Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lenten Discipline

Sermon preached on March 9, 2014 (First Sunday in Lent) at St. Augustine's Church, Wiesbaden
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32

For some years now there has been a debate about whether it would be better to take something on for Lent, rather than give something up. I bet, at least I would do if I hadn’t given up betting for Lent, that you have heard at least one sermon to this effect. The preacher will have suggested that you take on a spiritual discipline during Lent: perhaps read a devotional book, attend special services, like our weekly ‘Way of the Cross’ devotional service, or participate in Lenten study groups, like our program “LoveLife: Living the Gospel of Love.” And they are right and you should. 

But there is also nothing basically wrong with giving up something for Lent. Like everything we do it will depend on the motivation. There are good reasons, and bad ones. Perhaps you want to share in and relive Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness through a symbolic fast. Maybe you want to test your resolve and commitment. Or you might want to show solidarity with the poor and donate the money saved by fasting from alcohol or chocolate. And of course a fast can be an aid to prayer and reflection. 

But there are also bad reasons, at least in a spiritual context: using it as a form of self-punishment or just for health reasons, for example as a means of losing weight. I also wonder if sometimes we do not use giving up little things to forget the dangers of the big, the real temptations. While we congratulate ourselves on having resisted having a beer, a piece of chocolate, or in my case a bag of potato chips/crisps, we forget about the big temptations that we can so easily fall prey to: putting ourselves and our own desires before the love of God and of the other.

This week’s readings are all about temptations, both those that were resisted and those that were succumbed to. The reading from Genesis reminds us of that first, all too successful temptation in the Garden of Eden. The temptation to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and by doing so, at least that’s what the serpent suggests, to become like God, to gain power through knowledge and wisdom, despite an explicit command from God to the contrary. It’s no surprise then that for Paul this first act of disobedience is the root of all evil, the way in which sin enters the world and with sin, death. Death stands here both for physical death and even more importantly for spiritual death: for separation from God. Not as a punishment but as a result of humanity’s choice to put their own will above God’s.

In a very roundabout and complicated manner Paul compares and contrasts Adam and Jesus. Adam is the one man through whose disobedience death and sin were made possible, a possibility that humanity then made very extensive use of, while Jesus is the one man whose act of grace and righteousness, whose act of love, leads to justification and life for all. Adam’s sin estranged us from God, Paul says, Jesus takes that away and offers us all the chance of a renewed relationship with God.

Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness show him resisting the temptations that Adam and Eve succumbed to in Paradise and that the people of Israel succumbed to during their 40 year trek through the desert to the Promised Land. It’s no coincidence that all of Jesus’ answers are taken from the book of Deuteronomy that describes their odyssey and in particular from chapters 6-8, which contain God’s promises of blessings for obedience as well as clear warnings not to forget God in prosperity. How strange that we never forget God in adversity? Moses tells the Israelites: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.” (Deut. 8:11)

That’s what the devil or tempter wants Jesus to do of course, to forget God:
-        To rebel against God’s will, to show impatience and to abuse the power Jesus has as the Son of God by turning stones into bread before his time of fasting and preparation is over.
-        The devil wants Jesus to test God’s care and love by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple.
-        Finally Jesus is presented with the option of putting power, wealth, and might above the love of God.
In essence all the temptations are about sinning against the one great commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, choosing good over evil, all our soul, choosing life over death, and all our might, choosing God over power, wealth and possessions.

Adam and Eve were unable to resist the temptation to eat the fruit that was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and able to make them wise like God. Out of hunger the Israelites wanted to turn back and return to Egypt, they made themselves little gods, idols, that they could have power over, and they vied for power and influence.

Jesus resists all these temptations on our behalf, he does what Adam and Eve and the Israelites could not do, and he cleans the slate for us. Through disobedience, Adam was unable to fulfill his vocation to till and keep the garden – to be a steward of creation on God’s behalf. Through disobedience, Israel was unable to fulfil its vocation to be a light to the world. By being obedient to his vocation to show us God, to bring salvation, and to be a servant to the world, Jesus gives us the chance to fulfill the vocations God gave to humanity through Adam and the nation of Israel. Humanity is renewed by Jesus’ life, teaching, example, and obedience. Jesus’ act of righteousness and obedience unveils grace and life in the place of sin and death.

Satan, the tempter, the physical presence of evil, wants to stop Jesus from being true to his vocation and to prevent him from carrying out God’s mission, the mission that he has just been commissioned for at his Baptism when the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

The temptations we experience are also meant to distract us, to turn us from the path of servanthood that we committed to at our Baptism, they are meant to stop us from choosing renewal and new life. Baptism does not make us perfect or holy, unfortunately. We have to continue to resist evil. The big, the real temptations are not the little pleasures we try and do without during Lent, but us putting something else above God. Moses’ injunction, “take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” is still valid.  

So, whether you fast or not, whether you give something up or just take on an extra discipline, use Lent to “renew your repentance and faith.”[1] Own up to the temptations we have not managed to resist in the past, repenting, and asking God for the forgiveness that is guaranteed for all who truly repent.
Follow Jesus into the wilderness and follow his example there. Follow his lead in living by Gods’ word, in trusting God, and in worshiping and serving God alone. Follow Jesus out of the wilderness to Jerusalem and the pain of Good Friday, follow him to the glory of Easter Day, and follow him into the new life and the renewed relationship with God that he came to bring us.

[1] BCP (Ash Wednesday Liturgy), 265

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