I will say unto the LORD, Thou art my hope, and my stronghold; my God, in him will I trust. [Psalm 91:2]
Our lessons for today share a common theme and that theme is “honoring God”. In our Old Testament lesson, honoring God involves a simple act of thanks. And we do this by giving God the first and best that we have:
It shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD giveth thee for an inheritance, and possessest it, and dwellest therein: that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name there.
This passage goes on to describe why the Israelites should be thankful – how God brought them out of slavery and into a land flowing with milk and honey. And therefore thanks should be given. But Moses is also clear that the thanks should not be begrudgingly given. Giving of the first-fruit is not a punishment. It is a joy:
And thou shalt set it before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God. And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.
This is the basis for our national holiday, Thanksgiving; and, believe it or not, it is also one of the bases for Lent.
The Epistle lesson for today is also a lesson in honoring God. Here, Saint Paul tells the Romans that our way of honoring God must come from our proclamation that we are Christians:
For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture saith, “Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”
I remember a time when I was in law school. It was Ash Wednesday, and I had received my ashes on campus at the noontime Mass. Later, I went to use the rest room in the Law library. There was a fellow student at the sink washing off his ashes. He told me that he was doing so because he was fearful of being discriminated against for being Christian. The fact that this had never happened, and the fact that I had never experienced it did not dissuade me from doing the same thing. Within a minute of hearing this, I started washing off my ashes as well. I have regretted this act of cowardice ever since.
Professing our faith by living good, Christian lives is truly important. Being an example of Christian charity and love through our actions cannot be discounted, but this is NOT a substitute for professing our faith with our mouths – or, in my case, with my forehead. It is NOT an either/or situation. We are to do BOTH.
But the most powerful lesson for today regarding honoring God is our Gospel lesson. It is Christ’s temptation in the desert.
Now, before we address this, let us look at the lesson itself. There are many who discount this lesson. They will say, “How do we know this happened? After all, this seems like a private encounter with no witnesses.” This is true. Both Saint Matthew’s and Saint Luke’s accounts are written in such a way that it is hard to fathom how they would have such details. But, although it was not recorded, it is clear that Jesus must have given this account to someone, probably His disciples. And from that account, Saint Mark, Saint Matthew, and Saint Luke recorded this event.
Still others discount this passage just like they discount miracles because it references “Satan” and “the devil.” They do not like this reference. They prefer to believe there is no devil, no quantifiable evil, and for that matter, no sin. Devils make them feel uncomfortable. It is not what well-educated, smart people believe. Rather, the devil as far as they are concerned, should be relegated to the superstitious, the ignorant, and the fears of small children who are scared by those things that go bump in the night.
But as orthodox Christians, we cannot discount this account and others referencing the devil. After all, they are in Holy Scripture. And if we are orthodox in our belief, we hold that the Bible is the inspired Truth revealed by God. Therefore, if Christ speaks of Satan and the devil, then they must exist.
In the movie, “The Usual Suspects,” one character says that the greatest lie the devil ever succeeded in perpetrating was to convince the world that he does not exist. The truth is that, as we live our lives, if we are somewhat perceptive, we will eventually come face to face with evil, confirming the devil’s existence.
But now let’s look at this passage. This is a very odd passage in that, like Christ’s baptism, there seems to be no reason why He went to the desert to fast for forty days. After all, He had nothing to repent, no sin, and therefore no penance to undergo. But there are several reasons why Jesus fasted in the desert.
Jesus IS in the desert to prepare for His ministry. He IS there to face the devil, which is quite important. The Eastern Orthodox believe that, when Adam and Eve chose to follow the devil, not only did they fall, but all of creation fell with them. Further, with this act of defiance, mankind decided to give up their authority over this world to the devil.
Since that great sin, the devil has been the Prince of this world. Christ’s confrontation with the devil in the desert is Christ’s first act of both defiance and authority. It is His first act of taking back that power which the devil received from Adam and Eve’s action. However, the devil’s power in this world will not be fully rested from him until Christ’s Second Coming. But this still does not fully explain why Christ fasted for forty days.
Christ did many things, which he did not have to do, but He DID do it to be an example for us. He was baptized so that we too will be baptized. He fasted in the desert so that we too will fast during Lent. However this is not the whole message. There is something more. Jesus fasted in the desert to honor God, His father. And this is the crux of our message today.
What can we give God? He made this world. All that is contained in the world therefore is His. The only thing we can give God to honor Him is ourselves. We honor God when we follow His commandments. We honor God when we profess our faith in His Son, both in what we say and what we do. And we honor God when we choose Him over this world. This last type of honor is what Christ was doing. And each of the final trilogy of temptations at the end of His fast shows how we all are to honor God.
And the devil said unto him, “If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.”
The first temptation of the devil is to provide human comfort in exchange for worshipping him. This does NOT mean that obtaining our daily bread is wrong or is denying God, but sometimes the dynamics of this world make it an either/or situation. Sometimes fear convinces us to choose comfort or self-preservation over God. And we have to make that choice.
Choosing God over this world may mean our death in some parts of the world. But for us here, it may only mean being made somewhat uncomfortable. Choosing God may mean compromising our ambitions and choices. It may mean leaving work early to make a service; or not eating meat on Friday. But, ultimately, it means rejecting our fears and choosing God. In other words, it means honoring God, no matter what the cost is.
The second temptation was this:
And the devil said unto him, “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.”
The first temptation was comfort – food; the second is much more alluring. It is power. Power has tempted and corrupted many people. And the allure of power is very magnetic, especially to modern man.
In our society, being in charge of our destiny is of primary importance. We do not want to be subjected to the vicissitudes of this life, let alone not being in control of our destiny. We want to be self-actualized, empowered, and fulfilled. We want power. Yet, these platitudes are fraudulent. We have no real control. We have no real power.
This is an ancient temptation that we all, believers and non-believers, must face. We must eventually choose. And let us not shirk from it. The choice is truly between believing in God as supreme over our lives or ourselves. And isn’t this the choice that Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden? Didn’t they choose themselves?
However, let’s look at this temptation from the opposite view. We honor God when we abdicate this need to be in control. We honor God when we decide to actually believe in the words, “Thy will be done.” This does not mean we never act, but it does mean we give up trying to control everything. It does mean giving up our need for power. It means that we must trust God:
Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High, * shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say unto the LORD, Thou art my hope, and my stronghold; * my God, in him will I trust.
Only through an absolute trust in God can we honor Him.
The last temptation is the one with which most of us believers will eventually face:
And [the devil] brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence. For it is written: ‘He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee. And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.’”
This is the temptation to “test” God. “If you really love me God, please ___”. You fill in the blank. But this is a plea many of us make when we are desperate. It may be that we are facing an illness. It may be that we want something. It may even be that we want something for the good of someone else. But ultimately it is disingenuous. We are trying to control God. We are trying, in some cases, even to fool God. We are trying to tempt Him to give us what we want – just like the devil. Obviously, this does not work. But it also does not honor God.
We must honor God just like Jesus did. What did He say to the devil?
“It is said, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’”
This is a very simple response, but one that speaks volumes.
Honoring God is choosing Him over this world. Honoring God is trusting Him. And honoring God is not tempting or testing Him to see if He truly loves us. In other words, honoring God is loving Him fully with our whole heart, soul, mind, AND body.
Honoring God boils down to true and sincere love. And we show this love by giving our first and best. We show this love by professing our faith with our mouths. And we show this love by offering up our sacrifices this Lent as a sincere gift of love – not given begrudgingly but cheerfully with love. If we do these things, we truly will be honoring the Lord our God this Lent.