1st Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2007
Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Reading 3: 
Romans 10:8b-13
Reading 4: 
Luke 4:1-13
By Bruce G. Epperly

Lent recalls Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. “Full of the Holy Spirit,” and fresh from his baptism, Jesus is led by the Gods’ spirit into the wilderness. However, we understand the complexities of this story, it is clear that Jesus, like shaman and shamanness before him, must go on a “vision quest” in order to clarify his vocation and claim his future as God’s beloved child. And, only Jesus could have been the source of the account of his retreat and temptation in the wilderness.

The “devil” is not the central character of the story, even though he plays the role of Jesus’ tempter. Although many of us no longer believe in a personal “devil,” we can appreciate the reality of temptation in our lives. Temptation is, by nature, seductive. We are seldom tempted by “bad” things, but – as Jesus’ temptations reveal – “good” things that stand in the way of realizing our true vocation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with security, power, and comfort, except as these alienate us from others and from God’s vision for our lives. Indeed, facing temptation can strengthen our spiritual lives if we, following the example of Jesus, place our temptations prayerfully before God.

Now, Jesus’ sojourn in the desert is profoundly Christological. Jesus is tempted! Yes, truly tempted! He is not perfect or immune to the human condition in all its ambiguity. Jesus is tempted as a whole person, who is able to choose for or against his destiny as God’s healer and messenger. God’s aims are never compelling, nor does God plan all the details of our lives. God’s initial aim, God’s passion for us, calls us to creativity, not passive obedience. God wants us to improvise and color outside the lines in ways that bring beauty and justice to the world and joy to our lives.

Psalm 91 describes God’s sustaining presence. Despite the Psalm’s assurance, God’s love does not completely protect us from danger. The righteous and unrighteous alike suffer from natural disasters, chronic and terminal illness, and unexpected accidents. When Psalm 91 promises that “no evil shall befall you,” I believe this is a personal confession that God is experienced in protective and redemptive ways by those who place their trust in God during difficult times. God will not abandon us, any of us, but will be so dominated by life’s tragedies that we fail to experience God’s healing love?

Trust and equanimity in difficult times are not accidental, but arise out of a lifelong commitment to spiritual practices. Ongoing commitment to experience God’s presence in our day to day, quotidian, lives prepares us for experiencing God’s presence when all human hope is gone. For those who practice realistic trust in God’s care, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

The reading from Deuteronomy describes a habit of gratitude and generosity. In giving God, and implicitly our faith community and the world, our “first fruits,” we acknowledge our dependence on God’s graceful care and the generosity of the universe. Open-hearted generosity is, again, not accidental but a spiritual virtue that arises from an ongoing commitment to share what we have with God and the vulnerable in our midst. This generosity is lived out day to day in simple acts of kindness and care as well as more dramatic gifts to the community. Sharing our “first fruits” allows God’s abundant life to flow through us more energetically and dynamically. Our lives grow in stature and our vision of the universe expands as we recognize the essential interdependence of life. This is the heart of Eucharistic living, the remembrance of all that God has done through the creation and evolution of the universe, the inspiration of prophets and wise men and women, and the evolving movements of the Spirit. Sharing the bread and the cup – and our “first fruits” – connects us with all things and allows us to become channels of blessing to the world. We discover that it is a blessing to bless others.

The epistle speaks of the nearness and universality of God. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who calls upon God will be saved. Salvation, or wholeness, is not limited by any human condition. God is generous to everyone. Today, divine generosity calls us the church to experience God’s revelation in the many varieties of human experience, religiosity, sexuality, and ethnicity. God’s universal love does not depend on us – it is freely given--but it takes the shape of our love and our willingness to be God’s partners in healing the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.