Genesis 2:15-17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Limits or limitlessness, these are the options before us this first Sunday of Lent.
Actually, for we humans, there are no options, not really. We are limited, finite creatures. And when we imagine that we aren’t – or take matters into our own hands to do an end run around our God-given limits – we get in big, idolatrous, sinful trouble. Think about it, just in Genesis we’ve got: Adam and Eve and the fruit, the lead up to the flood, the Tower of Babel incident and Shechem’s rape of Dinah. When limited creatures attempt to live limitless lives, things do not go well for us – or for those around us. We may well be tasked with cultivating and keeping the garden, but the garden does not belong to us. It, and all the earth, belongs to God. We forget this at our peril.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation on this first Sunday of Lent continues this theme of limits versus limitlessness. Jesus is tempted by “the tester” to claim unlimited abundance (even stones can be made bread), unlimited protection (angels will save you) and unlimited power (all the kingdoms of the world will be yours). Here is the irony: Jesus doesn’t need the devil to give him any of these things. Jesus will feed 5,000 with a few loaves of bread. Jesus will be raised from the dead. Jesus is Lord of all. He doesn’t need to make a deal with the devil and neither do we – but, oh, do we think we do.
We are still tempted to claim unlimited abundance, unlimited protection and unlimited power, and the results of these greedy grabs have real, costly, painful and sometimes tragic consequences. When we forget that our God is a God of abundance or that in life and death we belong to God or that ask and it will be given unto us, we scramble to take and hoard what isn’t ours in the first place. A quick glance at the headlines reveals our habitual practice of giving in to the temptation to have unlimited resources, unlimited protection and unlimited power. Think about the statistics on the distribution of wealth (or lack thereof). Consider the rhetoric about building walls, deporting illegal immigrants and keeping out refugees. Ponder the reality of mass incarceration, stop and frisk and stand your ground. We not only want, but work to have unlimited resources, unlimited protection and unlimited power, and in the process we’ve made a deal with the devil instead of trusting the Triune God.
The reality of faith means we don’t need what Satan is selling. Why? Because Jesus paid the price. Keep in mind this week’s text from Romans, “If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” We don’t need to be tempted by limitless abundance and protection or power because grace abounds, death is defeated and justification, life and righteousness have come to us through Christ.
The One who is the bread of life, who comes to save the world and who is seated at the right hand of God the Father to judge the living and the dead gave all of this up for our sake. There are close ties between this pericope and the passion narrative in Matthew. Jesus surrenders abundance, protection and power – not the kind promised by the devil, but the kind inherently his as the Son of God. He is stripped and beaten, struck and spit upon, taunted and mocked. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.” The devil could give him nothing that he didn’t already have and that he willingly gave up to redeem creation.
What if this Lent we remembered what has been given to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? What if we remembered our limits? We are human beings, created in the image of God and called good, made righteous through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, what if we remembered the limitlessness of God, especially God’s abundance, protection and power? Imagine if, when we are tempted to do an end run around our finitude or our God-given limits, we instead ran to the One who though tempted didn’t give in to sin. Could we this Lent remember the terms of the covenant that Jesus repeats to the devil: Worship only God, fear only God, trust the will and ability of God to provide? Could we remember that we don’t need to make a deal with the devil because we have been given the gift of God’s only Son?
This Lent could we embrace our limits, see the cost of living as if we are limitless, repent and pledge to not just give up that which isn’t ours, but also stand up for those who’ve been hurt by our endless efforts to have unlimited worldly abundance, protection and power?
I invite all of us to examine honestly the ways in which we’ve given into temptation, failed the test of faith and ignored the limits God instituted for our well-being and the well-being of others. I invite us to be specific and name the ways our limitless living has pushed others to the fringes. I would go so far as to even ask us to make a list of the times we’ve thrown stones instead of shared bread, opted for self-preservation rather than protecting the vulnerable and taken control rather than shared power. This is, after all, a season of penitence so we might as well make the most of it. Such self-examination, confession and repentance are painful. However, it also allows us to experience the abundance of grace given through the One who, though he had unlimited abundance, protection and power, sacrificed it all so that we could be forgiven.
- Note how this Matthew passage points back to Deuteronomy and forward to Revelation. See the links to Deuteronomy 9:9, 6:16, 6:13 as well as Revelation 21:10, 22:19 and 11:2.
- Read the Matthew text appointed for today and then read Matthew’s passion narrative. What connections do you notice?
- Do a word study of “test” and note especially where “test” is used in Matthew’s Gospel.
- Matthew says that Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights and afterwards was famished. When have you been “famished” and what were you tempted to be and do during that season of hunger?
- What is it that Adam and Eve know and don’t know prior to eating the fruit and afterwards? Is it the difference between good and evil? What’s the significance of realizing they are naked?
- Check out this page for prayers for the first Sunday of Lent.
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