We began the journey through Lent together on Wednesday, and today we read, as we always do on First Lent, the story of Jesus going into the wilderness right after his Baptism, to fast and seek God for 40 days. At the culmination of this time, just as you might think he’s be ready to begin his ministry, Jesus is confronted by three plausible temptations, each of which he rejects.
As most of you know by now, Emmanuel is focusing this season on what are often called the Three Pillars of Lent – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The Intergenerational Formation group has designed Sunday activities to engage them across the generations, we have an adult book by Evan Armatas on the same topic to read, and we have a family and kids book to recommend as well. So I hope all of us will find a way to plug into these practices over the next 6 weeks.
In the Gospel we hear every Ash Wednesday, Jesus refers to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as givens for us. He doesn’t say “you should try and pray,” or “fasting now and again is a good idea.” He says “When you pray… When you fast… When you give alms,” this is how you should do it -- with integrity and sincerity. Jesus takes for granted that we will do those three things: Fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Not just Jesus himself, but Christians throughout the ages have highlighted those three tools as basic building blocks of a spiritual life. That’s because they counteract some of the main temptations each of us faces, the same temptations Jesus faces in today’s Gospel. These two readings together give us, in essence, the dangerous sickness of sin and the healing remedy against sin. So as Emmanuel embarks on this journey, I’d like us to look at each temptation the devil lays before Jesus in today’s Gospel, and how the pillars of Lent he taught about in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel directly address the sickness underlying those temptations.
So the first temptation: The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" The temptation here: satisfy yourself. Your hunger, your wants, your whims: gratifying those, this temptation suggests, is first, morally neutral and second, it’s all up to you. This aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature tells us that we create your own satisfaction, with not just food, but all kinds of little or big comforts or conquests.
Jesus could have turned a stone into bread, or into anything he desired, but his reply shows that he understands that our wants are not reliable pointers to what’s best for us. "It is written, he says, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" What is the practical medicine against the disease that tells us we live by self-gratification? Fasting.
Whether fasting from food, from alcohol, from social media, from Netflix, the Christian tool of leaving a space of hunger inside us helps teach us that our wants are not sovereign, and that in fact we don’t have to have the things the sickness of sin tells us to go on and indulge in. Fasting helps us notice where zoning out in front of a screen or pouring a glass of wine has numbed us to our hunger for God and ultimately to the experience of conscious, full life that God wants for us. So one pillar of Lent: Fasting.
Here’s the second temptation: Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
If you have ever watched “My Lottery Dream Home” or pored over magazines about luxury cars or high end couture, if you’ve ever imagined a VIP lifestyle where you are waited on hand and foot, if you’ve ever checked and rechecked and rechecked again your Instagram likes, you understand this temptation.
The devil offers Jesus all this – glory, prestige, VIP status, power. But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows that those things are an empty shell compared to the true glory and power of God. Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" And what is the practical medicine against this aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature? Against the disease that tells us having prestige and possessions will give us satisfaction? Almsgiving.
Perhaps when we hear that word we think of just making a donation to the poor, but it really means giving in general – viewing our resources not as something to hoard and benefit from ourselves, but something to share and give away. Being people who deliberately don’t just keep our power if we have power, or our money if we have money, but give it to others. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Almsgiving.
And the third temptation: Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Here the devil is actually quoting the Bible to Jesus, just out of context. He hopes to persuade Jesus to employ the power he has as God incarnate in a way that does not reflect God’s mission and love. He is trying to get Jesus to use religion, to use the Bible, to use God, without connecting with God and acting in harmony with God’s will. (Something we Christians would never do, right?) But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows God’s will is paramount. Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Sin tells us that we have no need to humble ourselves before God and hear God's wisdom. We have enough wisdom on our own. We already know what God thinks without checking with him or his Word (and by the way, he agrees with us). So what’s the practical medicine against how the sickness of this kind of sin has infected human nature? Prayer. Whether it’s silent prayer, prayer with Scripture, prayer in your own words, prayer from the Prayer Book, that living connection with God resets our presumption and self-obsession. Prayer starts to heal the sickness that tells us we know better than God does and it puts things in their true proportions. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Prayer.
On Ash Wednesday Jesus reminded us that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be regular parts of our life. Today, he battles on our behalf the three temptations that these tools are designed to help us defeat. He prescribes the medicine for these three ways in which the sickness of sin infects human nature.
If you are addicted to satisfying your wants and whims, fast.
If you are addicted to thinking you know better than God, pray.
If you are addicted to status and financial security, give alms.
If you struggle with all three, as nearly everyone does, fast, pray and give alms. That’s what Emmanuel is doing for Lent.