Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
(Above: Christ Tempted by the Devil, 1818, John Ritto Penniman, Smithsonian American Art Museum
March 5, 2022
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that “the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not”. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) Perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.
We begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation to, “go up to Jerusalem”. Presumably, then, we are going up not merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth is. We read that “Then was Jesus 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.” (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) St. Matthew records that this happened just after Jesus was baptized by St. John Baptist in the River Jordan, “when the heavens were opened…and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”(St. Matthew iii. 16,17)
Jesus had been doubly blessed by the Father and the Holy Ghost. He had fasted for forty days in order to prayerfully embrace this blessing. But as the Son of God made flesh, He was hungry. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. The temptation is fleshly and involves lust and gluttony. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh is famished. He cannot put His earthly hunger before His spiritual mission. Monsignor Knox reminds us that “Jesus remembers Moses and flat stones in the wilderness waiting to receive the new law…for that, men’s souls are hungering”. (R. Knox: Sermon, ‘The Temptations of Christ) They reveal to man his duty to God as His Maker and Redeemer. Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will “hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness.” (St. Matthew v. 6) The Son of God was made man so that man might become a son of God once again. Jesus will teach, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you.” (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He “has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him.” (St. John iv. 32,34) In a world without God, there is only food and drink, sex, and material pleasure. But Jesus knows that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (St. Matthew iv. 4) St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, reminds us that only with “patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, and in fastings” (2 Cor. vi. 4) in the flesh, can we share in the sufferings of the Son of God for our salvation.
Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will. Satan will not be deterred. He will tempt Jesus with pride, envy, and wrath. Fasting in the body often brings anger in the soul. This soon brings envy of God’s pure and simple blessedness. Then comes the pride that tempts the Son of God to leave the body altogether and to fast-track salvation by proving His almighty power. “He has denied the good of the body,” Satan thinks, so let Jesus dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then “let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God.” (St. Matthew xxvii. 43) “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 thy foot against a stone.” (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by calling angels to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. “Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body.” Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of God to redeem and save all men. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for the Son of God to save us by performing dazzling magic and miracles on Himself to provoke our faith in Him. The Son of God must save us by perfecting faith and reason. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish, rash, and defiant cry to God to save Him after he has irrationally subjected Himself to danger. Jesus knows that as the Son of God He must use His soul in His body to save us selflessly and innocently.
Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of God can “feed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes” later and will perform miracles on others soon enough. Fulton Sheen reminds us that, ” the Son of God had no need to become a Communist Commissar who provides only bread…. He says too that the Son of God would not prove Himself by avoiding His Cross by commanding faith in miraculous powers that would provoke God to contradict reason…and to exempt the Son of God from obedience to natural laws which were the laws of God.” (F. Sheen: The Life of Christ, p. 67) “Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan thinks that only one temptation remains. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by greed and sloth. Jesus has come to save all men, but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation, full of the sloth that these temptations have brought, is to covet with greed His Father’s power and to make off with it for His own selfish glory. He is tempted to think that the Son of God is no Son but His own 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.” (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to rule over His own kingdom. Perhaps His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom and has been rendered utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him that He is tempted to give it all up, “to do evil that good may come of it.” (Idem, Knox, p. 65) “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.” (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. The Son of God is nothing if He does not come from the Father to embrace what His will requires to lead all men to His Kingdom. The Father rules the whole of creation, and He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. As the Father’s Word, the Son of God must create more than an earthly kingdom that satisfies men’s earthly happiness. “Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.” (St. Matthew iv. 11)
The Sons of Man are born to become Sons of God. What the Son of God reveals to us is that if we are to become Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today, we read that, “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of God is hungering and thirsting for the Father’s righteousness. God the Father rules Christ’s spirit, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has come to serve and redeem us all. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time.
In Lent, Jesus the Son of God calls us to His Cross. With Fulton Sheen, the Son of God says:
“All I now want of this earth is a place large enough to erect a Cross; there I shall let you unfurl me before the crossroads of your world. I shall let you nail me in the name of the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but I will rise from the dead, and you will discover that you, who seemed to conquer, have been crushed, as I march with victory on the wings of the morning.” (Idem)