Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

February 27, 2023. 

Texts: 2:15-17 & 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11. 

Adversity. It’s undeniably a Lenten word. A word for a season of challenge, an unavoidable journey to the cross with Jesus. It all begins in adversity.

The whole mission and ministry of Jesus gets kicked off in the wilderness according to the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It’s not a hospitable place. And who likes adversity?

It’s tempting to look for a way around adversity. But life will keep delivering it anyway. So it’s not a question of whether you will encounter it or not, but about how you will respond to it.

Adversity and wilderness might be having to share a busy, noisy space with too many other people. A place where it’s hard to hear the PA system. If you miss an important announcement, that’s on you. Ever been in this situation? Ever felt that helplessness?

Adversity increases when staff are not paid enough to do their job and some of them go out of their way to make sure you know it. When something goes wrong you’re told to deal with it yourself. Or feel free to wait in line for one of the few staff available to help. And you know it’ll be a long time before your turn comes up. Ever known that frustration?

Adversity like this can lead to incidents of rage. You may thinking, by heck yes, this is exactly what it’s like flying anywhere these days. But in fact, this is not only the current state of airports and airplanes. Take this kind of adversity and increase it exponentially and you have the prison system in our nation.

It is adversity multiplied in every dimension. And it’s intentional. It’s not meant to help you contemplate your failings and come out improved. Everything about incarceration is designed to be adverse. To cause you to lose hope. To strip you of dignity and make you feel afraid.

The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were not random either. He was up against hard things. Similarly, Jesus was not in control of his situation. He could only respond to it.

To complicate matters, there’s the question of who ordered this testing anyway. Remember the story of Job being tested by Satan with God’s approval?  For people of faith, adversity also means wrestling with the question of where God is in all this. It doesn’t make any difference if adversity is imposed upon us, or if our own actions created the circumstances that are putting us to the test.

It was God’s Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness. There Jesus was confronted by the devil who was also called the tempter, the devil, Satan. The encounters happened while Jesus was in a state of severe deprivation. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion. It was a recipe for disaster. A design to make him fail.

Were these just visions or an internal dialogue? In the end it doesn’t make the adverse situation any less real or difficult. Sometimes our hardest struggles are with the unseen adversary of our minds when intrusive or destructive thoughts take over.

In the fullness of his humanity Jesus would face adversity. It comes with the territory. To have any authority to speak to us in our hard places, Jesus can’t avoid these wilderness challenges.

Adversity can take us to shadowy places. Where dignity and hope are threatened or destroyed, especially when we feel alone. Remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, asking God to “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

Jesus will continue to be confronted with the questions and tests that have been presented to him in the wilderness. What does it mean to have fullness of life? How is the word of God to be used? Who is worthy of our worship, and to whom shall we give our praise?

As he responds to his circumstances over and over again, Jesus teaches us his Way. Physical hunger is satisfied with bread. But spiritual hunger can only be fulfilled by listening to God. God’s word is for the teaching of faith, not for testing God. Only God is worthy of our praise and adoration. Again we hear the echo of the Lord’s Prayer: For yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory. Nothing else is.

If only we could memorize the answers to these tests. But they come in endless new forms that confuse us. Same tests but different names. We end up frustrated and feeling helpless.

Jesus was not a stranger to our struggle. He knew human suffering. He prayed for his own deliverance but with humility. Nearing the inevitable cross he said, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)

In the blog re:Worship, there is this poem:

i just realized

that in my imagination

the wilderness is always somewhere else;

a foreign landscape i actively have to enter

in the act of being faithful.


the wilderness is always where i am

right now

and faith is the courage to stay with it

when i’d rather pretend i am

anywhere else.                 ~ written by Cheryl Lawrie

The problem for us is not that God is absent from our wilderness, angels are there, after all. But it is in adversity that we are most likely to lose sight of God and lose heart. The good news is that we are never out of the sight of God, we are never alone. And on the other side of any wilderness new things become possible.