Lenten Abundance

1st Sunday of Lent 1 March 2020 

Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7                        
The Lord God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being.   The Lord God planted a garden in Eden which is in the east, and there he put the man he had fashioned. The Lord God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden.   Now the serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made. It asked the woman, ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ The woman answered the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death.”’ Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realised that they were naked. So, they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loincloths.

Psalm 50    Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Romans 5:12-19                              
Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned. Sin existed in the world long before the Law was given. There was no law and so no one could be accused of the sin of ‘law-breaking’, yet death reigned over all from Adam to Moses, even though their sin, unlike that of Adam, was not a matter of breaking a law.   Adam prefigured the One to come, but the gift itself considerably outweighed the fall. If it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift. The results of the gift also outweigh the results of one man’s sin: for after one single fall came judgement with a verdict of condemnation, now after many falls comes grace with its verdict of acquittal. If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous. Again, as one man’s fall brought condemnation on everyone, so the good act of one man brings everyone life and makes them justified. As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11                              
Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ The devil then took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He will put you in his angels’ charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says:  You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘I will give you all these’ he said, ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’ Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’ Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.

Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry.  Naturally being very hungry he experienced temptation. 

The scripture on this first Sunday of Lent reminds us of how temptation can lead us to sin and shows us a Jesus who is tempted but does not sin.  We heard in Romans, that he offers us another pathway through which “it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift.”

What is temptation and why is it so hard to resist?  And what exactly does Jesus offer us in the story of his forty days in the desert that gives us hope and abundance?

One study on rodents revealed that temptation causes behaviour in ways that are extremely difficult to control.  We and the rodents both know how difficult that can be, right!!

When exposed to a signal that they were going to be fed, some rats responded to the signal by treating it as if it were the food. Other rats did not exhibit this behaviour when presented with the same signal. The rats that were more drawn to the signal were more likely to have trouble controlling their behaviour around similar cues (or resisting temptation).  Researchers think that temptation is connected to the brain’s reward systems.  For instance, when presented with the signal for food, the rats that were more prone to temptation, experienced a high release from the brain, of the pleasure inducing chemical called dopamine. The rats that were not prone to temptation did not have this same level of dopamine.

In 2011 a university studied the way students browsed the internet.  They found students with early signs of clinical depression tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.”  To try and feel better, they turned to the internet to boost their mood. 

We all seek relief from feeling bad and to ease both physical and emotional pain. When temptation is activated in the brain, it induces a biological process that not only turns on the pleasure response, but also the body’s stress response.  The brain’s reward system compels behaviour. Once the brain learns something good is about to happen, it induces a craving we feel as stress. The fastest relief from this stress is to get what we want.   

In another study, two monkeys were rewarded with a cucumber when they completed the task of handing a rock to the researcher. When both monkeys were given the same reward, they completed the task as prescribed. But when the researcher gave one monkey a grape while offering the other the standard cucumber, the results were very different. The monkey who got the grape, began baring his teeth and thrashing in his cage to show his anger.

Known as the “fear of missing out”, marketers and advertisers utilize this inborn trigger to incite stress like that the monkey in the cage felt. Marketers need to find a customer’s stress or hunger in order to alleviate it. Without this there would be no sales. So, marketers must increase our level of discomfort to make us crave their products. Studies have found that people are more likely to give in to temptation when they are in this intense state of being, than when they were in a quiet state.

It has been shown, not surprisingly then, that the practice of mindfulness, meditation, or contemplative prayer helps you recognize when you’re more prone to giving in to temptation because it helps regulate your emotions and your dopamine release.  

Jesus in the desert is tempted yes.  He knows his hunger and the voice of his hunger. He hears the voices of the marketers in his hunger, “buy me, I am the answer for you.”

He has spent 40 days in deep intimacy with the Spirit of God.  We can imagine he is calm in himself, perhaps quite centred after such focused spiritual practice.  His regular practice of heading off to some lonely place for solitude with the Father provides us with a great lesson with regards temptation.

We might remember 1 Corinthians 4:8, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!”  Jesus is profoundly convinced of his place in his Father’s plan. 

There was another study carried out that showed when people believe that there is a scarcity in their lives it makes their cravings or temptation worse.  Just look at the compulsive fear and panic behaviour of the current corona virus issue – mention the phrase ‘toilet paper’ for example.  On the French news last night were reports of shops being emptied of masks, cleaning materials and food supplies.  But what motivates Jesus is a mentality of “abundance”, I believe I have all I need.  I do not need to compete with others for scarce resources.  In God there will always be enough.  God will see us through.  God will provide.  Remember the feeding of the crowds and how Jesus took a few fish and a few pane, and yet there was an abundance.  In God there is always an abundance. 

Maybe our Lenten practice is a call to trust in that divine abundance.  To be calm within ourselves, centred in God who is our lover, our prodigal father, our lasting joy.