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03.09.14 Starting Our Lenten Journey Matthew 3:13-4:11

by on March 10, 2014

There are lots of ways to describe the experience we humans have: a brokenness to be fixed, a restlessness to be pacified, a longing to be satisfied. In biblical language, it’s “sin;” and in Christianity, Jesus is the solution.

Sermon Summary

  • How we got into this mess
  • Paul’s Christian interpretation
  • God’s design even before the “Fall”
  • How Jesus’ three temptations lead us to salvation
  • A prayer for Lent
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

To discover how we humans go into the predicament of sin we have only to look at the first book of the Bible Genesis, literally the book of “beginnings.” There we are introduced to Adam and Eve, our primordial parents who are seduced by the snake. This seduction culminates in their death. This is why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the disposition of ashes and the words: “From dust you came, and shall return.”

From the beginning, the Bible has been candid about our human nature—we’re all going to die. In the meantime, we’re all dying. We die every time a dream is disappointed, every encounter of suffering, with every experience of emotional or spiritual or psychological pain. That’s our experience; that’s our predicament.

The New Testament author Paul offers a Christian interpretation of our predicament. He agrees that death—and dying—is the consequence of sin. He interprets “Adam” as a type, a foreshadow of Jesus. Paul’s view predicts the perspective found in the Heidelberg Catechism, that “God created human beings with the ability to live in right relationship with God (‘keep the law’). They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.” (Heidelberg Catechism answer 9) In other words, both are to blame: the power of sin (personified by the “devil”) and human free will.

In Paul’s theology, Jesus’ resurrection reverses the consequence of sin, i.e., death and dying. And for Paul, baptism unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6), and also with the Spirit that overcomes death (Romans 8). We therefore, on the basis of Christ, have hope beyond death and strength in our dying. Sin is overcome.

Paul’s interpretation addresses the concept of “sin” as we ordinarily think of it. Paul sees Christ solving the predicament of our struggle with sin. But even before the snake seduced Adam and Eve, God placed the forbidden tree right in the middle of the Garden of Eden. There, in the most convenient place, in a place they had to pass every day, grew a tree with beautiful fruit, and God didn’t allow them to eat from it.

Our fundamental experience of human longing precedes sin. It is by divine design that we have it. And the reason God places in the middle of our lives something we want but cannot have, is because God desires that our longing be satisfied in relationship with him.

The tree forces a choice upon us: either the Creator or creation; either God or something else. Sometimes we try to make this choice easier by distancing ourselves from it. I find it instructive that Eve adds a prohibition that God did not include, that they “not touch” the tree. This is what religion so often does. It intends to protect us by placing more restrictive prohibitions, but in fact this makes the choice not easier but harder, because it makes the forbidden fruit even more attractive.

In this situation of choosing between God and an increasing alluring option, we begin to doubt God’s goodness, providence, and wisdom. We become discontent with God. We begin looking for satisfaction outside of our relationship with God.

Which leads us to Jesus’ temptations. It’s important to note that no disciples were there. Jesus must have shared this part of his life with them. Why would he do that? To prove how great he is? After the whole story is told, we hardly need more evidence of his greatness. No, the reason he shared this with his disciples, and they with us, is because Jesus knew we are tempted in the same ways.

First, in the temptation to turn stones into bread, Jesus reminds us that nothing worldly apart from God’s Word can satisfy our hunger. We think if we just get the right job, find the right mate, live in the right place, become a parent, we’ll be satisfied. These are fine aspirations and they enhance our lives, but apart from God’s Word, they cannot satisfy our human longing.

The Lord’s Supper reminds us of this every week. Apart from God’s Word, all we have is ordinary bread and wine. But the Supper also invites us to a new perspective. With God’s Word all things—jobs, marriage, etc.—become extraordinary.

Second, in the temptation from the Temple height, Jesus reminds us that religion apart from justice does not makes us right with God (“righteous,” to use the biblical word). In fact, religion without justice actually hinders our relationship with God. Jesus said, “Woe to you, religious hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) More concretely, James says, “Pure religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

Here again, the Lord’s Supper is illustrative. At the Table we receive grace and forgiveness. We freely receive food that satisfies body and soul. But until we offer to others what we have received from God, our religious activity has not led to righteousness.

Third, in the temptation on the high mountain, Jesus reminds us that not even the whole world can fill our human emptiness. Most of us experience this temptation as wanting not the whole world, but just a little bit more of it—just a little newer car, just a little bigger house, just a little nicer wardrobe. What Jesus says is that the only satisfaction for our emptiness is not to try to fill it with the world, but to acknowledge it through worship, to confess our emptiness, to even empty ourselves intentionally in the context of worship so that God can fill us.

When we come to the Lord’s Supper, some of us have been fasting. We have made this part of our discipline. It reminds us that only God in Christ can truly satisfy our hunger, that only through Christ do we truly break our fast (“have breakfast”) and find satisfaction.

As we start our Lenten journey of following Jesus on the path of salvation, let us remember four things:

  1. We contend with a powerful force. Some of the biblical words for it are “sin,” the “devil,” “Satan”. Let us not underestimate our predicament, or overestimate our ability.
  2. We have been given a choice. God has designed our lives to present us with the choice to pursue God, and God has given us freedom to make that choice.
  3. We are not alone. We don’t face these choices, or the consequences of our choices, alone. In his temptation, Jesus is familiar with our struggle; and in his resurrection, God’s Spirit abides with us.
  4. No matter what the score, we are on the winning team. No matter how quickly or how often we choose something else instead of God, Jesus has still overcome death and dying, sin is still vanquished, and we are still on the winning team. Get up, dust off, and keep going.

Lord Jesus Christ, in your baptism you united yourself with our predicament. You know our weakness in the face of sin; you know our vulnerability to temptation. You yourself, after your baptism, faced our adversary, and overcame the same temptations which confront us daily. In the waters of baptism you claim us as your own, and we belong to you. We desire to follow you, but our desires are divided. In this season of Lent, help us to be your faithful disciples. Grant that we may overcome our temptations, that we may take up our own crosses and follow you, that in losing our lives to this world we may find them more fully in you. Bless us this Lent, as we read your Word and pray, as we not only fast but offer to you also the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith. “As you with Satan did contend and did the victory win, O give us strength to persevere, in you to conquer sin.” (Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days #166 in Glory to God).

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In the garden that is your life, circumstantially around you, or personally within you, what tree of choice is in the center? Where is God asking you to make a choice between God and something else?
  • How does Jesus’ victory of sin, death, and dying, and the union with him we have in baptism, equip and strengthen you for your own struggle with the power of sin?
  • How does Jesus’ example in dealing with our temptations guide you in dealing with yours? What stones do you wish were bread? How is religion hindering righteousness? What little bit more of the world are you trying to use to fill your emptiness?
  • In what ways does the Lord’s Supper speak God’s Word to you, remind you of Christ’s victory and his intercession for you, and strengthen you to walk in the garden of your own life?
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