Lent 1 / Year A
Each of the Gospels tells us immediately after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River he goes out into the wilderness alone to pray and to fast. And throughout this forty-day period he experiences temptation.
There is a strong connection between baptism and temptation. Think about the questions we are asked at baptism:
· Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
· Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
· Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Each question is met with the candidate’s response, “I renounce them.” The word renounce, based on its Latin roots, literally means ‘to report what you are against.’ So the Christian life begins with a report of what we are against. We are against the corrupting influences of Satan, the world, and the self.
We follow up this report with announcements when we say “I do” to each of these three questions:
· Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Savior?
· Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love?
· Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord?
Through these proclamations we tell the world, “This is what I am all about.”
Finally, we are asked five questions, which begin to give shape to how we will live a Christ-like life:
· Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
· Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
· Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
· Will you seek and serve God in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
· Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
The answer we give to each of these questions is “I will…” and because they are so challenging to live out we add “with God’s help.”
Once you declare publicly what you will do and what you will not do, you invite the prospect of temptation… the powerful urge to do what you say you do not want to do, and the subtle lure not to follow through on what you say you do want to do.
The temptations Jesus faces, like the temptations we experience, reveal the mysterious nature of evil and good. Very few of us intentionally set out to do evil, and yet at times we are its agents. Most of us don’t knowingly chart a course to avoid doing good, and yet how often does the moment pass us by?
There are times when evil disguises itself. We don’t know quite how we entered into it, but one day we realize just how tightly we are caught in its grips. Eventually we come to our senses, usually when we are made accountable for our actions, and we wonder how in the world we got in so deep. Good, too, often disguises itself. Think about those servants in Jesus’ parable who are praised for giving him food and drink. “When did we do this good thing,” they ask? The response, “whenever you did it for a person in need,” demonstrates how it is possible to enter into the mystery of good without being fully aware of the good you are doing.
There are times when what is evil is attractive to us. The very name Lucifer comes from a Latin word meaning light. Many of the world’s mythologies about the evil one portray this figure as shiny, bright, and appealing. It is only later, after you take hold of what shines, you see it for the destructive evil it truly is. Paradoxically, what is good may at first appear as something repulsive. Do you remember how the priest and the Levite pass by the Good Samaritan because his wounds sicken them? Think about how Jesus does good by touching a leper whose skin is infected and diseased. Sometimes what is right and good is anything but shiny.
To be a follower of Christ is make a report of what you are against, to announce what you are for, and to commit yourself to a way of life mirroring his. In so doing you invite temptation and you encounter the mystery of good and evil. As with most mysteries, we want to solve the puzzle. We want to find an intellectual answer to make sense of the mystery.
Today’s first reading gives narrative form to our search for answers. Why did God put the tree in the garden? Why did God forbid the eating of the fruit? Why was the tempting serpent allowed to exist near the man and the woman? You could fill this sanctuary with all the books and articles written about these questions. Each offers insight. Each suggests answers. And yet, in spite of all this work, good and evil are still a mystery.
Mystery is best approached, not with an eye toward solving it, but rather as something to be engaged and explored. Lenten disciplines afford us such an opportunity. Give up something you really love or is an ingrained habit and you will find out just how much your body or your spirit demands it. Take on something of value, perhaps giving yourself in prayer on a daily basis, and you will discover just how much your mind and schedule resists it.
God gives strength and grace to those who seek it. Stay at your disciplines long enough and you will discover how what was shiny no longer attracts you and how what seemed difficult now draws you into it. And though these endeavors may be trivial, the very exercise trains us for the bigger challenges we face in life. It strengths our ability to say no to what initially attracts, but eventually destroys. It develops our capacity to do what is beneficial, but difficult.
When we report to the world what we are against and announce what we are for, we begin a pilgrimage in life. It takes us from the moment of baptism and sets us on the path of life God has prepared for us to travel. We will be tempted to stray from this path and we will be tempted to slow our pace forward to a crawl. In Lent we remember what we reported and what we announced as we first came to the Christian life and we set ourselves to it anew. It is not a path we take because it is easy or popular or initially attractive. We take it because Jesus himself has pioneered the way and promised us it is the way of life and the way to eternal life.