“Proclamation of Profitable Self-Denial”
March 1, 2020: First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-17; Matthew 4:1-11
Bishop Ariel P. Santos
The gospel for this first Sunday in Lent is about the temptation of Jesus. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert so that He can pray and fast for forty days and forty nights.
As Jesus was preparing for ministry, I believe that He was praying about how to establish the kingdom of God on earth. At this time, the devil tempts Him and how did he do it to Jesus? The devil tempted Jesus the same way he tempts us. Hebrews says that Christ was tempted as we are. In paintings or illustrations, we see the devil as a personification of wearing red, with horns, with a tail, and a pitch fork; however, the devil tempts us by coming through our thoughts.
In the three temptations that Jesus had, He was tempted as a man, not as a superman or as God. He went through what we go through. The temptation appealed to Jesus’ human desires. He had desires that were played upon by the devil. Temptations are also subtle and deceptive. Part of it being deceptive, we don’t know that we are already being tempted that we are just drawn and lured to falling into a trap. Many times, temptations are also disguised as logical, sensible, and looking good. When Eve was being tempted, the fruit of the tree “was good for food.” It was delightful to the eyes and desirable to make one wise. Temptations are packaged to attract, to appeal to our common sense, and sometimes, they do make sense, but the question is: are they the will of God? Jesus also struggled to discern if these temptations are indeed God’s will.
The first temptation of Jesus was to turn the stones into bread. Matthew said that the temptation happened at the end of His fast. He fasted for forty days, and He was very hungry. I don’t believe that He was simply being tempted to have a “cheat day.” It did not just appeal to His personal hunger. It is about a temptation about making the Kingdom of God all about people’s needs apart from God. It is like saying, “Let us just give what the people need or want.” We forget about loving God, which is the first commandment and the second commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot genuinely love our neighbor unless we first fulfill our duty to love God.
Some people are humanistic to set aside God and be practical It is only a part of our responsibility as children of God because the first and great commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our mind and strength, and then, to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we go loving our neighbor without loving God first, then, we are really not able to give them genuine compassion and love. It is not complete. Man is flesh and soul and if we only appeal to the flesh, we don’t give it life. We are part of it, but not whole of it, thus, not giving the flesh abundant life.
In the Church’s Feeding Ministry, we don’t just feed the children, but we feed them spiritually as well by giving them the Word of God. Church relief operations are not just about giving material things, but we also share to them the love of God as well. Man is flesh, which is fed by bread; and spirit, which is fed by the Word of God. Otherwise, apart from God, our justice, our compassion, our love, and our concern will not last.
In the second temptation, in the desert, Jesus was pictured being in the pinnacle of the temple. Imagine if Jesus thought of falling off from the highest point of the temple, and people will witness the angels catching Him and Jesus not getting hurt. What will happen is that people will believe Him and will follow Him. Doesn’t this make sense? It does, but Jesus knew the Word of God and the will of God that He told the devil that he is not to put God to the test.
Temptations look good. They are appealing. One will have a large following if there is a miracle and people will believe. Why didn’t Jesus come down from the cross? Wouldn’t it have made a big difference in evangelism if Jesus came down from the cross? The high priests, the Jews, the Pharisees and even Caesar could have believed Him. This makes sense if Jesus did this, but why didn’t He? This is not the way of God! Why were there limited signs? This is because Jesus wanted to build our faith.
Jesus said, “A crooked and a perverse generation always seek for a sign, but it will be given a limited sign – only the sign of Jonah.”
As a confession to you, I have prayed a lot for many miracles to be performed through me (like restoring of sight to the blind, making the lame walk), so that those who doubted me will believe me. I also prayed that one of our Church members win the lottery so that our Church structure would be finished and people will believe indeed God is with us. Doesn’t this make sense that it will attract people and even my enemies will believe in me? But is this the right motive or did I just want to prove them wrong and embarrass them? What is the way of God? It is: do not put the Lord, our God, to the test. God’s way is that people will know that we are Christians by our love. It is much harder for people to know that we are Christians by our love. It is much easier to perform miracles and I don’t have anything against it because they have their place.
Jesus performed miracles. St. Paul in 1Corinthians 13 said, “Spiritual gifts – tongues, miracles, prophesy…these will be done away with…but three things remain: faith, hope and love and the greatest of this is love.” What did Jesus use to save the world? Would it be a miracle that He came down from the cross or by the display of His love by dying on the cross? Doesn’t it baffle us that after 2,000 years, the only God that is worshipped by a religion is a God who would rather die for His enemies than kill them? This is the way of the Cross; this is the way of God; this is how we will be known that we are children of God – by our love.
People will believe not by miracles, for demons can perform miracles, too; but demons cannot love. This is what separated us as a peculiar people. In John 17, Jesus said that love for one another, unity will make the world believe. It will not be miracles, magic, or the spectacular things or not entertainment. I sometimes think, “Why isn’t God more obvious? Why doesn’t He just appear in the sky showing Himself as big God sitting on throne so that all the atheists will believe Him?” This is the shortcut. What is the number attribute of God? Love is the one attribute from which all attributes come.
We cannot deny God, but we have to incline our ears, our minds, and our hearts to see Him. We cannot deny His existence. We need to meditate. As Psalm 8 says, “When I consider the heavens, the work of Your fingers,” we ask, “Who are we for Him to have created us?” We need to incline our ears. God-likeness is choosing to believe, choosing to pursue what is good, and choosing to do what is good.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? He could have spoken plainly, but He says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Those who incline their ears will hear. In the Old Testament, when Elijah was in a cave, he heard a rushing wind, saw fire, felt the earthquake and desired to see God in all of them, but God was not there. Elijah sought God in spectacular events, but he found God by inclining his ears and he heard a still small voice.
Sometimes hearing God is not easy, and we really need to incline our ears. God’s voice is not easy to hear and He exercises what I call “divine restraint.” He restrains Himself from giving us the obvious. It is really hard to hear the voice of God that we need to calm our soul and spirit. We need to turn-off the internet. Sometimes, I question myself when people say to me that they heard the Lord speak to them. It is good for them if it is true, but sometimes we really need to incline our ears and seek the Lord. Some are impatient and they seek and chase miracles. They follow these for they want to see the spectacular and things that entertain them; and their faith are founded on these things. They want to see, but we don’t walk by sight but by faith. Faith is the substance of things we hope for, the evidence of things not yet seen. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.
As long as we don’t see things happening, we need faith. Faith is the assurance, and it is what drives and motivates us. If we have faith, we will also do works. If we have faith that we will have our church building, we will walk by faith and act on it by our giving. If we just say that only by faith will we see things happen, then, we are not a people that walk by faith. If we just want to see the spectacular, the entertaining miracles, then, we are the audience to entertain and to satisfy.
During the Sunday before Lent, the gospel that is always read is the Transfiguration. Transfiguration marks the separation between two things in Jesus’ ministry. Up until the Transfiguration, there was lots of miracles where there was a multitude following. Transfiguration happened, and Jesus resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem to face His death. From then on, they came down from the mountain, and literally and figuratively, everything was downhill from this. Less miracles and less people. The spectacular was replaced by controversy, by conflicts, by insults, by persecutions and by enemies; and yet, Jesus resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem because He knew that was God’s way.
Sometimes, the devil’s temptations make sense. Sometimes, the Cross looks foolishness and it is to those who are perishing. To us who believe, it is the power and the wisdom of God. Do not bow to the evil way. Worship God and obey Him ONLY even if other things seem more effective. It confuses me if the counsel or the advice given to me makes sense that I have to struggle to discern, “Is this from God?” Sometimes, the ways of God seem slow and passive. Sometimes, we struggle in our minds, and this is the temptation. What is the voice of God saying? How do we know the voice of God? It is when we are formed by the Word of God. Each time Jesus was tempted, He deferred to the Word of God. Adam failed because he listened to the devil. Jesus overcame because He listened to God. He was trained and formed in the Word of God.
Let us remind ourselves that we are CEC – charismatic, evangelical, and liturgical. Evangelical means we read our Bibles. In the world, we are going to be bombarded by the devil’s good ideas, but not necessarily God’s way and God’s will. We need to be rooted in the Word of God so that we will hear from God. We will overcome like Jesus did. Jesus did not just only save us, but we will also reign with Him, and we will overcome by the Word of God.
The third temptation of Jesus was in the desert. We experience deserts and wilderness in our lives, but what we can be assured of is that the Spirit leads us. He is in front of us. He is ahead of us. We are not alone. God does not desert us in the desert because He promised to be with us to the end of the age. He leads us. His grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home. He who began a good work in us, the Alpha and Omega, will be faithful to complete it.
This Church building is a good work started by God, and He will be faithful to complete it. We, as the Church, are not just after the physical building. The true building is us! This structure is just a physical parable, but what we are really in is the business of building the temple of God, the temple which we are.
Commit to fulfill God’s Word and to follow His will at this time. Follow the traditional three-fold approach in Lent – fast; pray; do works of charity. I would add: make it a habit to go to confession. Lent is spring cleaning. We clean ourselves; we clean our souls; we get back on track. We abide in the presence of the Almighty for this is the way it is in the kingdom of our God.