First Sunday in Lent Sermon

February 26, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Adam and Eve stared longingly at the forbidden fruit. “Eat it,” whispered the serpent.

The haggard Christ, worn down from forty days of fasting stared hungrily at the rock in the desert. “Eat it,” whispered Satan. “Change it to bread. You know you can, Son of God.

“Eat it. Eat it.”

The tempter’s strategy never changes, does it?

Throughout the ages – in fiction and history – the story emerges again and again: Snow White and the apple, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth, the endless trade of snake oils and aphrodisiacs. Against all better judgement, we’re so vulnerable to the tempter’s voice: there’s something to eat or drink that will satisfy us – that will transform us into something happier or more desirable.

We’re just so primitive, this constant lure of the forbidden fruit.

Every week at St. John’s, men and women gather at AA meetings because they know they need each other’s help every week to battle the addictive lie that the magic drink will make them happy and keep their problems at bay.

Just like there are many of us who need the ministry of Weight Watchers because – against all our head-knowledge – we keep choosing food that is bad for us and portions beyond our need. Why? God knows; we’re such complex people. But for one reason or another, we give in to the tempter’s voice that the food our bodies don’t need will fill some deeper pain we do need to be filled.

I saw a headline recently I couldn’t resist: a scientific breakthrough that could cure baldness. I knew it was false. But, oh, how I wanted it to be true. Imagine: a diet that would grow back all my hair. You should have seen the before and after pictures. They were glorious. So appealing. So alluring….and yet so false. False because it wasn’t true. But more false because it fed my vulnerability to believe that happiness and fulfillment could be found in some caricature of handsomeness, rather than in my character as a God’s beloved child.

The tempter’s strategy never changes – from Adam and Eve to Jesus to us: “Eat. Eat. See how tasty it is. Imagine what it will do for you.” And imagine we do – that whole tantalizing mirage before us. And so we consume the myth – the alcohol, the food, the dietary supplements – this primitive and elemental conviction that food and drink, meant for the body, will have power to fill our empty souls.

And part of what makes this temptation so viable is its proximity to truth: We do need to eat. God made our bodies to require food and drink. Every day. And inasmuch as we are living out our lives as God ordained, there is something truly holy about eating and drinking, be it toast for breakfast or a holiday feast. But the tempter takes this holy gift, then perverts it into something it was never meant to be.

Such is the nature of sin.

The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fine tree. But its fruit was meant only for God, not for Adam and Eve. The garden was filled with food for them. But they wanted to be like God themselves – to know what God knew, to have the “inside information,” to decide for themselves between right and wrong. And so they ate. And in so doing, they received the knowledge they sought. But it wasn’t at all like they thought it would be. It’s like getting a prestigious job for which you’re unqualified. It starts out so exciting and ego-boosting, until you discover you’re in over your head and you’re going to screw up the company and ruin a lot of other people’s lives in the process. Eating wasn’t the problem. But in a spirit of greediness and selfishness, they ate God’s fruit.

And so the tempter tried the same strategy again. When Jesus was weakened through fasting, Satan tried to lure him to be greedy and selfish: turn the stone to bread and eat it; fling yourself off the temple and let everyone see you rescued by angels; worship me and I’ll give you the world to rule. And just like with eating food, the object of the temptations wasn’t entirely bad. In fact, over the course of his ministry, Jesus’ miracles often looked similar to those with which Satan had tried to bate him in the wilderness:

  • He multiplied the loaves and the fishes.
  • He was rescued by God’s providence when the crowds tried to throw him off the cliff and – ultimately – when he was resurrected from the grave!
  • Paul would later write that, in raising Christ from the dead, God seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Ephesians 1:21).

Every temptation Satan used would eventually be fulfilled in and by Jesus. What made it temptation – what made it sin – was the lure to do these things for his own satisfaction and his own power. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Every time. When they were eventually fulfilled in righteousness, they were done for love. And therein lies the difference.

The tempter wants us to feed ourselves – our own cravings and egos. And Christ models for us a kind of obedience and faith in God that is motivated by love and compassion for us, his fellow humans, and all God’s creation.

And so now we’ve entered another season of Lent – another season to ask the elemental question: Who am I following in this life?

Will I continue weakly and mindlessly in the footsteps of my ancestor Adam?  – endlessly returning to the same coping mechanism I’ve relied on my entire life, even knowing – as I now do – what a hollow or poisonous fruit it really is?

Or will I seek afresh to live in the hope of Christ – the “Second Adam” – who was faithful to the end in seeking, not his own salvation, but the salvation of all?

And it is in hope of the latter that we choose our Lenten disciplines, strategies and goals to do and to be a better version of ourselves, a more mature version, growing into our identity in Christ.

And that is worthy. And that is good.

And we will fail.

Perhaps not in the discipline itself. But certainly, in the grand quest, to Be Like Jesus. And I say this, not as a tempter (!), nor as some kind of Eeyore, but as a realist. Being like Jesus is always the light that beckons us; it is always the north star to orient ourselves by. But the truth of the matter is: we are sinners, and will continue to be so.

In many ways, we’ve lost this language – both in society and in the church. Our culture shuns talk of sin and has chosen, instead, the solo path of affirmation. Whether it’s “body-beautiful” affirmation, or “pamper yourself, you deserve it” affirmation; or “you’re a beautiful child of God” affirmation – this is the category of wisdom we’ve chosen to bank on. Which isn’t to say it’s wrong, because it’s not. All of those things are true. They are messages we need to hear. Often. But in their place.

Sometimes, the fruit we actually need, is simply to name our sinfulness for what it is. To identify those areas where we have failed and behaved badly. And to say them plainly and honestly.

And the gift of the church is that we have a place for this. We call it, “confession.” Confession doesn’t try to conceal. Nor does it rationalize or shift the blame. Nor does it distract with some tastier, shinier reality. Instead, it shines the light on the brokenness that functions within us.

Confession can happen in any context – any time that the unvarnished truth of our brokenness is admitted. With remorse. And with a desire to do otherwise. It can be in private prayer. It can be spoken to a friend or any trusted companion.

And in the wisdom of our faith tradition, we have created two distinct contexts to make our confession. One is a private Rite of Reconciliation, scheduled with a priest or bishop, where you name your sin out loud. And, on behalf of the church, the clergy pronounces God’s grace directly into that place of shame and remorse. “As far as the east of the west,” so we proclaim the substance and power and assurance of God’s overwhelming grace.

The second context for confession is the one with which you are quite familiar: the General Confession that is a part of every Eucharist we celebrate. When we invite your confession, it is always followed by a prolonged silence – a time to examine and name your recent sins, and then for us all to gather together our collective sins and speak our confession together.

And it is this general confession we’ll be exploring each Sunday in Lent – each week considering a different component of it. And so today, on this first Sunday, I’d like us to look at the first specific sins listed: “We have denied your goodness in each other and in ourselves.”

Such a pervasive sin. Such a saturating sin. Such a sorrowful sin. For at its heart lies this fundamental truth we so heartily resist: God’s goodness is in us. Every one. There is not a person in this room – this city, this world – whose true nature is not resplendent with God’s goodness. But we deny it, in each other and in ourselves.

I just finished reading a murder mystery earlier this week. In it, a young woman had been killed, and everyone knew it was her no-good drunk of a husband who’d done it, this husband who used to beat her often. And the father of the dead woman was consumed with rage. He and his daughter had always had a close bond and he made no effort to conceal his intent: he was going to kill his son-in-law the first chance he got. And who could blame him?

But, this was a mystery novel after all, filled with twists and turns. And the great reveal at the end was that it was actually the father who’d killed his own daughter. And he ended up taking his own life. Turns out, yes, he had loved her his whole life, and his demon of rage was no new thing; he, too, used to lose control and beat her.

His concealed sin of uncontrollable rage destroyed his daughter long before he actually killed her; he’d damaged her soul into believing her only viable escape was into the arms of another abuser. And his obsession to kill the husband was a projection of his own guilt. He had, in the language of our confession, denied God’s goodness in everyone, including himself.

It’s an extreme example, but a common pattern. Unable to face our own destructive habits, the habits themselves become our obsession – hidden and protected, a false fruit we think will sustain us. And so we perpetuate this vicious cycle of sin and shame and justification that spirals out of control, wounding everyone it touches. And all we end up believing is this worst, perverted, wounded version of ourselves and one another.

The communion of love for which we are made – God’s goodness in us – is replaced by destruction and isolation.

But the gift of confession is that it can begin the process of restoration – both with God and one another. The beast is named. Forgiveness is given. And the community around us can participate in our healing. The more we are honest, the more there is hope.

For at the heart of our gospel lies this principal invitation: repent and believe. “The grace to change one’s mind and heart and then accept God’s forgiveness lies at the very core of salvation.”[1]



[1] Julia Gatta and Martin Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, p. 3