Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“And lead us not into temptation.” We make this prayer to our heavenly Father every week, and some of us every day. This makes God’s action in this morning’s Gospel very curious indeed: “and Jesus, being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil.” What God does is precisely the opposite of what is asked of Him in the Lord’s prayer. By the Holy Spirit He leads His Son directly into temptation.

And, in some ways, our own forty day sojourn in the wilderness, our observance of Lent, is a time in which God might lead us into temptation, too. If you’ve given something up—meat or chocolate or selfish thoughts or whatever—you’ve probably already been tempted by opportunities to avail yourself of that old comfort or that old habit. I know I have. If you’ve taken something on—a prayer practice or other spiritual discipline—you’ve probably already been tempted to be less than conscientious in keeping it up. The old ways are more comfortable; they’re safe. It is significant that in addition to power, the devil tempts Jesus with comfort (the comfort of a bit of bread in the midst of his fasting) and he tempts our Lord with safety (specifically, protection from falling down a cliff).

But why might God lead us into temptation? Why was His Son led by the Holy Spirit into a time of trial rather than flight from it? Well, the simple answer is that sometimes God answers our prayers with a “no”, and that includes our perennial prayer to “lead us not into temptation.” But that doesn’t get to the larger question, the “why?” question, so here is my humble attempt at an answer.

It has been my experience that during the periods in which I’ve been most conscientious about prayer and fasting, in which my own relationship with God seems strongest, that I have been most open to temptation. It is usually the temptation which the church calls “sloth”, one of those deadly sins: laziness not in completing tasks at work, but in maintaining rigor and regularity in the very practices which has forged my relationship with my Lord, namely prayer and fasting. I find myself in pretty good company in this. Ascetics and mystics from throughout Church History have noted the same struggle. Precisely when their prayer life seemed most effective, just when they seemed closest to God, was when the temptation to slack off a bit seemed most prevalent and most disastrous.

On one level, and at the danger of delving into creepy territory, it is because the enemy redoubles his efforts when he’s losing, when the faithful Christian has turned more profoundly from his crafts and wiles toward the loving God. The first Sunday of Lent is as good a time as any to remember that radical evil sadly exists, and that the defeat experienced by the agents of said evil incites them to tempt the faithful with even more resolve.

But this still doesn’t explain why God led His Son and why He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to begin with, why he gives these tempters the chance to snare us.

The answer is paradoxical but at the same time unsurprising. God leads us into temptation because He loves us. He loves us so much that He trusts us, which is perhaps the ultimate expression of love. He trusts us enough to give us the freedom to be petulant children if we choose, to rebel if we choose, and like the prodigal son to choose once again to return and be forgiven and to be given the fatted calf of his boundless mercy.

God trusted Adam and Eve enough to place the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. He loved them enough to give them the freedom to choose, to choose whether to obey or to yield to temptation. God loves and trusts us enough not to coddle us, but rather to give us the opportunity to choose to deny Him and disappoint Him. In other words, he gives us freedom to be adults. But His love and trust is even greater than this, for he gives the children of Eve the chance to return after countless mistakes—countless occasions in which we indulge in the same forbidden fruit as our forebears—to return and be saved, to make another go of it through fasting and prayer.

We may, of course, still ask God to “lead us not into temptation”, to deliver us from the time of trial, and He will sometimes answer with a “yes”. He knows what temptations will destroy us when we’re at a point of weakness, and we can be thankful when He spares us from the opportunity to fall back into a destructive pattern. But we can also be thankful, as hard as it may be sometimes, that He respects us enough to let us choose to rage and rebel. We can be thankful, as one prayer in the BCP puts it, for those failures and disappointments which remind us of our dependence on God alone. May this holy season of Lent, then, be for us not just a reminder of our sinfulness and our need for repentance, but also a joyous celebration of our redemption and of the freedom God gives us to accept it. Let us be thankful that the chance we have to confess Christ with our lips and to believe on Him in our hearts means something, because we’re not automota, because we’re not robots who couldn’t choose otherwise, because being an adult is hard but God trusts us to grow up. Be thankful, and with thanksgiving return to the Lord who richly pardons and brings us to new and unending life.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.