Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Spiritual Boot Camp?
First Sunday of Lent 2022
Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge, Scotland in 1902. In 1926, at age 24, he emigrated to New York City. In 1931, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister, in Brooklyn. In 1937, he was called as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, neighbors three and a half blocks from here, where many a US president have attended services, including Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in February of 1968. In 1947, Reverend Marshall began service as Chaplain for the United States Senate, until his sudden death of a heart attack just over two years later at age 46.
Reverend Marshall says, “It’s no sin to be tempted. It isn’t the fact of having temptations that should cause us shame, but what we do with them. Temptation is an opportunity to conquer. When we eventually reach the goal to which we are all striving, God will look us over, not for diplomas, but for scars.”
The first Sunday of Lent and, to hasten this sacred journey,
the Church gives us the temptations of Christ in the wilderness.
Perhaps, Lent is spiritual boot-camp after all !
Saint Paul does tell us to “fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:12)
And, he does tell us to “run in such a way that we may win.” (I Corinthians 9:24)
And, he continues “I punish my body and enslave it,
so that, after proclaiming to others, I myself should not be disqualified.”
(I Corinthians 9:25)
Perhaps, Lent is spiritual boot-camp after all, very much about
self-denial and self-discipline, virtue, conquering and battle scars.
Such language and notions do circulate in the Church…
But, then we situate the temptations of Christ on His journey.
And the inclination to think this begins to fade—at least, for me.
The temptations of Christ occur immediately after the Baptism of Christ,
i.e., immediately after being publicly revealed as the Beloved of the Father.
Now, St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, France in the fourth century, says:
“The temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified,
for he desires, above all, to overcome the holy.”
Recall what St. Thomas Aquinas says in his treatise on the Holy Spirit,
“by holy we signify the purity of divine goodness”
Otherwise put, by holy we signify beloved through and through.
Jesus is the Beloved.
In Jesus, we are beloved.
During Lent, we seek our Beloved more intentionally,
so to become beloved through and through.
If so, consequent to love, temptation lurks.
A quick look at what is happening here…
Jesus goes “into the wilderness”—as the passage says,
“led by the Spirit…to be tempted by the devil”.
Jesus has no need of a few rounds of ultimate fighting.
Jesus actually and deliberately goes for us. Why?
St. Gregory, the sixth-century pope, says,
It was not unworthy of our Redeemer to wish to be tempted, who came also to be slain; in order that by His temptations He might conquer our temptations, just as by His death He overcame our death.
Before the temptations, however, forty days of fasting.
And Luke specifies, “he ate nothing at all… and he was famished.”
Duh! Beyond famished I would be ridiculously irritable, even nasty.
The prior, very real fasting suggests that fasting strengthens,
and is, therefore, a good arm against temptation,
but, does not eliminate temptation.
What are temptations?
Temptations are un-loving possibilities that present themselves,
and, if pursued, can, because unloving, lead us astray from:
God, our true selves in God, and each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.
One interpretation of the three temptations:
gluttony, pride—linked to power and vanity.
In other words, at the risk of oversimplification:
the devil promotes, “me, me, me”, and Jesus responds, “God, God, God.”
The devil invites us to, as we say in French, se replier sur soi-meme,
“to fold in on ourselves.”
Jesus invites us to turn towards God, to open and blossom.
During Lent, if we let Him,
Jesus effectively turns us towards and introduces us into God:
our Source, our home, our purpose, our light, our freedom, our love.
More than ominous forewarning, this gospel at the beginning of Lent is
a source of hope, a resounding reminder that the victory has been won.
The same Saint Paul who speaks of fighting, tells us that
“in all things, we are more than conquerors through him Who loves us.” (Romans 8:37)
Jesus has already conquered our temptations, and thus,
if we do not want, they are not obstacles to God, and we need not fear.
The same Saint Paul, in our second reading, reassures us that the
“Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”.
Lent is not spiritual boot-camp.
Discipline stems from the same root as disciple and we can say
really has to do with learning and, therefore, light.
Lent is about being enlightened,
i.e., being taught by the One who is the Light of the World.
And Lent is about being loved
about surrender for the sake of encounter.
about abiding, scars and all, in the transformative Presence of Christ.