The First Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 58, Psalm 50, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, St. Matthew 4:1-11
He Was Only Human
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .”
And so we enter into a world rich with myth, teeming with fantastic creatures, fraught with symbols of good and evil.
I liked to think I’m as keen for a good ol’ cosmic shoot-‘em-up as the next guy, but I looked up some numbers and decided maybe I’m not. I watched the original “Star Wars” back in the ‘70s and certainly the next film in the series, “The Empire Strikes Back.” I may have seen the third; I don’t recall.
The first one won a slew of Oscars, no doubt deservedly so, and set in motion a little industry of motion pictures, and more. After the first trilogy came a prequel trilogy, and then a sequel trilogy. The first of those was released in 2015 and the second is due out late this year.
The seven films to date have grossed $7.5 billion. Add in the books, TV series, computer and video games and the entire franchise is worth $42 billion – so far.
Clearly, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have used their light sabers artfully to tickle the public imagination. Those dollar figures indicate that many folks are far more wrapped up in this epic battle for control of the universe than your humble homilist. What gives?
George Lucas, who wrote and directed the first film and remained involved in what followed, sussed out a powerful emerging current in our national life. Back in the ‘70s, secular humanism was out of the bottle and expanding at an intoxicating rate into the country’s bloodstream as our American religion.
Lucas sensed that people yearn for a narrative that explains the world around them, that imposes order on a universe that must operate according to some logic that makes sense of those randomly colliding atoms that Darwin told us explain everything . . . if anything explains anything.
Americans were turning away from the Bible in ever-swelling numbers and wanted an alternative rationale for the cosmos. Lucas hit on a dazzling mass-market myth to satisfy the appetite of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” multitude.
What explains the world? The Force, of course. He even co-opted Christian jargon: not “the Lord be with you” but “may the Force be with you.” Just add edgy special effects and good acting and, voila, he had a spiffy 20th-century vessel for the secular-humanist worldview that would sail serenely into the 21st century.
Now, you may have heard there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s not to diminish Lucas’ genius for taking the public pulse that I say this, but he was simply putting an old product in shiny new wrapping paper. Paganism – or, nature worship – is just about as old as the sun. And one brand of it, gnosticism, crept up back in New Testament times.
It says the world contains a secret gnosis – the Greek word for “knowledge” – which has saving power and that only a favored few are attuned to receive it. Those who do are rescued from this corrupted cosmos and transported out of it, to be absorbed back into the pure space “out there” that has not been contaminated.
Spirit is good and matter is evil. All matter—this world and everything in it, including human flesh — is tainted and worthless. Gnostics split into two camps at this point. One group said that since the spirit is all that matters in the end the flesh is irrelevant – eat, drink and be merry; take no heed of the body.
The other group took the view that evil flesh must be punished and engaged in self-flagellation. Both of these ideas have cropped up repeatedly throughout history, usually in some aberration or another. In the Middle Ages some Christians went beyond scourging their sinful flesh even to the point of suicide. Martin Luther, the tormented, pre-Reformation monk, engaged in self-flagellation to purge himself.
What has Lucas given us? The world is chaos but salvation comes to those who can channel the Force, which is “an energy field created by all living things (which) surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together.”
And so, as in paganism, the natural and supernatural are one: The Force which generates control in the world is derived from the things of the world. But who can summon it? The “Force-sensitive.” And so, as in gnosticism, only the favored few can access the saving power of the universe.
The Force is neutral, equally available to those who would deploy it for good or evil, but those users divide into untainted good or unmitigated evil – the light side and the dark side. Not a lot of nuance here. There truly is nothing new under that old sun.
The dilemma is real enough. We all see good and we all see evil, including the evil which dwells within us. The tragedy for some and the surpassing joy for others is that the solution is just as real. God supplied it 2,000 years ago.
God’s salvation entered the world not as knowledge or energy but as a Person. God who is spirit put on human flesh to redeem fleshly humans – to buy them back from sin and death and restore them to God. To avoid the taint of sin in the flesh, which since the time of Adam has passed through the father, this Person was begotten by the Holy Spirit.
In Him, God and man abide, neither nature diminished by the other. He is fully divine and fully human. He is the answer to the question: How can spirit and matter inhere?
And so, beloved, we find Jesus on this first Sunday in Lent in an all-too-human condition, in this famous passage in which the devil tempts Him in the wilderness. It follows hard on the episode that concludes St. Matthew’s preceding chapter, that of our Lord’s baptism:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him.
“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (3:13-17).
The Father blesses the Son. Equipped with the Spirit, the Son proceeds to be tested in His flesh. As we embark upon Lent, we see our Lord undergoing a trial of the sort we face, an appeal to turn away from those things that please God and to those things that excite us. An invitation to sin.
Jesus here earns the right to say in the Sermon on the Mount that follows in Matthew’s gospel, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (6:33). Live in God’s ways and trust Him to supply your needs. Our Lord did it before He preached it.
Do not miss the identity of His escort: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
This trial, this enticement to sin, is God’s doing. It is an essential element of Jesus’ affliction in this world; He endured it that He might know the struggles that beset His people. He would not call us “brother” or “sister” without first entering into our condition, without knowing the oppression of temptation.
But let us not glide over this matter of temptation. Our language lets us down. In the Bible, the ideas of “testing” and “tempting” are intertwined. One Greek word serves for both. When we ask that our heavenly Father lead us not into temptation, we are in fact praying that He will not test us beyond our capacity to endure.
Yes, He has promised us He will not. But He has also promised to provide our daily bread, and still Jesus bids us ask.
The Father tests His Son Jesus – and all of His sons and daughters – not to seduce us into sin but to fortify us that we might venture deeper and deeper into faith. A builder erects a building using steel that has been tested to prove its strength. That strength must exceed the requirements of the moment; it must measure up to any potential trial by tornado or hurricane or earthquake.
Our faith must withstand anything the world, the flesh and the devil can throw at us. And with each test we pass our faith grows more muscular. In our lesson, when Jesus tells the devil He will not tempt God He is in fact saying, as the modern translations make plain, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Man does not test God; God tests man. Jesus’ responses to Satan tell us He understands that in His humanity He is undergoing a test in the wilderness. His responses tell us a good deal more. They tell us our Lord is seeking glory not for Himself but for His Father.
Had He been concerned for Himself, He would have turned stones into bread, replenishing His body. Instead, He drove home the point that real nourishment comes from God’s word, which restoreth the soul.
` Had He been concerned for Himself, He would have thrown Himself off of the pinnacle and let His angels snatch Him out of the air, demonstrating His power. Instead, He followed God’s word and did not test Him, demonstrating His humility.
Had He been concerned for Himself, He would have worshiped Satan and taken command of all the kingdoms of the world, gathering glory. Instead, He vowed to worship and serve God only, displaying His faithfulness.
In His hunger for God’s truth, in His humility, in His faithfulness, Jesus models for us the obedience of one who loves God desperately. He becomes what Scripture calls an anti-type, placing on God’s altar the obedience a previous son had withheld.
Israel’s trial followed God’s deliverance from Egypt; Jesus’ trial followed His baptism. The 40 days of Jesus’ fast recalls Israel’s 40 years of wandering in a desert.
Like Jesus, Israel is called in the Bible God’s son.
Like Jesus, Israel’s purpose was to reveal the Father to all the nations.
Like Jesus, Israel underwent testing in a wilderness before taking up the work God had assigned.
Like Jesus, Israel hungered.
But when God supplied bread, the Israelites complained bitterly of His provision. When Satan tempted Jesus with bread, He turned it down, choosing God’s word as His nourishment. Jesus, God’s faithful Son, is the true Israel.
And still we have not exhausted the meaning of His responses to the devil. If He had abandoned His humanity and summoned divine power, if He had risen up and struck Satan down, grinding his head into the dust, would we not stand and cheer? We cheered Luke Skywalker.
Yet confronted with greater evil than Darth Vader could ever marshal our Lord chose humility. He had come to give His life a ransom for many, to claim His victory in the shame of His cross. He had known the Father’s glory, dwelt within it from eternity past. His mission in His humanity was to know our weakness.
St. Paul understood. In a vision, he ascended into heaven and experienced that divine glory. He gave an account to the Corinthians. The Lord had given him a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him mindful thereafter of his humanity. Paul asked three times for it to be removed but his pleas were rejected:
“(The Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore (Paul continues) most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
When we confess our frailty, we turn to the Lord for the health of salvation and He sustains us.
St. Paul understood. Satan didn’t. Or perhaps he did. A cunning enemy, Satan is. Yet since his fall from grace he has had only one arrow in his quiver, worldly power. He left his halo behind.
If he could induce God to engage the cosmic battle in his arena . . . if he could tempt the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy to flex His divine muscles . . . if he could convert the contest for universal dominion into one for worldly domination, he could overthrow the heavenly throne.
He failed. Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights and when the tempter came to Him in His depleted state still He would not sin. Because He resisted – both now and later, for Satan did not abandon his quest in this moment – our Lord could offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross and rise from the grave as the victor over death.
So it is that we observe Lent for the 40 days leading up to Easter. The custom dates to the infancy of the church.
St. Irenaeus, who died in the year 203, wrote that the churches of East and West differed not only on the date of Easter but on the duration of the fast in which Christians prepared themselves for it. “Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day,” he wrote, “but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.”
He refers to the apostles. Lent began a very long time ago. By the fourth century, the period of 40 days had become the standard duration and prayer and fasting its hallmarks of penitence in imitation of Jesus’ time of trial before beginning His public ministry.
There’s something about that time frame I think Satan might not have understood, and that we should remember. At the end of it, the devil encountered a physically depleted Jesus, to be sure. He was, after all, only human.
But in His weakness was His strength. Having submitted Himself to His Father’s will in perfect obedience, He had stored up spiritual power beyond imagining. Not only as God but in His humanity He was invincible.
A line from our Collect for Peace in the Order for Morning Prayer comes to mind. We pray, “O God . . . whose service is perfect freedom . . .”
Beloved, salvation came into the world not by a secret gnosis or a mythical Force but in a Person, a man of flesh and blood who saw clearly that submission to the Father’s will is the pathway to the pinnacle of power. His strength was perfected in weakness, and so can ours be.
Of course, Jesus is God, too, but that’s a sermon for another day. As you make your way through Lent, may the Lord be with you. Amen.