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Lent 1A Sermon
Matthew 4:1-11
March
1, 2020

 

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Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Recently I was reading about the desert fathers and mothers of the Christian faith. These were men and women who were hermits, monks who retreated mostly to the deserts of Egypt in the third century. A collection of, “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” exists today – these are writings of the men and women who followed the example of Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270. But the desert did not offer these people a private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. The desert is preeminently a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean desert monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of Father Anthony or other spiritual leaders. A person was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life they had just left. Desert Mother Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive themselves by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart.

There is a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that illustrates this point. A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger, so he said, “I will go and live somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave, but one day he filled his jug with water, put it on the ground, and it suddenly fell over. He filled it again and again it fell. This happened a third time, and in a rage, he snatched up the jug and smashed it against the wall of the cave. Returning to his right mind, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said, “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all, God’s help.” And he rose up and went back.

I don’t imagine Jesus went into the desert for a quiet retreat either. Immediately after his baptism, the spirit leads him out into the wilderness. He is without food, water or companionship. He is susceptible to the harsh conditions that exist there. He is just as likely to be carried out feet first as he is to be restored unchanged to the life he left! While in the wilderness, he experienced the presence of an impulse that tried to lure him away from relying on the spirit of God that brought him there. The Gospel writer Matthew expresses our inability to truly understand this impulse when he uses three different names in the five times he refers to it: once it is called The Tempter, once Satan, and three times The Devil. Whatever name we may call it, this impulse wanted to draw Jesus toward power, prestige and possessions when he had been alone in a barren, desolate place for a long, long time.

Whatever we call those impulses when we experience them, they are false gods which want to steal away our identity. Think about it, Jesus had just been baptized. After he comes up out of the water a dove descends and a voice from heaven proclaims him God’s beloved Son. The first words Jesus experiences from this impulse are, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” It is a test of Jesus’ faith in his identity as God’s beloved son. Identity theft is a phenomenon whereby people try to rob us of who we are and replace it with something else for their own benefit. Certainly, identity theft as a type of fraud can rob your bank account and investments, but there are others who try to rob us of our identity as Christians as well. “If you are a TRUE Christian, why are you suffering from cancer or heart disease or depression or why are you bi-polar? If your faith is strong enough, you should just be able to ask God for anything and it will be given to you. Why do you have doubts about God and questions? And if you are a child of God, why do you still act selfishly and get angry with other people over petty arguments?” Having been baptized, we can be confident that we are God’s beloved children, but that doesn’t mean that we are immune from the dangers of desert living. After all, we will all be carried out of this life feet first one day.

We all have these impulses, these false gods, which call to us from within. There is no place to hide, not even solitude of desert … not even in the disciplines of Lent as we pray and focus ourselves on our need for God’s amazing grace and mercy. Those impulses from within, the tempter, the devil, Satan … whatever you call them … test us even during the holiest times like baptism and during Lent. Lent has often been likened to a desert-like time for Christians … not a place to get away from impulses but where we willingly open ourselves up to the things that draw us away from God so that we can honestly examine them and lay them at the cross of Christ.

It’s said that when Martin Luther felt these impulses and was oppressed by his conscience or plagued by doubt, fear, or insecurity, he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, “Away with you Satan!” And then he would say, “I am baptized!” That is the root of the relationship that forms his identity. That is also the root of the relationship that we have with God that forms our identity. We are baptized, we are God’s beloved sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased.

And perhaps that’s our task this week as we being this season of Lent: to be reminded of the promise inscribed on our foreheads at Holy Baptism: that God has declared us worthy of love, dignity, and respect and has pledged to be both with us and for us throughout all of our lives.
On these Sundays of Lent you will notice the old, ugly, rugged cross in the front of the sanctuary. It will be here each week, sitting next to the baptismal font. These two Christian symbols are closely connected and are central to our worship focus during Lent. Like a retreat to a desert, you will be tested during these next six weeks. It is not a time to escape from those things that draw us away from God, but a time where they become even more real. Ironically, we will all be carried out of this season feet first – just as we have been drowned in the waters of our baptism, so we go to the cross with Jesus in Holy Week. We will not come out unchanged: by the grace and mercy of God, our identity as baptized children of God will be confirmed and strengthened, so that life among the impulses of the false gods can be confronted with the simple phrase, “Away from me … for I am baptized!” Amen.