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How are you? Are you ready for Lent now that you have four days under you belt? So, a reminder to those of you who have taken on certain dietary restrictions or other disciplines for the Lenten season, while you may joyfully choose to refrain from whatever foods or treats you decided to forgo this day, Sundays are always a feast day and are not part of the 40 days of Lent. So any judgy looks towards cookie or treat eaters are not allowed! (although I know that none of us here would ever do that!)
But here we are in the midst of Lent and we’ve tried to enumerate our sins and humbly ask for forgiveness for them too. So, we begin Lent in earnest recognizing our sinfulness as we endeavor to better our relationship with God and one another.
We began our liturgical year with Advent and Epiphany working our way through the story of Jesus’ genealogy and birth, the visiting wisemen, and the holy family’s flight to Egypt. And we’ve recalled the beginning of Jesus’ ministry at his baptism by John in the Jordan. It is on these events that the first three chapters of Matthew’s gospel concentrate. And last week we ended with Jesus’ glorious transfiguration on top of the mountain where a voice from heaven, echoing the heavenly words first heard at Jesus’ baptism proclaim, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As Jesus and his disciples made their way down the mountain, Jesus began the final phase of his ministry which would end with his death.
On our first week of Lent, then, we might be surprised that we go back to the beginning again. Before we make our journey with Jesus to the cross, we begin with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which follows right on the heels of his baptism. Right after the voice from heaven proclaims for the first time that Jesus was the Beloved and that God was well pleased with him, we read, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Professor Audrey West notes,
It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism. He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that people today sometimes make about their own “wilderness experiences”). He has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested… by the devil. His scriptural debate with [the Evil One] functions as an assessment (or, perhaps, a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son for the mission entrusted to him. He has the credentials and the authority for this mission, amply demonstrated… by his genealogy and birth narrative. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points ahead to a future as yet unfolding before him.
As we begin Lent, I think it is important for us to note that Jesus, here is without sin and the temptations that he faces in the wilderness are not caused by taking a wrong turn on the way home or a punishment for something Jesus has done wrong. The temptations happen because Jesus, like us, was a human being. We often think about Jesus’ baptism and the pronouncement by the heavenly voice as ‘proof’ of Jesus’ identity and, yet, instead of seeing Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a continuation of the story of both his baptism and ministry, we most often treat it as a different story entirely. Jesus is baptized. God is well pleased. And then, new story, Jesus is tempted by the devil.
I believe that we are inclined to do this because we Christians struggle with how to understand our own temptations, mistakes and wrongdoings. This is well illustrated in our handling of baptism. Throughout the history of Christianity, believers have struggled to understand what it means to be baptized in the Trinity and to live our lives as believers. Our cultural Christianity has long been okay with understanding baptism as a means of receiving the forgiveness of our sins and getting a “get out of hell free” card. But we struggle with the notion of living fully into the powerful, free people God has made us to be. Sadly our view of baptism often doesn’t really expand on John’s baptism of repentance.
John, himself, however, differentiated between his baptism and the one that we would receive through Christ. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In fact, John hesitated to baptize Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Within three centuries, though, folks seem to lose sight of this distinction. Between the time of Paul and Augustine, our understanding of the life of the Spirit promised to us in baptism seemed to be eclipsed by an inability to understand baptism as more than just forgiveness of sins. This belief, which would seem to only apply to baptism, profoundly changed our understanding of ourselves as the children of God. It led, in fact, to the doctrine of original sin—a belief that came to the fore as Augustine and others, tried to explain why infant baptism was necessary if a child, as scripture suggests, was sinless. While it definitely makes sense to ask for the gift of the Spirit to come to rest on an infant, it is harder to understand why a sinless should be baptized unless it is understood in relation to the Jewish practice of circumcision. As the church began to be comprised of more and more non-Jews, this understanding became more difficult for folks to understand. By 200 of CE, Tertullian is the first Christian write who talks explicitly about infant baptism. He was opposed to the practice because he, like many others at the time, did not believe in original sin – the idea that we are born into the fallen humanity’s state of sin. So, for Tertullian it didn’t make sense to baptize a blameless child – one should wait until one had amassed a good bit of sin. While others found infant baptism valid, their inability to understand both the dual gift of the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins led to many changes in beliefs and practices from the earliest churches. Many church fathers including Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine waited until the end of their theological studies to be baptized because, while they believed baptism was perfectly efficacious in the removal of sin, they also believed sins committed after baptism were much more difficult to remove. The Emperor Constantine, of course, famously waited until the very end of his life to be baptized. Whether he waited so long to make sure he got the most bang for his baptism buck, if you will, is something that we’ll never know for certain, but it certainly illustrates the church’s difficulty dealing with the issue.
In today’s gospel, however, we are reminded that our baptism is about more than just forgiveness of sins – it is about a new and glorious life of the Spirit that equips us for our work as Christians. And it is this new life in the Spirit that we are called to tend during Lent. If during these forty days of Lent, we give into the temptation to think less about this new life and the salvation and grace given to us through Jesus Christ, we not only may lose an opportunity to receive more of the soul-filling goodness that God has in store for us, but we might also find ourselves concentrating on the kind of spiritual bean counting that tears us down rather than builds up. As Jesus , who was without sin, illustrates as the Spirit leads him into the wilderness directly after his baptism, the temptations and the trials – the challenging and difficult times of our lives are not a punishment for wrong-doing—even if, sometimes, they may be consequences of our choices. God leads us into the wilderness for a very different reason. In the scriptures, “the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus [with whom God is still well pleased] remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.” And during this time what nourishes his soul is his belief in and acceptance of his role as God’s son. His knowledge of the scriptures also buoys him up because he knows that after the forty days and forty nights of the flood, God makes a new covenant to the world. And that it was during forty long days and nights fasting on the mountaintop, that Moses inscribed the covenant with the Israelites who, while they would have to wander in the wilderness forty years before they made it to the promised land – make it they did.
As we begin these forty days of Lent, we are called to remember that we too will encounter difficulties, but what today’s gospel reminds us is that challenging times often give us the opportunity to grow into our best selves. And that we do not enter into these times alone. What God tells us again and again in God’s covenants with us and in our baptism is that we are not alone. Jesus came so we would never be alone again. And it is this faith in Jesus –the one who will be with us “…always, even to the end of the age” and who has already gone ahead of us even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness in whom we can find hope during the difficult times of waiting. Jesus will be with us through anything we face. No place is too desolate or challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it. Furthermore, Jesus’ temptation in the desert, while it may differ from those we face, represents in many ways the same cultural pressures we face today. If we are emboldened by the Spirit, how might we respond to very real physical and spiritual needs around us? How might we use our authority and power to serve the world this Lent. Lent is about repentance and change.
Last week, I mentioned that the transfigured Christ that the disciples saw up on the top of the mountain was no different than the human Jesus with whom they had walked and talked since the beginning of his ministry. What was really changed were the hearts and minds of the disciples who saw, in those moments, the glorious fullness of Jesus the Son of God. I know sometimes it is hard to understand the underlying reasons for the spiritual disciplines of Lent. We can get stuck in the mere mechanics of the discipline. We are not eating cookies. We are giving up cookies for God. We probably can tell when the spiritual discipline is not working is when we can’t seem to keep ourselves from sending those judgy looks towards our friend who did not give up cookies for God. Giving up cookies for God works when, free from the chocolate chips, we better see our relationship with God and the person God sees in us. May we live into Lent.