Friday, February 15, 2019

“In the Wilderness” - January 20, 2019

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

As much as we might life to be easy and carefree and just one joy after another, that is not the way it generally works.  We would like for life to always be sunshine and smooth sailing, but let’s be honest: we all run into turbulent times.  This is simply part of being human.  And Jesus was no exception.

Fresh from his baptism, with his hair still wet and God’s words of affirmation still in his ears, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  He fasts for forty days and forty nights.  By then he was famished.  He was empty.  And that is when the devil comes along and tempts him – when he is most vulnerable.

The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become bread.”  Why not?  Jesus was hungry, bread is good – what could be the problem?

And then the devil takes Jesus up to the very top of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down – for it is written, ‘angels will bear you up and you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  By proving his identity, Jesus could make a real splash.  People would be lining up to follow him.

And then the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says to him, “All of this will be yours, if you will only worship me.”  But Jesus fends off each temptation, and the devil departs.

There are a few things I want to point out here.  First, 40 days.  Where have we heard this before?  Well, the number 40 is all over the place in the Bible and generally has to do with a time of trial and testing.  The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  Moses was on the nmountain 40 days receiving the law.  In the great flood, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David defeated him.  So the number 40 has to do with big, significant matters.

Another things to point out: the devil is biblically literate.  The devil quotes scripture to Jesus.  He knows exactly what the Bible says and he knows how to use it. 

There is a long tradition of following the devil’s interpretive approach when it comes to the Bible.  Scripture has been used to support and to provide cover for all sorts of monstrous things – like slavery, bigotry, the subjugation of women, the oppression of the poor, disdain for minority groups, homophobia, blind obedience to unjust governments, and more.  It is possible to use – or maybe misuse scripture for all sorts of purposes.  Familiarity with the Bible does not necessarily translate into a living relationship with Christ in which scripture is discerned and followed according to the love and grace of God.

We might say that the devil knew the scripture but Jesus was willing to live the scripture.

And then look at the way the devil appeals to Jesus – not only with scripture, but twice by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”  Prove you are the Son of God.  It is about identity. 

I think this is at the heart of Jesus’ temptation.  We might think of this as Jesus struggling with what it meant to be the Son of God, struggling with what it meant to be Jesus.  He did not choose the path of power.  He did not opt for the spectacular.  He chose to identify fully with us.  He chose to be fully human, which meant not avoiding or escaping from pain and not taking on the persona of a superhero, but being faithful to his calling even in the midst of difficulty.  Jesus embraced his humanity.

Another question here: is the devil telling the truth?  When the devil says, “All of this is mine, this world is mine, and I will give it all to you if you will just worship me,” is that true?  Does the world really belong to the devil?  Is the world really given over to the power of evil?  It’s not.  It’s a lie.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  Now you may say, well, you just said that you can use scripture to support all kinds of things.  That is true, but it is pretty clear that the big picture of scripture sees the earth as belonging to God, with humans being the caretakers or stewards.  The world is not the devil’s to give.

We can be tempted by appeals to our vanity, appeals to our identity, appeals to prove ourselves, appeals to the hunger we are feeling, appeals to power and to use power for our own purposes.  We can be tempted by appeals to escape from all of the difficulties that come as a part of being human.  But we need to know that often as not, the promises of the temptations that we feel are not true.  They are lies. 

What I really want to think about this morning is where this all took place: in the desert.  In the wilderness.

The wilderness is actually a place that we are familiar with.  Maybe not wilderness as in the Palestinian desert, but we will all face those times in the wilderness. 

The wilderness might look a lot like a hospital waiting room.  It might look like a mailbox or inbox that seems to only get rejection letters, if anything.  It might look like a friend’s couch when you don’t have any other place to stay. 

The wilderness might be staring at the computer screen as you register for classes and wonder if this is really what you want to do with your life.  It might be watching someone you love self-destruct, or maybe the wilderness is a feeling deep inside, that feeling when you have looked and listened and pleaded for a word from God but come up empty.

The wilderness might look a little different to each one of us, but it is that place where we look around for the things that we usually count on to save us and they are nowhere to be found.

And here is the thing about the wilderness: nobody wants to go there.  This is not a situation that any of us would seek after.  Yet – we read that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  This is something that Jesus needed.  This is something that God wanted for Jesus.

Isn’t that odd?  I mean, it almost sounds as though God is helping out the devil here, leading Jesus to a time of temptation.  And don’t we pray almost every Sunday, “lead us not into temptation?”  Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness?

Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way:

Even if no one ever wants to [be in the wilderness], and even if those of us who end up there want out again as soon as possible, the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.  Take Jesus, for instance.

•    How did he end up there?  The Spirit led him.
•    What was he full of?  He was full of The Holy Spirit.
•    What else did he live on?  Nothing.
•    How long was he there?  Weeks and weeks.
•    How did he feel at the end?  He was famished.

What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to him?  It freed him--from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him.  After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.
Pardon the basketball metaphor, but college basketball coaches have a couple of ways they can go about it when it comes to scheduling opponents.  You can load up on cupcakes – you can play the Little Sisters of the Poor and Pitiful State U and get some guaranteed wins to pad your record.  But that does not really help you become a better basketball team.  When you have to play those tough games, you will not be prepared.  On the other hand, you can schedule really tough opponents, knowing that you are going to lose your share of games – but that tough competition helps the team learn how to manage adversity and develop skills they would not otherwise develop. 

Of course, Jesus isn’t playing a game.  And neither are we – this is real-life stuff.  But it is during the difficult times, during those wilderness times, that we can learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about God and even find it to be a time of growth and transformation.

We are remembering Martin Luther King this weekend.  If he were still alive, Martin Luther King would have turned 90 years old this past Tuesday. 

King attended Crozer Seminary, an American Baptist seminary where Ron Wells, who was pastor of our church when this building was built, later served as seminary president.  King is known around the world as a great civil rights leader, but his faith is the key to understanding his life and work.

In the early days of the civil rights movement, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, it seemed like he could not go on.  He received death threats on the phone.  He feared for his family.  Many sympathetic whites didn’t want to rock the boat and many middle class blacks were offended and unsupportive.  The image of the sheer neediness of so many people pressed on his mind.  Constant phone calls added to the pressure.  On an already sleepless night, there came another death threat, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

In a life that faced many wilderness times, this was perhaps the low point.  Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Parting the Waters, described what happened:

King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table.  He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength.  Then he said as much out loud...His doubts spilled out as a prayer, ending “I’ve come to the point where I can't face it alone.”  As he spoke these words, the doubts suddenly melted away.  He became intensely aware of an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right.
This experience of God’s grace and presence was a life-changing event for King.  And it came out of his wilderness experience.  King learned to trust God in those wilderness times.

In 1968, he gave a stirring speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.  It was the last public speech he gave; he was shot and killed the next day.  King ended that speech by saying,

I have been to the mountaintop… God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  And I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anyone.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I read that speech again this week and was struck by something he said a little bit before the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” part that struck me as very contemporary.  He said, “The world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land; confusion all around… But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

He was talking about what we can learn and how God sustains us in the wilderness.

Martin Luther King accomplished what he did because of his vital relationship with God – the God who was with him even in the wilderness.  He followed the way of Jesus in that he sacrificed for the good of others, even at a cost to himself.  His vision of a Beloved Community that encompasses all races and faiths and nationalities is a vision toward which we are still working.  But it may have been that wilderness experience that made what he did possible.

Now, we will all have to face our own wilderness.  It won’t be like Jesus’ and it won’t be like Martin Luther King’s.  I don’t know what yours may be like.  I don’t know what devils may be after you or how they will try to appeal to you.

When we face those wilderness times, those times of testing, we can find that the Spirit sustains us.  We may find ourselves losing our appetite for those things that cannot save us.  And we just may find our lives renewed and transformed. 

We pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  But temptation cannot always be avoided, and so we also pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  And not only does God deliver us, but through the wilderness, God can bless us and transform us.  Amen.


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