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First Sunday of Lent – Year A

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The Word of the Lord.

 

Jim had just sat down with Lois, a woman receiving chemo treatments at the local hospital.  Jim was a chaplain and he was expecting this visit to be just like any of the other visits he had done this day.  This would prove to be wrong very quickly. 

Prove it!  Was what Lois said.  Prove what?  Jim asked.  Lois said – Prove to me that the Bible isn’t just full of a bunch of tall tales that has been used to subjugate people over time. 

Wow, was Jim’s only reaction.  This felt like a frontal assault and Jim was unprepared for it.  He stammered out some things he had learned in seminary about how the Bible is not to be taken literally, but as a theological work.  But this didn’t work.  Lois kept peppering Jim with question after question as if Lois were the hunter and Jim was the wounded prey. 

Lois threw more questions at Jim.  You know how the Bible came to be right? She said.  A bunch of guys got together and chose books that fit their agenda.  What do you think about that?

Jim felt like the hunter was getting closer waiting for the appropriate time to jump the prey and finish him off.

Lois kept the questions up.  You know that the Bible has been used so many times as the reason for going to war, don’t you?  Tell me how that supposedly holy book can be the cause of so many deaths?  Why should I pay attention to anything that it says?  Demanded Lois.

Jim felt overrun with so many questions that he did not have answers for.  He was sweating it out, just hoping for some kind of lifeline or a way out.  He wanted to run away – far away.  He was searching his brain for the answers that would not come.  He was proving to be inadequate to deal with such confrontation.  What would he do?

In today’s Gospel reading we hear about Jesus going into the wilderness and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights.  This scene happens not long after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River where a voice from heaven says “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

Jesus has just been given the title of Son of God.  And he immediately goes into the wilderness and fasts and prays away from everyone else. 

And in that loneliness, Satan comes.  Did you ever notice that in the Bible, Satan always shows up when a person is alone.  When we are away from others, we are weakened.

The lesson says that Jesus was famished.  To be famished is to be really, really hungry.  In other words, his stomach is empty.  It cries out, looking to be filled.  It’s a law of nature that when there is a void or a vacuum, it will be filled by something – anything.  At that point of emptiness, just about anything looks good to fill an empty stomach.  Hence, it seems like a great idea to turn stones into bread.  That would fill the emptiness.  That would prove Jesus power to Satan.  But Jesus doesn’t do this.  Jesus fills himself on the word of God.  He is not alone. 

And as you know, the temptations continue.  But what is interesting is temptation.  What is temptation? 

Temptation happen all around us. We don’t have control over when and where temptation will come to us.  Temptation remind us that we are not the ones in control of our lives. 

And temptation is an interesting thing.  In a more traditional sense, temptation is not something that is ugly and outright evil.  Instead, temptations are often presented to us as something very appealing, very alluring and something that seems to make sense.  That’s why we are tempted by these things.  Temptations usually take the form of something beautiful to us – something pleasing to mind, body, and emotions.  For Jesus, these temptations came in the form of food, testing God’s promise, and power. 

But what are temptations really?  They are attempts to fill an emptiness in our life.  We all have holes and voids in our life from time to time – we are all human.  When there is a vacuum, the vacuum must be filled.  Temptations are those things that we find appealing to fill the void with.  

But, as we all know, those things often end up as temporary fillers.  They waste away, decompose, digest, fall away, die, bring anger, resentment and shame.  It seems that there is no hope to ever find a true, long lasting filler for the emptiness within us. 

But there is hope.  St. Augustine wrote so many years ago that he could not find rest until he rested in God.   God is the only thing that Augustine knew who would not abandon him, would not deteriorate, would not bring anger and shame.  God provided rest for Augustine from his endless search to fill the void within him.  That’s not to say that Augustine didn’t try – he tried relationships, sex, philosophy, religions, and who knows what else.  This was a man who faced temptation and gave in to it time and time again. 

And yet, God never abandoned Augustine, just as God never abandoned Jesus in the wilderness and God never abandons any of us.  So often we attempt to fill the emptiness within us with distractions and noise.  And what happens is that we think that God has abandoned us, or doesn’t exist.  Instead, God is there all along, whispering to us, embracing us, waiting patiently for the noise and distraction to subside – for us to stop trying to fill the emptiness within us.  God is there. 

We do all these things believing that we are the only ones who can do something to fill the emptiness.  But Augustine found out that it wasn’t anything that he could do that finally satisfied his hunger and filled the void.  When Augustine finally stopped doing all these things, he finally knew God’s love and the rest that God gave.  God was the primary actor in his life, not Augustine. 

The good news is this wasn’t just true for Augustine so many years ago, but it is still true for us today.  And we know this because of our baptism and the Eucharist.  Baptism, when it comes down to it, is a reaffirmation of God’s promise to us.  A promise that nothing can ever take away.  No temptation, no sin, no nothing has the power to take away God’s promise to us.  It’s God’s promise, God’s action, not ours. 

Likewise, the Eucharist is a reaffirmation of Jesus’ promise to us.  It is a holy food that fills the emptiness within us week after week.  We know this when we hear the words “The body of Christ, given for you.” 

In both baptism and the Eucharist, we benefit from God’s actions for us.  God proves to us that God loves us, cares for us, and fills the emptiness within us.  God is the one who does all this.  God has proved it and continues to prove it for us each week at the table. 

Prove It – that’s how the conversation started between Lois and Jim.  And it didn’t get any better as it went on.  Jim felt overwhelmed, to say the least.  There was one more assault on Jim.  Lois said, you probably want to leave don’t you, just like every other preacher does when I throw questions like these out in the open. 

Jim stopped.  He paused to take in the words that Lois had just said.  That’s when it sank in to him.  This wasn’t about a person wanting Jim to answer the questions.  No one could answer the accusations that Lois was making and do it in a calm way that would prove anything to her.  No, this was Lois reaching out from her lonlieness for help.  At that moment, Jim said a little prayer.  He let go of having to know the answers.

Here was a woman in Lois who had been emptied and was trying to fill the void.  Lois was emptied by hurt and pain, and by broken promises.  No wonder she was lashing out in an attempt to fill the emptiness within her.  Something was ripped out of her and she was attempting to fill the emptiness.  This was a cry for help. 

Jim likewise was just as empty.  He had been forced to face his own doubts – doubts about the things he had learned so long ago that weren’t true, doubts about his own abilities, doubts about God.  These doubts left a hole within him.  His failed answers to Lois’ questions were attempts to fill the emptiness with a bunch of knowledge he learned in seminary, but it wasn’t enough. 

It was only when Jim stopped trying to defend his faith by himself that the void could be filled.  It was when Jim stopped seeing Lois as an adversary on the attack, when he realized that he was really no different than Lois.  It was when he realized that he wasn’t alone.  It was at that moment when the conversation changed. 

Jim stated – I don’t know the answers to your questions, but they are great questions.  Lois, surprised by this, responded by saying – You mean you don’t want to get up and run away?  Don’t you have other people to go visit?  They can wait, responded Jim.  The tone changed.  Lois’ face changed from seeing Jim as just another preacher who would try to jam information down her throat, to someone who had doubts and questions just like herself.  The emptiness of attack and response ended and left a void.  In this case, the emptiness was filled with Jesus loving embrace in the form of listening, of sharing doubts and questions, and being present for the other person, not with answers, but with compassion.  Jesus was there for both Lois and Jim – filling the emptinesss in their lives with true food that they hungered for – God was there among them.  Embracing them even in their doubt.  God was once again fulfilling a promise made to them so many years ago at the baptismal font.  God was satisfying their hunger when they had been tempted to run away.  God was satisfying their hunger for solace from the pain of doubt.  Jesus was there healing these two people, filling their emptiness, making them whole. 

They continued to talk in this new filling way for another half-hour.  At the end of the conversation, Lois thanked Jim for visiting with her and not running away, regardless of how tempting it may have been.  Likewise, Jim thanked her for spending time with him and sharing her doubts and questions.  Lois closed the conversation by saying – “Thank you.  This conversation proved to me that there doesn’t have to be hurt with religion.  I hope we can talk again when I come back.”  You can count on it, said Jim. 

Amen.