In the Wilderness
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
March 10, 2019
Main Idea: Trust in God
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The Wilderness both intrigues and frightens us. For some of us, going out into the wilderness is a dream come true. We love to be out in nature, “away from the things of man” (Joe versus the Volcano). We love the beauty and the unpredictability. We enjoy the challenge of life without the comforts of home. We feel most ourselves when we are out in the wilderness.
For others of us, the wilderness is a place of danger and fear; a place of wild beasts and creepy strangers. There are too many bugs and poisonous plants. It is either too hot, too cold, or too rainy. We do not like to be without the comforts of home. We feel most ourselves when we are safe within civilized society.
The beauty and the danger of the wilderness is the unknown quality of experiences there. We can’t really predict what might happen. We can’t control all the forces out there. We must trust that we can survive whatever comes our way.
This year, we will spend the whole season of Lent in the wilderness, because frankly, life is full of the unexpected. As I told the children, each week we will lift up a different sense to help us make our way from the unexpected challenges of the wilderness to the unexpected joy of the Resurrection on Easter Day. Today as we lift up our sense of hearing, we will ask ourselves to whom do we listen? Who are the voices that whisper (or shout) in our ears and shape our identities? And what do they say? Because who we listen to, who we trust, makes all the difference in the world.
The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and each time it follows the story of Jesus’ baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22b). (In the Gospel of Luke, these two stories are separated by Jesus’ genealogy, which traces his ancestors back to “Adam, son of God” (3:38).) In all three stories, we are told that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness where he stays for 40 days. It is during these 40 days after his baptism that Jesus must choose who to listen to; the voice of God or another voice.
Luke tells us that in the wilderness Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit but that the devil was also there. The character of the devil, (small d) or Satan, the Adversary, has frightened and fascinated people for a very long time. In the Old Testament, Satan was a part of God’s court and served God as an Investigator, as in the book of Job. By New Testament times, Satan (a Hebrew word) or the devil, diabolos in Greek, had become the personification of evil, opposed to God. The devil was in the wilderness talking to Jesus and tempting him for the whole 40 days and by the end, Jesus was tired and famished. We don’t know all the things the devil did or said to Jesus during those 40 days (perhaps mosquitos or sunburn?) but we are told of the final three temptations. One fascinating detail of the story is that we are told that the devil led Jesus to and through the temptations. Jesus willingly went with the devil to hear what the devil had to say. There was no avoiding the temptations that the devil would offer.
The three offers recorded in the text encapsulate the very nature of temptation, which is to turn away from one’s path or identity as a child of God and toward a substitute which promises either security or at least a respite from the struggles of life. From three different angles Jesus is invited to turn away from God and to trust only in himself. From three different angles Jesus must confront fear and doubt. From three different angles Jesus affirms who he is and what he is called to do.
The first offer from the devil proceeds out of the fact that Jesus is hungry. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. God empowered Moses to get water from a stone. What would be the harm in changing some of these rocks into something edible? You are hungry, you need to eat.” We can imagine the devil smiling so sweetly and looking so concerned about Jesus’ health. Jesus is not fooled. He quotes Deuteronomy chapter 8:3, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’, which continues with “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” To change the stones to bread would be to mistrust God’s providence and care. It would be to think that he could only trust himself and that all that he had and all that he accomplished were of his own making. Jesus refuses to do that. He remembers the voice of God and he holds on to his trust in God.
The second offer from the devil is about power. The devil leads Jesus to a high place from which to see all the kingdoms of the world. “All of these empires which you see have received power and authority from me” says the devil. “I will give them all to you if you will just worship me.” It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a mention now and then, I know that you would run things much better than they are run now. Think of all the good you could do, if you were in charge.” Again, the devil smiles, not quite as nicely as before. Again, Jesus is not fooled. He quotes Deuteronomy again this time 6:13. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” To worship the devil in exchange for power would be to give up the identity and authority given by God. It is interesting to wonder why the devil thinks he has power over the nations. Is it a comment on the ungodly actions of politics and society? Jesus keeps his focus on God. He knows that God has already given him the vision and authority that he needs. Jesus remembers the voice of God and holds on to his trust in God.
By now the devil is no longer smiling. The Devil brings Jesus to the topmost spot of the temple. Imagine balancing on the top of our steeple. “If you trust God so much, why don’t you just throw yourself off of here. God will catch you because “it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”(4:10-11). Since Jesus has been quoting Scripture, the devil shows that he can quote Scripture too; Psalm 91:11-12. “Just think of all the great publicity you would get by putting on such a amazing display. Everyone would flock to see you!” This offer is particularly poignant because the devil is tempting Jesus to ask God for safety and deliverance in Jerusalem, when we know that eventually Jesus will suffer and die in Jerusalem. Jesus refuses to make this request, instead, he quietly responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”(4:12, Deut 6:16). “I will not put on a spectacle to prove anything to you.” Jesus remembers the voice of God and holds on to his trust in God. (And the devil is forced to bring Jesus back down to the ground!)
The temptations Jesus faced are ones we also face almost daily; issues of resources, safety, and belief. We don’t have some guy with horns and a red suit popping up to offer us stuff but we do face these same choices about our identity and path in life. To whom do we listen? Will we trust God or someone, or something else? Can we recognize the voices and the temptations which surround us? Think about the voices that we have internalized. Are they an encouraging loving voice or a voice of criticism telling us “Wow, that was a stupid idea.” “You can’t do that.” “You will never succeed.” Think of the goal of most advertising; which is to make us feel that we must buy this one item to be happy, healthy, and successful. Think of the diets, the exercise fads, the self-help industry which promise to change our life if we just follow their specific plan. These are voices that say we are not good enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough. Think of the political rhetoric which “seek to create in us insecurity and fear.” (David Lose, inthemeantime.org) Terrorism, immigrants, corporations, climate change, high taxes, the wealthy, the poor – depending on which party you listen to the target shifts but the message is the same: you should be afraid and only we can save you. These voices and temptations bombard us every day and they are hurtful and deceptive options which keep us from living the full and abundant life God plans for all.
Amidst the wilderness of these choices and fears, the voice of God is with us. Just as Jesus was filled by the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit moves among us. We are not asked to face all of these temptations, or quiet these voices, alone. We cannot. We need sustenance, we covet power, we want to have proof of God. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can see these temptations for what they really are and we can quiet the voices which attempt to lead us astray. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can claim our true identities as children of God, beloved and free. Jesus points us in the right direction by quoting Scripture; here we have the story of God’s relationship with us, a love affair which stretches back to creation. Here we have the testimony of those who have gone before us; the prophets, the evangelists, and the apostles. Here we have Jesus’ vision of God’s love for us which is beyond all categories and comprehension.
In this community we have the opportunity to express the voice of God to each other and to the world. We can encourage and lift each other up. We can pledge that we will not put up with put downs. We can stand up to the voices that diminish and divide us, that demonize those who are different from us. We can give voice to the truth in love. We can challenge each other to live out our true identities as beloved children of God.
We are journeying together in the wilderness toward the cross and Christ’s glorious resurrection. Let us listen to and trust in our God who loves us and who will never leave us no matter what occurs.
Let us pray,
God of the journey, thank you for your presence with us at all times. Help us to see the falsity of what tempts us away from you. Empower us to keep our focus on your love and your coming kingdom. Amen.
During the season of Lent, we will have an opportunity for anybody to ask questions Today especially, we will listen to each other. Any questions?