I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame;
and every time I pass that way, I always hear my name.
Bob Dylan (“Every Grain of Sand”)
This week we begin the season of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is usually a time of reflection, reflecting on one’s spiritual life and relationship to God; examination, examining one’s heart for sin; and repentance, repenting from the sin we discover.
On Ash Wednesday (March 1), we considered our mortality, sin, and humility. I marked our foreheads with ash, reminding us that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” The ash came from last year’s Palm Sunday palm branches. The very items we use to praise also turn to ash and show us that even our best efforts sometimes don’t amount to much.
The early church used Lent as a time to prepare one’s soul for Baptism, turning the examination and repentance toward that specific act. This year, I will focus my Lenten sermons on the Baptismal vows we all take – or are taken on our behalf – in Baptism (these vows begin on page 34 of our United Methodist Hymnal).
Today, we begin with “Renounce:”
On behalf of the whole church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
To start things off, we begin where all Lenten Observances begin, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness:
Matthew 4:1-11 (CEB)
Temptation of Jesus
4 Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”[a]
5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”[b]
7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[c]
8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[d] 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
Christianity is unique in that it worships a God who came to be part of our life on earth. Other religions might focus on the divinity and “otherness” of their deities, but our God knows what we are going through on earth. Never more so than here in Matthew 4. These three temptations may sound unusual, and “otherworldly,” but they represent temptations we all face. You might say they are the original temptations – and all others just variations on their themes.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul says: “No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.”
Perhaps God learned this compassionate approach in the wilderness of Matthew 4?
Maybe Paul’s truth seems untrue because our resistance is so low that every temptation seems irresistible? In all three instances in Matthew, Jesus has a “way out” because of his commitment to God, and his knowledge of Scripture.
Looking at the three temptations allow us to understand more deeply how we can “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness.”
The devil and temptations also afford us the opportunity to learn and understand Scripture, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listen to them. – Martin Luther
One of my favorite possessions is an autographed copy of In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen. How I came to own such a treasure is a story for another day. The book is Nouwen’s lecture on the three temptations of Christ. I always turn to this book on the First Sunday in Lent.
The First Temptation: “Turn stones into bread” – The Temptation to be Relevant
For Nouwen, this is the temptation to relevance. To a hungry man, nothing is more relevant than eating. In being tempted this way, Jesus is tempted to make his will, his desires, his answers more important – more relevant – than God’s will, desires, and answers.
We do this every time we are tempted to come along with the perfect answer at the perfect time – whether it is what God wants or not. We are often tempted to act as though we are the smartest, most powerful person in the room (at least I am). Often, we don’t even sit with the question long enough to even know what God wants!
Nouwen says the way to renounce the wicked “spiritual force” of relevance is prayer, in which we “Walk in the full light of God, acknowledging that ‘I am human and you are God.'”
Many times, I find myself praying this prayer: “I can’t. You must. I am yours. Show me the way.” (from Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero) I need reminding that “I am human and [God] is God.”
The Second Temptation: “Throw yourself down” – The Temptation to be Spectacular
Nouwen says, “We act like visibility and notoriety are the main criteria of the value of what we are doing.” In other words, there’s no value in ministry unless somebody notices. On Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6, in which Jesus reminds us to do our good deeds in private, without seeking notoriety. We must remember, “Ministry is not only done by the popular people in a church (or in any group of Christians), it is done by everybody.”
For Nouwen, the way to renounce this “force” is, through confession and forgiveness living into a life of vulnerability and humility.
The Third Temptation: “Worship me and it’s all yours” – The Temptation to be Powerful
Power never gives security, but always reminds us of our weakness. It “always lusts after greater power precisely because it is an illusion” and never satisfies. Relationships based on power, control, and manipulation are never relationships.
How do we renounce the “force” of Power? Spiritual Reflection, in which “Power is abandoned in favor of love.” As we reflect on God, we learn that God is present, caring, and always showing us the way.