First Sunday in Lent: Saved by Faith

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

DT 26:4-10; PS 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; ROM 10:8-13; LK 4:1-13

I was struck this year on Ash Wednesday by the Offertory Prayer, which asked that through our Lenten observance we “may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion.” The word for worthy could also be translated as “fit.” It’s hard to enter into Christ’s cross unless we have some sense of the Cross ourselves. We need to spend some time meditating on suffering if we want to understand what happens for us on Good Friday.

Our readings this Sunday help us to think about suffering in terms of abandoning ourselves to God’s care.

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The translation of our first reading, from Deuteronomy, is marvelous. Moses is giving instructions for the people when they finally claim the Promised Land. “When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it,” say the verses immediately before our reading, “you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth which you shall bring of your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket. . . . And you shall go to the priest in those days, and say to him, I profess today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.

All that we have is a promised gift from God.

But then comes the great part: “Then you shall declare before the LORD, your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt.” Now, this is a bit of an overstatement. Their father – Jacob-Israel, who went down to Egypt – was born and spent most of his life in the Promised Land, but his wife and his mother were from Aramea (in the Syrian desert). The point of the wonderfully Jewish exaggeration is to say, “I am nobody, I come from nothing.”

But from that nothingness, through the suffering of Egypt, God brought us to the promise. It is not we who are strong, it is the pure generosity of God.

That is the first reading’s commentary on suffering: we join ourselves to Christ on the Cross, where we finally become aware that only God can raise us up.

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The second reading, from Romans, takes us deeper into the element of faith. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters take this verse out of context, but the point is important.

“One believes with the heart and so is justified.” We have no way of become just, righteous, good, except through faith – faith, indeed, in the promise. Christianity is all about promises, just as the Israelites experienced the Promised Land. I cannot raise myself from the dead – whether from physical death or from the more important spiritual death that is sin. Everything depends on the Promise and God’s strength.

“And one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” And then we come to salvation, we reach the finish line, only if that trust in God’s promise bears fruit in a life of conversion, a life that, with the mouth and every other part of our life, bears witness that Jesus is Lord.

Not just that Jesus is Savior, but that he is Lord: our life, our profession of faith, has to show that he is master of all of our life. We can only do that if we abandon ourselves to faith in him.

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“The word – the word of faith that we preach – is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” says Paul in our reading from Romans, commenting on Deuteronomy.

Our Gospel this week is Jesus battling Satan in the desert. He embodies this teaching on two levels.

First, Jesus himself bespeaks his faith in the power of his Father by having the word of Scripture in his mouth. Jesus shows us that our greatest defense against the devil is to quote the Word of God against him, to trust in revealed wisdom.

(The devil, of course, also quotes Scripture, out of context – and Jesus puts it back into context, by knowing Scripture better.)

So Jesus teaches us to rely on faith. But he is that faith itself: the most powerful word of Scripture is the very name of Jesus. He is the victor, he alone.

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This is the Lectionary’s commentary on suffering, to begin our journey toward the Cross. We must become absolutely weak, abandon our strength, and join ourselves to Christ, abandoned on the Cross – with absolute faith that it is God who will save these wandering Arameans from the power of Egypt.

I am weak, but he is strong.

How does your Lenten penance help you experience your weakness?

eric.m.johnston

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