Message for the first Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passages: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11
There was trouble even in paradise. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil
grew there along with all the other trees. It was part of the package. God knew this.
God knew that the fruit of that tree was there for the taking. And God knew what the
knowledge of evil was all about. “Don’t go there,” God says to the innocent human
beings. “Don’t eat that fruit. If you do, you’ll regret it. If you do, you will die.”
But we humans are curious people, hungry people, people who are always looking
for something more. This is not a bad thing – God made us this way. It is the creative
impulse. But it can so easily get misdirected. Instead of trusting God’s benevolence and
entering fully into God’s steadfast, life-giving love, we look elsewhere. We listen to the
crafty voice of the serpent. We hear his siren song. It drowns out God’s voice. We do
not heed the warning. Instead, like our ancestor, Eve, we take and eat the apple. Instead
of choosing life in God, we choose to open Pandora’s box.
This is the human condition. The Old Testament is great at describing who we
are as human beings. The New Testament – in particular, the stories and teachings of
Jesus – offers a different perspective on what it means to be human. Hunger, desire,
temptation come to everyone, including Jesus. So, how did Jesus deal with it? What did
he do when the crafty serpent came around making offers he could hardly refuse?
This past week as I thought about Jesus – hungry, weak, alone, and facing
temptations in the wilderness – I came across a wonderful reflection on this passage from
Matthew. It was written by Nura Love Parish, an Episcopal priest from Belmont,
Michigan, and appeared in the February 15 issue of Christian Century magazine. I want
to share her words, her story, with you. Nura Love Parish writes:
I remember the first time I stumbled across the story of Jesus being tempted by
the devil. It was in my early twenties, when I was not yet a Christian but I was Christiancurious. I hadn’t been raised by or among Christians, but I had recently discovered
religion as a Unitarian Universalist. Now that I understood a little bit about faith, I
wondered about Christianity.
I wanted to understand how Christians made sense of their strange doctrines. The
creator of the universe was born as a human, by a virgin? That human was killed but did
not stay dead? These statements baffled me, yet appeared to be acceptable to a majority
of the world’s population. Were they using some system of internal logic I could
comprehend, even if I might not agree?
I hadn’t read the Bible much at all. But I had discovered Weavings, a magazine
published by Upper Room Ministries. I didn’t know much about Christianity, but I knew
something about good writing and good illustrations. Weavings had both. It was created
by those mysterious beings, Christians. I realized that reading it might help me in my
quest to understand them. So it was that I found myself reading an essay by Wendy
Wright on temptation.
She began with the story of Jesus in the desert. Like so much of Christianity, it
was confusing. Who was this devil? What was Jesus doing talking to him in the desert?
Did people really believe this stuff?
And then I read this sentence: “The tradition teaches that these temptations stand
for pride, power, and possession.” And all of a sudden my soul – not my mind, but my
soul – said “Aha!” as a puzzle piece clicked into place.
I didn’t know much about Jesus, the devil, or that desert, but I knew pride. I
knew the desire for power; I knew the wish for possessions. I was familiar with all of
them, from painful experience.
All of a sudden the story wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about me, too. And not
just me: It was about all humanity. I know from the history books and the newspapers
that we all struggle with pride, power and possessions. People and nations fight, kill, and
die over who is worthy of respect, who gets control, and who owns what. The more I
thought about it, the more these three simple words seemed to be at the heart of the
human experience. It began to make complete sense that these were the temptations the
devil offered Jesus. They were the same temptations that the devil still offered me.
I began by recognizing myself in the temptations, but I soon realized that I was
meant to also recognize myself in the responses that Jesus makes in return. When
tempted to put himself first, he puts God first. He puts spiritual nourishment above
bodily nourishment, trust in God above testing God, faithfulness to God above wealth.
He places his relationship with the eternal above all – far above the temptations the devil
offers. He does all this without a single second’s thought, in total unity with God the
It has been 20 years since I found that Weavings essay. I’ve racked up one
baptism, one marriage, and two ordinations (UU and then Episcopalian). But I still
haven’t figured out how to do naturally what Jesus did immediately. I still get swayed by
pride, power and possessions – each and every day.
The difference between my life now and 20 years ago is this: I have been
baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so I have already died
to my mortal being and been raised with Christ. Because of his saving action on the
cross, I don’t need to be afraid when I succumb to temptation. I can simply begin again.
During Lent, and any time.
When you fall into sin, we ask at baptism, will you repent and return to the Lord?
I will, goes the reply, with God’s help.
I need God’s help every single day.
But every single day since I was baptized, I have read myself more and more into
the story of the Bible. I have discovered how it actually makes sense that God was born
in human flesh, that he was killed but would not stay dead. The facts of incarnation and
resurrection have become visible in my life – just as the temptation story once did. It
turns out the story does hang together with an internal logic. Twenty years ago when I
encountered it, that internal logic was wiser than I was. I could not make sense of
scripture then. Now it helps me make sense of me.
[end of the words by Nura Love Parish]
When Adam and Eve – those fateful ancestors who represent all of us – were
faced with a choice – trust God or listen to the serpent – they decided to second-guess
God. Yes, they had it good, but what the serpent had to offer sounded even better.
Perhaps for some perverse reason God was holding out on them. After all, look what was
being promised: They would know everything. They could turn stones into bread, jump
safely off cliffs and rule the world. They could be like God. What’s not to like? So,
they went with the serpent. “Then their eyes were opened,” it says in Genesis. “They
knew that they were naked.” They knew, to their distress, that the serpent’s promises
were empty and that instead of being wrapped in and protected by God’s love, they were
alone and on their own.
When he is faced with similar temptations in the wilderness, Jesus makes a
different choice. Listen again to how Nura Love Parish describes it: “When tempted to
put himself first, Jesus puts God first. He puts spiritual nourishment above bodily
nourishment, trust in God above testing God, faithfulness to God above wealth. He
places his relationship with the eternal above all – far above the temptations the devil
offers.” And he is not alone. God is with him – holding him, supporting him, providing
for him – every step of the way.
We long for this relationship with the eternal. We are thirsty for this living water.
We are hungry for this bread of life. Sometimes this longing gets misdirected and we
follow the crafty serpent down the garden path after pride, power and possessions. Then
our eyes are opened and we find ourselves bereft and alone. Happily, there is always a
way back. A way back into this relationship for which we are made. A way back into
the safety and stability of God’s steadfast love.
This morning we will share Communion – the bread of life, the cup of blessing.
As we do this, we remember the lengths God was willing to go to convince us that we are
deeply and completely loved. We have a relationship with the eternal. There is nothing
out there more precious than this, nothing worth selling our soul for. With God, in God,
we truly have all that we need.
Please turn to page #29 in the green Sing the Journey songbooks. This is our
Lenten theme song: “You are all we have.” In a minute Frank will come to lead us in
singing this song. But first, let’s take a moment to listen to, absorb and pray the words:
Dear God, You are all we have. You give us what we need. Our lives are in your
hands, O Lord, our lives are in your hands. Amen
Message for the first Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017