Saturday, January 21, 2023

“Temptation and the Wilderness” - January 22, 2023

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

It is good to be here with you all today.  I had some kind of stomach virus last weekend and I was sick.  I appreciate Rita and Mindy and Phyllis steeping in at the last minute to lead our service.  I was able to join you all on Zoom.  

You may remember that the scripture that was read last week was from Matthew chapter 5.  Phyllis did a meditation on being light, we sang This Little Light of Mine, and I really liked the trouble light she brought.

Well in the lectionary we are following, guess what the scripture was for today?  Of course, from Mathew 5.  Which is perfect – I’m going back to what was planned for last Sunday and we will be completely back on track as we make our way through the gospel of Matthew.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ baptism.  As it turns out, there is no family reception afterwards.  No enjoying the moment.  Jesus’ hair is still wet when he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  Jesus is baptized and then immediately – boom - there is a time of intense trial.

He fasts for forty days and forty nights.  By then he was famished.  He was empty.  And that is when he is tempted – at a time 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, proving who he was, 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.

That is the Cliff’s Notes version.  But there is all kinds of stuff to be found in this scripture.  First, 40 days.  Where have we heard this before?  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 mountain 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.  The number 40 has to do with big, significant matters.  This is a crucial time for Jesus.

Another thing to point out: the devil quotes scripture to Jesus.  Did you notice that?  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 a lot more.  

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.   “If you are the Son of God…”  Prove who you are.  This is all about identity.  Proving who we are, proving we belong, proving we have what it takes – these can be tempting for all of us.  

Now 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.”  I’m just wondering – is that true?  Is the world really the devil’s to give?  Is the world really given over to the power of evil?  It’s not.  That’s a lie.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  The earth belongs to God, with humans serving as caretakers or stewards.  The world is not the devil’s to give; this is a false promise.

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.  We can be tempted to escape from all of the difficulties that come as a part of being human.  We can be tempted by all sorts of things, but we need to know that often as not, the promises of the temptations that we feel are not true.  

We might think of Jesus’ temptation as Jesus 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.

I’d like for us to think about where this all took place: in the wilderness. The wilderness is actually a place that we are familiar with.  The wilderness might look a lot like a hospital waiting room.  It might look like an 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 is that place where we look around for the things that we can usually count on to save us and they are nowhere to be found.  This is not a place that any of us would seek after.  Yet – we read that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  This is something that apparently Jesus needed.  This is something that God wanted.

Isn’t that odd?  I mean, don’t we pray, “lead us not into temptation?”  Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness – into a time of temptation?

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,

“Even if no one ever wants to be there… wilderness is one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be…

What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to (Jesus)?  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.

College basketball coaches have a couple of ways they can go about it when it comes to scheduling non-conference opponents.  You can load up on cupcakes – you can play the Little Sisters of the Poor 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 really tough games, you won’t be prepared.  On the other hand, you can schedule really difficult opponents, knowing that you may 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.  That experience will help later in the season when Kansas comes to town.  

Of course, Jesus isn’t playing a game.  And neither are we – this is real-life stuff.  But it is during those challenging 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.

In the early days of the civil rights movement, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not know how he could 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 sheer neediness of so many people pressed on his mind.  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 hard times.

I recently re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  While in jail, he made use of the time and wrote a letter to white clergy leaders in Birmingham.  

The letter is found as a chapter in King’s later book, Why We Can’t Wait.  I have had my copy since seminary.  I read it for the very first seminary class I took, Introduction to Christian Ethics with Henlee Barnette.  Henlee had invited Dr. King to speak on the Southern Baptist Seminary campus 25 years before.  This was controversial, and Barnette got an enormous amount of flak for it.  He was told that this cost the seminary tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.  His response was, “Money well spent.”

Well, I had notes in the margin of the book from my class with Henlee Barnette about the people to whom this letter was written.  They were all prominent clergy in Montgomery.  Among others, there was the Methodist bishop, the Episcopal bishop, the Lutheran bishop, and the pastor of First Baptist Church.  These were all leading religious figures and all considered moderates, perhaps liberals.

Rev. Earl Stallings was pastor at First Baptist and had led the church to integrate, welcoming blacks to worship there on an integrated basis just before King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham.  King actually commends Stallings for this in his letter.  For a white Baptist church in Alabama in 1963, this was considered wildly liberal.

As far as King’s purpose in writing, this may get at the heart of it.  He wrote:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council or Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than justice… who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action, who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

I thought about Rev. Stallings at First Baptist Church and those other leading ministers.  I’m sure that church would dwarf us in size, but we would be similar in being seen as a progressive congregation, especially for Baptists.  So essentially, this letter was written to people like us.

What was the great temptation for Rev. Stallings and Bishop Durick and Bishop Carpenter and those other moderate-to-liberal clergy?  It is really the same as the temptation for those seminary leaders who were so upset about Dr. Barnette inviting Dr. King to come speak in Louisville.  The temptation was to put social standing and discomfort about conflict and what they saw as institutional advancement and survival ahead of what they knew to be right.

King’s words are not a historical document about the way things were.  They speak to us today about the way things are.  How often are we tempted to keep quiet, to stay on the sidelines, to do nothing when doing nothing means allowing the evil that is present to continue?

Of course there are often considerations about tactics and strategy and how best to move forward.  The answers are not always easy.  But sitting idly by can be a great temptation.  

Sometimes, it seems, God’s invitation is to head right into the wilderness and trust that the Spirit will provide for us.  Sometimes the Spirit leads us to do what is difficult and right rather than what is expedient and easy.

We often pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  But let’s face it: we can do our best, but temptation cannot always be avoided.  We all know this.  So we also pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  

If you are feeling like you are in the wilderness today, take heart.  Not only does God deliver us from those times of challenge and stress and hardship, but through the wilderness, God can bless us and strengthen us and prepare us and transform us.  Amen.


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