Lent 1 March 13, 2011

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

Romans 5:12-19                                                                  

Matthew 4:1-11

I’ve told the story before, but it’s worth repeating. A rich man came to see me in the church I served back in St. Charles, Illinois, about a wedding for his daughter. They were nominal members of the more fashionable parish in the next town down the river, but they never attended church so the priest there had refused to do the wedding. Would I? The father would “make it worth my while.” What did my church need?

Well, I thought to myself: think boldly here, John. So, looking out the window of my study to the vacant expanse of lawn we owned, I said, “Well, we very much need to expand our education wing.” My visitor made a choking sound, so I quickly laughed said that I was only kidding; we’d be glad to do his daughter’s wedding and he could make whatever contribution he felt called to out of gratitude.

Needless to say, my relations with that man were never very good. He got my back up; I got his. We were operating, you see, out of completely different paradigms. He came from a successful corporate career, the world of commerce and power, where I offer something to you if you will do something in return. I will build you a ship (this had been this rich man’s most recent business) if you pay me so many hundreds of millions of dollars. The Church, however, operates (or is supposed to operate!) differently. For example, each Sunday we offer you a wonderful breakfast, a beautiful worship service, a helpful (we hope) message for your week, and the Body and Blood of Christ. And it’s entirely up to you what you do in response – moneywise or anything-wise. It’s all free gift.

Notice how this works in the readings this morning. In the first and last readings – the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – someone makes an offer like that rich father made in my office. The serpent offers Eve: if you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will be like God. Satan offers Jesus: if you turn these stones into bread, you will never be hungry; if you throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple, God will catch you and you will always be secure; if you fall down and worship me, I will give you power over all the kingdoms of the world.

Contrast this with the middle reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Romans is a dense document and my heart always sinks when I have to deal with it. But what it’s talking about here is important: the heart of how Christianity works. It’s all about free gift, Paul is telling us. In Christ, God freely gives us salvation. We don’t have to do anything. We start not just from third base, but from home plate. That’s what the sacrament of Baptism is: all you have to do is say you desire it, you desire to enter into this relationship with God, to claim the free prize God is offering you. Forget “you may already be a winner”; you already are a winner. Just claim your prize.

Paul goes on to contrast this way of gift and freedom with the way of bargain and death that Satan offered Adam and Eve, and offered Jesus in the wilderness. If we get all tied up in you-do-this-for-me-and-I’ll-do-this-for-you, we never get free. We battle back and forth about who owes who, who’s cheated on the bargain. It reminds me of those monumental fights that divorced couples can get into. It’s why there’s so much stress in workplaces today, with the demand to always do more and the feeling that you always end up with less. There’s just no end to it. It really is, as Paul says, the way of death.

But Paul shows us the alternative: the gift of freedom that Jesus gave us. We begin with Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, the gospel reading we just heard. This occurs right at the start of his ministry. He’s just been baptized, plunging into the River Jordan to make common cause with the rest of humankind. And as he comes up out of the water he hears the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, my beloved.” Now what is he going to do with this Sonship, this gift? The devil tempts him to use it to get wealth and power and security. But Jesus rejects these temptations. What if he’d accepted them? Well, we know from our own experience that they never satisfy. I think it was John D. Rockefeller who was asked once how much more money he would need to be satisfied. “Just one more dollar,” he replied. And that’s at the heart of this rat race we’re all caught up in: just one more dollar, one bigger house, one more promotion, one more this, one more that. There is no end to this, because the devil can’t deliver on his side of the bargain; he’s got us trapped in the death throes of “just one more.”

But Jesus walks away free from these temptations. And he offers us his freedom if we follow his way, accept his gift. I don’t want to say that’s easy or that can do this once and for all at our baptism. Baptism is a whole way of life. We live all of us in a world so deeply caught in the ethos of quid pro quo, of unfulfillable promises, that it’s a constant struggle not to get caught in it, and when we get caught to get ourselves free again. Turn the other cheek, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, forgive as you are forgiven: Jesus gives us lots of little reminders of how to live in his freedom, but it’s a constant struggle to keep hold of them, and that’s why we have Lent – a season to get back on track.

The temptation in the wilderness ends with a really lovely line. Jesus rejects all the temptations and then, it says, “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” That’s what we should be aiming for, that place of freedom where we don’t have to justify ourselves, don’t have to respond with hate and evil to all the hate and evil around us, but can just trust in God’s free gift of love – no matter what. That’s where Jesus was on the Cross. Where he was for us. Pure gift, pure love.

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