2/21/2010 - The Rev. Alexander Webb - The First Sunday in Lent

posted May 21, 2010, 6:55 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:55 PM by Terry Brady ]
In the name of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

I have never been all that fond of Lent. Lent is long, the Great Litany is long, and my list of sins, vices, and temptations is long, long, long. I’m a busy person, and I move at a pretty fast pace. Why would I take time from my work to reflect on my shortcomings?

Yet, despite my objections, Lent keeps coming around, year after year. Actually, it feels like we’ve already had a few Lents this year. Several of the recent snowstorms have brought my life to an unexpected, unanticipated, undesired halt. On nights that were cold, dark, and still, I could not help but spend time reflecting on my life, my faith, and my future. I have come to see that time spent in holy reflection equips us to face the challenges of our lives. Lent prepares us to live the lives that God calls us to live.

In the third chapter of Luke, we learn of Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit descends from heaven like a dove, and anoints Jesus as God’s Son, the descendent of Adam with whom God is well pleased. Immediately thereafter, in today’s gospel lesson, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus into the cold, dark stillness of the wilderness for forty days of reflection.

Luke does not tell us very much about those forty days, only that Jesus fasted, that he ate nothing at all, and that he was tempted by the devil. I can only imagine the powerful and intimate conversations that Jesus had with God as they wandered together in the wilderness: Conversations about life, faith, and God’s plan for salvation.

When Jesus emerged, he was famished, and we would have been famished too: physically, mentally, spiritually. But, Jesus’ challenges were not over. Jesus emerges from his forty-day fast only to find the devil waiting to tempt him once again.

The devil points to a rock and says, “Look there, if you are the Son of God, change that rock in to bread, and eat.” But, Jesus quietly quotes scripture and keeps to himself. The devil sweeps him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. “Look here, worship me, and in an instant all this authority, all this power, all this dominion can be yours.” But, Jesus quietly quotes scripture and keeps to himself. In one final attempt, the devil whisks Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, the highest height, the very apex of Jewish religious life. “Look here, if you are the Son of God throw yourself down and be worshiped by everyone as your angels charge to the rescue.” But, Jesus quietly quotes scripture and keeps to himself.

Hungry though he was, Jesus did not prove himself with magic tricks. Powerful though he was, Jesus’ did not prove himself with earthly domination. Holy though he was, Jesus’ did not prove himself by deploying his armies of angels.

Instead, Jesus exercised self-restraint. Jesus overcame temptation. Jesus kept in abeyance all the powers of the universe, and proved his might with the strength of his will. By his faithfulness, Jesus defeated the devil and revealed the power of God.

But, the devil was not down for the count. Luke tells us that the devil departed from Jesus until an opportune time. And, at the very end of Jesus’ life, the devil returns in the person of Satan, taking control of Judas Iscariot, and motivating the betrayal of Jesus.

The frightening part of this story is that Jesus’ temptations were not all that different from our own. We, too, must contend with the powers of darkness, and we too must wrestle with temptation. As St. Peter wrote, “[Our] adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”

Jesus had been fasting forty days. He was hungry, and the devil offered him something to eat. Jesus had only a dozen friends. He was lonely, and the devil offered him kingly power and earthly glory. Jesus had been rejected by the religious elders of his day. He was a heretic, and the devil offered him untold religious authority.

Consider what the devil said to Jesus: Do something that you can do easily, and fill your aching stomach. Reveal yourself to be the person that you know you are, and be heralded as a prophet forever. Accept the power that is yours by right, and never be lonely again.

If left to our own devices, which of us would not have taken the devil’s deal? In these uncertain times, we too feel the pangs of hunger. We too bear the despair of friendlessness. And, we too know the sting of rebuke as we witness to our faith in a world that has never been more secular.

In his temptations, Jesus seems so very human, but in his faithfulness, he seems so very divine.

Yet, Luke presents Jesus to us as a model for faithfulness amidst great temptation, for hope in the face of great despair. In his faithfulness, in his sacrifice, in his self-restraint, Jesus reveals the glory of God, and so can we.

As Olympic fever sweeps its way around the globe, it seems that the solution to every problem is training harder, growing stronger, or moving faster. But, sometimes, the solution to our problems is patient endurance.

When I was a teenager, my mother taught me a driving tip that has been on my mind during our recent snowstorms. The only way to get a car out of a snow bank is to use low gear, with slow but constant pressure on the gas. Low gear maximizes your power, and constant acceleration maximizes your momentum.

The physics are quite delicate. If you don’t use your lowest gear, or if you let up on the gas for even a moment, you will not get traction. If you accelerate too quickly, or apply the brake too soon, your wheels will spin and slide. Your car’s salvation depends on neither speed nor braking. The only solution is a mix of power and patience; there can be no rushing, no forcing. You must apply power slowly and consistently, and only the most assiduous efforts will suffice.

The life of faith is also about patient endurance. Jesus did not defeat temptation by setting superhuman goals for himself. Luke portrays Jesus being consistently quiet, consistently faithful. It was Jesus’ vigilance – his firm and consistent resistance – that enabled him to defeat the devil time and time again.

But, what happens when we fail? When our temptations get the better of us? When our efforts aren’t enough, we do the same thing we do when the car gets stuck in the rut. When temptations get the better of us, we do the only thing we can do: roll back a little bit, reexamine our situation, and try it one more time.

Lent is our time to fall back before our wheels start to spin. All year long, we strive to live lives that are worthy of our calling. Like Olympic Christians, we push and push and push. But, in the last days of winter, Jesus asks us to fall back with him, to regroup, recharge, and prepare for the work ahead.

In her Ash Wednesday sermon, our Rector invited us to think of Lent as a grace given by God, a time marked by fasting, temptation, examination, and prayer. Difficult though it may be to think of Lent as a grace, the hard spiritual work to which we are called in this Lenten season will equip us to grapple with temptation, sin, and Satan in the year to come.