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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Footsteps of Jesus in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:1-3; 3:13-4:11)


In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  He was the one whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
“The voice of one shouting out in the wilderness;
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

At that time, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him.  John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now.  This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus.  When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water.  Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.  A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him.  After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving.  The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, ‘People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.’”
After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple.  He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘I will command my angels concerning oyu, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus replied, “Again, it’s written, ‘Don’t test the Lord your God.’”
Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”  The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Today, we are starting a three-week series of messages called “Footsteps of Jesus.”  I am really excited about this series, and I hope you are, too.  From January 29 - February 7, I was on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of other United Methodist clergy from our conference under the age of 35.  The trip broadened my understanding, deepened my appreciation, and renewed my spirit - and so I offer you the same gift through these messages.
Some time ago, it had been placed on our bishop’s heart to lead a trip to the Holy Land of young clergy.  He lamented that he had been preaching and teaching for 30 years before he made his first trip to the Holy Land, and he didn’t want us to have to wait so long.  He secured funding for the trip from one anonymous donor - whose identity I will probably never know, but to whom I will always be grateful - and off we went: 28 young clergy, 3 non-clergy spouses, and a bishop old enough to be our dad, yet whose heart and spirit may have been the youngest on the trip.
We travelled with an intentionality that we were not tourists, but pilgrims.  The difference is that tourists come and go from site-to-site, snap some pictures, have a good time, and are, more or less consumers of all there is to see and do.  Pilgrims, on the other hand, find themselves consumed by the places they visit, and come home with an indelible mark on their souls.  So it was for us.
Over the next three weeks, we’re going to barely skim the surface of some of the highlights of my spiritual pilgrimage in the Holy Land, as we look for footprints of Jesus in the wilderness, at the sea, and in the city.
Early in the trip, we went down to the banks of the Jordan River in the Judean wilderness.  And when I say down, that is no understatement.  We drove from Jerusalem, which is at 2,500 feet above sea level to the Jordan River, which is about 1,300 feet below sea level.  Any idea how far it is from Jerusalem to the Jordan River?  It’s about 16 miles.  You can’t help but notice the drastic and rapid change as you literally drop into the Jordan River Valley.
The Jordan River flows from north to south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and forms the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank on the west, and the Kingdom of Jordan on the east.
We went to Qasr al Yahud, a baptismal site along the banks of the southern end of the Jordan River before it empties into the Dead Sea.  This site opened to the public only a few years ago, and it is actually one of two major baptismal sites along the Jordan River.  The more popular site is up at the northern end of the River, near the Sea of Galilee - it’s much larger, built up, and touristy, as well as green and lush - popular, certainly, but far from the wilderness described in Scripture.
Now, one important note about the Jordan River - there’s not much to it.  It’s more like a creek or a stream, measuring no more than about 20 feet across in most places.  It was almost tempting to see if you could jump across it, except for the presence of Israeli soldiers on one side carrying M-16s and Jordanian soldiers with M-16s on the other - and we realized that border jumping was probably not a smart idea.
We went down to the large platform deck at the river’s edge, and Bishop Goodpaster led us in a service of baptismal remembrance and renewal.  Along the muddy banks of the Jordan River, we knelt, we prayed, we touched the water and remembered our baptisms, and we were thankful.  We remembered God’s gift of grace which is offered to all people, the grace that gives us new birth through water and the Spirit - all of which is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
As we knelt by the river, I looked downstream, and I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye.  John, standing in the middle of the river, a cross-section of humanity crowding the banks, and Jesus, emerging from the crowd and making his way into the muddy, swirling water, receiving his baptism.  I looked at the bench near the platform, where a dove was simply standing, seeming to look back at me.
We remembered that, in baptism, God has named us and claimed us - baptism may as well be a permanent mark on our forehead that says, “Beloved child of God with whom I am well-pleased; Beloved child of God in whom I delight: Beloved child of God in whom I find joy.”
Just to the west of the Jordan River is the Judean wilderness, where the Scriptures tell us Jesus immediately went following his baptism for forty days of prayer, and fasting, and temptation.  Those forty days are one of the traditions the church draws on for the season of Lent.  The Judean wilderness is a place of rugged hills and mountains, sharp descents and cliffs, deep canyons, and the whole place is rocky.  It receives little to no rain, and so there’s no grass, no trees, no bushes - nothing green - just fold upon fold of brown and tan as far as you can see.
Those of you who were present on Wednesday night’s combined program of the Park Road churches got to hear from Kevin Brown, one of the priests at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, talk about how when “wilderness” is mentioned in Scripture, it is never just a backdrop, but more like an actual character in the story.  The wilderness is a power and a presence in its own right, often interacting with and influencing the other characters and shaping the outcome of the story.  And now that I’ve been there, I can confirm it: the land has an identity.
Have you ever been someplace that was so quiet that the silence itself was crushing and deafening?  Where even the wind rushing right past your ears sounds like it’s miles away?  Where you could yell at the top of your lungs, but the silence would smother your voice and make your mightiest yell sound like a mouse breaking wind?  Have you ever experienced silence like that?  OK, now double that intensity, and you’re starting to approach the deafening silence of the Judean wilderness.
We hiked through the wilderness to an overlook of St. George’s Monastery, and that’s one of the things that sticks in my mind - the silence.  We were only about two miles from a major highway, but you heard no road noise.  There were no trees, so no birds chirping.  Just the “crunch-crunch” of footsteps on a rocky path - what a perfect place for temptation.
In that barren, silent, steep, rocky place, Jesus faced temptation.  I imagined him spending forty days and nights alone there, sleeping in caves, wandering up and down the mountain paths by day, alone with his own thoughts, consumed by them.
The tempter comes to Jesus with a temptation in the form of a taunt - “You say you’re God’s Son, and yet you’re out here starving yourself in the wilderness, wandering around looking tired and hungry like someone’s raggamuffin child.”  In that barren place, there are millions of round stones that look like loaves of bread - how easy and convenient would it be to just “zap!” turn a few of those suckers into bread - who’s going to miss a few rocks in the desert?  The temptation is for Jesus to use his power for his own needs - it is the temptation of taking the easy way out, and the temptation of self-reliance.
How often do we face similar temptations?  To use our own power and our resources to look only after ourselves?  For Jesus to use his power selfishly would have defeated the very purpose for which he had come to our world.  For us to use what we have selfishly defeats our identity as members of the body of Christ.
Not dismayed, the tempter took him to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and said, “Jump!  God won’t let you even dash your foot against a stone.”  You look around the landscape and realize that there are literally rocks everywhere - you couldn’t fall and NOT hit a stone!  The temptation here is to put God’s power on display on command, like some sort of Disney special effects show.  Again, we face a similar temptation, to think that God’s power is at our fingertips to be summoned at our whim, turned on and off like a lightswitch whenever we so desire.  Jesus doesn’t take this bait, either.
So one last try.  Up to the top of a high mountain they go.  Now, from the Mount of Temptation, one could easily see the kingdoms of the world - Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, Syria, Lebabon, Egypt.  From that vantage point, the tempter said, “Jesus, I will give you all this - the kingdoms of the world, their peoples, and their treasures - power, fame, fortune - if you’ll just bow down and worship me.”  And yet, the first flaw in this temptation is that all those kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.  How often do we forget the words of Psalm 24, that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all within it,” meaning everything already belongs to God; there is no such thing even as secular, because it all belongs to God already.
The second flaw in this temptation is to place our trust in earthly kingdoms and nations when we have been called to place our trust and pledge our allegiance to God and God alone.  Jesus says, “You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (v. 10), yet how often do we bow down at false altars before false gods, because we have placed more of our trust and identity in the kingdoms of this world than in the kingdom of God?
One more site in the wilderness illustrates this point.  We visited the Herodian, the fortress and palace King Herod the Great built for himself at the top of a high mountain - a mountain he made even higher by leveling a nearby mountain and moving its rock and dirt to the top of his mountain - the grandest, most ostentatious display of power and wealth you could imagine.   And so, when Jesus taught and said, “If you have faith, you can say this mountain, ‘Move over here,’” he was talking about something that people had already seen.  They had literally seen mountains move.
You do know how you move a mountain, right?  One shovelful at a time.  The difference between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God is this: which mountains get moved, and where they get moved to.  The kingdoms of the world and the kingdoms of the world can both, without question, move mountains, and they both do it one shovelful at a time.  No doubt you’ve got a shovelful of something in your hand - so ask yourself this question: are you moving mountains to build God’s kingdom, or are you building some other monument?
Jesus is giving us a choice between two kingdoms, and his footprints from the river of his baptism into the wilderness of his temptation give us the guide for what it’s going to take for us to faithfully live as part of his kingdom, even when the kingdoms of the world are tempting us to do it their way.
Friends, those footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness remind us that the life of faith isn’t always easy, it isn’t always convenient, it doesn’t always conform to what we want.  No, those footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness remind us walking in his way often takes us through difficulty, and suffering, and heaven forbid, inconvenience - and we willingly take all that on - because that’s what the faith of those who are baptized into Christ looks like.
There are times when walking in the footsteps of Jesus, particularly those through the wilderness, can be discouraging.  But whatever you do, don’t you dare give up.
Temptation says, “Why bother?  There’s so much evil in the world; what difference can you make?”  But faith, true faith in Jesus that’s building the kingdom of God?  That sorta faith just reaches for a shovel, and says, “Outta my way; we’ve still got a lot of mountain to move.”

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