Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent

March 12-13, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati



(Based on Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)


When we hear the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis juxtaposed with the story of the temptations of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, it would be easy—and many preachers have done it—to reduce them to examples of personal morality. That makes them simply examples of how to respond to temptations by Satan. You know: don’t be seduced by the attractiveness of what is being offered; read your bible the way Jesus did. They become simple morality stories: Adam and Eve bad, Jesus good.


The moral development aspect of the story is not wrong in itself. It’s just that if that’s all we take away from the Gospel we lose the much deeper truth we are being invited to pray over through Matthew’s story.


I want to take you back to FR. Dennis’s wise advice to us in his homily on Ash Wednesday evening. He was urging us to focus on what Lent is really about: not ‘giving up’ but seeking an ever deeper appreciation of the mind and heart of Jesus.


The Gospel story is not simply an example of garden-variety temptation and how to meet it. What is frequently referred to as ‘the temptation of Jesus’ is really the account of the testing of the Son of God

Biblical scholars tell us that the word which is often translated as ‘temptation’ really means ‘testing’: how will he understand and fulfill his role as one referred to as ‘son of God’?


When you think of it, this passage is not what jumps to mind when we think of the best way to introduce Lent. It would seem more appropriate to begin with, say, the passage in the 9th chapter of Luke, where Jesus is completing his mission in Galilee and is on the verge of undertaking his long journey to Jerusalem where he will confront the power of Rome and the Temple hierarchy and be put to death. Listen:


“When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. (One version has that wonderful translation: “He set his face like flint toward Jerusalem.”)


Instead of that, the church by choosing this Gospel is taking us back to the very beginning of his mission. There are some pieces to be put in place first before we move on into the mystery of Lent.


We have heard this story so often and the interaction of Jesus with Satan are so dramatically gripping that it is easy to lose sight of how the story begins. “The Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.” This whole event is being orchestrated and choreographed by the Spirit.


When the people of Matthew’s church heard this passage it wasn’t a moral story, it evoked one of the critical moments in their story as a people. They hear of things like the desert and forty days and nights and demanding bread and putting God to the test. And it all comes back: this is where they once were. And where they failed. It is part of the storehouse of their memory as a people. The Psalmist reminded them of it in Psalm 95; listen:


Oh, that today you would hear his voice:

            “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,

                   as in the day of Massah in the desert

            where your fathers tested me though they had seen my works.

            Forty years I loathed that generation            

                   and I said: they are a people of erring heart,

                   and they know not my ways. (Ps 95:10-11)


They failed the test and abandoned the Covenant. They thought they could put the Lord to the test. When Jesus answers Satan he uses passages from the same story, this time from the 8th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, where God says:


Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether it was your intention to keep his commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. (Deut 8:2-3)


At the baptism of Jesus shortly before this struggle in the desert the Father had declared “This is my Son, my beloved.” Now the test is: how will he understand that Sonship?


At this time of his testing the lines—how it will all work out—are not yet clear. Later on he will come to understand and tell his disciples that the son of man must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and put to death. But not now, not yet. What is clear at this point is simply that his Father is in charge; that it is the Father who tests, not man; that he is called to total obedience.


And that was the central point his earliest followers made as they asked themselves who he was and what we was about. Only a few short years after his ascension the Christian community began to compose hymns to celebrate him, and perhaps the earliest was picked up by Paul and quoted in the Epistle to the Philippians:


“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

      Who, though he was in the form of God,

      did not regard equality with God

             something to be grasped.

      Rather, he emptied himself,

      taking the form of a slave,                      

      coming inhuman likeness;

      and found human in appearance,

      he humbled himself,

      becoming obedient to death,

             even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)


If we are to experience the liberating grace of Lent, we must do as Jesus did: we must allow the Spirit to take us into the desert and test us.


As people of the Gospel we live in a desert. Our desert is a world where the values of the Kingdom are under attack on all sides. We need the Spirit in order to name our pain and hunger.


It is a world in which there is an ugly wave sweeping across our country that vilifies our public servants and wants to set up barriers of envy between those who teach our children and maintain safety on our streets and protect us from fires and the rest of society. Their civil rights to bargain collectively are under attack. They are being depicted as having it easy sponging off the rest of working people. This is not the work of the Kingdom.


A single member of Congress is resurrecting the old tactics of McCarthyism, denigrating all of our Muslim sisters and brothers under the guise of protecting us from terrorists. It’s the same old tactic of scapegoating to deal with reasonable anxiety, and it’s just as ignorant as it was when the victims were black people.


We live in a society where those whose sexual orientation is different from the mainstream can be ostracized and denied their civil rights


● And we live in a church which has been brought to its knees by the shameful abuse of our children, where our leaders put all the responsibility on the abusing priests and accept no responsibility on their own part for supporting the system which allowed it to happen in the first place, or for covering it up.


We are being tested. Not by a vengeful God but by a God who desires nothing but our obedience and trust and love.


Jesus turned out to be a very different kind of Messiah than the people were looking for. They expected him to come in on a white horse in triumph to free them from the Roman oppressors. And his way was the way of the Cross: life and beatitude achieved by dying, by giving life away.


Easter, and Resurrection, will come—but only at the price of Calvary.


We feel the power of death all around us. It can be an easy temptation to lose hope.


But Paul in the epistle to the Romans reminds us that where sin abounded, grace was more powerful. The Jesus who sets his face toward Jerusalem to challenge Roman power and the hypocrisy of the high-priests is the same Jesus who comes to us in our personal and communal deserts and says to us, “Be not afraid. I have overcome the world. See my hands and my feet, and know that I am with you all days, even to the end of time.”