Year A — The First Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 13, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The story of “the Fall” is pretty well-known to most of our listeners…at least, they THINK they know this story. You could always use this little exercise as an attention-getter and sermon opener: “How many of you think that Eve was wrong to pick that first apple off of the tree?”

You’ll get a mixture of confused stares, enthusiastic hands raised, and irritated grimaces from your folks, no doubt; that’s when you say, “Well, of course, we don’t really know WHAT the forbidden fruit was, since the Bible never really SAYS it was an apple.”

That’ll make ’em take a second look — and illustrate the point that we should ALWAYS be sure that the scripture says what we THINK we know that it says.

That’s kind of how the serpent plies his trade here, after all; “did God really say?…” is such an enticing line.

“Well, come to think of it, I’m not really sure what God said; hmm, maybe what God meant was (fill in the blank with your favorite interpretation.)”

I’ve often said to my congregations over the years — remember, this is the Baptist Bubba speaking now — “The devil has never had to come up with a new line. We’re still falling for it after all these years!”

We die just a little every time we surrender God’s good intentions for an experience of our own design.

Psalm 32

There are few descriptions more vivid in depicting the struggle that sin brings to our bodies, hearts and minds than Psalm 32. “Body wasted…groaning all day long…strength dried up….” We identify with the aftermath of our poor choices, do we not?

But the good news is also present in this ancient text. Confession does, indeed, restore the soul. Notice vv. 6-7 particularly in relief of the earlier part of the psalm: “rush of mighty waters…hiding place…glad cries of deliverance….”

Better than the words of the old Alka-Seltzer commercial! (Check the original “Speedy” here.)

Romans 5:12-19

The Apostle performs some great “theological math” in this passage. One man’s sin, which is a problem for us all, is canceled out by one man’s sacrifice. In fact, the gift made possible by the one man (Jesus) is much greater than the curse brought on by the one man (Adam.)

The sin of the one + the grace of the One = freedom for the many

Grace > Sin

Theological math, I tell ‘ya!

Matthew 4:1-11

I’m pretty sure that, if I had been there in the wilderness — with the power that was available to Jesus — I would have fallen for the old “turn the stones into bread” trick. Like the humans in the garden, that temptation would have looked so “good for food” and “pleasant to the eyes”…and I’d have succumbed like so many others before me.

But, that’s kind of the point of this familiar passage for the first Sunday in Lent, isn’t it? I wasn’t there, and Jesus was. And he didn’t fail the test.

This is, it seems to me, a crucial point for what Calvin called the “whole course” of Christ’s obedience. It is not only on the cross that “Jesus took my place;” rather, at every point in which he was tempted, the Christ is taking my place. Jesus accomplishes what I could not, completely and in every way.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Several years ago someone gave me a tee-shirt that I absolutely loved. I wore it so much I wore it out. Just the other day, I was dusting the furniture and found its remnants in the rag box. It read:

To do is to be” – PLATO “To be is to do” – DESCARTES

“Dobedobedo” – SINATRA

What we do, how be behave, what we believe; is a large part of how others define us.

Pastor, teacher, housewife, student, musician, funny, quiet, aggressive, talkative, etc.

And how we define ourselves has a major effect on how we behave.

It is, at times, a chicken and the egg question. Which came first? Am I a Pastor because I do pastoral things; or do I do pastoral things because I am a Pastor?

The biblical position is that we act out of our identity; that who we believe ourselves to be is the determining factor in what we choose to do.

Have you ever noticed that when someone behaves in an outrageous or improper or, most often, horribly RUDE manner, the first thing people say is: “Well, just who do you think you are?”

That is the right question. Who we think we are shapes our behavior. And the Bible shows us that Satan knew this. That is why he challenged Jesus on the point of identity in today’s Gospel lesson.

The key to understanding the story of the temptations lies in the THREE little words: IF YOU ARE.

In the last verse of Chapter Three, verse 22, following Jesus’ baptism, a voice comes from heaven and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And here just a few days later, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God.” Satan presents Jesus with the opportunity to define what it means to be the Son of God.

He is given the opportunity to win popularity by turning stones into bread, feeding the masses and feeding his ego at the same time.

He is given the opportunity to achieve great power by worshipping the devil and turning his back on trusting God to provide.
He is given the opportunity to achieve great fame by throwing himself off the temple and showing himself to be God’s Chosen One by letting the angels catch him.

These temptations invite Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured power by giving the people free food and free entertainment, winning their favor with bread and gladiators.

The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, I would almost say, a daily basis.

In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.

After all, we live in an age in which a grocery store “meet and greet” for a congresswoman was turned into a national tragedy by a lone man with a gun; terrorists blow up innocent people, stock markets plunge and housing prices fall,

A world where wars rage and tornados strike and earthquakes break open the very ground beneath our feet.

A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that?

It comes down to a matter of faith, of trust, of belief and confidence in the promises of God to love and care for us throughout life’s trials and temptations.

The problem is: the things the Devil wanted Jesus to do as the Son of God are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying.

And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.

It was during the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God.

When he became clear about that identity, he came out of the wilderness, and began to preach the Kingdom of God and to perform mighty acts of healing and exorcism.

In the forty days in the wilderness, Jesus found out who he was and came forth ready to behave in accord with his identity.

When Jesus knew who he was, the question of what he was to do was already answered.

To be the Christ, the Son of God, laid out for him a path to follow, a way of being in the world that led to certain things to do; preaching. Healing, confronting evil.

Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God.

As we do that, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally.

Who am I? Who am I, really? And what is God calling me to do? Who are we? Who are we, really? And what is God calling us to do?

Not too long ago I turned on the TV to watch a ballgame and caught the tail end of an old episode of LAW AND ORDER.

Two lawyers, one white, one black, were sitting in a book lined office, having a drink and discussing the just ended case. The black lawyer said, “I used to think I was a lawyer who happened to be black. Now I feel more like a black man who happens to be a lawyer.”

It is a question of identity that will shape his life and work.

Who am I? Am I a lawyer, or doctor, or policeman, or office manager, or teacher, or truck-driver or nurse, or retiree who happens to be a Christian?

Or am I a Christian; who happens to be a lawyer or doctor or policeman, etc.

It is an important question, and the answer will shape your life.

Likewise, as a congregation, as a community, we struggle with identity questions.

Who are we, really? Are we a gathering of like-minded people, a denominational enclave? If so, then the things we do should be designed to take care of ourselves.

Or are we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ, as Martin Luther says in his Small Catechism:

Called, gathered, empowered and sent? Called to be a Christian, gathered around Word and Sacrament, empowered by the Holy Spirit, sent into the world to spread the love of God.

If that is who we are (and I believe it is) then the things we do will be designed to care for others.

Jesus spent forty days in the Wilderness struggling with the question of identity, struggling to discover what it meant to be the Son of God.

Throughout the forty days of Lent, we are called to do the same. We must ask ourselves,

“If we are the beloved children of God, what is God calling us to do?”

Church; just WHO do you think you are?

Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “Year A — The First Sunday in Lent

  1. Thanks, Ellen…different kinds of illustrations work for different kinds of listeners. Sometimes, we need to throw a bone to the analytical types in our congregations. Mixing the images of theology (most people think "words" — blah) with math (ah, "numbers!) is enough to help some people engage. Love to see what you do with it…feel free to post or email to

  2. Pingback: Year A: The First Sunday in Lent (March 9, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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