March 5, The First Sunday in Lent

Deacon Sue Nebel

The first Sunday in Lent.  A new season in the Church year.  New colors.  New patterns in the liturgy. The changes in Lent are particularly striking.  Not only do we change colors—from the bright, bold green of the Epiphany Season to the plainer, simpler beige and oxblood.  We strip the worship space down.  Everything is simpler.  o altar hangings.  No flowers.  Less music. For communion, glass chalices instead of silver.  And, of course, we put the joyful Alleluias away.  We will not hear them again until Easter.  Most of the seasons in our Church year begin with the celebration of a significant event in the life of Jesus and the life of the Church: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost.  The seasons then continue for several weeks, or in the case of Pentecost, a long stretch of months.  Not so with Lent.  Lent begins in the middle of the week.  Quietly, without fanfare and celebration. Ash Wednesday. A simple service.  The mark of ashes on our foreheads.  A stark, gritty reminder of our beginning and our end: dust. With that, we enter into this season of forty days—actually more than forty, when you add in the Sundays.

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the priest invites us into the observance of a holy Lent. A time to focus on ourselves.  Ourselves in the core relationship of our lives: our relationship to God. It is a relationship marked by movement.  Closeness and distance.  Drawing near and pulling away. Lent is a time when we acknowledge the things that draw us away from God.  We make intentional efforts to turn away from them.  We try to simplify our lives.  Perhaps moving at a slower pace, maintaining a simpler diet.  Making an effort to get rid of unneeded things, clutter.  Resolving to spend less time on the Internet or social media. Lent is a time when are intentional about drawing closer to God. Strengthening and deepening our faith.  Carving out periods of quiet time and space in our daily lives.  Trying a new spiritual discipline..  Engaging in study and reading.  

On this first Sunday in Lent, we are a starting point, the beginning of a new part of our journeyOur readings for this day give us stories of other beginnings, other starting points in the human story. The first reading takes us back to Genesis, to Creation.  God has created the first human beings, man and woman, and placed them  in the Garden of Eden.  There, God tells them, they may eat from any of the trees, except one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It starts out so well.  These new beings, in harmony with God, surrounded by abundance and goodness.  Then the serpent intervenes. He convinces the woman that, if she eats the fruit from the forbidden tree, she will become like God.  Heeding that voice, she eats and then shares the fruit with the man.  In that moment, they see themselves with new eyes, as naked.  They feel shame and cover themselves. The close and harmonious relationship with God has been broken. They listened to a voice that was not God. A power working against the purposes of God.   

We hear the voice of temptation again in the Gospel lesson. This time it is the voice of the devil himself.  This encounter takes place in the wilderness, a place where Jesus has gone immediately after his baptism.  After forty days of fasting, he is famished.  The devil appear, ready to test Jesus and, no doubt, stop him before he can begin his ministry.  He begins by hurling challenges at Jesus.  First, appealing to his weakened, famished state, the devil commands Jesus to turn stones into bread.  When that doesn’t work, the devil dares Jesus to throw himself down from the high pinnacle of the Temple and trust that God will send angels to rescue him.  No, Jesus responds, he will not test God. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain where he can see the kingdoms of the world.  Worship me, the devil tells him, and all this is yours.  Once again, Jesus refuses.  He will not listen to this voice.  He will remain faithful.  He will serve only God. 

What we get in this Gospel reading is a bare bones account of this dramatic confrontation.  We are told that Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days, but we hear nothing about what those days were like for him, except that he fasted.  Three temptations from the devil. Each time Jesus responds with a line from Hebrew Scripture.  The writers of the Gospels are really good at reporting. They are not so great at fleshing out the details.

 The name Anne Rice may be familiar to some of you.  She is probably best known for her novels about vampires.  What is not so well known is that she wrote two historical novels about Jesus’ early life.  Based on solid study of Scripture and scholarship, she approaches Jesus’ struggle to come to terms with who and what he is with the eyes of a story- teller. In Christ Jesus: The Road to Cana, Rice devotes an entire chapter to the encounter between Jesus and the devil.  I want to share a few highlights with you.  .

Rice describes Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness in detail.  It is a bleak, difficult time.  Jesus struggles with physical hardship: cold and wind He sleeps in dark, damp caves.  He is besieged by many voices in his head, all competing for his attention. When the time in the wilderness nears its end, Jesus is bedraggled.  His clothes are rags, his sandals falling apart. But Rice makes it clear that, at his point, Jesus knows clearly, and affirms, that he is God.  The voice he must listen to is the voice of God within him.  When the devil dares him to turn stones to bread, Jesus imagines steaming, freshly-baked bread.  He can smell it.  He can taste it.  He nearly faints, but still resists the temptation to give into his hunger.  In Rice’s novel, Jesus’ responses to the devils’ challenges go way beyond quotes from Scripture.  In fact, the devil mocks him when he uses the words of others.  What the devil gets is engagement in full-blown theological arguments with Jesus.  I will not go into detail. They are quite long.  But I will tell you that the verbal sparring provides a strong sense of what is at stake for the devil. How much he has to lose in this confrontation with Jesus.

What was most striking to me in Rice’s treatment of the encounter in the wilderness is the devil himself.  I had always thought of this story taking place in a sort of semi-darkness.  The devil a dark, shadowy figure at the edges.  Not so in the novel.  The sun is shining.  The devil is a young, handsome man.  Here is what Jesus sees:


He was about my height, and beautifully garbed. . .like the figure of the King.

He wore a linen tunic, embroidered with a border of green leaves and red

flowers, each little floret glistening with gold thread. The border of his white

mantle was even thicker, richer, woven as the mantles of the Priests are woven,

and hung even with tiny gold bells.  His sandals were covered with gleaming

buckles.  And around his waist he wore a thick leather girdle studded with

bronze points, as a soldier might wear. Indeed a sword in a jeweled scabbard

hung at his side.  His hair was long and lustrous, a deep rich brown.  And so were

his soft eyes. [p. 185]

This is a disguise, part of the devil’s strategy.  He comes to Jesus, appearing as Jesus would look as a man at the height of worldly power and riches.  This, he tells Jesus, is what you could be.  The idea of being God is a delusion.  Abandon that.  Jesus, as we know from the Gospel, will not fall for this.  He is solidly grounded in the knowledge of who is: the Son of God. Steadfast and faithful, he is ready to leave the wilderness and begin his journey of ministry.  

As we begin our Lenten journey, individually and in community, I invite you to take these stories with you.  Hold onto them.  Make them part of you.  Embrace yourselves as children of God. Desiring to be in close relationship with God.  Yet prone to desires and actions that draw you away from God.  Claim yourselves as followers of Jesus.  Affirm the belief that God is at the center, the core of each of us.  God at work in the world through us is the strongest power of all.  Let us acknowledge that the life we have chosen, the life of discipleship is challenging.  But we will keep at it.  Step by step.  Day by day. 

And so, this day, as we move forward together into a new season, I wish you a holy Lent.



Lent 1; Year A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11