Lent 1A Sermon (2011)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Romans 5:12-19;
Matt. 4:1-11; Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7


Temptation. How does one say no to temptation. The best way to say “no” is to be in touch with a stronger “yes.” Let me say that again: The best way to say no is to be in touch with a stronger yes.

From where does one get in touch with a stronger yes? From being loved. Especially from being loved by God our maker. The story of Jesus’ temptation begins as Jesus has just been baptized and has heard the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The Spirit which descends on him in baptism then pushes him out into the wilderness, where there is little physical food, but where Jesus can digest God’s love at baptism. Jesus’ fasting “for forty days and forty nights” is a symbolic way of saying he withdrew from the physical sphere and fed himself from the domain of Spirit. His food was the words that the voice from heaven spoke. When the entire episode is over, Jesus returned to the physical realm: “afterwards he was famished.” But first, after being fed spiritually: let the temptations begin. And watch how Jesus’s identity as a beloved child of God helps him to resist temptation.

The first temptation is about being physically full, satisfied with the stuff of life. Satan is clever. He tries to appeal to Jesus’ identity, beginning by reminding him that he is the Son of God. But Jesus has just spent time strengthening his spiritual identity. He is full, satisfied by living in the power of God’s love. Being spiritually full and secure trumps physical fullness. It’s not that physical fullness is unimportant. Being physically hungry can be a terrible experience. But spiritual fullness can help us to survive that. Spiritual fullness, supported by regular feedings of God’s word of love, can remain whether we’re physically full or not. Jesus will be empty, but he also remains God’s beloved child. He says no to the devil out of a stronger yes from God.

With the second temptation, the devil tempts Jesus with physical safety. He even quotes scripture to get Jesus to presume on his status as God’s Son to jump off the temple without fear. But Jesus thinks this whole way of construing God’s loving care is wrongheaded. You do not put yourself in danger so God can protect you solely to show others that you are truly God’s Son. That is pointing to yourself instead of God. In the course of Jesus’ life he will not be safe; he will let himself be killed by sinful human beings. And at the foot of the cross, they will taunt him with this same temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” they jeer, “then you should be able to come down from the cross and have God’s angels attend to you.” But Jesus will not waver from the conviction that God loves him. He says no to the temptation both in the desert and on the cross with a stronger yes from God that doesn’t save him from dying but does raise him again on Easter.

Now, let’s pause here between the second and third temptations, because I think there’s something even more important to attend to this morning from our other two Scripture readings. We want to learn from Jesus how to take the stronger yes from God to say no to temptation. But I’m not sure the teaching of the church has always been helpful on this score. This season of Lent has sometimes become a time of focusing on our sinfulness in ways that keep us mired in sin. We take a scripture passage like our second lesson and say that we inherit our sin from Adam. It’s like sin is genetically passed on so that we are trapped. We are born sinful creatures with no way out besides death, with the only makeover in heaven. There’s no way out of sin for us humans who aren’t Jesus. It’s nice that Jesus could say no to temptation, but we can’t. Oh, maybe we can say no to chocolate for forty days. But we’re going to succumb to other temptations that lead to more important things like broken relationships and a whole lot of hurt. The only thing that saves us is Jesus taking the punishment for us so that God doesn’t punish us like we deserve. Hasn’t this been what the church teaches? Especially, it seems, in Lent?

There’s two very important things wrong with this picture. First, we are not born sinful. This is where our understanding of human nature is crucial. It has helped me immensely in the last twenty years to understand our sin as a matter of how we desire. We catch our desires from each other, and so we become rivals for the same objects of desire. Catching our desires from each other, ever since the first Adam, has kept us in feedback loops of envy, conflict, and violence. If you’re a regular here, you’ve heard me say this many times. But here’s the crucial thing when it comes to seeing ourselves as trapped in sin. There is a way out. We aren’t born with sin somehow genetically passed on so that there’s no way out except becoming disembodied spirits in heaven. No, we are hardwired to imitate each other’s desires. But we aren’t trapped because there is someone to imitate whose desire doesn’t get us in feedback loops of envy, rivalry, and conflict. Jesus — the second Adam, as St. Paul calls him — has come to live out in this world and in this life the love of God that doesn’t fall into rivalry because it is the love of everyone. Jesus has forever unleashed the power of this Spirit of love so that it is available to us, too. We aren’t hopelessly trapped in sin. As we learn to live in the Holy Spirit of God’s love in Jesus, we begin to be able to love as God loves, too.

Second, and even more important, our traditional teaching in the church is deeply flawed and unfaithful when it gives us the picture of an angry punishing God. If you hear nothing else from this sermon, please hear this: Jesus did not come to save us by changing God’s mind about us. Rather, Jesus came to save us by changing our minds about God. Should I say that one more time? Jesus did not come to save us by changing God’s mind about us. Rather, Jesus came to save us by changing our minds about God.

Today, there will still be a few pulpits where, just like after the earthquake in Haiti, it will be claimed that this earthquake is God’s punishment for a sinful Japanese people. [A devastating earthquake had struck Japan two days earlier on March 11, 2011.] That God is punishing them, no doubt, for attacking us 70 years ago. But do you see how the teaching of the church has already begun to change? 65 years ago an earthquake in Japan would have been claimed to be God’s punishment in lots of pulpits, perhaps even a majority. But not today. Today, that message will be preached in only a small minority of pulpits, I think. And it isn’t just because the Japanese are more our friends now. We just don’t think that way as much anymore.

Yet we can still have that lingering view of God during this season of Lent. This season might still speak to us about a punishing God who would punish us all for our sins except for Jesus’ gracious intervention on the cross. Brothers and sisters, it is time to let go of that thinking forever. In Jesus Christ, we have salvation not because he changed the mind of a punishing God. No, we are saved because we finally can have our minds changed about a punishing God. We can know that God loves each of us infinitely and unconditionally.

And now put that with our first insight: God loves us so much that he sent Jesus into this world so that our salvation can begin anew each and every day. We don’t have to wait until heaven, because the Spirit of Jesus’ perfect love is already here in the world for us to begin to live in. It is the same Spirit promised to Jesus and to each of us in our baptisms.

And now we know how Jesus said no so easily to that last temptation of having Satan’s kind of power, the power of being able to punish enemies and evil doers through the power of killing. That is the world’s kind of power. But Jesus had been blessed at baptism and then fed in the wilderness with the Spirit of another kind of power, the power of a love so strong that it the power that gave us life in the first place. And even if we stand up to the Satanic powers of killing and are killed, it is a power which can give us life again someday, just as it gave Jesus life when he stood up to those powers on the cross.

In this wilderness of a world in which there is still powerful feedback loops of envy, rivalry and conflict, in this world where there is still so many powers that think its all about punishing our enemies, we are fed once again this morning with the same Spirit of a powerful, life-giving love that fed Jesus. We remember our own baptismal words of promise: you are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. And so we leave this place in touch with a stronger yes that we might say no to temptation. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 13, 2011

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