Sermon -- Sunday, March 11, 2018

Matthew 4:1-11: The Temptation of Jesus
James 1:2-4: Faith and Wisdom

By: Amy D. Brown

This morning marks the fourth Sunday in Lent, called Laetare Sunday in Latin-language church traditions, meaning “to rejoice”.  In denominations that observe Lent, this is the halfway point, a brighter spot in an otherwise solemn 6 week observance. Starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, Lent spans 46 calendar days, but only 40 of those days are considered part of Lenten fasting.  The Council of Nicea in 325CE forbade fasting, kneeling, and any other acts of sorrow and penance on Sundays, even in Lent.

40 days comes up quite a bit in the Bible, generally symbolizing a period of testing, trial, or probation. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai with God in Exodus before receiving the 10 Commandments, it rained for 40 days and nights during the Great Flood in Genesis, and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted in this morning’s reading from Matthew, to list a few.  Change days to years and 40 is how many years the Hebrews spent wandering the desert waiting to be delivered to the promised land. And 40 hours is the amount of time Jesus is traditionally believed to have spent in the tomb, before then spending 40 days appearing to the apostles after his crucifixion before ascending to Heaven.

A number of places I read indicated the Hebrew use of the number 40 was often a placeholder for a long, unknown period of time.  40 days spans more than a month, while 40 years was considered a generation or epoch, so in both cases, the number 40 indicates crossing a mark of time for the particular measure being used, whether days or years.  Even before the Council of Nicea in 325, there had been mention of observing a 40 day fast in preparation for Easter, and the council merely cemented it into canon.

I know of number of you come to this church from a Catholic upbringing, so giving something up for Lent is something you likely did for a while.  I grew up in a town with a good sized Catholic population and often got asked by my Catholic friends what I had given up for Lent. Being the smarty-pants that I was, I would tell them I had given up Catholicism, rather than just say my church didn’t observe giving things up for Lent.  We’d certainly discussed it in Sunday School, so the concept wasn’t foreign, but at times, the practice seemed a little lost on even those observing it.

So let’s take a step back and look at what observing Lent is intended to accomplish.  At its heart, Lent is intended to prepare the believer for Easter. There are a number of components to that process, some with less than obvious names, so I’ll list them, then briefly explain them.  According to Wikipedia, Lent is observed through prayer, penance, mortifying of the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and self-denial.

Prayer is ideally not limited to Lent, and needs no explanation.  Penance and repentance both come from the same root meaning of the desire to be forgiven, but lead to conflicting views on the essence of repentance.  Taken here, penance can be seen as the confession of sins committed, and repentance as a more systemic change in the moral attitude of both mind and soul.  It’s one thing to confess your sins, and quite another to internalize God’s forgiveness. Romans 2: 4 says, “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”  So, during Lent, Christians of various traditions not only admit to their shortcomings in hope of God’s forgiveness, but should also be working toward accepting that forgiveness at the deepest level.

Mortification of the flesh is about the death of one’s sinful nature, commonly achieved through fasting, abstinence, and pious kneeling.  Romans 8: 13 states “for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  This practice is why many orders of brothers and sisters of faith take a vow of poverty. Self-denial dovetails into mortification of the flesh as the outward practice of abstinence and fasting.

And lastly, almsgiving is essentially practicing charity, giving to others seen as a religious virtue.  Famous Jewish scholar and sage Maimonides created a list of charity, from most righteous to least:

1) Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

2) Giving when neither party knows the other's identity

3) Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity

4) Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity

5) Giving before being asked

6) Giving after being asked

7) Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully

8) Giving begrudgingly

Many of us have certainly been guilty of the last 3 at one time or another.

So, Lent is a process by which a believer spends time at prayer, confesses their sins, separates themselves from those sins through conscious self-denial, accepts God’s unconditional forgiveness, and turns that bounty outward to others via charitable acts.  At its barest minimum, Lent is a 6 week opportunity to think of Jesus’ impending death on the cross for our sins in those moments when it takes conscious effort to not partake of those things given up for Lent. But this is the part of the process that I think most often gets missed.  I had friends who gave up things for Lent that they rarely encountered; I remember less what the specifics were and more that it seemed a poor reflection of their faith.

If a person gives up chocolate for Lent, which I will point out started on Valentine’s Day this year (upping the ante on this popular choice), chocolate should be something they’re confronted with on a fairly regular basis.  If a person gives up alcohol, but only has one drink a week or perhaps less, where is the opportunity for reflection? A review of Tweets in 2014 about what people were saying they gave up for Lent included the expected ones, chocolate, swearing, alcohol, soda (as numbers 2, 4, 5, and 6, respectively), but also included clearly tongue-in-cheek selections of school (#1), Lent itself (#11) , and my personal favorite, “you” at #17.

But we don’t celebrate Lent in the American Baptist tradition, at least not in the formal sense I’ve just discussed.  I ate all of those Valentine’s chocolates already, thank you very much, and a recent Facebook memory of mine from 2011 that I chose not to repost said that I do, in fact, kiss my mother with this mouth.  Where then, do American Baptists find their personal connection to Christ’s crucifixion if we don’t spend 40 days wishing we could have just a little bite of that steak at the next table, meatless Fridays be damned?  I’m not sure there’s always a substantial answer to that question.

John C. Maxwell, a spiritual and self-help writer, said about faith, “A faith that has not been tested cannot be trusted.”  This is not unlike our brief passage from James this morning. Tested faith leads to endurance, and endurance to self-realization.  There are a number of passages in the Bible that speak to God refining his people like silver or gold, but that refinement of precious metals happens in fire.  The impurities in the metals burn away. The imagery in these passages is no accident.

And here we turn to Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  Fasting can be described as complete absence of food and drink, like many of us do for short periods of time for blood work or medical procedures, but religious fasting is typically observed as a limited intake of food, sometimes with the complete removal of meat and milk, sometimes including abstaining from wine and other alcohols, and sometimes sweets.  Religious figures throughout history who took too literal a read on their fasting typically died. On average, a human body can withstand 3 weeks without any food, but usually only 3 to 4 days without water before the side effects lead to system failure and death. Safe religious fasting generally involves eating enough to sustain, but not enough to abate hunger.  Knowing how I feel on a day where I ate breakfast but skipped lunch, I’m not sure I could maintain that level of want and deficiency for that long a period of time.

Religious scholars, then, presume Jesus survived off of what little he could find in the wilderness.  He was surely weakened by the experience after 40 days. But for the modern reader, there’s another facet to this time in the wilderness.  In 2018, it’s difficult for most of us to even imagine a day alone with only our thoughts, never mind weeks with no outside distraction. For some, even a significantly briefer extended silence, perhaps of only minutes, makes them so uncomfortable that they seek out any distraction.

But what are those people seeking to distract themselves from?  Those of us who practice any form of meditation know all about the stream of our own thoughts that interrupt us when we try to clear our minds.  We acknowledge the thought, but don’t attempt to address it, setting it mentally aside for another time. Over time, we get better at spotting the distracting trains of thought before they throw us out of our practice, but the thoughts never truly go away.  And some days, we’re more successful than others.

Jesus was probably no different.  He lived a human existence, which no doubt included a constant clamor of thoughts when he wanted or needed peace.  So his time in the wilderness, which immediately follows his baptism by John the Baptist, can be seen as Jesus attempting to center himself before beginning his all-too-short ministry.  The 40 day fasting was a recurring theme in the old testament; Elijah fasted 40 days before receiving a prophecy from God and Moses did the same before God gave him the 10 Commandments. And what was Jesus’ reward for his 40 days of sacrifice? Not the iconic 10 Commandments and not a prophetic vision for God’s chosen people.  Instead, Jesus was tempted.

The following is a passage from Wikipedia on the temptation of Christ (referencing Biblical analysis by France, Hill, and Fleming):

The traditional view is that Satan on each occasion is trying to make Jesus commit a particular sin — avarice by offering power over the kingdoms of the world, gluttony by suggesting a way to relieve Jesus' hunger, and hubris by suggesting that Jesus jump and rely on angels to break his fall.

Another view popular for a time (for example, see Dostoyevsky's The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov) was that Satan wasn't so much tempting Jesus as presenting him with the different options he could take to be a Messiah, and making him choose one. Evangelicals point to the word peirazo which is often translated as tempt but is more accurately translated test. This Greek word is the same as that used when the lawyer approached Jesus to test him by asking which is the greatest commandment (Matt 22.36); also when the Pharisees sought to test Jesus when they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?" (Matt 19.3). i.e. the devil was testing Jesus' understanding of his role rather than trying to lure him to sin.  It is unclear whether or not Jesus understood his role as the Messiah following his Baptism. Transitioning from man to Messiah, or the embodiment of God, Jesus is tested in order to surpass the laws of human restriction. (End passage.)

So, Jesus is tested by the notion that he has the power to feed his own hunger without needing to wait to return to civilization.  We know he had this ability, as he later fed the 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. To this test, he replies that “man does not live by bread alone,” one of those Bible quotes that is so often removed from context that I expect more people know it and don’t realize it’s Biblical than know the second half, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  After 40 days of nominal starvation, Jesus passes this test, turning the suggestion that he use his status as the Son of God to feed himself into an object lesson on the other ways in which we are nourished.

Next, Jesus is tempted, in what I would argue is the least of the 3 tests for Him, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, proving himself to be the Son of God when the angels inevitably save him from the fall.  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he replies. While it might be the easiest for Jesus to withstand, the message it conveys is perhaps more important to us than to Jesus himself. For some reason, this particular message of not putting God to the test brings to mind Oral Roberts and his “I need $8 million or the Lord’s going to take me home” scandal of my youth.  Certainly the implication to his followers was to get him the money and not test God’s promise/threat, although that certainly was not actually God at work there.

And finally, Jesus is offered all of the kingdoms of the world and all of their riches and splendor, for the “small” price of worshipping the devil.  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” is his final response, ending his trials successfully by quoting the Old Testament for all three responses.  If Jesus wasn’t clear about what it meant to be the Messiah upon his baptism, at the very least, he was strongly rooted in his faith following his 40 day fast in the wilderness.

I think it’s safe to say that none of us will ever experience this level of temptation.  We don’t rate being offered the world for a single bending of the knee. I couldn’t turn stones to bread even if I wanted to.  And I would never presume I’d get an angelic rescue if I jumped from the temple spire. But we are tempted. We’re tempted to behave less than Christian, we’re tempted to judge, to ignore the beam in our own eye and criticize the mote in our peer’s eye, and we’re tempted to fill the silence with background noise so we can’t hear what God wants us to hear.

And ultimately, that’s what I think Lent is supposed to do for us.  Those who observe Lent are afforded an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s trials and temptations on our behalf.  When they are ordering dinner and choose fish over steak, that’s a moment where they thought about Jesus’ impending death, even if only for a moment, and even if only out of a sense of duty or Lenten tradition.  And if they gave up swearing and managed to think before they spoke, even once, it was a time that they thought before they spoke when they typically don’t bother.

So, what can we do as American Baptists?  I’m not suggesting we pick up the Catholic practices of Lent.  In the past, I’ve done a Lenten Bible Study, committing to a 40 day course of readings that I inevitably do in fits and starts and not daily.  And sure, we’re already at the halfway point, but hey, if you’re an optimist, the glass is half full. There are plenty of free resources available online if you want to take up a Lenten Bible Study in preparation for Easter, and if you start today, you only need to work double time.

Another thing we can do is focused prayer.  This is another place where the internet offers plenty of resources for Lent, with prayers to recite and passages to use for contemplative meditation, where you read and then sit in quiet reflection on what it means to you.  Or, a step beyond contemplation, you could try finding a quiet place, setting those thoughts that do arise to the side, and listening. Just listening for what God might be trying to tell you. When you set aside the iPad or the Kindle, stop reading your book, or knitting, when you leave the phone in the other room without the constant ping of notifications, is there something God’s trying to tell you?

We’ve still got a few weeks left of Lent, before the observance of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus met with the disciples for the last time at the last supper, was betrayed, and crucified, and then the celebration of Easter with its joyful message of the empty tomb.  If you don’t typically give anything up for Lent, perhaps you’d consider giving up just a little of your time over these next few weeks. Take a few moments every day, or a few moments more if you already set aside daily time to pray, and spend some time in prayer about Jesus’ sacrifice for you and what it means to you.  Or set aside some time to sit and listen, really listen, and try to hear what God’s trying to tell you this Easter. Amen.