First Sunday in Lent

West Side Moravian Church
February 14, 2016

Observing Lent

It isn't Lent today. It was Lent yesterday, in fact for the past 4 days, and it will be lent again tomorrow. But not today. Because today is Sunday, which is the day of the week when Jesus rose from death, and the power of resurrection trumps everything else. So there are 40 days of Lent leading us to Easter — 40 Mondays and Saturdays and Tuesdays — but every Sunday we step aside from preparing for Easter so that we can celebrate the Easter which we already have.

At least, that's the most common Protestant explanation.

The purpose of Lent

There's more than one interpretation of Lent. One of them is that we all need to reflect on our sinfulness and on how enormous Christ's sacrifice was: to die, as if he were a criminal, on behalf of all of us, who are. In this view, Lent is primarily a time for sorrow and for repentence.

An alternative interpretation of Lent remembers the time for teaching new converts about the good news and new life Jesus Christ brings to us. In the early church, Easter Eve was thought the most appropriate time for joining the church, and so converts were taught during the 40 days prior. In this view, Lent is a time for us to refocus our lives on the gospel story and rededicate ourselves to living the good news.

The length of Lent, the 40 days, might remind us of the 40 days of rain which brought on the flood in Noah's time, the 40 days it took for Elijah to walk to Mount Horeb where he would meet with God, or the 40 days when Moses was talking with God on Mount Sinai at the beginning of the 40 years in the wilderness. But this length of time is tied most directly to the gospel story for today, Jesus' 40 day wilderness fast.

The gospel reading makes clear that this was an intentional retreat before Jesus began a public ministry. Luke begins the story by telling us that Jesus was full of the Spirit and that it was the Spirit who led him into the dry country.

The devil and what's important

While he was there, Jesus met the devil. Now this devil is already a problem for our understanding of the text. There isn't very much in the Bible that describes the devil; either everybody already knew or nobody thought it was important. Many of the references that do exist are mocking allusions to pagan gods, as with the name Ba'al Zebûb (Lord of the Flies). We miss a lot of that cultural wordplay. On the other hand, we have added a lot since the Bible was written. When people of Jesus' time wrote about the devil or when they listened to Jesus mention the devil, they did not have in their minds the illuminated manuscripts of the 12th century, or Dante's Inferno, or Protestant sermons.

Luke himself isn't any help in understanding the devil; he tells us nothing at all about this tempter. Could it be that for Luke the devil isn't the key point? What Luke tells about are the temptations and Jesus' responses to them. So we may suppose that what Luke wants us to pay attention to is how Jesus answers temptation.

The temptation of comfort

The first temptation is material comfort. If I had undertaken a wilderness fast, I know that I'd be hungry — even if I were allowed locusts and wild honey that I could find in the dry country. (The text allows the interpretation of eating nothing not found in the desert.) Now, then, if God loves me, surely God does not want me to suffer pangs of hunger. Unlike some of the pagan gods, our God loves us and wants what's best for us. So, if you have the ability to obtain a fresh, warm loaf of yeasty bread and you are hungry, why would you hesitate?

Sound familiar? I know I've heard that voice talking to me. Usually I find myself agreeing; yes, I'm sure that doughnut is what God wants for me.

How does Jesus respond? He says, bread is not enough. He quotes a part of the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the people (who have been in the wilderness for 40 years) that God humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you with unfamiliar manna. [God] did this to teach you that humankind cannot live by bread alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth. … Be keenly aware that just as a parent disciplines [a] child, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you must keep [God's] commandments, live according to [God's] standards, and revere [God]. And there is a promise which goes with this. Moses goes on to say, For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land … You will eat your fill and then praise the Lord your God because of the good land he has given you. [NET]

Jesus' answer was, Material comfort is not the first or only thing on my mind. This not so much denying himself food as it is placing God first. In fact, putting what is most important first is not denying yourself at all; it is affirming who you truly are. The wilderness fast which Jesus undertook was not about being hungry for bread. Instead, it was about being full of God. As Meister Eckhart put it in a sermon, If a person were really to deny himself, he would actually be God's and God his. I am as sure of this as I am that I am a man. For such a person all things are as easy to leave behind as a lentil is, and the more one leaves, the more one likes it. [2]

The temptation of power

Next, the devil offers political and economic power. Well, why not? Think how much good you could do (or even I) as king of the world. The king of the world could outlaw human trafficking and the murder of children to make political statements. Of course, those things are already outlawed, and they still happen. If I were the king of the world, I might command fair wages to all workers — resulting, I'm sure, in military commanders and captains of industry increasing the amount of their own compensation on the grounds that previously they had been content with less than their fair share. I might even command the police forces around the world to put a stop to crime, only to rediscover (as Frank Herbert expressed it), It takes a pretty dull policeman to miss the fact that the position of authority is the most prosperous criminal position available. [3]

But no matter. If ever I were to become king of the world I would be deposed within the year and someone would take over who had more guile and fewer scruples. It is no wonder that the devil offers world domination. The devil knows that if you get power you will either be corrupted or forced out.

Jesus doesn't fall for this lie. Jesus returns to Moses' words in Deuteronomy, this time the 6th chapter, to answer that he is going to put God first in every thing. Moses said, These words I am commanding you today must be kept in mind, and you must teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit in your house, as you walk along the road, as you lie down, and as you get up. … Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors … be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of … slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, [and] serve [God]. [NET]

The temptation of glory

Lastly, in Luke's telling, the devil brings Jesus to Jerusalem, to the temple, and suggests Jesus risk his life in a dramatic show of who he is. If you are God's appointed savior, then surely you want to let the people know. Show the people a sign, the devil suggests, and they will follow you.

I imagine a more devilish argument than just the few words that Luke reports. I imagine the devil saying, Alright; you needn't follow my road. But let me give you some advice. I've been devilishly successful at recruiting people, so I know what I'm talking about. If you are going to build a people for God, you have to keep their attention. Otherwise the people will become distracted with watching YouTube and texting their friends and will fall away from listening to your talks and coming to your meals. And then the whole movement will fall apart. You need something dramatic, something unexpected, and most of all something very public so that you can leverage the Twitter feeds to keep people coming. Trust me on this.

But Jesus does not trust the devil on this point. Jesus, at the end of 40 days in the wilderness, seems fixated with the words Moses spoke at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness. Moses said, You must not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah. Keep his commandments very carefully, as well as the stipulations and statutes he commanded you to observe. Do whatever is proper and good. [NET]

The value of Lent

Jesus took as his model this ancient hero Moses. Moses, the guy who talked with God — and then hid the glow so as not to frighten the people. Moses, the leader who walked off with God before he died so that no one could start a religious cult at his tomb. Moses, who offered to take on himself the punishment for the misdeeds of his people. When Jesus faced temptation, his response was to follow the example of Moses.

You don't need Lent in order to meet the devil. You don't need to set aside 40 days to be tempted by success and power and comfort. You don't need 40 days to be distracted by church attendance figures and social reformation and taking care of yourself. But, maybe, 40 days to set all those things aside; 40 days to be free to live as a child of God, to do whatever is proper and good, to live by everything that comes from the Lord, to keep God's words in mind, to teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit in your house, as you walk along the road, as you lie down, and as you get up.

The prayer of Ephrem the Syrian, traditional for Great Lent:

Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power, and idle talk. But grant to me, your servant, a spirit of whole-mindedness, humility, patience, and love. Lord and King, let me see my own faults and refrain from judging others. For you are blessed through ages of ages. Amen.


  1. Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated [NET] are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
  2. Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher. Trans. Frank Tobin; ed. Bernard McGinn. Paulist, 1986. Sermon 59. Page 308.
  3. Frank Herbert. God Emperor of Dune. Ace [Penguin], 1981. Page 224.