke. As I reflected on it… Jesus being “tempted as we are, yet without sin” Hebrews (4:15)…. I remembered that John Berger described how advertising works to seduce us. He said that it steals our own natural beauty and innate happiness from us–then packages it in the form of a product, and then coerces us into desiring it so much that we pay to obtain it.
When temptation is at work, we lose our balance, become ungrounded, and then can be lured into what is literally a “deal with the devil” in which we negotiate to regain something that we have really already received as a free gift.
We forget the promise of God to “protect those who know my name.” (from this morning’s Psalm 91:14). And the beginning or root of it all is when we forget who (and whose) we are.
The Gospel of Saint Luke underscores this, if we read today’s passage in context. It seems like a non-sequitur when the author inserts, right between the account of Jesus’ baptism, and the story of the temptation, Jesus’ genealogy. Reading from the final words of the baptism story, it runs like this:
Luke 3:22: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then:
Luke 3:23-28 “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli… and back through the generations to…”son of Adam, son of God.”
Then from verse 1 of Chapter 4, we have today’s reading. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” The genealogy is not an editorial interruption. To withstand temptation, Jesus needed to remember who he was—really, his incarnation, both his human and his holy origins.
For the early church, baptism was an enormous part of the Lenten observance, because most new Christians were already grownups. For these converts the forty days of Lent was the climax of what was sometimes an exhaustive instruction in the faith that might have gone on for two or three years.
If we were baptised before we had that understanding, the promises were made for us by parents and godparents, who stood as examples of the people—the community—into which we would grow up as members. Two things to notice in our first lesson from Deuteronomy in this regard. First, while the surrounding cultures of the time prescribed sacrifices and offerings to appease God’s anger, prevent disaster, or purchase favours, here there is no mention of “owing” God anything. The gifts given, the first fruits, serve to recognize an ongoing relationship with the God who has acted in human history. And second, the ritual helps the worshipper enter, in word and action, in to this historic relationship. Notice how the voice (the verb tense) of the narration shifts during the script. From he, to we, to me:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, became a great nation.. the Egyptians treated us harshly … we cried to the Lord, …[who] brought us out … gave us this land … now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. (from Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
When Jesus, beloved child of God and descendent of Adam, is led into the wilderness and confronted with the devil (the splitter or divider) he is famished. The temptations aren’t an intellectual exercise. We understand that he experiences these trials, not intellectually, but in an embodied way: Turn this stone into bread. Rule the earthly kingdoms you see before you. Let the angels catch you when you fall. And Jesus’ response in each instance is to not engage with this interlocutor—he simply quotes scripture—and not just any scripture, but Deuteronomy, the book filled with observances and commands to keep the people in right relationship with the God who saves.
The Letter to Romans quotes Deuteronomy too, when the author writes “the word is near you, on your lips and on your heart” (Rom 10:8b; Deut 30:14).
The real temptation is to think that we are not enough. That we are not at all God’s beloved children unless we work to deserve that love…exercise spiritual muscles and throw ourselves into a spasm of good deeds maybe to the point of exhaustion. Standing here, I don’t want to counsel complacency, much less preach against good deeds, least of all in the church during Lent, but I do want to observe that good deeds can spring from love and gratitude just as often as they can from fearfulness or inner poverty.
As I was reading a little about baptism, I discovered that the word “baptism” was brought over directly from the Greek, so there’s no point discussing how it was translated! Outside the Bible, the references, long before the Christian era, are to the immersion of cucumbers in brine—in other words, to making pickles! Surely this doesn’t mean that we turn sour! I rather think it means that we are both changed and preserved. A good thing! As we walk on together through Lent, let’s remember that our baptism has this preservative character.
We can expect that temptations crop up in many forms. If our struggle is (Ephesians 6:11-12) “against principalities and powers”…the lure will typically be some version of “exchange the wonderful person you were made to be for the false self you can be led to aspire to be. Serve me by doing this other thing.”
What would Jesus do? Look! When he quotes scripture instead of going one on one with the diabolos—the divider—he is essentially affirming that “I already know God’s truth. I do not need to give it over to you and I do not need to deform myself into even a wildly ambitious desire to be more than I am already.”
If we “put on Christ” we acquire this steadfast, steadying trust in God. To be baptised into Christ means that this Christ-life is also ours. If I receive it, I am enough. And this “enough” is surpassingly abundant.
Of course I am still human. Mortal. Imperfect. Yet when I remember that I am loved, and gifted by God, I will be moved by a natural impulse to share freely the gifts I have received, what I possess and what I am, and to repent of all the times I did not. Repentance literally means turning again. Notice that this is the opposite of buying God’s favour or paying restitution for wrongdoing. It is not bargaining for God’s love and care and goodwill.
Instead, my capacity to be generous will spring from my very centre. In this activity of repentance, I turn again to the best that is in me and pour forth the love that God loves me with, wherever and whenever I experience it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
The illustration depicts Psalm 91. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stuttgart_Psalter_fol23.jpg