THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT – Invocabit me
Introit: (Ps. 91) He shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto him: I will deliver him and bring him to honour: with long life will I satisfy him. Ps. Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High: shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Glory be … He shall call upon me …
Collect: O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: In those days: the king of Syria warred against Israel, and took counsel with his servants, saying, In such and such a place shall be my camp. And the man of God sent unto the king of Israel, saying, Beware that thou pass not such a place; for thither the Syrians are come down. And the king of Israel sent to the place which the man of God told him and warned him of, and saved himself there, not once nor twice. Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was sore troubled for this thing; and he called his servants, and said unto them, Will ye not shew me which of us is for the king of Israel? And one of his servants said, None, my lord, O king: but Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber. And he said, Go and spy where he is, that I may send and fetch him. And it was told him, saying, Behold, he isin Dothan. Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do? And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. (II Kings 6.8-17)
Gradual: (Ps. 91) He shall give his angels charge over thee: to keep thee in all thy ways. V. They shall bear thee in their hands: that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.
Epistle: Brethren: We beseech you that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.) Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; by pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (II Corinthians 6.1-10)
Tract: (Ps. 91) Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High: shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. V. I will say unto the Lord, Thou art my hope and my stronghold: my God in him will I trust. V. For he shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunter: and from the noisome pestilence. V. He shall defend thee under his wings: and thou shalt be safe under his feathers. V. His faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler: thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night. V. Nor for the arrow that flieth by day: for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday. V. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee. V. For he shall give his angels charge over thee: to keep thee in all thy ways. V. They shall bear thee in their hands: that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone. V. Thou shalt go upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet. V. Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him up, because he hath known my Name. V. He shall call upon me, and I will hear him: yea, I am with him in trouble. V. I will deliver him, and bring him to honour: with long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St Matthew 4.1-11)
“…By the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.”
We are now in the season of Lent, the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring. It is a season of renewal. Sin is about our turning away. Repentance is about our turning back again to Him from whom we have turned away. This is the signal note of the Season in the Scripture Lessons and in the Liturgy: “Return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2.13). During Lent many folks focus on what they are “giving up.” It may be chocolate or coffee, television or video games. But while giving up something for Lent may be helpful, Lent is about much more than that. Lent is a season of returning to God. Isaiah tells us, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa 53.6). We all stray from God—every one. And the truth is that you may be regular in your church attendance or your Bible reading or your prayers, but when it comes to where your heart actually is, you can be totally faking it—as Jesus warns, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites when he said, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Matt 15.7-8). So the prophet Joel tells us the “when,” “how” and “why” of returning to God: “Therefore also now,” saith the Lord, “turn ye even unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and return unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness [חֶסֶד – hesed], and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2.12-13). So in terms of returning to God, the “when” is now. St Paul says the same in today’s Epistle: “now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” The “how” of returning to God is “with all your heart.” A half-hearted return is no return at all, and an outward show without an inner conversion is worse than nothing at all. The “why” of returning to God is because He is “gracious and merciful … and abounding in steadfast love.” There is nothing in your life that is beyond the grace and mercy of God. Even if that something is beyond the grace and mercy of other people—or even of yourself—it is not beyond the grace and mercy of God. What makes repentance possible is the assurance that God has already turned to us. He turns to us in spite of ourselves, as St Paul says, “while we were yet sinners” (Rom.5.8). No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, there is Someone to Whom we can turn again. That is part of the reality, part of the strength and perseverance of God’s burning love which, although we fight against it, we cannot altogether extinguish from our souls, because it has already borne all our rejections and denials and despairs.
Henri Nouwen (The Return of the Prodigal Son) said, “You only know that you’re a sinner in the light of God’s love. It’s only in the light, in the fulness of the sun, that you know there’s a shadow.” And when we repent, when we return to God with all our hearts, how does our “gracious and merciful” God respond? The Blood of Christ gives us “perfect remission and forgiveness.” We can return to God with all our heart because, in spite of our sin, God has always loved us with all His heart—as St John wrote, “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4.10). In fact, it is the grace and mercy of God that enables us even to consider returning to God in the first place. Still, returning to God is not easy, so in the Epistle, St Paul offers us some tools: “in labours, in watchings, in fastings; by pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.” The Church’s historic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving hold a special power to assist us in returning to God, and leading us toward personal and communal transformation.
Prayer. Prayer is the second weapon we have been given. Should that really surprise us as Anglicans? Our primary book after Scripture is The Book of Common Prayer. Is it possible to speak with and truly listen to another and then pretend the conversation never occurred? Prayer is to enter into an opportunity to have our world transformed and altered. A new reality cuts across what appears important. Prayer, as resting in God’s presence, speaking honestly about our needs, and listening patiently, is a means of grace that assists us in rejecting the foolishness of this age which believes that only the material is real. But prayer is also an attitude, a mind-set. “Let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus.” We are to have our thoughts and our minds turned toward God. That is what the prophet Joel means when he says, “Rend your hearts, and not your garments.” In Semitic culture, the heart was the seat of understanding and thought. In other words, Joel is saying, “Change your way of thinking,” which is what repentance literally means. That is the attitude of prayer: realising that we are always in the presence of God, every moment of our lives and even when we are asleep.
Fasting. Fasting is a very ancient ascetical practice: to say “no” to things that are good and legitimate in order that we might more easily say “no” to those things that are not good or legitimate. Through fasting, several things happen in us. One is that things begin to take on their proper place. The seeking of satisfaction and pleasure is replaced by a realisation that all we have comes from God. Fasting is a rejection of sheer hedonism as the end and purpose of life, teaching us self-control and discipline. Even in the discomfort that we may temporarily feel, our willingness to do without removes the desire for that item from its position of power in our lives. Fasting means that we abstain from that which detracts from what ought to be our single-minded purpose of drawing closer to God.
Almsgiving. Almsgiving is a word we rarely use, and when we do, we probably think of it as putting a bit more into the offering plate, dropping a coin or bill into the hat of that street beggar, or writing a cheque to a charitable organization. These, of course, are all well and good, but almsgiving is more than that. The word “alms” derives from the same Greek word as “eleison,” and means to have mercy and compassion. We refer to our Lord’s journey to the cross as His Passion, whereby we mean His self-giving for the salvation of the world. Almsgiving, then, means literally to give of ourselves out of our own passion for the world and to see those about us not as objects to be used, but as persons to be served. It involves an attitude of mind, whereby we are more conscious of the fact that we are all neighbours one to another, and respond to each other’s needs, according to our means, remembering the great love—caritas, ἀγάπη, חֶסֶד—which God has freely lavished upon us, for no merits of our own.
The Gospel for this first Sunday in our Lenten journey relates that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. This comes right on the heels of his Baptism by John in the Jordan, where He has been revealed as the Messiah, and heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Now He is compelled to go to that most desolate place, to confront His own demons in light of His mission. He will face seemingly insurmountable pressures from others, even His friends and disciples, to do and be what in His soul He knows He cannot. This forty-day season of Lent points us to the reality that we all move in a world that is often a wilderness where we must wander and face the question: What is our heart’s truest desire? What is so important to us that without it we cannot survive?
Concerning temptation, David Curry notes:
To be tempted (root, πειιράω) and to be pierced (root, πείρω) are related words. The temptations which belong to the beginning of Lent have a connection to the end of Lent in the crucifixion of Christ. He who is pierced for us is tempted for us. The overcoming of temptation belongs equally to the overcoming of his being pierced, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross and the resurrection are obliquely, yet strongly, present in the temptations of Christ. There is a resurrection into the presence of the living Word and Spirit of the Father, but only through the burning love of the crucified, a love which is already signaled in the temptations of Christ.
The temptations presented in this Gospel reading are not nearly so trivial as they might seem. But that is true for many of our own temptations. It is not so much the thing itself that is the problem as what the temptation represents. We all have the tendency to see things, achievements, or pleasure, as the true goal of life. But that is an illusion, a distortion of the truth. Temptation makes something appear more valuable than it really is, and makes the truly valuable seem less so. Jesus enters the wilderness on our behalf. He literally descends into the hell of human existence, with all its confusion and hunger, in order fully to know who we are. His entire earthly life was just such a wandering in our wilderness, and yet He remained true to His life’s mission.
Satan comes to Him in His human hunger, and lightly suggests, Why not turn these stones into bread—it really seems a minor thing. But Our Lord knows what is really at stake—allowing personal gratification to become the driving force in a moment of need. And is it not easy for us to throw such challenges at God? Give me what I want, and I will believe in you. This same taunt will be heard on Good Friday: Come down from the cross and we will believe in you. But what if God’s view of success looks like a cross?
The next temptation is more insidious: Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple, and let’s see what happens. But again, this is not about the safety of Jesus, or even a little entertainment; the real question here is: Is God real? Is God good? But is God really the one that must prove Himself? The tempting of God is about rebellion. In the wilderness Israel asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?” To put this into more familiar language, are we to believe in God if we do not receive what we judge to be right? Are we to answer to Scripture’s teaching about the human condition, or do we decide to change what we do not like or that which interferes with our way of living (“I will accept the parts of Scripture I agree with, and ignore or discredit the rest”)? Are we willing to have our views and actions challenged by the fulness of God’s Word?
The final episode takes us to a high mountain where the whole world can be seen in all its glory. Worship me (i.e., declare me as the thing most worthy of your attention, commitment, and devotion), and all this can be yours. We who know the end of the story know that, from another elevation, Jesus will both save the whole world, and then be raised to possess it, truly and legitimately, without cutting of any corners. Thus by saying “no” to Satan, He is saying “yes” to His divine mission. But the real challenge in this temptation is power and possessions. Is reality constructed of materialism? Is what we most value in life political, religious, or personal power and control? From infancy we all have that tendency to want everyone to bow down to us; to have everything revolve around self. We often see children trying to control others by dominating them, or perhaps by sulking and whining. But we can see the same behaviour in adults. We all recognise it when other people try to be controlling, but we don’t recognise it as easily in ourselves. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Our true purpose is to live as worshippers of God, yielding control to Him and allowing Him to rule.
The whole character of a temptation is that it seems right to us, or at least to a part of us. These counterfeit plans can all seem very plausible under the right conditions, so we must discipline ourselves to recognise them for what they are. Temptations are real, and their danger to us is that they become our heart’s truest desire, rather than God. Jesus lived acknowledging that whatever His material needs, His deepest need was God. He lived knowing the difference between His own imagination and God’s true purpose for Him. He lived as a worshipper of God, not bowing down to anything but God, and not trying to make others bow down to Him. His life is the model for our life. But this Gospel reading confronts us with the possibility that Jesus really isn’t the Jesus we want. We want a Jesus who can turn stones into bread. We want a Jesus who will do something spectacular, and so make it easier for us all to believe in Him. We want a Jesus who will just take charge, and fix all the problems of the world. In this sense, we must realise that this story is really about how we are more like the devil than like Jesus. It is the same kind of realisation as that, when we read the book of Exodus, we discover that we are more like the Israelites than like Moses, or that when we read the Gospels, we find we are more like the Pharisees than the disciples.
But to each of these attempts to mould Him into an image more to our liking, Jesus says, “no, I have a different calling.” Today’s Gospel is a stark reminder that while Jesus makes us His friends, He doesn’t become our lapdog. To the first temptation He answers: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He rejects a life of ease, a life free of difficulty and strife, of getting what He wants when He wants it, instead choosing a life of fundamental dependence and trust in God. At a later moment of temptation, Jesus will say to His heavenly Father, “not what I will, but what thou wilt.” To the second temptation He answers: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He refuses to turn faith into entertainment, to play with God for the sake of good publicity. Faith in Jesus is never on the basis of ostentatious display, but on a personal encounter with Him. To the third temptation He answers: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” He rejects the short-cut route, which would see Him become just another dictator. The devil’s offer is not really an escape from the way of the world at all, but an actual embracing of it, which Jesus rejects. He chooses, rather, the path laid down for Him—a path that will end in Jerusalem, yes, but not upon the pinnacle of the Temple, but upon a cross on a hillside outside the walls. Jesus trusts in the words spoken to Him in the Jordan waters, and is not swayed by the words of the devil in the Judaean wilderness. He refuses to acquiesce to human desires, because He knows the greater truth that He is desired by God. He goes to the cross, even though we want Him not to, because He knows it is the road to our salvation. Jesus resists, where we succumb; Jesus overcomes, where we wither; Jesus saves, where we fall; Jesus offers grace, where we sin.
By engaging in the Lenten disciplines, those things that tempt us most lose some of their control over us. St John, in his first Epistle, summing up the three forms of temptation, puts the matter this way: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If anyone love the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (I Jn 2.15-17). Lent offers a fresh opportunity to turn from the Jesus we want, to face the Jesus who is, which is another way of saying repentance. That is what Lent should be about, “lest,” as St Paul says, “we receive the grace of God in vain.” Lent is for change. Lent is for transformation. Lent prepares us for new life, for resurrection. Indeed, Lent is the season of grace. We are led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, that we might be set free from our illusions and delusions. The ancient Christian hermits, the “Desert Fathers,” claimed that the real battles of the spirit, the real confrontations with our devils, take place in quiet and isolation. Lent calls us to participate, at least in some small way, in that flight into the desert, in order that we might try to see ourselves more clearly in the light of God’s Word—to identify our illusions and temptations so as to be free of them.
But we do not go alone. Jesus goes with us. The Beloved Son of God has already overcome the devil, He has overcome the darkness with His own marvellous light. Therefore, led by the Holy Spirit, let us go with Him into the wilderness, there, by the grace of God’s Word, and protected by His holy angels, to overcome our sins and arrive with renewed faith at the Paschal Feast.
“And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”
Collect: O God, who dost purify the Church by the yearly observance of the Lenten fast: Grant unto this thy family, that what they endeavour to obtain of thee by abstinence, they may show forth in good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: O Lord, mercifully hear our prayer, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty to defend us from them that rise up against us; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May God bless us and keep us.