Wilderness: familiar?

Sermon on Matthew 4: 1– 11, Lent 1 A, March 9, 2014

 Matthew 4: 1– 11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.12.23 PM

I was trying to get my documents ready for taxes this past week.  I opened the program on my computer that tracks my accounts and provides categorized summaries of where the money went.  The program displays a big number at the bottom of the page by which it sums things up.  It says, “net worth.”  

Net worth has a number.  But I look at that number and I ask myself – is that my net worth?  Is that my net worth to my wife?  To my sons?  Is that what I am worth to my parents or siblings?  Is that what I am worth to the people I serve?  Is that my net worth in any meaningful sense to anything that really matters?

Perhaps I could question that number’s significance, but there are some powerful truths it contains.  Like the practical answers to questions like: How am I going to keep paying the mortgage, the utilities, and keep food on the table?   How am I going to be able to handle crises, emergencies and dangers that every life includes?  And, there is the larger question of how I am thought of.  Am I valued?  Am I respected?  Does this net worth number not play an important role in those questions?

Then another question presented itself: where is God in this number?  What does it mean to be a baptized child of God in the face of real life challenges?  Does faith in God work outside the walls of the church where the real world starts?

I believe this important text that we read the first Sunday in Lent about the temptation of Jesus speaks to these questions, and we need its message.  This is a rich, multi-layered text.  We approached it from one perspective in Bible Study Thursday.  We will take it from another angle today.

Today I want us to see ourselves in this story.  I believe Matthew intended that his readers would see this not only as a story about Jesus, the Son of God, but also about themselves, as sons and daughters of God, in a world of wilderness and testing.  So, let us dive into the story.

Then: After the Baptism

We begin with the words,

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.17.03 PM

Then” means something has just happened, and this story is what follows.  What has just happened is that Jesus has been baptized.  A heavenly voice announced to everyone that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and the Spirit of God descended upon him.

We will notice that the devil challenges this head-on.  “If you are the son of God” he says to Jesus twice.  In some ways, all temptations and testings are about that central issue.

How do we know ourselves?  If we know ourselves as God’s children, claimed and named by God in baptism, just as Jesus was, then perhaps when the lean, hungry times come, when the crises come, when the net worth questions start pulling us into despair, we have an alternative set of answers to give.

Familiar Wilderness

Where does this story take place?  In the wilderness.  Matthew’s community would hear an echo of Israel’s story here.  After escaping Egypt the people spent forty years in the wilderness.  It was a time of great temptation and testing.  There was hunger and thirst, there was danger, there were crises, and faith was often hard to come by.

Matthew’s community had its own wilderness, living in the Roman empire with its bizarre emperors and their hostility to Jews and Christians.  I believe we all live with the experience of wilderness as well.  It is familiar territory.

Wilderness is the experience of being in a place with no roads or streets.  Which way do you go?  Wilderness is about not knowing what’s going to happen.   What is waiting on the other side of that rock?  How will this story turn out?  What is next – for me?  for my family?  for my church?  How long will I live?  What then?

Wilderness is about not knowing – and in this sense, it is an experience of the human condition.  None of us has a crystal ball.  Nothing about tomorrow has been guaranteed to anyone.  We are all, in this way, in wilderness every day.

“Make these stones into bread”

So what are the issues that we face in our wilderness?  First, hunger.  Jesus fasted for forty days and then was famished.  If there is any single word that we can use as a shorthand description of the human condition, it is hunger.   It is literal, because if we do not eat we do not live, and so it is also economic, because “there is no free lunch.”  It is also deeply personal, for we hunger for love, for acceptance, for esteem; we all know hunger.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.16.27 PM

Hunger is about suffering.  It is about not having what you need, and feeling it in your guts.  Nobody wants to suffer.  What are we to do?

So, in this story, the devil makes a suggestion.  If you say you are a baptized son or daughter of God, then get some bread out of God.  Pull the rope and call him, like the “upstairs people” do in Downton Abby, so he will come up from the servants’ quarters with a tray of rolls in his hand.

I hope it’s obvious why this kind of religion is doomed.  The question is, can sons and daughters of God remain faithful, trusting in God, even when hungry, even when suffering, even when there is no quick fix at hand?

Spiritual truth about Suffering

The spiritual truth is that if we did not go through times of suffering, we would probably live our whole lives under the illusion that we are self-sufficient and in-control.  It is our suffering that unveils that illusion.  It is our needs that show us our neediness.   It is our hunger that drives us to seek God, since bread never satisfies the longing in our deepest souls anyway.

Jesus has been baptized as God’s Son, and knows that the God who provided bread in the wilderness for Israel will meet his deepest needs.  He knows what is written, and so he knows that bread alone cannot satisfy.

“he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

What we hunger for most is for the words that come from the mouth of God.  We long to hear him calling us beloved “son” and “daughter.”

“Throw yourself down”

Next, in this visionary experience, the devil tries again.  “If you are God’s son, then demand a crisis intervention from God.  Throw yourself down.  There are verses  in the bible about that,” says the devil – and he is right.  Angels will come and catch you.

Being on the pinnacle in danger of falling is about times of crises.  It is the inherent insecurity we all live with as mortal humans.  We live with inherited DNA with all of the family history that entails.  We live with the consequences of our own lives of risk-taking, bad decisions and indulgences.  And we live in a world of accidents and danger.

So, we live on pinnacles.  And if it were not enough that we live there ourselves, it is also true that we live with the threat to the well being of the many people whose fall from the pinnacle would cause us suffering – our spouses, our children and families.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.17.41 PM

Demand a Rescue

So the devil’s suggestion is to put God to the test.  Make your faith dependent on God’s crisis interventions.  If he gets me through this cancer, I will believe.  If the surgery goes well, I will be faithful.  If the market turns around in time, then I will know God has intervened.

This is doomed as well.  Even with perfect DNA, good nutrition, disciplined exercise, and a lucky life without accidents, eventually our mortal lives will come to an end.  That means a life of faith that depends on miraculous interventions, in the end, fails.

Jesus knows better than to put the Lord God to such tests.  Again, his deep preparation in the practices of his faith, his deep acquaintance with scripture guides him.  He replies:

“Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.18.44 PM

“Worship me”

The devil makes one more attempt.  In the vision, suddenly Jesus and the devil are on top of a mountain so high that all the kingdoms of the world are there, gleaming in the sun, in all their splendor.  The devil thinks they are his to give – and offers them at a price.  They are all for you, Jesus, if you “worship me”  – that is the condition.

This is the most difficult one.  It is the most hidden, subtle one.  If you are tempted by the splendor of the kingdoms of the world, then what are you tempted to worship?  Not the devil, but the splendor of the kingdoms.  The shiny things that glitter is what you want.

Do you see what this means?  Going for the gold, is in fact, going for the devil himself.  If you think your needs will be met by material assets, you have already sold your soul.  If you live for the market, now you know its name.  If you think net worth is measured in dollars, bit coin or Euros, you have bowed down, and the devil is laughing.  The market has never saved anyone; it is not within its power.

Such a thought is simply incompatible with a world in which the kingdoms of the world in all their material splendor are under God’s rule, obligated to God’s standards, accountable to God’s demand to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

Jesus has had enough.  He says,

“Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

Worship and serve only the Lord your God:

– Not because you will never be hungry, never suffer.

– Not because you will be magically rescued from life’s precarious perch.

– Not because material security is on offer to save you.

But because you are a child of God.  You have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism.  God’s spirit has descended to dwell in you.  He will lead you through this, and through every wilderness time of uncertainty  – as he always has – and “as it has been written.”

Spiritual PracticesScreen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.19.32 PM

There is one final lesson to take from the story of the temptations of Jesus.  It to notice is what is missing, and what is behind the scenes.

Missing is any supernatural help given to Jesus.  There were no anti-devil incantations, no miracle-making gestures, not even a prayer to escape.  Jesus, God’s son, gets no special God-help in this story, until after the devil leaves him when the angels finally show up to help.  So he is like us here, or we are like him.

What then enables him to resist temptations without special super-hero Jesus-powers?  The clue is in his responses.  He quotes scripture.  Not that scripture is magic, but it shows what has been going on behind the scenes.

Jesus has been for years a person of dedicated spiritual practices.  He has drunk deeply from the wells that nourish the spiritual life day by day, the practices that deepen and enable faith to overcome times of testing.

Jesus has been a person of deep prayer, meditation and silence.  Jesus has been a person at regular worship in his Jewish tradition.  Jesus has practiced the spiritual practices that have prepared him, on ordinary days, for the spiritual battles that come in the crisis.

This is the challenge to us on this first Sunday in the season of Lent:  make this a season of spiritual journey.  Set aside these 40 days as a time of renewed dedication to the practices of a faithful Christian: prayer, meditation, worship, generosity, and service.

Take up the challenge, sons and daughters of God.  Times of testing are  not over.  But God is ready to be there in our wilderness.  Let us be people prepared by practice for what lies ahead.




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