A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

By: David H. May, Rector


This first Sunday in Lent, we always begin our journey through this season remembering the story of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.  And even if we don’t get all the details exactly right and we might get the temptations a little out of order, we still could pretty well describe what happened.  The devil suggests a way for Jesus to live his life that would go a long way to do something about how much people suffer in this world.  Honestly, can be people be expected to trust God when life, frankly, is so hard.  This wasn’t news to Jesus.  He grew up in the impoverished rural regions of 1st century Palestine.  There was a very thin crust of folks who lived very well and weren’t worried about their next meal; but most people just barely scraped by.  And he knew what it was like to live in a country occupied by a foreign ruler and king over all where you had better do what you were told.  He had seen Roman troops in the streets.  He knew that from his own life.  And he knew what it looked like for people to see their religious leaders say the right things but also look after their own interests.  He knew how people lost their hope and prayed for a miracle that never came.  So, the devil suggests, why not just fix that?  Why not just step right into the middle of all that pain and suffering and do something about it?

If he is the Son of God, why not?  God could do these things.  So why hasn’t he?  Maybe it’s time for a change in leadership.  If God won’t take care of these things, maybe the two of them together could.  What’s the harm in trying?  If God won’t be God, maybe someone else should try a different approach.

When Luke tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and was confronted with a voice that wondered how much God seemed to care, he’s humming an old tune he knows we’ll know the words to.  Remember when God brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt with a clean get-away through the Red Sea and how God and his brand-new people plighted their troth to one another on Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  And remember how when the honeymoon was over, Israel spent forty years wandering around in the wilderness murmuring and complaining as God tried to teach them that they really could trust him with their lives.  And remember how they thought it might be better to be slaves again – at least they got fed a little.  Even from the beginning, the best we could seem to offer was muttering and complaining about how God was just asking too much of us.

And Luke wants us to hear an even older melody from an earlier beginning.  There is an older tune he wants us to hear that we know the words to too.  When that first man and that first woman walked with God in the garden and there was an alternative voice there too.  And all was well and good.  Until it suddenly wasn’t.  They broke God’s trust in them and broke his heart too.  And what’s worse, they knew it.  They knew what they had done that couldn’t be undone or taken back.  They left the Garden with their hearts broken too.

It seems like Luke wants to let this story of Jesus in the wilderness set us thinking back on our life with God; and so set us thinking about our own lives.  Have you ever found yourself listening to an old melody playing in your own heart and you find yourself looking back at your life when you listened to the wrong voice and wishing you could go back and change something, make something right that had hurt someone:  taken a different path, spoken a different word, done something differently?  Have you ever imagined how if just one thing had happened differently it would’ve made all the difference?  Or on the other side, how you have been hurt, how what you really needed to hear was ‘you’re not alone’, or, ‘I love you’, or even just, ‘hey, good job!’, instead of one more word about how something is wrong with you.  But there’s no way to get back just before those moments, rewind and reply with a different ending.  As time goes by, as I hear so many stories and I bet you do too about so many lives, including our own, how many people wish they could go back and make something right.  It’s what’s called ‘unfinished business.’  I think ‘unfinished business’ is something everybody has.

My Uncle Jack did.  He was a larger than life, ‘hail fellow well met’, loud, passionate man.  He could dominate a room-full of people by his sheer presence and zest for life.  I love him with my whole heart and everyone else did too.  But in some ways, my Uncle Jack was too big for the life he ended up with in a small town in West Virginia.  I think he was meant for a bigger stage.  But never got there.  He owned and ran a small market.  It was good honest work and he made it work somehow, I guess.

Once when my family was visiting for the fall Forest Festival there was a big party at their house.  There was lots of drinking and eating and laughing.  Tall stories and off-color jokes were told that sent folks into peals of laughter.  I remember my aunt asked me to empty the trash can in the kitchen into the large cans in the alley out back.  I took the side door out and saw my Uncle Jack sitting on the back porch by himself.  He was smoking a cigarette and staring off at the night sky.  I emptied the trash can in the alley and when I came back, my Uncle Jack was slumped over holding his head in his hands.  I tried to make my way to the side door without being seen.  I felt like I was intruding in something I had no business being around.  But he looked up and saw me, stood up and walked out into the yard where I was, put his hand on my shoulder, and shaking his head said, ‘ah, Jesus, David’.  I was about nine or ten years old at the time.  I wanted to get out of there and get an adult.  He looked at me and said, ‘Jesus, I am so sorry’.  He looked up at the night sky and blew a big breath out and said again, not to me (to who – the stars? to God?), he said, ‘I am so sorry’.  Before I knew it I asked, ‘for what, Uncle Jack?’.  He looked at me and said, ‘that’s just the thing.  I don’t even know.  I don’t know.  I’m just so sorry’.

I didn’t know what old melody was playing in his heart.  I never did.  But after all these years, I think it must’ve been that old, old melody from the beginning, that plays from the old broken heart which is the plight of all the sons and daughters of Adam.  Things done and left undone.  Hurts given and received.  And the way that all that can tempt us with the voice of the old adversary to think we are all alone in this world and there’s no past worth remembering and no future to look forward to, no God who cares watching over us and no one to put our trust in.

That’s the old, old melody this temptation of Jesus in the wilderness wants us to hear if we want to know who Jesus is and what he is called to do as God’s Beloved Son.  In the wilderness, he retraces our steps that first led us to break God’s heart.  He is the new Adam who keeps God’s trust.  He is the children of Israel who trust God with their whole heart.  And he is the one who will stand in the breach of all of our unfinished business and mend it even if it breaks his heart in the process.

Did Jesus know that when he returned from his testing in the wilderness?  Maybe not fully.  But he knew enough that as God’s Beloved Son his whole life would be given to finish our ‘unfinished business’.  And mend God’s heart for us, and ours for him.  Amen.