Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 10, 2019
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for 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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Many years ago, when I was a senior in college, I needed just one humanities course to fulfill a graduation requirement. I enrolled in a lower level course on short stories. The class contained only a few English majors. Most of the other students were also taking the class to fulfill a graduation requirement but many were freshmen and sophomores. I must admit that my mind and my heart were not interested in the class. I didn’t spend much time reading or preparing for class lectures. I wanted the class over and I was more concerned about my History Senior Seminar, the class that was the highlight point of my History major. And being a History major I was quite certain that I could write well enough and think critically enough to pass the course without too much difficulty.
When I got back my first assignment, I was shocked to get a “C.” My second paper wasn’t much better. All of a sudden I could see my GPA falling downhill, all because of a meaningless English class in the final semester of college. So I made an appointment to speak with the instructor, all the while muttering that this class was taking way too much of my time and attention. The professor was a kind and gentle man. But he was also an honest man. He told me that my papers were not up to my potential and that he expected much more from a Senior History major at Alma College. He told me that freshmen science majors were turning it better papers. He believed that I wasn’t putting enough of an effort and perhaps I needed to reflect upon whether I wanted to truly put all of myself into the class or just go through the motions. His words stung me. They made me angry. But they were oh so true! I wasn’t being honest with him or myself. The rest of the semester I treated that class with the same importance as my Senior History Seminar. I read, I studied, I prepared. I actually enjoyed parts of the class. I learned things that I still use today.
It has always been interesting to me that the first thing that happens to Jesus following his baptism is that he is led out into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. The gospel of John leaves it out; Mark talks about it in two brief sentences, but Matthew and Luke go into great detail about what happened. There is a dialog and negotiation between Jesus and the devil. The devil offers Jesus three different temptations- more bread, more power, and more protection. Each offer is made with the appropriate Bible verse to support his enticement. Yet each time Jesus says no. He says no to bread, no to more earthly kingdoms, and no to angelic bodyguards. And Jesus points out to the devil the actual truth behind the words of Scripture that the devil has so eloquently quoted.
We might wonder, what was this forty day excursion and testing all about? Was the devil testing Jesus’ mental and physical strength to follow through on his mission? Was Jesus being tempted to sin and thus face the same kind of fall as Adam and Eve in the Garden? Or was there something more going on here? Yes, this passage is certainly about Jesus and the tests he endured. But it is a lesson that is not only about Jesus but about all of us- you and me- as we seek to be God’s authentic people in these times and in this place. It accents the kinds of trials and testing that happen to all of God’s people as we seek to do God’s work in the world. It teaches the trust needed to follow God’s intention and to be who God created us to be.
Preacher Tom Long writes, “The testing of Jesus, the testing of Israel in the wilderness before him, and the testing of the church today are not primarily temptations to do what we would really like to do, but know we should not; they are temptations to be someone other than who God calls us to be, to deny that we are God’s children.”
When we understand that we are God’s people, we take on a certain identity. We realize that there are temptations all around us to settle for less: to judge others unfairly, to seek our own power and recognition, to place our priorities on the things that make us comfortable; to react in anger toward those we love, and to think suspiciously about those whom are different from us. We face temptations to care only for our own needs, to use creation for our own comfort, and to think of our self and our own interests ahead of the interests of our neighbor. We might say, “Everyone does it that way.” We might say, “I’ll act this way only one time.” We might say, “No one will notice if I make this one choice just this one time.” Soon we become defined by those actions which cut corners. We begin to think of ourselves but what we own, what we know, what pleasures we can experience, and what others might say about us.
But in making these choices we are less than authentic. We forget whose we are and who we are called to be. We lose our real identity in the pursuit of false gods and idols. We forget that our real peace and assurance come from God, not from our own frantic plans and schemes. David Lose writes, “The truth is that there is a direct link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we can trust God for our daily needs, our sense of purpose, our identity as a beloved child of God, the temptations of the world will have little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural instincts to lead us to mistrust God, we become open to the deception and temptation that life is all up to us, that God is nothing more than a figment of our cultural imagination and so we had better take things into our own hands.”
At the beginning of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at the beginning of what turns out to be a long, complicated, and dangerous journey, Frodo remembers the words of his mentor Bilbo: “there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’”
Tolkien’s words express the danger of the temptations along the way of life, temptations to leave one path and choose another, temptations to settle for less than our best, temptations to turn away from what is truth to embrace what is pleasurable and comfortable, temptations to lose yourself and become someone one.
In this season of Lent, we are to be honest about who we are, and to be honest about the voices of our world that try to steal our identity as a person of God and invite us to succumb to temptations that lead us from righteousness, justice, and hope. This is the season to listen for God’s voice, to pray and reflect on how we understand God and who were are called to be. This is the season to make our identity clear so that we can stand against any temptation to become less that we were created to be.