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The First Sunday in Lent

Dear friends,

Each week, during the season of Lent, we will share reflections from members of our distinguished faculty on the upcoming Sunday Gospel. 
To begin our Lenten series, the Rev. Joyce Mercer, Ph.D., LCSW, reflects on Matthew 4:1-11. Dr. Mercer is the Arthur Lee Kinsolving Professor in Pastoral Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is also an ordained minister (teaching elder) in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Dr. Mercer’s passions and areas of research include the role of children in worship and the life of the congregation, vocations in youth, conflict transformation and reconciliation, older adult ministries, and issues of faith, gender, and violence in the lives of adolescent girls.

Ever in Christ,

The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D.
Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent
Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written:
‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' ’’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.
6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' "
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written:
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' "

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Reflection by the Rev. Joyce Mercer, Ph.D.

Countless interpreters of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness contend that the big news in this story is about Jesus’ being radically different than the rest of us. Experiencing temptation, he remained without sin. While that certainly is big news elsewhere in scripture (cf. Heb. 4:15), the real news in this passage is not about how different Jesus is from the rest of us humans. Rather, this passage focuses on how much Jesus is 
like humankind. Led into the wilderness by the Spirit, he experiences the very human reality of suffering that comes from the kindling of desires. In each case, Jesus’ real temptation is the possibility to “dis-identify” with humanity, by accepting a super-human solution offered by the tempter. Jesus’ refusal of these seductive escapes from suffering underscores his radical identification with humanity. What makes this choice particularly remarkable is that Jesus is fresh off of his experience of being baptized by John, in which the Holy Spirit came to him and a voice from heaven declared him to be God’s own beloved son. The big temptation for Jesus, now that he has been dubbed Son of God, is to stop being human. How much more comfortable it would have been in that moment for Jesus to emphasize his difference from the rest of humanity, abdicating identification with human persons in favor of superhuman solutions. Instead, in what is surely a foreshadowing of the divine kenosis of the cross, Jesus throws his lot in with the rest of us who are prone to the sufferings of human desire and desire’s distortions. The big news in the story of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus refuses to “play God” and as a result, the one we encounter in Jesus is indeed God-with-us.
The Collect for the First Sunday of Lent

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.