Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 26, 2023
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The wilderness of Laos is scattered with wreckage from the Vietnam war. The dog tags of American pilots have been found in the jungle. A chunk of an airplane wing rests in the courtyard of a small Laotian village. Bone fragments have been found, DNA-tested, and repatriated to long-suffering families here in the U.S.
One of our church members went out into this wilderness in search of his father. Our friend Brian Danielson (who gave me permission to share this story) was only 18-months old when his father was shot down over Laos, and Brian has made several trips now to the Laotian wilderness. In 2006 he stood and laid flowers at the spot his father was last seen alive. A bone fragment previously recovered from the area was proven to have belonged to his dad, allowing the family to finally lay him to rest in their hometown of Kenyon, Minnesota. Brian will tell you that this wilderness journey brought tremendous healing and closure to him and his family. Brian has since been back to the Laotian wilderness with others on a similar journey of what you might call ancestral healing, sifting through the wreckage to make things right, bringing healing and peace to old and lingering wounds.
Our gospel reading from Matthew for this first Sunday in Lent takes us into the wilderness with Jesus, where he spent forty days and forty nights. Matthew wrote his gospel primarily for a Jewish audience, and if you were part of Matthew’s original audience and you heard the words “wilderness” and “forty” as the setting for a story, you would automatically have thought about Israel and the forty years they spent in the wilderness. This is a crucial backdrop for understanding what Matthew is telling us about Jesus.
The wilderness was a place of disaster for God’s people. It was a place strewn with wreckage from their past, a place where the enemy had brought them down. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites were brought down by the enemy, who exploited their hunger to bring them to despair and cause them to doubt God’s promises. It was in the wilderness that the enemy tricked the Israelites to start demanding proof from God rather than living by faith. It was in the wilderness that the enemy led the Israelites to bow the knee to false gods who promised them greater worldly power. As this spiritual battle raged, many, many Israelites perished. Their bones were literally strewn across this wilderness.
After Jesus’ baptism, he was led by the Spirit into this wilderness. He didn’t wander out there accidentally. He wasn’t going for a leisurely stroll. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. He was led there for a purpose, for a mission. He was going there to be tempted by the devil, Matthew tells us, but this was not just a boxing match out in the boonies. Jesus was going to the very place his ancestors had fallen. He was going to the wilderness to begin to make things right.
The enemy came at Jesus after he had fasted for forty days and forty nights. Jesus was famished, just as Israel had been. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil said, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus had the power to do so. It wasn’t inherently wrong for him to do so. Jesus would miraculously provide bread on other occasions in his ministry. But Jesus was righting an old wrong here. He was making things right. He wouldn’t fall to the devil’s taunt. He responded, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
The enemy then tried to lure Jesus into testing God. “Throw yourself down from this mountain peak! Let God prove he will save you!” But Jesus resisted. He would live by faith, not proof. He replied, “It is written: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally, when the devil invited Jesus to fall down and worship him in exchange for worldly power, Jesus replied by saying, “Away with you, Satan!” And then he recited the first commandment: “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Do you see what is happening here? Jesus was doing battle with the devil, to be sure, but he was also revisiting old wounds, the wounds God’s people had left behind in the wilderness. Jesus was walking amongst the wreckage of the past in order to begin to bring healing.
This old wound goes back even farther than Israel. It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. We heard in our first reading how their jungle paradise was turned into a wilderness after the enemy brought them down with a deception. They were tempted by the serpent to doubt God’s word and to eat of the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve were deceived by the enemy into seeking their own wisdom, deceived into attempting to be their own gods – and the wreckage of this attack has followed human history ever since.
As St Paul says in our reading from Romans for today, sin and death came into the world through one man, Adam. It has “exercised dominion” from Adam to Moses and generations since. And just as sin and death came through one man, so too does God’s grace and the free gift of his righteousness come through one man, Jesus Christ. “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,” Paul explains, “so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” It was Jesus’ act of righteousness which would make things right once and for all.
This “act of righteousness” refers to all of Jesus’ life and ministry, of course.
It is especially referring to Christ’s death and resurrection, where sin, death, and the devil were defeated once and for all. But the beginnings of this can be seen right after his baptism, when Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a journey of ancestral healing. He went to the very spot where his ancestors died, confronting the pain, overcoming the devil and his temptations, foreshadowing the victory he would eventually share with all of us.
Life in this world can sometimes feel like a walk through the wilderness – and not the leisurely kind. It can feel like a journey through the wreckage of the past. There are painful reminders of losses we’ve faced. There are tokens of old wrongs that ache to be resolved, old absences we long to fill.
Sometimes in this wilderness we find ourselves under attack. While the devil has ultimately been defeated – he has no ultimate power over us! – he still knows how to deceive. Even in his death throes, he manages to attack us with temptations. The enemy knows to come at us when we’re hungry, when we’re weak and vulnerable. The enemy continues attack our identity as God’s children by getting us to look for tangible evidence of answered prayer rather than living by faith, by simple trust in God’s promises. The enemy continues to lure us into seeking worldly power and control by worshipping false gods. The enemy continues to massage God’s word, saying, “Did God really say that?” until we’ve come up with our excuses for eating the forbidden fruit, justifying our disobedience with our turned-in-on-self logic.
We can learn from Jesus today how to withstand these attacks. Jesus models for us how important it is for us to know God’s word and to hold fast to God’s promises. He teaches us that God’s word strengthens us more than bread ever will. He teaches us that living by faith and living by proof are two different things. He teaches us that false gods and justifications will only ever get you a mouth full of rotten fruit.
These lessons are important, but they come too late to deal with the wreckage that is already part of our lives. Jesus came to do more than teach us how to survive in the wilderness. He came to bring healing and life and salvation. He was led into the wilderness on a journey of ancestral healing, to bind up the wounds that began with Adam and Eve and have continued right up to you and me. For as sin and death came through one man, so too does grace and righteousness come through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Whatever attacks you’ve endured, whatever losses you’ve grieved, whatever wounds you’ve suffered, Christ has come to bring healing to them through his saving love. He was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to begin his mission to rescue and restore us. There he showed his power over the enemy, succeeding where death once exercised dominion. He continues to meet us in the wilderness to share his victory with us, to make things right, to bring us his peace.
And one day he will bring us home at last.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church