First Sunday in Lent

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March 01, 2020

Three temptations; three choices:

Be amazingly relevant: do something the world will praise you for—make bread out of stones.

Be spectacular: jump from tall buildings so everybody can see how important and safe you are.

Be powerful: bow before the world so you can dominate everyone and everything.

Three responses from Jesus: No, No, and No.

Jesus says “No” and the temptations left, and angels took their place.

For us, right now:

The world would have us feed our hungry bellies with more and more and more stuff; God would have us feed our hungry souls with the very Bread of Life.

The world would have us feed our ego and be safe; God would have us take risks and claim our authentic self as the very image of God.

The world would have us use power to build ourselves up; God would have us share Love that is drawn from the Real Source of power.

Resisting temptation is hard. Discerning our authentic selves and God’s loving presence requires intention. Lent is a good time to learn how to make better choices and to invite our better angels into our journey.

In our Gospel story this morning, Jesus uses the living Word of God to guide his thinking through his choices. In all three responses, he draws from Deuteronomy to make good choices that apply to his own situation. That is one reason we call our Scripture “living.” We can look for rhymes and patterns in God’s Living Word that connect to our own experiences and help us to choose rightly—with integrity. There is a promise in that. There is also a warning: one of the temptations, afterall, were words drawn from Psalm 91. The promise doesn’t mean easy.

For Lent this year, try reading Scripture contemplatively or imaginatively--Lectio Divina for example—reading not for information, but rather as prayer for revelation and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, translating it into our daily life. Reading Scripture this way forces us to be honest about ourselves; it guides us through self-examination, reflecting on our capacity for compassion. It guides us through confession, repentance, forgiveness, and discernment. From our Lenten texts, if we put ourselves into the stories of Jesus’ trials and choices, we find ways to understand and question our own lives. It is how we can learn to live “the way” of Jesus in today’s world.

For my own Lenten discipline this year, I have pulled a book from my shelf to read again in a fresh way, this time, to read for more depth. Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week is written by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an internationally renowned scholar. And she is an Orthodox Jew.

Why would I want to learn about Jesus’ passion from an Orthodox Jew? Well, lots of reasons. Here is one: In the introduction, Levine says, “. . . the Passion narrative works on me. The literature is just that powerful. . . I know because even though I am not a Christian, I can recognize its power. I can feel it move me, every time I read it. . . and I have seen it work, over and over again, in my Christian friends, my students, and churches worldwide.” And, she says, “if I as a Jew can see so much profound teaching in these pages, surely my Christian friends can find even more.” Christian friends can find even more.

That’s what I’m yearning for this year: to enter the Passion narrative in a new, fresh, deeper way. I want this “more” that Levine challenges us to find in this never-ending, living source of inspiration that feeds our soul. “Entering the Passion,” she says, “means risk-taking; it means facing our fears, our failures, and our faults, and addressing them.” It means taking comfort in knowing that “the good news continues not just when people proclaim it, but when they enact it.”

Our Lenten journey tells us about the hard choices Jesus had to make, and how he chose rightly because the living Word of God was part of his very being. We can fast forward even and go deeper into the journey and hear another choice he will make, “Not what I want but what you want,” we hear him say. Jesus said “No” to distractions that wanted to take him off the path to which his baptism had committed him.

We are sons and daughters of God. And at critical moments in our own lives, we face sometimes painful distractions that try to pull us away from the path commissioned by our own baptism. The temptations may be different from those of Jesus, but they have the same point and can carry the same pain. We, like Jesus, though, can store Scripture in our heart, and validate it against our own experiences so we will know how to use it. It’s God and our own experiences having a conversation. We can keep our eyes focused on the Love of God and trust God’s guidance. We can try to remember our baptismal vows and say “no, no, and no” to the voices that try to lure us away.

About storing Scripture in our hearts—

As we move further and further into the Lenten journey, we will hear Jesus pray, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” i Does your experience with this prayer change if you know that Jesus is quoting verse 1 of Psalm 22? In her book, Levine reminds us that Jesus would have known Psalm 22 continues, “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted: he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.” ii Jesus knew that his honest cry, his deep feeling of abandonment, was not the end of the psalm, or the story, or the good news. iii

We are here, in this place, in the presence of Jesus’ integrity, to struggle through our own temptations, to cry out with our honest questions, and to experience the living word of God— together. With God’s help, we will come to know the “more” of what it means to be shaped into the likeness of Christ.

Our better angels are standing by; let the journey begin.

i Matthew 27: 46
ii Psalm 22: 24
iii Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week, page 82.

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