Sunday, March 13, 2011

From the Mountain to the Desert

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Grace Lutheran Church, Petersburg, WV. The gospel text is Matthew 4:1-11.

            Chronologically, things are a bit out of order in our lectionary. In January we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord. Last week it was the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This week we go back before the transfiguration to a time immediately following Jesus’ baptism. Last week we were on the mountaintop and this week we are with Jesus in the wilderness of temptation. 

            Into that desolate place, “Jesus was led by the Spirit … to be tempted by the devil” (v. 1). If we want to know what today’s gospel is about, it’s all summed up in the first verse, then fleshed out in the following verses. 

Do any of you remember the comedian Flip Wilson? His character, Geraldine Jones had an excuse for everything she did wrong. She would say, “The devil made me do it.” In this encounter between Jesus and the devil, the devil’s even quoting scripture. Certainly that could be an excuse for Jesus to do what the enemy suggested, couldn’t it? After all, it was God who got him into the situation in the first place since the Spirit led him there. After the high of his baptism and hearing the Father’s pleasure and the voice calling him “my beloved Son” this was a desert experience beyond our worst nightmares. 

            We might wonder if this really was the devil Jesus battled with. Was it just doubtful thoughts? Or after being without food 40 days and nights, was this dream? What it all boils down to though is anything which opposes God and God’s ruling in one’s life is the work of the enemy. Temptations to do something other than God’s will may come from the devil, from evil people, or from perfectly good, wonderful, well-meaning Christian people who are confused. Such well meaning people may wonder why some of us started our theological education in later life, in the prime of our careers. Some of us were making so much money. We were doing so much good right where we were. We sang in the church choir, taught Sunday school, assisted with the liturgy and sometimes even preached. Why start all over again? Couldn’t we serve God at the church and remain in our current professions? Yes we could, except we heard a voice—the voice of the Spirit leading us to work for God and the kingdom in a different way.

            Couldn’t Jesus do things just a little differently than what the voice of the Father said? Maybe he could skip the cross and go straight to being the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He could rescue the Jewish people from their enslavement to Rome and be the triumphant messiah everyone was expecting. Couldn’t he? 

The three temptations Jesus experiences concern: Power, Popularity, and Privilege. Jesus’ first temptation was the wrong use of power. His hunger was natural and eating is not evil.  If you can, what’s wrong with turning a few stones into bread? Later Jesus feeds 5,000 with a couple of fish and 5 loaves of bread. The issue was not whether Jesus could perform a miracle to feed himself, but whether he should. It wasn’t the right time, the right place, or the right word. Jesus’ motivation was the word of God, not his own needs. 

            The second temptation was that of the wrong way to popularity. People were expecting a messiah who could save them from the Romans. This temptation would take him to a very public place, the symbol of God’s presence, to show the world who he was as the messiah. What’s wrong with believing scripture so strongly that you trust the angels to protect you? Jesus later walked on water. Jesus did receive notoriety and popularity by miracles such as walking on the water and healing. But this was the wrong way to popularity. This was not the voice of the Father speaking to Jesus.

            The third temptation was that of the wrong kind of privilege. Satan offers Jesus something that will belong to Jesus anyway. So, what’s wrong with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords taking control a bit early? There’s a big caveat in the devil’s offer—that of worshipping someone or something other than God his father. Jesus could get this now in league with the enemy or he could wait and do things God’s way. 

            Some of what the devil suggests aren’t bad things. The problem with all three temptations is that their source is other than God. They came from a word that wasn’t God’s. If Jesus did these things the devil asked, even if they were good things, he would be living by a word that did not come from the mouth of God (Brian Stoffregen). 

For us as Christians, the temptations are not usually obviously wrong—to rob a bank, kill someone, lie our way out of situations. It may just be a matter of choosing between the good, the better, and the best. Last week I returned from a 3 day retreat. I find that when I take the time for quiet like this, I feel closer to God. I can hear God through worship, Eucharist, and other people. And I can hear God in the quiet. But we have to make the time to attune our hearing to the voice of the Father. 

Sometime I have trouble sleeping at night. I have a confession to make. When this happens, I usually go downstairs, get into a recliner, get my laptop out and watch something on Netflix. Eventually sleep comes. At this retreat however there was no TV, no internet, no radio, no nothing! I had to just lie there and try to go to sleep. When I would wake up, I would hear part of the refrain of a hymn we had sung. It ran repeatedly through my mind. God would say, “I love you and you are mine.” Without TV or internet, I could hear God speak. By spending time listening in God’s presence we learn to tell his voice from the others vying for our attention.

So, it’s one thing to talk about knowing the difference between God’s voice and the devil’s and our own, but how do we really know? We have our own temptations to deal with that threaten to take us down the wrong path, away from God. Sometimes it’s a fight for us to make time to read God’s word. In Jesus’ temptations and in ours, the devil uses God’s words, but wrenched out of context, with a different twist. That’s what happened in the garden in Genesis, that’s what happened in the desert to Jesus, and that’s what happens to us. 

But we don’t have the kind of time to spend in scripture and prayer that the pastor does, that the seminarian does. After all, that’s their job! Some people are giving up the time they’d spend on Facebook for Lent. Others aren’t watching TV. Some people fast. It’s not a matter of just giving up something for Lent, but by doing so, creating time for God. This is how we grow in the knowledge of whether or not what we hear is God’s voice, God’s will. A crying child can sometimes be comforted just by hearing mom or dad’s voice—the one they know and love. It’s over time spent in that family that a parent’s voice can be differentiated from another adult’s voice. But even when we’re sure about God’s will, we may find ourselves asking, “Lord, is that really you?” 

This is not an easy thing God is calling us to as his children. We still have to keep our eyes open to look for God in the unexpected places of life. 

One of those unexpected places for me has been during the drive to Winchester and back. The last couple of times I’ve seen so many trucks with lumber. I think I’ve seen more in the last few days than I’ve seen since our arrival in Petersburg—so I’ve been thinking about trees and lumber. Wooden objects have been catching my attention more than usual—whether it’s a log home set on a mountainside or a wooden chest in an antique store. I came across a story that captures the essence of today’s gospel and yes, it’s related to wood.

The Strong Timber Is Tested

A group of mountain hikers came across an old woodsman with an axe on his shoulder. "Where are you going?" they asked him.

"I'm headed up the mountain to get some wood to repair my cabin," replied the woodsman.

"But why are you going up the mountain?" they asked incredulously. "There are plenty of trees all around us here."

"I know," he said, "but I need strong timber and it grows only on the highest elevations, where the trees are tested and toughened by the weather around them. The higher up you go, the stronger the timber grows."

And that is what God desires for us - that through the winds of trial and the storms of temptation we would grow strong and live on a higher level - strong to resist the devil's urging, strong to serve God, and strong as we stand together in faith and service to one another.

Lee Griess, Return to The Lord, Your God, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.

Amen.

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