A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

By: Andrew Moore, Associate Rector

First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

Welcome to Lent! If you had any doubts about which liturgical season we are now in today’s lectionary readings should swiftly put them to rest. Gone are the hopeful texts of the Epiphany season. We do not hear the many blessings of the Sermon on the Mount or the reassurances that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Gone is the voice booming from the cloud at Jesus’ baptism. In their stead our readings today squarely plop before us sin and the devil. Welcome to Lent, indeed.

It can feel like an abrupt shift. Just last week we heard the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a literal mountaintop experience in which God’s glory is directly revealed to the disciples present. It can feel especially abrupt if you were unable to be with us on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of this Lenten season. During that liturgy we are reminded of the historic roots of Lent. A time of preparation for new converts who were to be baptized at Easter. A time when those separated from the church could repent and be welcomed back into the community. A time when, as the Book of Common Prayer so eloquently puts it, “the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

So, yes, it is a bit of an abrupt shift as we enter Lent. But that sudden change actually mirrors the experience of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The verse right before where we pick up the story this morning is “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And immediately, abruptly, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Mark’s gospel puts it even more directly. He says the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Here, at the outset of his public ministry he does not immediately begin proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. He does not immediately begin performing miracles,
the water will just have to wait a little longer to be turned into wine. No, he immediately goes out into the wilderness alone to fast, to pray, and to wrestle with temptation. Why? What is there to be found in the wilderness? What is it that Jesus needs to experience there in order to fully live into his ministry?

These are the same questions that we must ask ourselves as we embark on our Lenten pilgrimage together as a community of faith here at St. Mary’s and with our fellow Christians around the world. Why Lent? What is there to be found, to be learned here in the wilderness as we make our way to the cross?

Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. And at the end of that time, when he was famished, exhausted in body and soul, he confronted three things, three desires, that drew him away from God, away from his truest self. The first was the urge to be self-reliant, to provide for himself rather than trusting in God’s abundance and generosity to nourish him. The second was his pride, and the desire to put God to the test, to prove the self-important notion that God would not allow him to come to harm. And finally, the desire for power and the glory associated with political leadership

In confronting these desires, these temptations, Jesus is acknowledging the ways in which he is weak, the ways in which he is drawn to sin, the ways in which he is human. But even in acknowledging these things, he does not give in to them. He does not deny that they exist, but instead when confronted with temptation each time he chooses to turn toward God; toward the difficult path that God has set before him; toward who and what he was created to be.

That is the invitation extended to all of us this Lenten season: to set aside the next days and weeks as a time of reflection, a time to journey into the wilderness with Jesus and take a long look at ourselves and our lives; to honestly consider what is it in our lives that separates us from God. What are the practices, the habits, the people who stand between where we are now and where God is leading each of us? What are the changes, large or small, that we can make that will allow us to more perfectly be who God created us to be? During this season of repentance, we acknowledge our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness not because God needs us to ask. God has already forgiven us completely and absolutely. No, we repent because in doing so we are able to more fully experience God’s grace, love and forgiveness and we are able to ask for God’s help in making changes in our lives. We come together in Lent in prayer and in fellowship to support one another. And we gather around this table each week to be nourished and strengthened for our journey.

I leave you this morning with the confession from a Lenten liturgy written for the Iona community in Scotland. It says:

God of the liminal places,
you draw us into the quietness of the desert
so that we can encounter ourselves …
But all too often
we stubbornly cling to false images
rather than face the necessity of change.

You call us into the emptiness of the desert
so that we can confront our desires …
But all too often
we continue to choose our own comfort
rather than serving the needs of others.

You drive us into the dangers of the desert
so that we can engage with your Kingdom …
But all too often
we prefer the smooth roads of safety
over the perilous pathways of justice.

Forgive us, O God,
wherever we have chosen to be, or do, or dare
less than you have asked of us;
and as we walk on in the desert with you
help us watch and wrestle with these things
so that we might choose differently in the future.

May this Lenten season be for each of us a time of reflection and growth a time of repentance and change, a time to look inward so that we might then look outward to what God is calling us to do in the world, a time to grow closer to one another and a time to grow closer to our God.