SERMON – Lent 1
February 26, 2012
+In the Name…
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him” (St. Mark 1:12-13).
When Jesus had his intense conversation with Nicodemus about being “born again” as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John, He said of the Holy Spirit, “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).
The Holy Spirit had descended in the form of a dove upon Jesus at His Baptism. It was His anointing to begin His threefold ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing as the Incarnate Son of God. But before He began His ministry, that same Holy Spirit led (blew, if you will) Jesus into the wilderness for a difficult spiritual trial of His human nature – the human nature He had assumed in the Incarnation, as one born of woman in the fullness of time.
Jesus was fully God, and He was fully Man. In the wilderness, God the Father allowed His dear Son to fully face the onslaught of human temptations as a test of how He would fare as the Second Adam against the father of lies and deception.
The Holy Spirit moved upon the mind and heart of our Lord directing Him that He is to fast for the entire time of his solitude in the wilderness. Not so much to test how ascetic He could be, or to bring Him to a suppression of natural bodily appetite; but rather, that He, in His humanity, would be at His most vulnerable state – a state of mind, body, and spirit when the difficulty of resisting the temptations would be nearly impossible.
In the classic work of Christology by Romano Guardini entitled The Lord, Guardini writes (and I quote him at length):
“Filled with the Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness, swept along by an immeasurable consciousness of mission and strength. He fasts. What real fasting means – not the going without food imposed by necessity, but spontaneous self-denial – we may learn from the great masters of the spiritual life. Today doctors and educators again know a little more about it. At first only the lack of nourishment is felt; then, according to the strength and purity of the individual nature, the desire for food vanishes, not to return for several days. When the body receives no nourishment from without, it lives on its own substance; however, as soon as this self-calorification begins to attack the vital organs, a wild, elementary hunger is aroused, and life itself is threatened. Such was the hunger of Jesus in the wilderness.” Guardini continues:
“Simultaneously, another, a psychic process takes place: the body becomes more supple, the spirit freer. Everything seems to grow lighter, detached. The burden of gravity itself grows less perceptible. The limits of reality begin to withdraw; the field of the possible to widen as the spirit takes things in hand. The enlightened conscience registers with greater sensitivity and power, and the will becomes increasingly decisive. The protective mechanisms of human nature which shield man from the hidden, threatening realms of existence beneath, above, and beyond him begin to fall away. The soul stands stripped, open to all forces. Consciousness of spiritual power increases, and the danger of overstepping the limits of human existence, of confusing its dignity and its possibilities, grows acute; danger of presumption and magic, general vertigo of the spirit. When a deeply religious person undergoes these processes his soul can become involved in crises of extreme gravity and danger. In just such a moment came the temptation by him who recognizes in Jesus his greatest enemy” (pp. 32-33).
It was in this state (near the end of the lengthy fast) that our Lord resisted the powerful temptations pressed on His human nature by Satan. Satan was confident of a win. God the Father desired a win for the Son whom He had sent to free man from the grip of sin and death. His desire was that it be a big win – won from the place of Our Lord being so very vulnerable to the very real temptations that drive men to a place of disobedience and rebellion towards God, which is a spiritual wasteland. The very real temptations of satisfying the carnal appetites of pleasure, curiosity, and pride (as St. Augustine of Hippo thematizes the three temptations of the Devil) are overcome by Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit upon and within Him.
The Gospel of St. Luke, as it tells this story, states that after the temptations of Jesus, “… Jesus returned in the power of the Holy Spirit into Galilee…” (4:14).
The Holy Spirit had descended upon Him at His Baptism. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness. Jesus triumphed against the temptations of the devil upon and within Him. Jesus emerges from the wilderness in and with the power of the Holy Spirit; and then (only then) do His mighty saving works begin.
Last Sunday, as I had the privilege of baptizing the three youngest children of the Livezey family, I made the sign of the Cross upon each of their foreheads and prayed, “in token that hereafter [they] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto [their] life’s end.”
St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians writes that Christians are to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” To do so, they are to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Along with the full array of gear for spiritual warfare, he says that the weapon to be carried is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” And then he writes, “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
Jesus, with the Holy Spirit upon and within Him, defended Himself and the human nature He had assumed for us men and our salvation with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. He, the Word of God Incarnate, claimed the truth of the Word of God written in the Old Testament scriptures as the sword of defense against the three temptations. The Holy Spirit upon and within Him led Him to those scriptural truths that nullified the devil’s attacks of real temptations.
Lent is here, and it is to be a journey from one place to the other – a spiritual journey of greater closeness to God, greater wisdom given to us from Him, and to a state of greater peace being ours to live in and with – amidst the trials, tribulations, and temptations we face, and which we are vulnerable to let take us in directions away from the will of God.
Stephanie Mahoney shared with me this week a passage from the book she is reading for Lent: Thomas Merton’s Lent and Easter Wisdom. Thomas Merton writes: “…some people find themselves troubled and anxious at the beginning of Lent as a result of a life choice or an unanswered question, and, at the end of Lent, they may fully expect a sense of conversion, a sense of peace, or perhaps simply understanding and acceptance. Therefore, Lent is a movement from one point of view to another or, perhaps, from one interpretation of life to a different interpretation.”
Merton speaks to us individually and corporately, does he not? You and I are in a certain place due to circumstances; and a factor in our circumstances is the consequence of decisions made by you and me, and by others. We are to take control (by the grace of God and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) of what we can do and should do; and for me to be helped in doing better, and more fully and successively, what I have tried to do before – forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is a time to take a very deep breath, and to breathe in the Holy Spirit for the fruit of the Holy Spirit to be active (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” as St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians), for the common good of the present time of the Newman Fellowship, and for how God chooses to lead us into the future. He is our chart and compass. We are to fully serve Him in whose service is found “perfect freedom.” Our service must be marked with humility and a fervent desire to live out the “Theological Virtues” of faith, hope, and love.
So with such spiritual truth; with such a calling for prayer and action; and with the provisions God provides, we pray in song the words of the Lenten hymn, calling upon our Lord Jesus Christ: “Then if Satan on us press, Flesh or spirit to assail, Victor in the wilderness, Grant we may not faint nor fail!” (Hymn 55, 3rd stanza, 1940 Hymnal).
+In the Name…