Lent 1 – And nothing but the Truth

[preached at All Saints Amersfoort]

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 

Lent has begun last Wednesday, when, those of us who came for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the Cross, were reminded to return to the dust from which we came:  “You are dust, O man / O woman, and to dust you shall return.”  A reminder of our mortality because of sin, but also a reminder to return to the ground of our being – to humble ourselves, to remember that we are human, of the “humus”, of the earth, of the dust, dependent on God for our very being and for our well-being.  And if we humble ourselves before God, remembering that we are but human, dependent, listening gladly to the advice, to the Word of our Creator, we are assured through Christ, not only that we will find flourishing in this life (though not without suffering), but that God will exalt us into the heavenly places.

That call to humbling ourselves before God has taken certain forms in the Church through the ages.  One of the ways of humbling ourselves that has endured is the suggestion to enter into a Lenten Fast – not something necessary, but something found to be helpful.  And something found to be helpful to do together, at the same time, in order to encourage one another as we deepen our discipleship in Christ.

In this month’s Newsletter and on the website of Holy Trinity, you will find an article on some of the reasons for fasting and spiritual feasting as well as suggestions for how to observe it.  It is not too late to join in if you haven’t yet – we’re not all caught up about 40 or 36 days – you can join it at any time!  On the website article is a link to another article from an Orthodox Nun, Mother Mary, and Bp Kallistos Ware, with an Eastern Orthodox perspective on about fasting and feasting.  The reasons for fasting include:

  • coming to know a little more about how our souls and bodies work – a certain self-knowledge;
  • it is learning about the goodness of our bodies and the Creation itself and how they are to be a help in our sanctification in Christ and how they can confuse us;
  • it is learning about the redirection of our loves heavenward; and
  • foremost, it is about learning about our utter dependence upon God for life – something we can so quickly forget.

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Our two readings this morning are to bring our minds to the most profound subject matter – something that is significant for every one of us in our daily living – we experience elements of both accounts of the temptations in our daily living and dying: the fall of Man through the temptations of Satan, and the overcoming of the temptation of Satan by the Son of Man in the wilderness.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Genesis reading [Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7] includes the original instructions of God to Adam to care for the Garden and to eat freely of the fruit of every tree except one in the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What is the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that Adam was not to eat of?

The early Church Fathers speculate that the fruit itself was not the poison – why would God add to Paradise something poisonous?  It was not the tasting of the fruit that brought our Fall but rather the transgressing of the command – the pride that decides for ourselves what is right despite what God says.

We know in ourselves, we know in our children, this continual testing the bounds, once we hear of a limitation, we desire to go beyond it.  On the positive side, it shows both our desire for what is beyond us, that is actually something good, a desire to be like God.  But on the negative side, it shows also our pride, that we would decide for ourselves how that can happen, decide for ourselves what is good or bad despite what our Creator says, it shows an inner rebellion that is a part of our fallen nature that would seem to despise authority, even God.

An early Church Father, John of Damascus [676-749 AD], suggests that the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil points to the sweetness of divine contemplation”.  He was following the understanding of Gregory of Nazianzus [329-390 AD], an earlier doctor of the Eastern Church, who said,

“the tree itself was not evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us…But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time.  The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk.”

We could think about how the driving of a car is a good thing, but not until we reach a certain age of skill and coordination and of responsibility for our actions – to have that much power for a child would bring certain destruction.

We could think of how knowledge itself, without the wisdom of discerning what to share and what to withhold can be destructive to souls – especially knowledge of divine things.  God is restrained by love from sharing his Wisdom until we are ready, and when we receive it, we must exercise a holy reserve in what we speak, that our knowledge may bring life and not harm.

These few sentences in Scripture have been seen by the greatest minds of the Church as most mysterious, without simple answers and raising many questions.

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In the Temptations of Christ [St Matthew 4:1-11] we see the Son of Man facing head on the sort of ways that the devil seeks to divide us from God.  There are many ways to approach these temptations, here is one approach:

In the first temptation the devil attacks our Lord by an appeal to bodily appetite – make these stones into bread.  Jesus points to the truth, appealing to God’s Word, that our foremost hunger is for God – and our bodily needs come second.  We must move beyond mere concern for the bodily – we are made in God’s image, spiritual.

In the second temptation, the devil attacks our Lord, using Scripture, and his trust in God to save him – cast yourself down and God’s angels will surely catch you.  Jesus points to the whole truth of Scripture, not picking one phrase out of the context of the whole, that we are not to tempt God by denying our creatureliness, our body’s needs, but to care for it.  We are enfleshed souls and the body is a gift from God, not to be denied or forgotten, but cherished – it is a temple of the Spirit. [see Orthodox article on fasting referred to above]

In the third temptation, the devil attacks our Lord, with offering Jesus the things that are his and that he desires.  Jesus wants the salvation of all the kingdoms of this world and their glory, he would have them return to their proper end, God, and that is why he has come.  But Jesus knows that will not come through worldly ways, through expediency, the way of the devil, it will not come through avoiding going up to Jerusalem… [see Frederick Dale Bruner’s Commentary on Matthew]

Notice that Jesus’ way of overcoming of the devil is completely counter to the Greek heroes we usually see now in Hollywood, who conquer evil by superhuman strength.  Rather in utter weakness of body, Jesus, discerning the lie spun by the devil, overcomes the devil not by supernatural spiritual power but simply by the truth, the whole truth, and will acquire what is his by nothing but the truth.

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We might think our Gospel is our solution to evil – we just need to see through the lies and follow the truth.  This is true in one way, for the redeemed, it is our way of growth in sanctification.  But it is not enough simply to teach the world to avoid the lie and to choose the Truth.  Proper education is not enough.

There is something necessary for us, between the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the perfect obedience of the Son of God, in order for us to have success in the overcoming of temptation.  There is something between our state of weakened soul after the Fall, the experience of our blindness to the truth, of our inner rebellion from God even when the truth is pointed out to us.  There is something between that state – and the place we want to come to where we can follow our Lord’s lead and always have the same triumph over the temptations of the devil that we face in our daily lives.

What must come between is not spoken about in today’s readings – but it is the journey that we are all making in Lent:  we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be mocked and crucified and on the third day he will arise.  It’s not in our readings, but it is the focus of our liturgy – where we soon will present our Lord’s death, until his coming again.

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, their minds were darkened, they saw not what was promised, the light of divine knowledge, but only their own shame and misery.  But contrast that with what the two men on the road to Emmaus saw, when they invited Jesus to dine with them and when he broke bread with them – their eyes were opened and they saw the risen Christ!  [Christopher Wordsworth’s Commentary on the Penteteuch]

Now we have opportunity to be perfectly forgiven whatever we might be feeling ashamed of this morning, to have our wills strengthened so that we won’t fall so easily in future, and to have the eyes of our mind opened to discern what is good and evil, to be clothed once again with innocency and the righteousness of Christ, and to see heavenly things.  This morning, if we repent and believe, we can eat from the tree of Life, and drink of the Cup of salvation; our eyes will be opened to behold a little more clearly the face of our Lord and his promise is that we will live forever.

Amen.