First Sunday in Lent
Mt. 4: 1-11
Some of you will remember the old comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes” created by Bill Watterson. When it was in print several years ago – it was a favorite of mine. Calvin was a 6-year old boy with a vivid imagination. Hobbes was a clever tiger and an imaginary friend of the young boy. In one episode, Calvin’s dad is shown working on his car when his son, Calvin, walks by wearing a safari hat and says: “So long Pop! I’m off to check my tiger trap. I rigged a tuna fish sandwich yesterday – so I’m sure to have a tiger by now!” His Dad looked amused, “They like tuna fish, huh?” As Calvin walks off, he says, “Tigers will do anything for a tuna fish sandwich!”
The final frame shows the tiger, Hobbes, hanging from a tree caught in a net, munching a tuna fish sandwich. The tiger looks out from the frame and says: “We’re kind of stupid that way.”
It’s the first Sunday of Lent. We begin our Lenten journey confronted with the stories of temptation, entrapment, and resistance or the sake of the Gospel. We are reminded that often we have habits of choosing what is easiest, what brings short term pleasure or gain, without thinking about – or realizing – how much more is possible. You might say we take an easy tuna fish when we could do better. We are kind of stupid that way.
This past Wednesday in this place, many of us began the season of Lent with a soot-smeared forehead. With the mark of the cross, we find ourselves held between the bookends of our lives. From the liturgy of our baptism long ago – to the liturgy that will be eventually prepared for our own funerals – we remember and look forward to the promise: “You have been sealed by the HS, and marked with the cross of X forever.” We live under the simple sign that defines our existence and frames our hope.
As our Lenten journey began, infants, elders and those of us inbetween heard the sobering and penetrating words of truth: “Remember, you are dust… and to dust you shall return.” This ancient rite is not meant to depress, shame or humiliate. The ashes simply remind us of WHO we are – human being, mortals, not God. And, the ash-formed cross reminds us of WHOSE we are, people of God claimed for life in our baptism.
It is also a dramatic way of taking us back to our beginnings – back to the garden and our ancestors – Eve and Adam. In that garden, God’s word laid down a clear boundary: “Don’t eat the fruit of this one tree.” But, the two violated that boundary… there were consequences… and the rest is history. Their curiosity, their longing for life with no boundaries, got the best of them. Their story is really our story…. isn’t it?
Our connection with Adam and Eve is not genetic or ethnic… it’s more than that.
We are bound in human predicament. They fell. We fall. Again and again. We hurt ourselves, others and the world in which we live. God fixed a boundary in the garden of Eden and said: Human beings on that side, I will be on this side; many trees on your side, one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil on my side; stay on your own side of the line if you trust what is good for you.
But who wants to stay on our side – when there are tempting possibilities, “delights to the eyes” (as Eve noticed), just on the other side? In other words, Why not have it all??
I recall the drama that played out in a grocery story awhile back. There was a young Dad shopping with his 3 year-old daughter. It was late on a Saturday morning. They got to the bakery section where some beautifully frosted cookies were displayed behind the glass. That’s where the child lets out a blood-curdling cry. She was hungry and threw a fit. There was a brief, but futile struggle between Dad and daughter. Then Dad attempted to push on ahead, leaving her alone in her tantrum, expecting her to follow. But, that’s when the temptress stepped in. Catching Dad’s eye with a wink, the woman who worked behind the counter held out one of the cookies to the little girl. Her wailing quickly stopped as she reached for the cookie. Through her big soaked eyes, she looked at the woman and reached out for the cookie. Dad came back and picked up his little cherub – and said to the temptress; “One thing I will have to say, she really knows what she wants!” That’s when the serpent – I mean the woman – said, “Oh, yes, we all do.” Yes, it’s true. We know what we want. Sadly, though, we too often choose that which is fleeting, frosted, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Now, of course, the issue is of much greater importance than cookies and most of us are well beyond the age of 3. Day by day, our well-intentioned resolutions for a better, more disciplined life dissolve from the acids of compromise, rationalization and taking the easy way. We know what we want. We want it now. Young or old, we have a hard time staying on our side of the line and our violations cause injury to ourselves, others.
Look at the bigger picture. Leaders and citizens of our own nation – a nation most privileged – are faced with important choices. Always, there are huge consequences. In an environment of escalating accusation, innuendoes, denials and character assassinations, leaders compete for the upper hand in different regions of our nation and planet. We face proposals to spend more money and energy on the military than on the care of the most vulnerable. What is the life God intends for us? How will we make good choices? How will resist the seductions and empty promises?
Today’s Gospel story offers an important message about choices. It starts out with Jesus and the devil engaged in a verbal duel and the devil is quoting scripture like a born-again preacher. Jesus agonizes over issues of identity, purpose and mission. He had just come from his baptism in the river Jordon. With the flutter – as of a dove – he heard his identity claimed from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” How would Jesus come to understand that identity, and the mission that derived from it? Would he remain faithful to God – or be seduced by the devil’s enticing offerings of power and privilege? Would Jesus serve God, or would the Beloved Son serve himself?
Episcopal pastor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by
is the chance to play God.
+ In Adam’s case, it was the chance to break out of his dependence on God
and know both good and evil for himself.
+ In Jesus’ case, it was the chance to feed every hunger, to be superman,
to control all the kingdoms of the earth.
God never offers those things,
Satan is the one who offers them, with thousands of strings attached.
- But, whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse,
- Jesus stayed behind the line and gave humanity a blessing.
- One man trespassed;
- one man stayed put.
- One tried to be God;
- one was content to remain a human being.
And the irony is that the one who tried to be God
did not do too well as a human being,
while the one who was content to be human
became known as the Son of God.”
If Adam’s story is our story, then Jesus’ story is ours as well. We have a Savior who lived beyond privilege, comfort, praise and affluence. It is our Savior who understands our struggle with temptation, even more, he wants to be our traveling companion in our resistance.
When we resist, by the grace and power of Christ, we can claim our identity as brothers and sisters linked in discipleship; and, we can put our best energies into love and compassion for the sake of the Gospel. When we fall & fail – as we will – he will be with us in forgiveness. As to the woman he would meet later in his ministry, Jesus says to us, “… and, neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
At the beginning of our worship – we joined in corporate confession that included these words:
Too often we give into temptation that disrupts the universe.
We cannot undo all our mistakes,
but we can turn once more to the living presence of Jesus
and find new ways to live and love each other and the earth.
In the end we are not what and who we ought to be. As the trapped Tiger, Hobbes, said, “We are kind of stupid that way.” Better said, “We are human that way.”
Even in the traps of our sin… and the fixed boundary of our mortality – the Savior comes to free us… “as we are marked with the cross of X forever.”