First Sunday In Lent – Year A
March 01 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Genesis 2:7-19;3:1-7| Psalm 51:3-6;13-13;17
Romans 5:12;17-19 | Matthew 4:1-11
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
As many of you may know, I was a baseball umpire. In some of the baseball games that I worked, there were players, coaches, and managers who misbehaved, usually by calling me obscene names and kicking dirt on me if I called a play that went against them that they didn’t like. My response was to throw them out of the game with a sweeping gesture while loudly proclaiming, “You’re gone.” Sometimes that made them even angrier, but eventually, they left the field.
In today’s Gospel, the devil showed disrespect for Jesus in his position as Lord, just as the baseball team personnel did not respect me as an umpire. I really do empathize with Jesus on that issue. Just as I ejected those who did not respect me, Jesus ejected Satan from his presence because Satan did not respect Jesus.
Instead of respecting Jesus, Satan used scripture to show his disrespect for Jesus. You’ve probably heard the saying, “the Devil will quote scripture for his own purposes.” That’s exactly what happened here.
Satan’s agenda was to convince Jesus to sin. Being fully human, the Devil tried to take advantage of the instincts and desires of Jesus that characterize all of humanity. Temptation takes advantage of human weakness. Many people yield to temptation when they are pushed to extremes and do things they ordinarily would not do, such as when they don’t feel well or are hungry for nourishment.
Jesus was, no doubt, fasting for spiritual reasons. Fasting was an accepted spiritual discipline both in Judaism and other religions in the area in which Jesus lived his ministry. In the Jewish tradition in the time of Jesus, fasting was an act of mourning, an act of piety to humble oneself before God, or as part of a ritual for an important day on the calendar.
Psalm 69 declares, “When my soul wept, fasting became my reproach.” In the Second Book of Samuel, the family of Saul mourned, wept and fasted upon his death by suicide. Ezra the priest fasted in his sadness over the unfaithfulness of some of the exiled people who had recently returned to Judea from Babylon.
Fasting can be beneficial by heightening one’s sensitivity to sin. Fasting humbles ourselves so as to allow God to show us sins that need to be confessed. Fasting does that by allowing us to give concentrated time to prayer instead of food so as to focus our relationship to God with a fresh sense of cleansing and purity.
Fasting can allow us to seek God’s guidance, to bring our desires, predilections, and prejudices under God’s perspective, and into a state of spiritual awakening. Fasting can bring us new insights into what God wants for us. In the Book of Exodus, we find that just like Jesus, Moses fasted forty days and forty nights without food or drink and then received the Ten Commandments.
We Christians no doubt inherited ritualistic fasting disciplines from our Jewish forbears, who fast for twenty-four hours on the Day of Atonement known as Yom Kippur, and on Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First Temple as part of the Babylonian Exile and that of the Second Temple in seventy-A-D during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally, all Christians followed what is now the Eastern Orthodox custom of severely reducing their quantity of food during the entire forty days of Lent to commemorate the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness while he prepared for his ministry. However, modernly, Western Catholics fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on all Fridays in Lent. The Lenten Fast, however practiced, is to purify us over our Lenten journey, exposing our sinfulness, self-centeredness, and preoccupation with the offerings of the secular world.
So when Satan approached Jesus after he had fasted forty days and forty nights, Satan thought Jesus would be an easy target for the first temptation. Satan tempted Jesus to prove His divine powers to change stones into bread. He refused Satan’s suggestion by quoting Deuteronomy chapter eight, verse three, which reads, in relevant part, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The context of this quotation was in an entire section imploring us not to forget God in times of prosperity. This is known among scholars as “the bread temptation.” If you grew up in the nineteen-sixties and seventies as I did, you may recall that the word bread was slang for money. I see the “bread temptation” as akin to the human desire for material goods in place of spiritual nourishment, the sin of greed, which is one of the seven deadly sins. The “bread temptation” also speaks to the deadly sin of gluttony. Since Jesus was very, very hungry, he would have consumed a huge amount of food had he been able to change the stones into bread. Jesus, however, would have none of it. He reminded Satan that the spiritual realm of life was much more important to God than the material realm.
The second temptation, known as “the cliff temptation”, speaks to the deadly sin of pride. Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself off a cliff using Psalm ninety one, verses eleven and twelve, “For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus responded with yet another verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, the first half of verse sixteen in chapter eight, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The rest of that verse reads, “…as you tested him, [that is, God] at Massah. To understand the context, let’s look go back into the Book of Exodus to see what happened at Massah. There, the wandering tribe of Israel got mad at God because they lacked water to drink, provoking God to anger against them. The tribe provoked an adversarial relationship with God because they weren’t satisfied with what God did after they trusted God to take care of them. So what Satan was doing her was exactly the same thing. What if Jesus jumped off the cliff and there were no angels to catch him. Put yourself in his shoes. If you were trusting someone to look out after your safety but that person failed to perform as expected, wouldn’t you be more than bit angry at that person? Simply put, Satan was attempting to create circumstances that could put Jesus at odds with God the Father, trying to divide one person of the Trinity against another.
Then we come to what’s called the “Kingdom Temptation”, when Satan shows Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would give homage to Satan instead of God the Father. Satan was tempting Jesus with the possibility of putting himself in a position of power over the entire world. The human desire for power drives many people’s lives, in business, in politics, and unfortunately, in the church.
The major schisms in the Christian world have been, more often than not, driven by a desire for power. The Great Schism in ten-fifty-four A-D was about where the power in the Christian world would be: would it be centralized in Rome under a pope with absolute primary jurisdiction over every church, all clergy, and all laity, or would there be a seat of power in Constantinople concurrent and equal to that of Rome? Of course, there were theological differences as well, but who had jurisdiction over whom took center stage.
The second major schism was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century, where again, papal power and authority was the presenting issue in both the continental and Anglican breaks with Rome. The works of Calvin and Luther drip with anger towards papal authority. In England, King Henry the Eighth wanted Pope Clement the Seventh to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Ann Boleyn, but the Pope refused, so Henry declared himself the head of the Church of England, a title that has been passed to all subsequent British monarchs, including the present one, Elizabeth the second. It is worth noting that the theological differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism are really quite small. The big differential is over power and authority, a democracy versus an absolute monarch.
Desires for power have no doubt driven other splits in churches, and given human nature, that will probably continue. Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is one of over thirty-seven million Christian churches, and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion of which we are part is one of about thirty-four thousand Christian denominations. Without a doubt, there will be more and more churches and denominations every day, as the human desire for power over others in matters of religion is not going away any time soon.
The human desire for power over others is quite strong, so Satan made thought Jesus would be an easy mark. However, Jesus did not need the power that Satan wanted to give Jesus, because the ultimate destiny of Jesus was to become king over the entire universe, a destiny he ultimately fulfilled. You will recall that before his death, Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Earthly authority was of no importance to Jesus. Having it was not necessary for Jesus to fulfil his mission. But Satan did not and would not respect that. In doing that, Satan was asking Jesus to deny his human dignity by abandoning God our Father and Creator who made all of humanity in God’s image. That image of the divine, present in every person, is what gives humanity its dignity. Having fended off the first two temptations, Jesus was pretty mad by this time. Jesus answered Satan with a resounding “NO”, and threw Satan out of his ballgame, just like I used to do on the baseball field.
In responding to each of the three temptations, Jesus was able to outsmart Satan. We can, too, if we follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of Adam discussed in today’s First Reading from Genesis, which tells the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan. In so many words, Adam gave in to temptation, while Jesus did not. Adam was gullible to the promises of Satan, but Jesus was not. Adam focused on the short term consideration of immediate hunger, whereas Jesus considered the long-term consequences of satisfying hunger for bread instead of hunger for God, not taking unreasonable risks to rupture the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, and that focusing on loyalty to God was more important than earthly power.
To use a common word and phrase, Adam was a stupid man who used poor judgment. Adam allowed Satan to use Adam for Satan’s purposes, whereas Jesus refused to go along with that program. Adam yielded to Satan. As a result of Adam yielding to temptation, humans crossed the line from immortal to mortal and became separated from God. That was not a good result. Humanity continues with a propensity for sin which continues to affect human behavior in many negative ways.
Because Jesus did not yield to temptation as Adam did, his encounter with Satan produced better results for humanity. With Jesus, humanity gained eternal life. In his Resurrection, Jesus trampled down death by death itself. Our bodies may die, but our souls live on. Jesus brought humanity back into a right relationship with God. Adam represented separation from God. Jesus represented union with God, which has always been, and always will be, the ultimate destiny of human existence.
So what was the key to the success of Jesus in dealing with Satan? Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is practical advice applied to particular situations. Jesus invited his listeners to leave folklore behind and instead live by the alternative wisdom Jesus taught. Jesus thought outside the box. In dealing with Satan, Jesus used not his emotions, but his brain, by manifesting a knowledge of scripture beyond that of Satan. Simply put, Jesus outsmarted Satan. We can, too, if we handle the temptations that come our way in the same way Jesus handled Satan, that is, use the brains God gifted to us. Seek wisdom. Seek understanding. Here are some strategies to avoid temptation which you can put to work in your life.
First, don’t be vulnerable to temptations. If something is too good to be true, it usually is. Do your investigation. This is particularly true in the financial area. If you’ve watched American Greed, greedy, fast-talking carnival barkers play on the greed of their victims who yield to the temptation of get-rich-quick rather than investigate the so-called “opportunity” through neutral and objective sources other than the person trying to sell you something. In making your decisions, rely on objective evidence, not gut feeling.
Second, take responsibility for yourself instead of blaming those who tempt you. Make it your goal going forward to not give in to your temptation. Learn to say NO to temptation. The hardest part of overcoming your temptation can be getting started. Don’t sabotage your journey before it’s begun by telling yourself you can’t do it.
Third, avoid putting yourself in a position where you could be tempted to sin. Eliminate sources of temptation from your environment. Don’t hang out with people who might cause you to sin. If you’re in a situation such as a workplace where there are temptations to lie, steal, or cheat, don’t just think about your next paycheck. Think about the long-term consequences of doing bad acts and how what you are thinking of doing might damage other people.
Fourth, get help. You don’t need to face temptation alone. Don’t only rely on the people in your immediate life, like friends and family. More often than not, they are not qualified to give you advice even though they mean well. If you are in doubt about whether you should or shouldn’t do something, seek help from a qualified professional. If it’s finances, see a certified financial planner who works by the hour and not on commissions from selling investments. If it’s a legal issue, call the Riverside County Bar Association who will refer you to a lawyer that charges a nominal fee or no fee for a consultation. If it’s something involving your physical body, talk to a doctor or nurse. If it’s a personal problem or a relationship issue, see a psychotherapist. If it’s a spiritual issue, talk to me, Deacon Sharon or Father Lenn. If you bring us something where we don’t have an answer, we will point you in a direction where you might find it, such as a book, an online resource, or an expert. We’re always here to you to guide you on your path in life to God.
Fifth, accept that throughout life, temptation is inevitable, and don’t be discouraged if you make a mistake. God is there to make everything all better for you and help you move on from bad experiences. Turn your back on past sins and use them as a learning experience and an opportunity for repentance. What’s repentance? Many people confuse contrition and repentance. Contrition is being sorry for having sinned, but repentance is changing direction to avoid sins in the future.
Finally, remember that regardless of what Satan does to tempt you, God is always there for you. Just as Satan is always ready to tempt you to sin, God is always present in your life. Just as evil presents itself in many guises, so also is God present to you in many forms to help and protect you. God is present in the liturgy, in scripture, and in the natural physical world that surrounds you. God is present in the people who sincerely want to help you get what is best for yourself, which is always to be the person God made you to be.
You, like Jesus, can outsmart Satan, by doing what Jesus did, by responding in the first instance with God’s word to the temptations planted by those who seek to deceive you and lead you away from your true path of righteousness and truth. Don’t ever hesitate to throw Satan out of the ballgame of your life. Don’t be afraid to say, “You’re gone, Satan!” AMEN.