The Lent Trap

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Sometimes people treat Lent like a fad diet, doomed to fail as a battle of willpower. John Weems will explore Jesus’ own challenges with temptation in the wilderness, and consider how we deepen our spiritual walk in a sustainable way.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


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Have you ever made a deal with God?

If so, you are not alone.

In 2013, we did a sermon series based on questions from the congregation. “Does God make deals with us?” was one of your questions. Now almost three years later, the question is one of the top 10 search terms driving people to Calvary’s website. Just last month, 243 people were looking to make a deal.

I have shared with many of you that I attempted to make some deals with God. In one of those deals, I clearly remember standing on Chestnut Street promising God that I would go to seminary and enter ministry if I earned $15 million from the stock options from the technology company I was working for in February 2000. Based on my options and the analysts’ valuation of our company, that seemed pretty realistic. In April of that same year, the stock market imploded, and I fell about $15 million short of my goal. I was treating God more like a hedge fund manager than the Creator of the Universe.

I wanted to control my path.

In today’s Scripture lesson, we encounter the story in which Jesus fasts and is tested in the wilderness for 40 days. We commemorate these 40 days (excluding Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter) as “Lent.” I’m not fixated on whether this was precisely 40 days as we count them. He was out there for a long time. Jesus was weak and famished.

Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University explains that the story showcases the full humanity of Jesus, as “The Father wills the Son to be subject to time, to be subject to our flesh, to be subject to the devil.”[1]

We don’t talk about the devil very often in the contemporary church. For our purposes today, let’s consider the devil as something other than a scary guy with a pitchfork. The devil can take many forms, one of which is the temptation to think we can control everything with enough money, power, and prestige.

When offered every worldly thing that would have broken his fast to prepare for his true purpose, Jesus was able to resist. When Satan quoted Scripture to help him rationalize, Jesus quoted it right back. Time and time again in a weakened state, he was tempted.

Jesus resisted the temptation to control the world on his terms.

He did have the freedom to make a choice, as Hauerwas explains: “God’s love risks our disobedience in the hope that we will freely return the love he has for us.”[2]

True love requires freedom. In a free world, bad things can happen. Choices made in a free world can lead us away from a walk with Jesus. This can be incredibly frustrating.

Even God doesn’t try to control us. God wants a relationship with us.

The Lent Trap is the temptation to think we can be truly faithful and completely in control.

During Lent, we remember Jesus wandering in the wilderness prior to his earthly ministry that would ultimately lead to the cross.

Control was one of the key things Jesus truly gave up in the wilderness.

If we can eat whenever we want, buy whatever we want, travel wherever we want, and do whatever we want, where does God fit in?

Some of the most faithful and fulfilled people I have met in the world have faced the darkest circumstances—living in Tornado Alley, or surrounded by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, not always knowing where their next meal would come from, or living with chronic pain. They have that strong faith not because they gave up bread or chocolate or wine for a few weeks, but because they know they are not really in control.

I recently had the privilege of serving as a driver for a field trip for Zachary, my son who is in fourth grade. In the car, one of his classmates asked if the other children could be quiet. “I’m trying to think about how the creation of the universe was physically possible,” he said. A couple of the kids started to make fun of him, and I was proud of my Zachary for standing up for his friend: “Be nice,” he said. “We’re witnessing a genius.”

His classmate is really, really smart, and I think a very wise 10-year-old, contemplating the creation of the universe.

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to read about the latest news on a prediction from Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the detection of gravitational waves created by the merging of two black holes more than one billion years ago.[3] You can listen to the “chirp” of the universe captured by physicists from the LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.

Dr. Vicky Kalogera, professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University explains the discovery in terms that those of us who are not physicists might understand:

“Imagine playing your favorite spinning game with your friend, where you hold hands and spin around and around. If you pull each other as you spin you might crash into each other and fall.

Stars are like balls flying around in the universe and when they get very old they turn black, and they become black holes. But even if they’re old they might still like to play the spinning game – and, like you and your friend, they might also crash into each other. If they do crash into each other, it’s like you and your friend jumping into the lake. It makes a huge splash and then ripples spread out all across the lake, right to the edge.”[4]

Even the universe is relational—it can be chaotic and violent, but deeply relational.

If we think we’re really in control and that $15 million of stock options or any amount or job or purchase will fix all of our problems, we’re fooling ourselves.

Our Creator loves us through every gravitational wave, stock market fluctuation, battle with cancer or depression or a tough day at work or school.

If you give up something this Lent, give up the illusion of control.

Know that our Relational Creator of the relational universe, exemplified by Emmanuel, Jesus, God with Us, journeys with you through this and every wilderness. Amen.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 50.

[2] Hauwerwas, 51.

[3] Visit the website for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory,

[4] Vicky Kalogera, in The Guardian, , February 12, 2016:


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