Our Old Testament reading for this morning is the story of the Fall. It’s one of the most well-known stories of the entire Bible. God gave Adam and Eve one commandment: not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That doesn’t seem hard, but apparently it was. When the serpent tempted them, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit.
As a result of their disobedience, human beings have had to grapple with the ugly reality of sin and death ever since. That is the problem.
Thankfully God provides a solution to the problem: Jesus’ obedience. In our reading from Romans, Paul explains that Jesus’ obedience makes up for Adam’s disobedience. Thanks to Jesus, “grace abounds” and makes possible “justification leading to eternal life” for all of us.
That is the good news, the Christian gospel.
When we think of Jesus’ obedience, we normally, and rightly, focus on the crucifixion, Jesus’ greatest act of obedience. But this morning, our focus is on an earlier example of Jesus’ obedience, the earliest example of Jesus’ obedience in any of the Gospels.
As we just heard, after Jesus had fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, the tempter—the devil—approached him with temptations: to make miraculous bread; to prove his identity by risking death; and to assert his divine right to rule all nations. But Jesus refused to listen to Satan. Just as he did at the end of his ministry when he accepted crucifixion in obedience to God’s will, so here, too, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus obeyed God’s will by resisting temptation.
This story comes up every year on the first Sunday of Lent. But I confess, I have never paid all that much attention to Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, especially in the last few years when I could get Deacon Terry to preach this week. I knew that I couldn’t resist the kind of temptation Jesus faced. But, I thought to myself, of course Jesus could.
In my heart of hearts, I wondered if the temptations were real, if the devil’s temptations were actually tempting for Jesus. After all, not all temptations are tempting for everybody.
I’m not a shopper. If someone invites me to go shopping when I have other things I really need to be doing, it is technically a temptation. But not a very tempting temptation for me. That’s a temptation I can resist without much effort.
I thought of our gospel story as a little like that. The devil “tempts” Jesus, but not very much.
These days I’m not sure that resisting the devil’s temptations was quite so easy for Jesus. Jesus was not tempted to the point of sin. Scripture is clear on that. But Jesus could have been truly tempted.
What got me thinking along these lines is an epic poem by John Milton called “Paradise Regained.” Milton first wrote “Paradise Lost,” a two-hundred-page poem on Adam’s fall and the promise of Christ’s ultimate victory, that is, on the topic of our first two readings. “Paradise Regained” is the sequel to “Paradise Lost.”
From the title, I assumed “Paradise Regained” would be the rest of the story: Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension to heaven, and final return to establish the kingdom of God, the point when paradise will truly be regained.
But as I listened to the poem, Milton went on and on about the temptation, about today’s Gospel reading. As I got into the second hour of listening to the book and was still on the temptations, I began to get anxious. The temptation story in the Gospel of Matthew is eleven verses, not even half a page. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is twenty-eight chapters, thirty-four pages. If Milton could take a couple of hours on the temptation story, I wondered, how long was “Paradise Regained” as a whole? I liked it pretty well, but didn’t want to listen to hundreds of hours of it!!
Thankfully, it turned out that the whole poem “Paradise Regained” was just Milton’s version of the temptation story.
In Milton’s version, the temptations were real. Jesus had to actively resist them out of a conscious desire to obey God. And Jesus’ act of resistance, Jesus’ obedience to God, was a true victory over Satan. That’s why Milton called his poem, “Paradise Regained.”
In Milton’s telling, Christ’s victory isn’t delayed to the Second Coming, or even to the resurrection. Christ’s victory, and the regaining of paradise that Christ’s victory makes possible, begins already with our story, with the temptation, when Christ chooses to obey God.
Of course, Christ’s decisive victory comes at the crucifixion and resurrection. But Milton helped me to see the importance of our story, too. Milton helped me to see that Christ first defeats Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God in our story and, by extension, every time he renounced potentially sinful desires that could draw him from the love of God.
For Christ, every single act of obedience is a reaffirmation of his perfect unity with God the Father. Every single act of obedience is a victory for God’s grace and love.
So, today we celebrate Christ’s victory over temptation.
And, today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we commit ourselves to that same struggle in hopes that we, too, can win the victory, with Christ’s help.
I am happy to report that Satan has never showed up at my house and had a conversation with me.
But every single day I face temptations, real temptations, the kind of temptations that can lead me astray. Every single day, I battle with sinful desires that can draw me from the love of God. And every single day I lose that battle at least some of the time. Every single day, at least some of the time, I follow Adam’s example of disobedience, not Christ’s example of obedience. Every day, at least some of the time, I choose banishment from the Garden of Eden over the regaining of paradise.
At this point in my life, my sinful desires are dull stuff. I was never good at the really dramatic sins, but when I was young I floated around the edges of a few of them. Now my besetting temptations are things like eating a fourth brownie at Bible study or playing an extra hour of Sudoku when I should go to sleep.
But temptation is temptation. Sin is sin. And any sin can draw us from the love of God.
Falling to temptation, choosing sin over our relationship with God is incredibly foolish. And yet we all do it, and we all do it nearly every day.
But our weaknesses and failures are not the whole story. Sometimes we successfully resist temptation. Sometimes we choose well. Sometimes, with God’s help, we follow Christ’s example of obedience. Sometimes, with God’s help, we share in Christ’s victory.
Lent is the season for acknowledging our struggles, for facing our temptations, for praying to God for help, for doing what we can to strengthen our will and our commitment.
And so, as we move into the first full week of Lent, I invite you to see our Gospel story as a mirror, to see your own temptations in Satan’s words to Christ, and to see in Christ’s victory over temptation your own possible victory.
That is the task of the season. For today, on this first Sunday in Lent, I give thanks to God for Christ’s victory and the opportunity to share in it, however imperfectly. May God help us to do better. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan