First Sunday in Lent
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
March 1, 2020
I ran across an Internet meme this week that described Lent as “a religious holiday commemorating the time Jesus gave up chocolate and soda for forty days.”
A better definition of Lent is that it’s a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar in the 40 days leading up to Easter in which Christians prepare for the Resurrection of our Lord by engaging in the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That said, it seems to me that our gospel reading from Matthew is a somewhat strange Scripture passage for the first Sunday in Lent. While we are beginning our forty-day-and-forty-night fast, Jesus’ forty days are already over! Matthew’s story focuses more on the temptation of Jesus AFTER the fast has concluded. It’s doesn’t seem like the most pragmatic way to begin Lent.
But the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen this passage for today. It would be awfully nice if it were a practical set of instructions of how to live during our Lenten journey. But maybe it’s not meant to be practical. Maybe the Church is simply trying to tell us about Jesus: who he is, and what sort of character he shows.
In the first temptation, the devil quotes Scripture and encourages Jesus to satisfy his physical hunger by turning stones into bread. When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” the word “if” could be translated from the Greek as “since” – “since you are the Son of God.” The devil isn’t expressing doubt about Jesus’s identity or power. He’s rather trying to deceive Jesus into using his power to satisfy his own physical needs rather than trusting the Father for them. Jesus responds in kind by quoting Scripture, affirming that life is sustained by more than physical food; it is sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus will not misuse his power to satisfy his own physical needs.
The second test focuses on the need for security and safety. For the second time, the devil quotes Scripture, and this time, he tempts Jesus to make himself safe from injury or even death. Jesus recognizes once again that the devil is taking Scripture out of context: Scripture does not endorse testing God’s protective grace for the sake of self-protection. Jesus will not misuse his power to make himself safe and secure.
In the third temptation, the devil tries to seduce Jesus with domination and prestige. He offers Jesus control over all the world’s kingdoms, along with the splendor that comes with it, if he will only swear allegiance to the devil. Again, Jesus isn’t led astray. He rejects the tempter’s deception and quotes scripture again in its context saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus will not misuse his power to gain earthly power and prestige.
Just as Jesus was tempted, so we will be. Jesus didn’t respond to temptation by succumbing to it, or fleeing to another selfish vice to escape, or by complaining to God, or by wondering what he may have done wrong to deserve it. He responded by deepening his dependence on his Father. The very temptations he experienced – materialism, security, and prestige – are not foreign to us. We experience them every day. The appropriate response in resisting them is to turn to God for help instead of relying on our own power.
What are you giving up for Lent? What are you denying yourself? Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, and it was this intentional period of self-denial that prepared him to endure and ultimately overcome these temptations by the devil. Even though Lent began this past Wednesday, it is not too late to find a way to be intentional about denying yourself something you hold dear. Intentional self-denial is helpful in the spiritual life because it reveals the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in denying ourselves, the things that control us come to the surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during intentional periods of self-denial. But we should be prepared: when they surface, we will be tempted not only to stop denying ourselves, but also to sin. If we’re properly prepared and watching for these things to surface, we can then respond as Jesus did: we can turn to God for help and rely on his grace to strengthen our will to choose to overcome all assaults and temptations of the devil. Self-denial reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Whatever it is that we’re giving up – that is not what sustains us; God sustains us. Therefore, when we give something up during Lent, we are not so much abstaining from something as we are learning to rely on God to give us everything that we need and more. 
While this passage teaches about who Jesus is and what sort of character he shows, there is one significant difference between how Jesus responds when he’s tempted, and how we respond: Jesus never sinned and we do. You and I might choose to respond to temptation in the wrong way. We may choose to give in to our more carnal urges and gorge on whatever it is that we’ve supposedly given up. If this happens, do not lose heart! Don’t wallow in the guilt that you feel, but instead turn to God for help and pick back up right where you left off!
During the Season of Lent, our fasting and self-denial will engage the dark places in our hearts, giving us an opportunity to come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. We will be tempted to rely on the devices and desires of our own hearts rather than the grace of God to overcome temptation. We will fall into sin and then be further tempted to allow the guilt we feel to keep us captive. But Lent is not about guilt, it is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us. It is about the amendment of life and new beginnings. Lent is about learning anew that we are sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Friends, this Lent, let us train our very souls as a runner trains to run a marathon to depend on God to give us everything we need…and more. Amen.
 The discussion of the three temptations comes primarily from David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 47-49.
 Much of this paragraph came from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline 54-55.
 Bartlett 48.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!