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March 01, 2020
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Audience participation: what are some of the choices you make in a day? Do you automatically do them or do you think about them first? Are you ever tempted to do something different? Like what? Making choices is part of daily living, right?
We begin the season of Lent every year by hearing about some choices that Jesus had to make. And he had to make them at a time when he was probably feeling physically weak and emotionally drained. He’d been fasting for forty days, and we presume he was by himself in the wilderness during that time.
Throughout scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, and waiting for God’s next move. And it’s also a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. Jesus’ encounter with the devil at the end of his forty days wasn’t about proving that Jesus is the Son of God because the devil already knew that about him. This event gave Jesus a glimpse of what was ahead in his ministry.
The choices that the devil asked Jesus to make are all variation on the theme of gaining power for one’s self. The first, turning stones into bread, is about setting aside the laws of nature through an open display of divine authority. It’s a temptation that encourages believers to abandon or mistreat the world that God created.
The second choice is about creating a spectacle – calling attention to one’s self for the wrong reason and creating a “cult of celebrity.” And the third choice the devil presented to Jesus was a straight-up grab for political power.
The first two choices have an element of persuasion to them. But the third one goes directly for control: “I will give you all of this, if you bow down and worship me.”
These are tests of preparation for the choices that Jesus will make in his earthly ministry. They confronted him in different ways, even when he was on the cross. And they remind us that doing the will of God often requires that we go beyond our own self-interest.
But more than that, the tests that Jesus faced represent our ongoing relationship and struggle with power.
We know that we’re not capable of turning stones into bread; but we’re sometimes tempted to hoard food for ourselves knowing that millions of people go hungry. And we’re sometimes tempted to test God’s loyalty by saying something like, “God, if you’re really there, give me this job.”
And we’re tempted to believe that we don’t really need to stand up for people who are persecuted or wrongly accused of something.
We’re faced with situations like that every day, and we don’t always realize it. They present us with alternatives. And like the tests put before Jesus, they’re alternatives to living a life connected to God and to God’s world and to God’s people.
And because God chose life with us, Jesus chose life with God. In that choice, Jesus chose God’s love and grace and mercy and healing. And he showed people that those qualities aren’t to be hoarded or kept only for one’s self, because God gives them freely to all people.
At the beginning of our forty days of Lent, it’s tempting to make Jesus’ temptation about something that it isn’t. And it’s tempting to make Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness the only one that we talk about, even though we tend to fill the season with temptations that don’t have much to at all with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.
And of those, I think the one we face most frequently is the temptation to prove ourselves: we become overly focused on the things we’re doing. And in the process, we’re tempted to believe that our individual walk matters more than how we can walk with others.
Or to say that other people aren’t sacrificing enough or doing as much as we are during this season. But Lent isn’t about focusing on the things we give up or take on, but rather the things that we live for.
Jesus’ temptation isn’t permission or justification to focus on our own ability to resist temptation – or not resist it. And if we’re not careful, Lent can become a season of navel-gazing. And by that, I mean looking at your belly button. It’s a narrow way of looking at things.
So, to illustrate, everybody look at your belly button. When you’re looking at it, you can’t see anything or anyone else around you. Right? In the same way, when you’re overly focused on the temptations you’re trying to resist or the practice you’ve taken on, you’re focused on you in a way that keeps God’s love and grace and mercy to yourself.
We’re all tempted by a lot of things every day, and the message for us in Matthew’s gospel isn’t to resist temptation, but rather to face it: to take a close look at it, and name it, and understand it. And then make the choice to look up from ourselves and turn back toward life with God. Because God chose life with us.
When we choose life with God, we choose love and grace and mercy and wholeness – not just for ourselves but for all people. It’s the way we live in response to God choosing life with us, and it’s a choice we make daily.
In our baptism, we make promises and promises are made on our behalf to guide us in this choice. We renew those promises here in worship on certain occasions, but we renew them for ourselves every day, and not just during Lent.
Every day, we renew our commitment to choose life with God. The decisions we make aren’t always obvious, and they aren’t always easy. It’s often as simple as being patient while you’re waiting in line or letting someone go ahead of you; or taking a meal to someone when they’re sick.
But sometimes it means speaking out and taking more direct action. Like standing up to a bully, or contacting our elected officials and holding them accountable to the promises they made to us, or even attending a rally for a cause that you believe in.
For some people, the thought of doing things like that is scary because it’s outside their comfort zone. For others, it’s scary because it means putting yourself on the line for another person.
Choosing life with God isn’t always easy. The rocks in the baptismal font remind us of that.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to face temptation at all – or we’d at least be on our game and make the right choices all of the time. But because we’re human, we will sometimes make the wrong choices. And even when we’ve made the wrong choices, God’s mercy abounds and we have the opportunity to turn back toward God again, and again, and again.
Choosing life with God is part of the life of faith. It’s the way we live in response to God choosing life with us. It’s a way of living that chooses God’s love, grace, mercy, and healing – and that shows God freely gives these gifts to all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Section on power taken from “Feasting on the Word – Year A” for Lent 1
 Section on temptation taken from https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4829