1st Sunday of Lent Genesis 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Romans 5:12–19; Matthew 4:1–11
You look different Jesus’ temptations show him to be the Son of God, the “new Adam” of God’s new creation. Anumber of years ago Doug Alderson wrote a beautiful article in Campus Life magazine. It described his 2,000-mile hike down the Appalachian Trail.
Doug had just graduated from high school and had lots of unanswered questions: Was there a God? What was the purpose of life? What was his purpose in life? Commenting on all this, Doug wrote:
There had to be more to life than money, TV, parties and getting high. . . . My hike was a search for inner peace, a journey to find myself.
The hike proved to be more difficult than Doug anticipated. At times the trail became dangerously steep. The days were often rainy. Doug’s clothes got soaked, his feet got wet, his body shivered and ached at night. But Doug didn’t give up.
The long hours of walking and climbing gave Doug a chance to think. They also gave him a chance to get to know himself better. There was no one around to influence him.
Five months later Doug reached home. He was a different person. Even his dog eyed him strangely, as if to say, Where have you been? What have you done? You look different. Doug was different. He had found what he was searching for. There was a God. Life had a purpose, and he had a role to play in it.
Doug summed up his experience this way: I was more my own person. I liked what I saw in myself.
Doug Alderson belongs to that long line of people in history who have gone off alone to think about the meaning and purpose of life. Moses did it. The prophets did it. John the Baptist did it. And, in today’s gospel, Jesus does it.
During his 40 days of being alone, Jesus experienced three great temptations. We might compare the three temptations to a preview of a movie. A preview tells us just enough about a movie to get us interested in it, but not enough to spoil its story.
The temptations of Jesus are like that. They tell us just enough about Jesus to get us interested in him, but not enough to spoil the gospel story.
For example, the temptations give us a preview of who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Take the first point: who Jesus is. The first thing the temptations reveal is that Jesus experienced the same inner battle between good and evil that we do. He felt the same inner conflict between right and wrong that we feel. This suggests that Jesus is human like us. But the temptations suggest something more.
Although Jesus was tempted as we are he reacted to temptation differently than we do. Jesus didn’t waver or hesitate in the face of temptation. He didn’t give into temptation in the least. This suggests that there is something special about Jesus.
What is this specialness?
The devil himself gives us a clue when he says to Jesus, If you are God’s Son. . . .
The devil suggests that Jesus is not just another human being. He is God’s Son come to live among us.
Years later Paul explained Jesus’ nature this way in his Letter to the Philippians: [Jesus) always had the nature of God, but he . . . became like man and appeared in human likeness. Philippians 2:6–7
And so the temptations preview the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is both man and God.
This brings us to the second point: what Jesus came to do. What mission did he have on earth?
The temptations preview the answer to this question also. To see how they do this, we need to recall today’s first reading.
Right after Adam was created, the devil tempted him and Adam fell. From that moment on, every man and woman was held in slavery by the devil.
Now the devil tempts Jesus. But where Adam fell, Jesus stands firm. This suggests that Jesus has come to free us from slavery. This suggests that Jesus has come to right the wrong of Adam’s first sin. Commenting on Jesus’ mission to do this, Paul says in today’s second reading:
As the one sin condemned all mankind, in the same way the one righteous act sets all mankind free and gives them life. In other words, Jesus is the “second Adam,” who has come to right the wrong of the “first Adam.” That’s exactly the way Paul explained Jesus’ mission in his Letter to the Corinthians. He writes:
Just as all people die because of their union with Adam, in the same way all will be raised to life because of their union with Christ. . . .
The first Adam, made of earth, came from the earth; the second Adam came from heaven. . . .
Just as we wear the likeness of the man made of earth, so we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven. 1 Corinthians 15:22, 47–49
In other words, Jesus came to be the new Adam of a new human race.
By way of conclusion, then, Jesus’ desert temptations preview two important facts about Jesus.
First, he is the Son of God become man. Second, he is the new Adam whose mission is to restore life to all people.
Today’s readings are a fitting introduction to Lent. They underscore what Lent is all about. It is reliving Jesus’ desert experience against the devil.
It is more.
It is celebrating Jesus’ victory over the devil. And insofar as we unite ourselves to Jesus in his battle against the devil, to that extent we will share in his victory, also. Lord Jesus, you are the Son of God become man.
You went in to the desert to be tempted by the devil and to begin your mission as the new Adam.
Help us enter the desert with you. Help us share in your Lenten battle that we may share, also, in your Easter victory.
Series II 1st Sunday of Lent Genesis 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Romans 5:12–19; Matthew 4:1–11
Woman on Death Row Just as through one man all died, so through one man all are restored to life. At 2:15 on the morning of November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield was executed at Raleigh’s Central Prison in North Carolina. Convicted of killing four people, she was the first woman in 22 years to be executed in the United States.
But the Velma Barfield who was executed that morning was totally different from the Velma Barfield who entered prison in 1978. During her six-year confinement, she underwent a remarkable conversion.
Velma told the story behind her conversion in her book Woman on Death Row. The story began one night when she was in her cell, weeping. As she sobbed, she wondered if Jesus could forgive her and love her again after all she had done.
Then something happened that she found almost impossible to describe. The best she could do was to say that Jesus seemed to appear to her and say:
Yes . . . I died on the cross for your sins, too. Won’t you let me come and give you a brand-new life?
Right then and there, she said, I . . . confessed my sins to him and I asked him to forgive [me]. . . . He came into my life that night.
Evidence of the transformation that then took place in her life is found in her Bible. Almost every page has something written on it. She once told a friend:
This Bible is where I get my strength. . . . I couldn’t get up in the morning, much less go through the day, without his Word.
A high point in Velma’s process occurred in October 1984, when she made several important decisions. She wrote them on the fly leaf of her Bible. Let me share two of those decisions with you.
First, she resolved to deal with her sins, saying:
Tonight . . . I’m going to start naming my sins before the Lord . . . and trust him for deliverance.
Second, she resolved to return to God everything she had, saying:
Lord, take my kids they are not mine either they belong to you and I’m leaving them in your care.
Velma’s decisions to deal with her sins and to return everything to God give us some idea of the degree of spirituality she attained in prison.
The story of Velma Barfield dramatizes the two extremes of our human condition that are described in the Scripture readings for this first Sunday of Lent.
The first extreme is the disobedience of Adam, which condemned the human race and doomed it to spiritual death.
The second extreme is the obedience of Jesus, which redeemed the human race and restored it to spiritual life.
Paul describes these two extremes this way in the second reading:
[J]ust as all people were made sinners as the result of the disobedience of one man, in the same way they will all be put right with God as the result of the obedience of the one man.
Velma Barfield’s life illustrates both of these extremes. It shows the depths to which we can fall if we give in to temptation, as Adam did. At the same time, it shows the heights to which we can rise if we reject temptation, as Jesus did.
And this brings us to the season of Lent.
The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means “springtime.” It got this name because Lent occurs in the springtime of the year.
The idea of Lent as a time of penance dates back to early times, when Christians did sizable penances for their sins during this season.
The idea of Lent as a season of 40 days derives from the fact that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.
The custom of fasting during Lent derives from the fact that Jesus fasted during his 40-day stay in the desert.
The Church eventually prescribed fasting for two groups of people in particular.
First, it prescribed fasting for all adult catechumens. The word catechumen refers to those who were being instructed in the faith and preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
Fasting was seen as a way of purifying and assisting them in this important process.
Second, the Church prescribed fasting for all adult Christians who were preparing to renew their own baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil.
Fasting was seen as a way of purifying and assisting them in their renewal preparation.
Thus Lent was viewed as a time of penance in preparing for baptism or for renewing one’s baptismal vows. This brings us to the season of Lent in modern times.
The idea of Lent has not changed since early times. Only the kinds of penances we perform have changed. The spirit of Lent remains the same. It’s a time of repentance and conversion.
It’s a time when we evaluate our lives, as Velma Barfield evaluated her life in prison.
It’s a time when we deal with our sinfulness honestly, courageously, and straightforwardly, as Velma Barfield did.
It’s a time when we turn to Christ on the cross, acknowledge our sins, and confess them, as she did.
It’s a time when we turn more and more from evil and being disobedient children of Adam and turn more and more toward good and being obedient followers of Christ.
In brief, Lent is a time when we prepare to renew our baptismal vows and recommit ourselves to Christ in a deeper, more profound way.
Let’s close by praying once again the opening prayer for this first Sunday of Lent:
Lord our God, you formed man from the clay of the earth and breathed into him the spirit of life, but he turned from your face and sinned.
“In this time of repentance we call out for your mercy. Bring us back to you and to the life your Son won for us by his death on the cross.
Series III 1st Sunday of Lent Genesis 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Romans 5:12–19; Matthew 4:1–11
Jesus’ Promise If you die to sin, you rise to life.
The Devil said, “If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” But Jesus answered, “Human beings cannot live on bread alone.” Matthew 4:3–4
Ursula le Guin has written a story called The Tombs of Atuan. The focus of the story is on a young woman named Tenar.
She is a powerful high priest, living in an evil world of shadows and darkness. Although she is powerful, she is not free, for she is controlled by “Evil Masters.”
She knows nothing of the beautiful world of light. Then one day, she gets her very first glimpse of it.
She meets a young man named Ged. He has left the world of light and entered the world of darkness to search for the lost key to peace.
When he meets the high priest, Tenar, he suddenly realizes how powerless and vulnerable he is in the world of darkness.
She could easily have him captured and turned over to the same Evil Masters who control her. But something keeps her from doing so.
Ged’s deep goodness awakens in her feelings that she has never felt before. She is profoundly attracted to his gentleness and goodness.
For the first time in her life, she glimpses what nobility and virtue are like. And she hungers for them and the world of light that made Ged this way.
A great struggle ensues within her. Eventually, Ged says to her:
You must choose. Either turn me over to your Masters which will be the end of my story or leave with me which will be the beginning of our story.
After a great struggle within herself, Tenar chooses to go with Ged. He has rescued her from the world of darkness. This story dramatizes the two extremes of our human condition. They are described in readings for this first Sunday of Lent.
The first extreme is the condition created by the disobedience of Adam. It has doomed the human race, condemning it to a world of ugly darkness and spiritual death.
The second extreme is the condition created by the obedience of Jesus. It has redeemed the human race, opening to it a world of light and spiritual beauty.
Saint Paul describes the two extremes this way:
As the one sin condemned all people, in the same way the one righteous act sets all people free and gives them life.
And just as all people were made sinners as the result of the disobedience of one man, in the same way they will all be put right with God as the result of the obedience of one man. Romans 5:18–19
And this brings us to all of us here in this Church.
The story of Tenar paints a vivid picture of the conflict that goes on in every human heart.
It paints a vivid picture of the struggle between good and evil that we all experience.
It paints a picture of the depths to which we could fall, if we yield to temptation, as Adam did.
It paints a picture of the heights to which we can rise, if we reject temptation, as Jesus did.
Finally, it paints a vivid picture of the decision that we must all ultimately make between the world of darkness and the world of light.
Happy are we if we have someone, like Ged, to help us choose the world of light over the world of darkness. The Good News in today’s scripture readings is that we do have someone to help us. We have someone
infinitely more powerful than Ged. We have Jesus, the Son of God.
He took flesh and became one of us. He experienced the same temptations that we do. He fought the same fight that we fight.
Jesus knows what we are going through. He has the power to help us win our fight. He wants to help us win it. But only we can let him do so. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God Jesus, the Son of God.
Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses.
On the contrary, we have a High Priest who has been tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin.
Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it. Hebrews 4:14–16 Today’s scripture readings make a good introduction to Lent.
They underscore what Lent is about. It is about choosing the world of light and life over the world of darkness and death. It is more.
It is about trusting Jesus’ promise that if we choose to unite ourselves to him by dying to sin, we also rise with him to eternal life.
And what Moses said to the Israelites before he died, Jesus also says to us:
The command that I am giving you today is not too difficult or beyond your reach. It is not up in the sky. You do not have to ask, “Who will go up and bring it down for us, so that we can hear it and obey it?”
Nor is it on the other side of the ocean . . . No, it is here with you. You know it and can quote it, so now obey it.
Today I am giving you a choice between good and evil, between life and death. . . . And I call heaven and earth to witness to the choice you make. Choose life. Deuteronomy 30:11–15, 19