Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4:1-11
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – March 1, 2020

On Friday evening, Jeff and I attended a birthday party. Being a birthday party, there were cupcakes and if there’s one thing Jeff enjoys, it’s sweets. At one point, he leaned over and told me “I’m going to get a cupcake” and headed off. He came back empty-handed and I thought, “ok, maybe it’s not cake-time yet.” Later that night, he told me about the gripping personal struggle he confronted, alone, staring down those delightfully frosted morsels. He said, “I saw that no one had taken any yet. And I knew there were lots of kids there, too, but I still wanted one. Then I thought, ‘what are you? Some kind of animal?! That’s not the person you are… not on the inside!’”

Now, my husband is one of the kindest, most generous people I know. And still, the temptation to take a cupcake was real that night. He would never steal something from a child, and yet, cake! Every year on the First Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of the Temptation of Jesus. And, as you may have noticed, Jesus’ temptation was for much more than a cupcake.

None of the things Jesus was tempted with is necessarily a bad thing on the surface. Food after not having any and maybe food for others who need it, trusting in God for protection and care, or the Son of God becoming ruler of the nations. The problem is who is doing the offering. After being physically and emotionally worn down by a long period of fasting, the accuser, the tempter, Satan comes to Jesus, offering things that look very appealing. The central problem is that none place God in the center. None of them reflect God’s will, ways, or timing.

Immediately before this, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and heard he was the Beloved with whom God was well pleased. With these words ringing in his ears, he is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted. This is a test of Jesus’ identity and character. It’s a test of who he is and who God says he is. The first two temptations even begin with the assumption and accusation, “‘if you are the Son of God…’” In the third one, Satan pivots, asking Jesus to lay aside his identity entirely to “‘fall down and worship me.’”

God’s voice announces Jesus as God’s Son and God tells us to listen to him, as we heard last week in the Transfiguration. Jesus already knows the message, the good news of God’s reign breaking in, and can share it with the world. Satan, on the other hand, seeks to manipulate and coopt Jesus’ identity. “If you are God’s Son, and I’m sure you are, do this…” Satan gives him a list of things to do, trying to subvert his trust in God. Satan would have Jesus root his identity as Son of God not in God’s life-giving commands, but in the self-serving, relationship damaging assertions of the devil. But Jesus refuses to let the kingdom of God fall into the wrong hands. He quotes scripture given to God’s people to help them live life with God.

Even if this feels like a distant, dramatic story, we, too, are caught up in this cosmic struggle. In his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, the Beloved, is spoken over him. He is empowered by the Spirit and led by that Spirit into the wilderness, a place of not only wild animals and harsh conditions, but holy encounters with God. In our Christian journey, we, too, are baptized and led by the same Holy Spirit into the wilderness of life. We, too, are called beloved children of God, marked with the cross of Christ, and given the gift of the Spirit for the pilgrimage ahead. It is this Spirit that animates, inspires, strengthens, guides, emboldens, and forms us to persist in following Christ.

But along the way, we also find ourselves facing temptation, trials, and tests. It’s not often the huge temptations that we find ourselves trapped by. It’s the little, everyday ones. We are tempted and tested by attractive-looking things – shiny things. Things that look, sound, or seem good, but are not really life giving. Watching just one more episode of our favorite show rather than reading Scripture or spending time in prayer. Avoiding someone because they’ve annoyed or frustrated us rather than trying to work through it. Listening to the voices telling us we’re not pretty or thin enough, flirty or modest enough, strong or sensitive enough, smart enough. Voices telling us we love the wrong people or that certain people don’t belong or aren’t worthy of love. Culture that tells us that sports and extracurricular activities are more important than family time or learning the faith with siblings in Christ. We are even tempted in the church by thinking we are in competition with other churches or that we need to all the same exact things others are doing in order to bring people in.

In all these we ignore the Spirit of God already at work in us. We fail to consider to what God might be calling us as individuals or as a church. Instead, we drown out the voice of God with things that seem good, comforting, and easy, things that often numb and distract us, but do not nourish us. Even trying to follow God, it can be easy to succumb to fear, doubt, or despair. It can be terrifying to step out in faith, try something new, to free fall, or put ourselves out there because the voices in our heads whisper lies: “you’re not good enough,” “your idea is silly or stupid,” “who do you think you are?”

There is an animated short on Disney Plus called “Drop.” In it, a tiny baby raindrop is terrified to fall from the clouds above. He sees older drops doing it gracefully around him, but he’s still afraid. Against his will, he falls and finds himself on a car window, meeting the little girl sitting in the backseat. He loves it! He then evaporates to wait until the next storm for another adventure, this time embracing the process.

It is frightening to be led by the Spirit. It is scary to put God in the center of our lives because we don’t know exactly where God might take us! But the fullness of our identity and our life is in Jesus Christ. He claimed his identity fully as Son of God as he was tempted in the wilderness. Who is leading you and to what voice are you listening? Are you allowing yourself to be led by the Spirit or something else? Living “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” or other words and voices?

Early Christians went to the desert to tend their relationship with God. They became hermits, a word derived from “desert,” seeking silence and a life away from the distractions of everyday life. They found, as Richard Rohr explains, “Even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses.” Ultimately, you cannot escape yourself.

Suzanne Guthrie writes, “The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Why the wilderness? The phantasms of the self, so well camouflaged in the city, are exposed in the disorienting desert. You are left with yourself and your every weakness and vulnerability heightened in the extremes of the acute presence and/or the acute absence of God. In Lent, Christians endeavor to create a little wilderness. Here, the Spirit of Truth guides you into all truth. The demons of the self present themselves for confrontation. You are drawn into an ‘unmitigated honesty’. And the humanity you find in yourself is one that brings you to compassion.”

The early desert mothers and fathers told monks “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” This meant not only the physical cell where they lived and prayed, but the cell of their hearts. To be rooted in our identity and who God is we need to spend time with God in our hearts. We need to confront face-to-face the things tempting, testing, and distracting us from who we are in God and who God is for us. The season of Lent invites us into a time of contemplation to examine what lures us away from God and who God declares us to be. We ask the hard questions: What helps us grow in grace? What stifles our growth? What things look good on the surface but really are dead ends? We may be tempted to think of this time as grim or depressing, but it is a time to truly embrace the abundant life God gives. To welcome realignment with God. To celebrate that in our own desert journey of life, the Spirit is leading us, and the messengers of God will bear us up with life giving sustenance for the road ahead. Sustenance so much sweeter than a cupcake. Thanks be to God!  Amen.