Fr. John Allison
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
February 26, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
"Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
That's where we find ourselves this first Sunday of Lent, with Jesus, in the wilderness, which, biblically, nearly always represents a place of struggle, of vulnerability. This scene occupies a central place in Matthew's Gospel, placed as it is between Jesus' Baptism and the beginning of his ministry, and we might say it names for us the reality of evil in the face of holiness. We might also say that it sets the scene for us to examine, to struggle with, those things that tempt us, that ensnare us or bind us, as we begin our own journey to Resurrection.
Matthew puts a familiar, sinister face on those things in the figure of the devil with his three temptations to power and glory, but for us, for our time in the wilderness it is not always marked with such drama. We do not always identify so easily the tempter without his pointy tail and pitchfork. Philosopher Hannah Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil," seems apt, because what most of us face on a day to day basis is largely unexceptional. We are not tempted to miracles. We are not tempted to test God in grand gestures such as throwing ourselves from a precipice or in bargains to rule the world. No. Our temptations are more common, perhaps so common as to seem insignificant to anyone but ourselves.
C.S. Lewis captured this wonderfully in his novel The Screwtape Letters. Through a series of letters he tells the tale of a junior tempter in training named Wormwood and his mentor Uncle Screwtape. Wormwood's task is to darken the heart of the person to whom he’s been assigned, to train this person to love things worldly and reject God so that Wormwood can, in the end, escort him into what we can only imagine is hell.
"Keep him self-involved," Wormwood is told. "Turn his gaze away from God and back to himself. Encourage him to pray for tangible desired ends, directing his prayers to objects and not to God." In the end, Wormwood fails in his assignment, but what is fascinating is that he is not trying to create a monster, a murderer, someone obviously evil, but, rather, a person who is controlled by selfishness, anger, pride, fear. A person bound by those things, those feelings that separate us from God, from our awareness that we are creatures made in God's image.
The tempter seeks to blind us from the assurance that we are Holy people. We use that word often, Holy. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to a Holy Lent; in just a bit we will be invited to the Holy Eucharist, but it's important to realize that that word "Holy" with all it's various connotations comes from an Old English word, "halig," which simply means wholeness. Wholeness of mind, of body, of spirit. As creatures made in God's image, we are holy. In Christ, and this is what Paul is getting at today in our passage from his Letter to the Romans, we are completed. We are called to be free from those things that bind us, free from what is commonly called sin.
Our reading from Genesis today echoes this in its telling of the temptation of Adam and Eve. Jesus is sometimes referred to as the second Adam or the new Adam in that, faced with temptation, Jesus does not sin. Or, to state it in a way that is perhaps more helpful, Jesus does not act in his own self-interest. He does not assent to the devil's offer of power and glory but remains faithful to God. He remains faithful to his role as servant who dies a horrible death on the cross, rather than an earthly king who exercises great power.
It's that choice that frees us. It's that choice that unbinds us from sin. At a parish I attended long ago there was large icon of Jesus' Harrowing of Hell. This is an image that is typically associated with Holy Saturday, and it depicts Jesus descending into Hades, descending to the dead. His arms are extended downward, and he is pulling Adam and Eve from the depths. He is freeing them from the bondage of death. Christ's choice in the wilderness, when faced with temptation, prefigures his temptation on the cross and points us to the freedom we have in Christ. This is what it means to be redeemed by Christ. This is what it means to be unbound by sin and death.
All of us here have at some point in our lives found ourselves in some sort of wilderness of the soul. In my own case, that wilderness was both literal and existential when as a young man I found myself in the hills of eastern Kentucky. At the time I didn't necessarily understand what was happening in these terms, I wouldn't even have identified myself as Christian at that point, but it clearly became a place of struggle, a place of choice. Ultimately a place of transformation. As I say, that sort of experience has happened to many of us. I would guess that some of you, if asked could name a place or time in your life that represented a wilderness experience.
The season of Lent calls us, invites us, into the wilderness. It ritualizes and makes sacred this place of struggle and transformation that resonates through our humanity. Our Prayer Book tells us we do this by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. Sometimes that means giving up chocolate or coffee, volunteering at the food pantry or for some other good cause, or following a disciplined plan of spiritual reading. Or any of a thousand other possibilities that have meaning within our lives. But is it enough? How do any of these actions on our part lead us to a deeper relationship to God?
One Ash Wednesday, Mother Kathleen spoke of the necessity of looking deeply into our hearts in this season of prayer and repentance. Looking deeply into our hearts is the essence of the wilderness experience. It doesn't require remote landscapes or acts of heroic deprivation. Those things are certainly useful tools when used mindfully and with intention but, no, they are not necessary. What is required is sufficient silence for us to become aware of what we feel—what we really feel deeply, beyond all the accumulation of stuff and self that obscure our inward vision.
A desert monk once asked a novice to look into a bowl of water that he then shook. When he stopped the agitation the novice could see the reflection of his face. That's what happens to us in this quiet, reflective season of Lent. We let the agitation of our busy lives settle, and we see ourselves clearly.
In the stillness of the desert Jesus looked into his heart and saw how his identity as the Christ could be distorted into a demand that he be exempt from human suffering or that he have control over others. His resistance to the devil's temptation of self-exaltation, his choice, opened the path to liberation for us all.
Lent is the time for us to awaken to what binds us. What are the feelings and actions that prevent you from acting from your whole self as created in the image of God? What gets in the way of being a better reflection of God’s love to the world? That’s sin. Where does sin bind you and prevent you from living into the person God created you to be?
The Litany of Penitence that we said on Ash Wednesday may be a place to start. Is it pride? Hypocrisy? Impatience? Anger? The list goes on and on and I won't list them all here but I urge you to look at them, to really look at them. That’s the beginning of looking deeply into the heart.
This first Sunday of Lent, more than any other Sunday, is a time when we are called to do such self-examination. It makes us uncomfortable as we confront the many truths about ourselves that we spend much of the rest of the year avoiding. But, as Mother Kathleen explained in her Ash Wednesday sermon, Lent comes from a word that means lengthening. Here, in this season of preparation, with God’s help, we try to tell the truth about ourselves and sometimes the truth hurts. We are stretched and our hearts opened. Indeed, Lent is sometimes called the springtime of the spirit as the practices that we undertake lead to the flowering of our souls, for the Resurrection that happens at Easter. May we all be stretched and lengthened as we grow into being God’s image of love in the world. Amen.