Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2020
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.
There is a very popular television show on right now called “American Ninja Warrior.” In this show, contestants face a series of intense athletic challenges, as series of obstacles, a series of tests. For example, they have to walk carefully across big bouncy rubber balls that are hanging from ropes. They have to swing themselves from point A to point B using metal rings. They have to lift themselves across ascending and descending blocks of wood. They have to swing trapeze-like from one platform to another. And then at the end they have to climb up a steep, slippery slope at the top of which is a button they can push to declare their victory.
Very few people get to push that button. Most people get knocked off course and end up in the tanks of water below.
Our scripture readings for this first Sunday in Lent describe what might be called spiritual challenges, or spiritual tests.
First we have Adam and Eve in the garden. Adam and Eve had it made. They lived in the middle of an abundant garden. They didn’t have to work. They didn’t have to worry. They didn’t even have to wear clothes! God had provided everything they needed in that garden, giving them only one simple command: “You can eat freely from any of the trees in the garden except one, that one in the middle. Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die.”
Enter the serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal God had made. The serpent came to Adam and Eve and presented them with what we could call a spiritual challenge. “Did God say ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden?’” “Yes, that’s what he said,” Eve replied. She even quotes God word for word. So far, so good.
But the serpent wasn’t done! The serpent said, “You will not die! God was just saying that because he knows that if you eat of that fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like him!” Eve thought about this. She looked at the fruit, which looked really tasty. She liked the idea of this fruit making her wise. So she took it and ate. Adam was there too, and he ate some too.
And boom. They failed. They fell. They were knocked off course. Now everything would change, for them and for all humankind.
By the way, a couple years ago I was sharing this story with our preschoolers in chapel. I asked them what I thought was an obvious rhetorical question. I said, “Would you disobey God for a piece of fruit?” And every single preschooler started enthusiastically nodding their heads, indicating that yes, yes they would. And so you see how easy it is for us to fall!
Our gospel reading from Matthew 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 so, 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 think of Israel and the forty years they spent in the wilderness. This is a crucial backdrop for what Matthew is about to tell us about Jesus.
Israel spent forty years in the wilderness, and as they did, they faced one spiritual challenge after another. They faced a series of tests.
One test came when they got a rumbly in their tumbly. Yes, they got hungry. And then they got whiney and started grumbling against God and against Moses. They started to long for the food they were fed as slaves back in Egypt. This incessant whining was bad enough, but they even started to doubt God’s promises to them. They started to doubt God’s goodness. And so they fell. They stumbled. They went off course, failing this test. Moses told them that God let them be hungry in order to teach them that one does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Another test came when they got a little thirsty. Israel dared to challenge God: Are you going to take care of us, or not? Are you going to give us water? Did you deliver us out of slavery only to let us die out here in the desert? They wanted God to prove himself right then and there, on their own terms. They dared to test the God who had parted the waters of the Red Sea in order to save them, and in so doing they had failed their own test. And so Moses would say to them, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
More tests came as they entered the Promised Land. At that point they had the Ten Commandments, the first of which was: “You shall have no other gods before me.” And if you read the Old Testament you know well that just about every time a new god was dangled in front of Israel, they worshipped it! Any shiny new idol that caught their eye became their god! Boom! Down they would go again.
These stories provide the essential backdrop for Jesus’ time in the wilderness. It is these stories that Jesus himself has in mind as he makes his way through the challenging course the devil puts before him. Like Israel, Jesus was famished. The devil came at him with a test, a temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” But Jesus answered using the same words Moses spoke to Israel: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The devil tried to lure Jesus into testing God: “Throw yourself down from this mountain peak, let God prove that he will save you!” And again Jesus answers using Moses’ own words: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Finally, the devil invites Jesus to fall down and worship him. Jesus replies by saying, “Away with you, Satan!” And then he recites the first commandment: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Do you see what is happening here? Jesus has completed the course! Where Adam and Eve and all of Israel failed, Jesus succeeded!
What does all of this mean for you? For us?
At its most basic level, Jesus gives us some practical advice as we travel through our own wilderness. He gives us some advice for when we face our own spiritual challenges. Jesus shows us that we resist the challenges of the devil, the obstacles he throws at us, by trusting in God’s Word. This is truly helpful advice – especially when you are weak or weary, which is when we are most vulnerable. When you are sick or afraid or grieving or even just hungry, trust in God’s Word to you! Trust in God’s promises!
But this isn’t the only thing happening here. After all, Jesus didn’t say anything that Moses hadn’t already said. Moses could have given us this advice. In fact, he did!
Jesus did much more in the wilderness than merely give us an example to follow. Jesus was completing the course that humanity never could. Jesus was walking in the faithfulness and obedience that Adam and Eve and Israel and you and me could never accomplish. Jesus succeeded here at everything humanity has failed at, and he went on to share his victory with us.
This is precisely what Paul is saying in our second reading for today. Paul talks about how death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses until Christ came along. No one completed the course of faith until Jesus came – and now that he has, he has brought us all along into his victory! As Paul writes, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
As we spend our own forty days in the wilderness of Lent, we do well to cling to God’s Word. As we make our way through the challenges of life, we are called to live by the Word of God. The Christian life is a struggle. It is a struggle against sin. It is a struggle against the testing and temptations of the Evil One, who is always trying to throw us off course and knock us down. And so we fight back in the strength of God’s Word, just like Jesus did!
We will stumble. Oh, the ways in which we stumble! Half of us won’t make it out of the parking lot this morning without being thrown off course!
But, thanks be to God, as the apostle wrote: “One man’s act of righteousness has led to justification and life for all.”
We don’t need to be afraid, and we certainly don’t give up, because we know that ultimately Jesus has already conquered the course for us. He went through the wilderness and on to the cross for us. He has breached the wall, conquering sin, death, and the devil for us. He has pushed the button of victory, and he shares this victory with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church