13th Feb, 2005

The First Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

Having just recently experienced the adventure of international travel, including a visit to his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin; I was reminded of Oscar Wilde traveling abroad when he passed through immigration and was asked if he had anything to declare responded; “Only my genius.” But more appropriate to the first Sunday of Lent, is one of Oscar’s other famous quotes from “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: “I can resist anything except temptation.” Certainly a salient observation of the human condition, we all are challenged with. There is a cartoon that has two characters talking with the one lamenting: “How come opportunity knocks only once, but temptation beats down the door every day?” And the revered Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, observed in “Confessions” (his autobiography, as it were): “Give me chastity and continence, but not just now.”

Let’s face it, temptation is part of everyone’s life. The test to overcome temptation toward evil will always be an inescapable part of our earthly journey. The words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 10:13 can be of strength during some of our more trying experiences: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Our Scripture lessons this first Sunday of Lent provide insight into finding our way out of the wilderness.

In the garden of Eden God offered our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, paradise… and two trees. Now life for Adam and Eve would have been a “piece of cake” if God had only planted one tree. But instead He gave them a choice… we call it “free will.” It was not rocket science: the choice was simple. Adam and Eve had to choose between God’s authority and their own, self-appointed authority; a choice between making themselves like God, or humbly and graciously accepting the infinite blessings He had bestowed upon them at Creation.

The story is poetic truth; the trees are metaphors of our lifelong journey and the choices we face in life of affirming a relationship with God versus a life of estrangement from God. Furthermore, the story reminds us that evil and sin (estrangement from God) are primordial, which means they have been with us since the beginning of time. Should you have any doubts about that fact, turn on the news every night: from the atrocities of Sep. 11 and the war in Iraq; to violence on the streets of Los Angeles at the hands of gangbangers and police alike. But the point of the Adam and Eve story is that God’s authority will overrule any authority we choose to try to bestow upon ourselves.

So, what is the answer to our desert moments? During our Lenten journey, which itself symbolizes our lifelong journey, how do we prepare ourselves to overcome any inclination toward self-importance, self-indulgence, self-centeredness and find our way out of the wilderness?
Temptation will always be part of our human experience, but it is not there to lead us away from God. In fact, just the opposite is true: it is meant to give us a clearer vision of God, because rather than weakening and enfeebling us, temptation’s purpose is to empower and strengthen us.
Temptation is not a penalty we receive from a mischievous god; it is a privilege and gift we are given by a gracious God to bring us into spiritual maturity and ultimately bring us closer to Him.

I saw a bumper sticker a few years ago that read: “Eve was framed.” Well, believe it or not, this is the “joyful season of Lent” because Jesus is framed with our fallen nature and yet He remains at the center as our Saviour. If we keep focused on the eternal truths we are reminded of during this season then this can be a joyful experience even when we honestly face the pride, envy, and false identity we are prone to. To be prayerfully honest does not mean being negative, depressed, or dropping out of the journey.

African American theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, wrote in his book The Inward Journey, “There is nothing more exhausting for the person than the constant awareness that life is being lived at cross-purpose. At such moments the individual seems to himself ever to be working against himself. What he longs for is the energy that comes from a concentration of his forces in a single direction, toward a single end.” Our capacity to live and act with a sense of competence grows out of our self-understanding.

Our Gospel lesson relates Jesus being led into the desert wilderness immediately following his baptism when it was confirmed that His life had a purpose in God’s plan. It was there that Jesus reflected upon and clarified the meaning of His life. Like Him, we fight some of our greatest battles when we are alone. Being alone and in a desert place seems to be an unavoidable experience if we are to seek not to live our lives at cross-purpose. When we are in the wilderness we are forced to focus upon ourselves – our needs, desires, failures, goals, and preferences.
Our Lord was tempted to shift His attention away from the question of identity and purpose to basic human needs and desires: food, dependency, loyalty, and power. The temptation is not in being hungry, feeling dependent, wanting power; it is in the manner in which we may choose to be fed, deal with dependence, give our loyalty, and use our capabilities. We need bread to live ands survive; but we also hunger for things that bread alone cannot satisfy. These are hungers of the spirit and mind. How we cultivate the spirit of God within us and nurture our mind contributes to the kind of persons we are and become. We cannot live without being dependent upon other people and God.

We have to pay attention to where in our lives we defy our dependence upon God. Our dependence on God and others can help us fulfill our potential. We are also tempted to give our loyalty to people or situations that promise to give us power in return. Whatever god we worship is the god who will hold us accountable. God who was revealed through Jesus Christ gives us the capacity to hold onto our own souls and not sell them for the delusion that power can create. Our power is delivered from the moral initiative that has laid claim upon the way we live and our integrity flows from the clarity we have about our commitments and how we understand, use, and value power.

Henri Nouwen in his book, “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership” interprets the three encounters Jesus had with Satan in the wilderness as the temptations to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful. It is not enough to just say no to the temptations that present themselves in a dramatic fashion; we must also seek to discern the small ways we are distracted and tempted. It is difficult being in the desert wilderness, but it is good to know that we are led there by the Spirit of God that will do us no harm.

Jesus sought clarity about His life’s mission in the wilderness following His baptism. Soon after His wilderness experience He began to invite and attract people to a new way of life. After all, people are compelled by what is clear and resourceful. We, too can foster faithful living in others through our own wilderness experience.

Faithful living is more than just assuming a certain role in society, on the job, or even in the Parish; it is the way we understand and attempt to live our lives. Faithful living may take many forms but our genuine love of God guides our petitions and nurtures and develops our vision of life. Then can the temptations of our wilderness experience become the occasions for clarity, creativity, and strength.
Amen.

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