Some Sundays when I’m in church, I hear the lessons and I wonder how they were chosen. How did this Old Testament story get paired with this Gospel? Why this Psalm today? Why does the Epistle leave out 4 verses in the middle of a passage? If you have some answers for me, I’m happy to listen.
Today, I had an easier time. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is paired with Christ in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. It’s an obvious comparison, perhaps. Adam and Eve had everything they could want, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted something they didn’t have, maybe only because they didn’t have it. They sinned, even when everything had been provided for them.
Christ had 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. He had nothing. 40 days of fasting! We talked about this in a class this week. Was it really 40 days? Could anyone live that long without food and water? “Maybe it’s because he was God,” one student suggested. “He was God, but living as a man,” said another. “It seems impossible.”
Now I was tempted. I wanted to talk about other things in the Bible, and how difficult it would be to take them literally. Another opportunity to grind my liberal axe. But I didn’t take it, surprisingly!
There is Jesus, hungry, probably lonely, weak, and some big temptations came along. These weren’t apples for well-fed people. Satan first offered bread. After 40 days, (it really does say 40), what could be more tempting? Jesus stays strong. Satan takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and suggests that Jesus jump, prompting the angels to come. After 40 days, angels would be pretty welcome, too. Finally, Satan offers Jesus a more worldly kingship, the trappings that this king didn’t have. These are the things humans go after: fame, power, glory.
How great was Jesus’ restraint, especially when compared to Adam and Eve, who already had everything they needed? The Gospel story ends with Satan leaving, and angels ministering to Jesus. The arrival of angels leads me to think it really was 40 days. At the very least, it tells me that Jesus had suffered greatly.
It’s a dramatic contrast between the Garden and the wilderness. And, unfortunately I know which story is more like me. Lent is a time when we are confronted with uncomfortable things. We are sinful beings, in need of Christ’s grace. We are tempted by many things. And it’s so much more than just temptation. We don’t love God with all our hearts and all our minds, and we don’t love our neighbors. It can be overwhelming to think of all our sin, both done and left undone. And what a beginning Lent has! “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I don’t really want to remember that.
Psalm 32 is the lesson tonight that brings me hope and comfort. Part of that comfort is sentimental. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lutheran service of my childhood started with pieces of Psalm 32 mixed in, in King James style: Beloved in the Lord! Let us draw near with a true heart, and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching him, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to grant us forgiveness. Then the pastor sang:
P: Our help is in the Name of the Lord. —and we sang:
R: Who made heaven and earth.
P: I said, “I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.”
R: And thou forgavest us the iniquity of my sin.
The pastor would continue, describing our sins. He concluded: Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. I think now of our refuge prayer that closes services here. I take refuge in thine infinite mercy.
I hadn’t made that connection to those services long ago until this week. Sometimes there are phrases I haven’t heard in many years that come rushing back, jarring my memory. “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.” I was confused by I said. It always seemed negative. In my head I can hear: Matt, I said get your shoes on. Or, I said, put your toys away. I’m not going to ask you again. “I said” was used to make the demand stronger.
Psalm 32 makes a strong case for following through with confession. In verses 3 and 4, we hear what happens when we are unwilling to confess: 3. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
In verse 5, the psalmist tells how his life has changed through confession. He writes: Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” and you forgave me the guilt of my sin.”
There’s hope there. Maybe confession is a weekly thing at church for you, or a daily prayer. Sometimes we have to confess to family and friends, too. The season of Lent offers time for reflection, on our sin, of course, but also on God’s grace, given to us so freely.
This is a short psalm, but it’s not simple. In verse 8, suddenly God is speaking: I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. More hope. We have the promise of instruction and the promise of God’s care: his eye will be upon us. Do not be without understanding!
The psalmist’s voice comes back to conclude the beautiful Poetry: steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad! Rejoice! Even during Lent. Rejoice. That’s what it says. Rejoice and be glad.