Sunday, February 14, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus in the Wilderness: Tempted and Tried (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.

12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

Exactly a year ago, I was in the Holy Land.  Harry and Betty Jo Chandler were there with me, along with their friend, Mike, and Sandy, from Stokesdale UMC.  We joined with our bishop and about 150 other spiritual pilgrims in walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

There is something about being there – seeing the geography, walking the paths, reading the stories in the places they happened, praying in those holy sites.  In the Bible, the four Gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – each tell the story of Jesus in their own way.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been described as “The Fifth Gospel.”  Having visited the Holy Land twice now, reading that fifth Gospel has informed the way I read and understand the other four.

Last year, I took a few of you to the Holy Land.  This year, I’m taking all of you.  Through the season of Lent, we are going to take a spiritual journey, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  I’ll be hitting the highlights of some of the significant places of his ministry, places I have also visited, bringing some of the insight and experience of those places to you.  As you come to worship over the next several weeks, come expecting to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  If you’ll do that, I guarantee this will be one of the most meaningful Lenten seasons you’ll have ever had.

Today, we’re beginning the series by re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness. The first Sunday in Lent always recalls the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  This is for a number of reasons.  First, Jesus was tempted and fasted in the wilderness for how many days?  40.  And how many days, not counting Sundays, does Lent last?  40.

The number 40 is significant in the Bible.  It represents a period of testing, trial, and waiting.  When Noah boarded the ark, it rained for 40 days.  Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days before God gave the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt, before entering the Promised Land.  Elijah fasted 40 days before hearing God’s still, small voice.

We think of Jesus being in the tomb for 3 days, but if you add up the actual number of hours he was dead – about 3pm on Good Friday to 7am Easter Sunday, guess how many hours that is?  40.  And after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to his disciples over the course of 40 days before he ascended into heaven.

All told, the number 40 is mentioned in the Bible 146 times.  Each time, it represents a period of testing and trial, but also the preparation and waiting for something better that is yet to come.

That’s what the season of Lent is.  A time of testing and trial, sacrifice and confession, but also preparation and waiting for something better.  It’s 40 days of preparing for the joy of new life at Easter.  In the church, it’s historically been a time when new converts to the faith were instructed and prepared for baptism, which often took place early Easter Sunday morning.  It’s a time when those who had committed serious sins were in a state of repentance, preparing to be restored to the community.

Lent begins in the wilderness.  The Judean wilderness, the setting for today’s Scripture reading, is just west of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized.  Immediately after his baptism, he went into the wilderness for 40 days, where he fasted and prayed, and was tempted and tried.

When you go to the Holy Land, one thing you will come to quickly appreciate is that, though it’s a relatively small area, the geography is not all the same.  The Judean wilderness is a place of rugged hills and mountains, sharp 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.

The first time I went to the Holy Land, we hiked, just about half a mile, through the wilderness.  We arrived at a rocky cliff overlooking St. George’s Monastery, built in the middle of nowhere, and the thing that overwhelmed me in that place was the silence. 

Have you ever been someplace that was so quiet the silence itself was deafening?  Where even the wind rushing past your ears sounds like it’s miles away?  You could yell at the top of your lungs, but the silence would smother your voice?  Now, double that intensity, and that’s what sticks in my mind most – the silence of the wilderness.

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, and I imagined Jesus in that place, sleeping in caves, alone with his own thoughts, the perfect sort of place for temptation.

When culture talks about temptation, it's usually describing the urge to do something we already know will destroy us, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” kind of stuff.

Christians who observe Lent certainly wrestle with those obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of the season is to help us recognize the more potent tools of the tempter—the temptations that don't look like temptation until we see them in the rearview mirror.  The temptations offered to Jesus don’t sound all that harmful:

·        “Take care of yourself.”

·        “Increase your reach.”

·        Prove your faith.”

On the face of it, it all sounds like good advice.  It all sounds like the three points in a good graduation speech.  The devil even starts quoting Scripture to justify each of these temptations, and I’m struck here by the realization of how well the devil knows the Bible.  In my life, I’ve known plenty of devils who knew the Bible.  Can quote it, chapter and verse – know it well enough to misuse it to get us to do all sorts of things that are against the will of God.  Just knowing a lot of Bible verses doesn’t make someone godly any more than sitting in a garage makes them a car.

It’s tempting to construct a God and a faith that’s centered around ourselves.  Our consumer culture spills over into our faith, we end up with expectations of a God who serves us and caters to our desires.  The church can run more like a country club, rather than doing the hard—but faithful—work of redeeming, restoring, and reconciling.

The temptations that are the most dangerous are the ones that sound most like good, the ones that sound the most like God.  They bend and twist God into ways that are self-serving.  Tim Keller says, If your God never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”

The biggest temptation Jesus faced in all of this was identity theft.  The devil wanted him to forget who he was and to whom he belonged, to pledge his allegiance to anything other than God.  To settle short of what God wanted for him and to be content only with what he wanted for himself.

And to do that when he was tired?  Hungry?  Lonely?  Brilliant.  The folks over at Snickers aren’t the only ones who know we’re not ourselves when we’re hungry.  Get him when he’s already vulnerable.  Already down.

But Jesus, though weakened, isn’t distracted.  He keeps his eye on the prize.  He wasn’t out there in the wilderness completely on his own; the Holy Spirit was leading him.  Tested, tempted, and tried, Jesus emerges from the wilderness resolute in a mission and purpose that serves God’s will rather than his own.

The Spirit of God gets hold of him, guides him, directs him, fortifies and strengthens him, and Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses his mission and call. Jesus chooses to give himself to offer life and love.

The same choice confronts individual people of faith and every church itself.  Will we choose our mission, our call, our purpose to restore, renew and reconcile – or will we become distracted by other things? Yes, there is a lot that can draw God's people away from primary call and purpose. Distraction is all around us as we fall prey to the temptation to fight over disagreements or interpretations or perceptions.  Minor things become major things.  Opportunities become obstacles which become obstructions.  Preference takes priority over purpose.  And the driving mission of the church – to restore, renew, and reconcile, to make disciples, to make all things and all people new in Christ – gets lost in the shuffle.

The purpose of God's church is mission; we are the ones called to proclaim good news, manifest release, and show forth the saving, restoring, redeeming love of God to all people everywhere. That is the mission of God's people.

It’s tempting to settle for less.  Personally, I'm glad to follow a Savior who was tempted and overcame it.  It reminds me when I’m tempted to take the easy way out, or to settle for less than what God wants for me, that with the Spirit’s help, I can choose God’s way over my own.  That means setting my own preferences aside, which can be uncomfortable, but always turns out to be the most faithful option.

I don’t wish for those wilderness times.  But in hindsight, I’m grateful for them.  Those dry places can help focus us around who we are, to whom we belong, and what we’re about.  And when we’re led by the Spirit of God, overcoming temptation prepares us for something better that’s yet-to-come.

Don’t be distracted.  Don’t turn away.  Choose God.  Choose God’s love.  Choose God’s mission and call for your life, and for this church.

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