Turning Back to God

21303485Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

Whenever I meet with my spiritual director I can anticipate him asking me these questions:

  1. How are you growing closer to God?
  2. What are the barriers that are holding you back from experiencing spiritual growth?

These are good questions, especially that last one. We all experience barriers in our lives – things that hold us back from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. This Lenten Season, we are encouraged to try to get past those barriers by “Turning Back to God.”

Unmasking the Barriers

In today’s Gospel, Jesus unmasks three barriers that often block our spiritual growth. These are root causes of sin that we have been battling since Adam and Eve were in the Garden. I call them the “Three P’s”:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Power
  3. Popularity

None of these are necessarily “evil” unto themselves, but can be the root of our sins and the reason we lack spiritual growth.

Root Causes

In a couple of months, a bright, yellow flower will begin blooming all over West County – the dandelion weed. You know from experience that to get rid of dandelions you have to do more than merely cut off the top of the plant. You cut the top off and the weed keeps growing. To get rid of the weed you have to get to the root. Otherwise, the flower goes to seed and those little puffy white balls will spread the weed all over.

The same is true with sin. We sometimes have to dig at the root of the problems that serve as barriers to spiritual growth. Lent is a good time to reflect on the root causes of our sin and to consider ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to battle those things that keep us from God.

Lessons from the Word

Let’s take a moment to break open today’s Gospel message (Luke 4: 1-13). In the Gospel, the Devil temps Jesus during his fasting with bread (the temptation of Pleasure). He tempts Jesus with the promise of earthly glory (the temptation of Power). And he tempts Jesus with instant fame (the temptation of Popularity). Jesus responds in the same way St. Paul suggests in the Second Reading: He calls on the name of the Lord to be saved. Jesus does this by invoking the Word of God. He quotes from the Old Testament (Book of Deuteronomy).


The story unfolds like this: After fasting for 40 days, Jesus is hungry. The Devil tempts him by telling him “Command this stone to become bread.” Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: “One does not live on bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

The lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us is that life’s pleasures and comforts are good things (after all, God created them). But they don’t last. They don’t “satisfy the hungry heart.” Only God can do that.

The Jews who were tested and afflicted in the desert for 40 years learned that they had to trust in God to sustain them. God provided for them (as he provides for all of us). We need to accept the pleasure and comforts from God as a gift, but not put pleasure and comfort before God.


The second temptation is power. The Devil tells Jesus “Just worship me and I will give you all the power and glory in the world.”

Ever notice that in stories, when someone is granted three wishes, what the person typically wishes for? Power!

Given three wishes, people in these stories typically for ask for all the riches in the world, unlimited power over all other people and, if they are smart, for an unlimited supply of wishes (ALL of the power!).

Have you ever known one of those “three wishes” scenarios work out well? No. Do all of these wishes ever buy true happiness? No.

Jesus reminds us that we should give back to God what God has given us (including power). He quotes “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

The lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us is that our lives need to be oriented toward God (He is our true purpose and He is what will bring us true happiness). We are not created for arrogance and pride – We are created to love and serve God.

I think Pope Benedict’s recent decision to resign is a great example of how God wants us to deal with power. The pope – the most “powerful” person in the Catholic Church – decided that the best way to serve God and His Church was to relinquish all power of his position so that God’s will may be done. This is a reminder from the Gospel of John: “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)


The Pope’s decision also speaks to the third temptation: popularity. When the Devil tempts Jesus to take a swan-dive off of the Temple roof to impress everyone and win instant fame, Jesus again quotes scripture: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

That quote makes reference to the Jews quarreling with Moses in the desert. After the Jews were given Manna (bread from heaven) to feed them, they became desperate for water and wondered whether God had abandoned them. They began quarreling among themselves. Moses was ready to throw up his hands in disgust when God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water would flow. Moses did as God instructed, and the Jewish people received an abundant supply of water.

The lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us is to trust in God – at all times, and in all ways. People’s opinions may change from time to time, but God’s love is constant.


Wherever you are on your spiritual path, remember that God is constantly calling us to turn back to him.  God wants us to turn back to Him this Lent with all our hearts, our minds, our souls. He knows that this is sometimes difficult for us and that many times we fail. He just wants us to keep trying!

And so I leave you with this story that a friend shared with me:

A certain Carmelite nun found contemplative (“silent”) prayer to be very difficult because her thoughts would wander a thousand times during a 20-minute prayer session. She was certain that her teacher, Thomas Merton, would rebuke her for being such a failure, so she was surprised when, instead, Merton said that her wandering thoughts were just 1,000 opportunities to return to God.

Copyright © Deacon Dan Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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