Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted 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 splendor; 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.
We shared Ash Wednesday this year with our fellow Bernardsville Episcopalians at the Church of St. John on the Mountain. I met Mother Susan at the train station early in the morning, distributing ashes to commuters, as well as adults and children on their way to work or school. We hosted the noon service and went to St. John's for the evening service where I preached. I'm grateful to David Dockery and members of our choir who joined St. John's choir to help us usher in the holy season of Lent. In my sermon, I invited those present to imagine the threads that connect them with people in their life, visualizing the web of interconnection. If threads and webs don't work for you, consider the image of a tree to visualize how we are formed and shaped by our relationships and our interdependent nature. You can imagine your tree however you would like, but I am thinking of myself as the trunk of a tree with roots in a nurturing soil of family, community, and church. Some of the roots themselves are thick and deep, others are stunted or emaciated, depending on who or what they represent in my life. Knowing me, I may be toppling over in one direction or another. A leaning tower of a tree.
Jesus is also shaped and formed throughout his life. Rooted in his faith, family, and community, long before the series of tests we hear of today. Over 30 years of preparation, almost a complete lifetime in those days. I don't mean to say he spent 30 years in seminary, or 30 years training to be a Pharisee, or 30 years of being pampered like a prince. No. Jesus - the person in whom God chose to be embodied for the purpose of sharing God's love with the world and restoring us back to God - is rooted in the beautiful ordinariness of being a first century Jewish peasant from the backwaters of Galilee. Raised by his parents to know and love God. We can see the strength of his Jewish faith - roots of Scripture, Law, and Compassion - holding up Jesus's own tree.
Just prior to today's Gospel passage, Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and he hears God's voice from heaven declare "This is my Son, the Beloved, whom I have chosen." And in the next moment Jesus is led by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. "I have chosen this one," says God, "let's see if he's ready." Jesus is famished after 40 wilderness days and nights, but his rootedness in God and his tradition allows him to wield Scripture as a weapon - a sword and a shield. Greed, often at the root of our own temptations, cannot move Jesus from God's side to the devil's. The famished one who goes on to feed thousands tells the devil he won't turn stones into an excess of bread just for himself. Quoting Deuteronomy (8:3), Jesus 4answers, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
I'm not sure what Jesus was expecting when he was baptized in water and the Holy Spirit and heard the roar of God's delight. Did he know the wilderness was next? One commentator writes, "Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God's next move, a place of learning to trust in God's mercy." An apt description of the season of Lent.
Jesus very well may have expected tests before his ministry began in earnest. Temptations in our own lives are not always as direct as the devil's challenges. They can be subtle, preying on our self-interest and greed, woven into our business or society. Imagine if Jesus wasn't rooted in his religious tradition? Imagine if he knew little of Scripture and God's vision for the world? Or if Jesus wasn't already filled with God's love and light? The devil's temptations might seem reasonable to a less rooted person who was just called the "Beloved Son" of God. The honorific "Son of God" was used by emperors as well as Davidic kings, or to refer in Scripture to angelic "members of the divine council." Drunk on power Jesus could have easily failed the tests: opting instead to command bread from stones, test God and the angels as he fell from the temple pinnacle, and trade his allegiance for earthly kingdoms.
The same goes for us. Lent is a good time to examine both our roots and our temptations or attachments. It's a time to get back in alignment with God who is always longing for us. So often the first step is to show up. God's already alongside us. We can open our eyes to God's presence and ask God to strengthen and deepen our faith. To help us move past our trepidation about reading the Bible, setting aside time to pray and be with God, serving others in a new way, or sharing our faith story with a friend. Our relationship with God as experiential as our relationships with people in our lives. It requires time, attention, skills, and study. Strengthening and grounding our roots of faith. We don't always know where to begin, but it can help to invite a friend or me into conversation. Our St. Benedict's Toolbox small group, which meets every couple of weeks, has been a great space to explore faith and life together. At the center of our faith is love. Compassion. Deepening our faith grows our capacity to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
As you begin your Lenten journey, do so with a full heart, not a heavy one. Give thanks for a season where we are encouraged to redirect ourselves toward our Creator. I end with a poem by Edwina Gateley, whose faith was shaped by her ministry with women who were abused and trafficked. Her message is for all of us. The poem is entitled "Let Your God Love You". I may have shared it before, but that's okay. We don't open ourselves to God's love enough. It's not a matter of whether we believe in God. God already believes in us. When we allow ourselves to be loved by God, we are strengthened and renewed to live out God's love for all. We increase our ability to see Christ in people our society neglects, denies, and discards. Whatever our politics, it's clear that we live in a time when we are urgently called to love.
Let Your God Love You
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God-