The First Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11


The three temptations faced by Jesus correspond to three of the greatest human needs.
The temptation for food is the need for security .
The temptation of Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple
And be borne up by angels
Is the expression of the human need for esteem .
And the temptation for command over the kingdoms of the earth
Is the need for power.

The spiritual issue is that we constantly crave these things;
We crave them because we are hard-wired for survival.
But if there is anyone made to think and feel and pray and act on these temptations,
It should be Christians who are reminded, all year long, to step outside of themselves,
And remember God.
And if there is any time to think and feel and pray and act on the reality
Of the suffering caused by the human condition,
It is the season of Lent.

Security.
Remember how Satan said,
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

We all want, need to feel secure in this life. A full belly is a form of security.
Indeed, it’s a basic human right;
But it can easily go off track.
Anything that threatens our access to safe food and clean water and proper shelter
Is immediately perceived as a threat,
And we get our backs up.
It’s purely instinctual:
Come within the sphere of my world,
Threaten my people and my things, make my situation less secure,
And suffer the consequences.
Whatever we encounter that pokes at that need is a clear problem.

This need can also extend beyond the individual in massively unhealthy ways.
In fact, one way of reading world history
Is to see it as the search for certitude and security.
Armies and wars, state policies and philosophies,
Nation-building and nation-destroying,
The terrible histories of genocide, and political movements:
All of it, largely, is a quest to amass a sufficient sense of safety,
Which, we know, is finally an impossible task with a horrific price.

How does Jesus respond
When he is told that he can have immediate satisfaction over his hunger?
How does he respond to the offer of security?
He responds by looking to Scripture.
The Scripture he quotes, from the Pentateuch, is quite telling:
A remembrance by Moses over his people, that in the wilderness,
God fed the nation of Israel “by letting [it] hunger,
Then by feeding [it] with manna,” heavenly food,
“In order to make [them] understand that one does not live by bread alone,
But by every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord.”

It is, I believe, an admission
That something stronger and wiser than us is ultimately in control;
That hunger all on its own,
Despite the injustice that it is,
Can also be a gift in some small doses
Because it can humble us, bring our attention to a sharp point of focus,
And make us rely on something even more elemental than bread.

Esteem.
Remember, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”
And you will be saved; the angels would never let any harm come to you.

Not only do we need to be safe and secure, we need to feel worthy.
Why? Well, worthiness is an indicator that you like me,
And if you like me long enough, after a while you’ll realize you need me a little bit,
And that strengthens the herd and my place in it.
And if you need me long enough and badly enough, then you’re in my pocket.
Give me enough esteem, make me feel loved and needed enough,
And you’re telling me that I am absolutely indispensable,
Which is setting me up for disappointment, of course, we know.

I was a junior in college when I served as the editor of the student newspaper,
And rather than do that again as a senior, it seemed good to get out of the way
And let someone else have a turn.
I have a sharp recollection
Of walking past the newspaper office in the fall of my senior year
And of seeing some of my work, one of our front pages from the year before,
With the word BEFORE scrawled over the top of it in magic marker,
Next to a sharp and colorful front page labeled AFTER.
It was like a little demon in my chest was turning a screw very slowly,
Saying, See, your work isn’t praiseworthy.

Although in the end, I guess, it was good for my soul to see that,
And it was good to understand that sometimes one is an AFTER,
And sometimes one merely rates as a BEFORE.
It was spiritually productive for me have the illusion shattered
That I was always going to be needed,
Or that anything I did would always be liked,
Or, for that matter, that I myself would always be needed or liked.

Lent works in much the same way.
It taunts us, saying, What exactly makes you think you’re such hot stuff?

And how does Jesus respond to the need for esteem?
Again, by quoting Scripture,
Which is the fundamental admission that he is not the one in charge here.

He quotes again from Deuteronomy:
You’ve already put God to the test, and you can see the results.
So stop it. Just keep the commandments; that’s it; it’s simple.

Finally, power.
Remember, Satan said, I will give you all the kingdoms of the world,
If you will fall down and worship me.

Power is a constant negotiation to name who is in control at any moment.
Humans are made to play this game all the time.
Parents do it, the government does it, radio and TV personalities do it,
The political and judicial and electoral systems do it,
Our armed forces do it for dear life.
Everything in life, from written policies to dollar bills, can be seen through this lens.

We all want power,
Though only a very few know how to actually use it well once we have it.
Abraham Lincoln said,
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character,
Give him power.”

We subscribe to a faith narrative that suggests the following:
Jesus clearly believed in a vision of a world turned upside-down
In which the powerless would be given power;
And Paul, trailing in his wake, wrote
That power is useless until it finds its perfection in weakness.
These aren’t merely ironic observations.
Paul said it was wisdom to confound the wise.
You’ll find strong echoes of this thought from cover to cover in the Bible.

No patriarch or matriarch of Scripture really is effective as an agent of God
Until they have realized how powerless they are over some situation.
We all want and need to feel powerful;
But the season of Lent says
That even that is an illusion, a vanity, and a chasing after the wind.
Jesus says, Away with you, Satan!, and he quotes again from Deuteronomy:
Don’t forget the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt, O Israel:
Don’t go playing with other gods;
“The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve,
And by his name alone you shall swear.”

This is an absolutely fundamental moment.
Again, Jesus has looked deeply into the heart of his sacred literature
In searching for an answer to this temptation.
You might say that in some ways it’s the ultimate temptation.
After all, whoever has power has the keys to gaining security,
And whoever holds power can receive the esteem and affection of many.

So his response is telling:
He is offered power and he turns it away.
Whether this is a hard choice for him, I don’t know,
But being human, I can’t imagine it’s one he’s able to just skate by.
The point is that he turns it back, turns Satan down,
And he says, in effect, that not having power
Is the only way forward.

It’s the only kind of power he’s interested in.
Power fashioned out of vulnerability and weakness and powerlessness:
The power of humility:
The power that comes from giving up the illusion of power …
“Then the devil left him, and the angels came and waited on him.”

Dear friends, what we have witnessed this morning
Is the opening argument for two very different ways of seeing the world,
Two kingdoms vying for control of our hearts.

The first one says, Take it all; it’s yours.
The second one says, Give it all up; it never was yours.
The first one says, You need all you can get.
The second one says, You’ll never get enough, and you’ll destroy yourself in the process.
The first one says, You’re in charge; you are worthy.
The second one says, It’s not about you, and by the way, God alone is worthy.

It only takes a minute of living to see which of these two kingdoms dominates our world.
The hope of Lent is that in Jesus, the tables might be turned. Amen.