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By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

First Sunday in Lent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 1, 1998


Psalm 91 Assurance of God's protection

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
Who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
Will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress;
My God, in whom I trust."
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
And from the deadly pestilence;
He will cover you with his pinions,
And under his wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,

Or the arrow that flies by day,
Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Or the destruction that wastes and noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
Ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
And see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
No evil shall befall you; no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
To guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
So that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
The young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
And show them my salvation

Luke 4:1-13 Jesus tempted by the devil

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."

Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give to you their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you will worship me, it will all be yours.

Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Arcana Coelestia #1690 The Lord's temptations--and ours

The Lord's life, from earliest childhood right through his last hour on earth, involved constant temptation and constant victory. It is clear that this did not end with his temptation in the wilderness because it says in Luke, "After the devil had finished every temptation, he left him for a time" (Luke 4:13), and also because he endured temptations right through his death on the cross. . . .

The temptations described in Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:12, 13, and Luke 4:1-13 summarize all the Lord's temptations: that from his love toward the entire human race, he fought against selfish and materialistic loves, which completely fill the hells.

All temptation is an attack against the love that is within us. The level of temptation depends on the level of our love. If our love is not attacked, there is no temptation.


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1, 2)

Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, we are in Lent, a period of forty days (excluding Sundays) that starts with Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter. This derives from the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert and was tempted by the devil. Although this event took place at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, right after he was baptized, and not the end, right before he was crucified and rose again, Christian tradition has bound the two events together so that we commemorate the forty days of fasting and temptation in the days leading up to Easter.

There is a certain rhythm and pattern to this. At the beginning of Genesis, we read about six days of labor and a seventh day of rest, and this becomes the defining pattern of our lives. Weekdays when we work; weekends when we have a day or two off--even if our "weekend" falls in the middle of the week. Plowing, planting, tending the crops, and harvesting, followed by the winter, when the ground lies dormant and we live on the fruits of our labor. School from fall through spring, and then summer vacation. Fifty or so weeks of work, and one or two weeks off--or more for some people. And then back to work, where our day may consist of several hours in the morning punctuated by a brief coffee break, then a longer lunch break, and back to work until the end of our work day, when we can go home and, if we're lucky, relax a bit before our bodies and minds get their rest in sleep. Our lives fall into patterns, both small and large, of working and resting.

And so, Lent is for us a journey to resurrection. The forty days of Lent are the forty days of labor, of fasting, of struggle, of temptation. They are broken up each week as Sunday comes around--a day set apart from traditional Lenten observances. A day of rest from our labors. Finally, the entire period of Lent culminates in the rejoicing--the spiritual rest--of the Lord's resurrection on Easter morning.

Where does this journey toward resurrection carry us? What are some of the stops along the way? In our reading from Luke, the Lord's journey carried him immediately into the desert, where he fasted and was tempted by the devil for forty days. We always notice the famous temptations that happen at the end of this forty day period; but it is easy to miss the fact that the Lord was being tempted by the devil for the entire forty days. The Lord's temptations were not a simple, one-time affair, any more than we are tempted once in our lives and then it's all over. No, as Swedenborg says, the Lord was tempted throughout his life on earth; the specific temptations mentioned in our reading are only a brief summary of the many deep, spiritual struggles that the Lord went through during the thirty some years he lived as a flesh and blood human being on our earth. The Lord's experience was similar to our own--only at a far deeper level.

We may sometimes think that we are the only ones who have had to go through so much trial and struggle in our lives--that other people's lives have been easy compared to ours. That is because we see their lives from the outside, but our lives from the inside. Most people go out of their way to present as stable an outward appearance as they can manage. We don't like to advertise our inner struggles to the world! But we should not be deceived into thinking that the outward appearance tells the whole story. Much of Jesus' life looks relatively peaceful outwardly, as he travels through the countryside teaching, preaching, and healing. But our reading today gives us a brief glimpse into the profound struggles--the raging battles--that were going on inside of him all along. The crucifixion, and the time just before it when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, are another such glimpse.

This means that in our own trials, temptations, and struggles we can take comfort in knowing that not only do other people know the experience of temptation and struggle, but our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, knows this experience more fully and deeply than we ever will. And so, as we go through our desert journey toward our own personal resurrection as more loving and spiritual beings, we can know that the Lord is with us through the whole journey, offering us comfort and strength. "He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. His faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day" (Psalm 91:4, 5).

As we journey on toward personal resurrection, our temptation struggles get deeper and deeper. We gain greater spiritual strength each time we overcome--and we need every ounce of that strength to face the next, deeper and more difficult struggle. We know that this is true if we look back at who we were ten, twenty, thirty, or more years ago. We can see, when we reflect on it, that the issues and trials we face now would have completely overcome our earlier self. A few decades ago, we simply could not have faced the things we are facing now! If we feel that the evil impulses we are struggling against are getting worse and worse, this is not a sign that we are getting worse; rather, it is a sign that we have matured emotionally and spiritually, and are ready to face deeper issues in our lives and our relationships.

There is this kind of progression in the three temptations that the devil placed before Jesus in our story. Each one is deeper and more difficult than the last.

First, there is the temptation to command a stone to be a loaf of bread. In Bible times, bread was the "staff of life." Bread did sustain people's lives, and breaking bread with others was a sign of hospitality, friendship, and kindness toward them. It is a short step to see that bread is a symbol, or correspondence, of the good of love and kindness in action.

Stone, on the other hand, cannot sustain life--at least, not human life. It is too hard to be chewed and digested, and it does not have the nutrients we need to sustain our bodies. Stone is hard and unyielding. It is a great thing to build a house on, but not a good thing to live and thrive on as a human being. It is a natural symbol for facts, knowledge, information that we can use to give strength and structure to our ideas, a foundation for our way of living. But it is no substitute for love and kindness toward our fellow human beings.

To command a stone to become bread is to try to substitute information for love in our dealings with others. We make stones into bread if, for example, someone comes to us needing moral support in kicking a bad habit, and instead we give them a lecture on the evils of the habit they are trying to quit. In our younger years, we are often quick to make these kinds of judgments against others, and slower to give the true bread of our unconditional love, kindness, friendship, and support--the bread of life that sustains us all.

However, in time most of us do learn. We learn to act in a more kind and thoughtful way toward the people in our lives--not to give them hard stones when nourishing bread is what is needed. Once we have more-or-less gotten our outward behavior under control, we move on to the deeper issues of our inner desires and motivations.

As we head into our adult years, and into the working world, "all the kingdoms of the world" are laid before our eyes. We see the possessions and pleasures that money can bring; when we are struggling to get by, we feel the lack of those possessions and pleasures. Like Jesus, we are sorely tempted, through a period of many years, to give in and worship material possessions and pleasures instead of keeping our focus on serving the Lord's higher purpose for our lives. It may take us many years to move beyond this nagging temptation of a materialistic focus that the world is always dangling before our eyes.

However, if we continue to mature emotionally and spiritually, we leave behind that particular temptation. The world loses its allure; its glitter no longer dazzles our eyes. Now we are heading into the most difficult struggles of all: the struggles against our own self-centeredness. The struggle against the feeling that we, and not the Lord, are the center of the universe. The feeling that our lives are the best--or the worst--around. That only we really understand what is going on; that we are the ones who have to hold up the world. And since we are so central to ourselves, if we do lapse from the path of love and goodness--if we throw ourselves down from the pinnacle of the temple into hurtful ways of speaking and behaving--well, we are so special that it will not be held against us! The Lord will command his angels to take away the consequences of our wrongdoing.

But we are not meant to test the Lord in this way. Rather, our deepest struggles are all about letting go of our desire to control life and have things go our own way. Our ultimate test is about whether we insist upon leading ourselves, or whether we will allow the Lord to be the guiding force in our lives.

If we can struggle through to an acceptance of the Lord's supreme power and leadership in our lives, then we have reached the destination in our journey to resurrection. For then the Lord--who was previously dead in the grave of our materialistic, selfish focus--can rise in the glory of divine love and wisdom flowing into us and inspiring us to lives of mutual understanding and kindness with everyone around us, and with the Lord. Then we have truly traveled through our forty days in the desert, to a glorious new life in God's love. Amen.

Music: In the Garden
by Bruce DeBoers


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