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Sermon: Life Is The Wilderness

Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

Date: June 2, 2019

 

I think we can read this story of Christ being tempted in the wilderness in two ways. The first is a literal understanding. The story stands as it is. The spirit leads Christ into the wilderness of Judea, where  for forty days he wrestles with demons of all kinds. Hunger and thirst and loneliness. And then when he is in a weakened state, Satan, the very personification of evil comes and tempts him with the very issues that he has been wrestling with.  And Christ resists the temptations that Satan places in His path and returns from the wilderness ready to face the task that he has come to earth for. Essentially ready to face the Cross because of the times we’ve given into those same temptations.  It’s a short journey from the wilderness to Calvary. So when understood in that way, we must wrestle with some of the fundamental questions of our faith. First there is the issue of God placing Jesus in the wilderness in the first place. We are clearly told that after His Baptism, the spirit led Christ into the wilderness.  Often times when we find ourselves in wilderness type experiences, we can’t help but wonder why God is doing this to us? Why is He placing us in the position that we are in? What kind of a God would do that? They are the questions that inevitably are raised when we read this story.    And we don’t really want to believe that God would place us in the wilderness, but at the same time there is some comfort in being able to explain it in that way. Relieves us of some of the responsibility. I can’t help how my life is going.  God is responsible. But I think that in our literal interpretation it is important to note that the spirit “led” Christ into the wilderness . The very word implies that Jesus didn’t have to go.  That he chose to go. He chose to follow. God does not compel us to go anywhere. He calls. He leads. But ultimately we decide if we are going to follow. And when we make that decision to follow we need to know, don’t we, that we will encounter some wilderness times along the way. The testimony of faith is that for those who follow the leading of the Spirit , wildernesses loom ahead.   If you are looking for the easy way, then don’t follow God’s spirit. In a more allegorical sense, this then is a story about the nature and cost of being a disciple. Sometimes we think of the wilderness as those times in our lives when God is mysteriously absent from us, but that is not what this story says. It does not say that the spirit directed Jesus into the wilderness, or that the spirit placed him in the wilderness, both of which would imply absence. No, what it says is that the spirit led him into the wilderness, indicating the spirit’s intention to be with Him there.  Writing for Christian Century magazine, Frederick J. Streets, said:

Jesus was led into the wilderness following His baptism at which it was confirmed that His life had a purpose in God’s plan. It was there that Jesus reflected upon and clarified the meaning of His life. Being alone and in a wilderness place seems to be an unavoidable experience if we are to seek not to live our lives at Cross-purposes. When we are in the wilderness we are forced to focus upon ourselves – our needs, desires, failures, goals, and preferences. It is a moment of being confronted with ourselves and it is an opportunity to clarify what it is that we want or desire.

 

And you see the reality is that those kinds of questions aren’t confined to a specific place and defined within a certain time period . Though the writers of the gospel point to this as an isolated time and place of wilderness, but the reality is that Jesus walked in  the wilderness all of His life. In fact, in all of the most important journeys of His life, Jesus had to pass through the wilderness (show map).   He was constantly confronted with demons and unbelief and persons wanting him to be someone that he wasn’t – a messiah of their expectations not one led by God’s Spirit.  In his life’s journey from birth to Baptism to Crucifixion He passed through the wilderness again and again. And here’s the thing, it would be so much easier if the wilderness times in our life were clearly defined and isolated. Here it is – we’re in the desert, we’re hungry and thirsty, alone, weak. Be careful. These are the times the  demons come. But you see, the truth is that the wildernesses come up without warning and before we know it we’re in the midst of it with seemingly no way out. In the wilderness of sickness .Or the wilderness of broken relationships. Or the wilderness of shattered dreams. Or the wilderness of failed expectations. There are wildernesses ahead for all who are Baptized and follow the spirit because it’s the Spirit that leads us through a world that is full of wildernesses. No matter where we ultimately journey, we will inevitably encounter some wildernesses along the way.

It was, of course, in the wilderness that Jesus encountered evil, the personification of evil, the devil.   And the devil placed before him three temptations that spoke directly to the very concerns that Jesus had been wrestling with.  First was: Are you hungry Jesus? You have the power to change those stones into bread. Go ahead. You won’t do anyone any good if you starve to death. And then he says “look at this mixed up world, Jesus. Just think how much good you could do. I can help you make a difference for all those poor suffering people if you just  ask me to. That’s why you came in the first place.” and then, failing at that, he says: “are you sure God hasn’t deserted you here in the desert?  Prove that you are who you claim to be. Throw yourself off of this pinnacle and see if God saves you. Or are you afraid he’s not there. Come on, Jesus. Everybody’s watching.”   You see, temptation often doesn’t draw upon the evil part of us, but it plays off our best desires. Jesus, you’ve got an important task to do. What good is it for you to starve in the desert? Or you can have it all, right now? Or prove your faith. Test God and then everybody will see how powerful He is. Sometimes the temptations are obvious, they smack us in the face’ seek to transport us to another place. They present us with the easy way out of the wilderness.  Evil carries a pitchfork and a tail. And we fall into the trap of thinking that the most important thing is getting out of the wilderness, not the route we take to get there. Sometimes I find myself longing for choices that are so clear, even though I too often choose wrongly because there are also those temptations that aren’t so visible.  Where the choices aren’t so clear. Leonard sweet writes:

Sometimes life can seem ambiguous. Our intuition fails us, or the trespasses into treacherous territory appear so harmless or attractive or even sensible that we don’t see what could go

Wrong if we ‘go there. ‘

— It couldn’t hurt to skip out of work, just this once.

— it couldn’t hurt to fudge the numbers on the tax return this once.

       –it couldn’t hurt not to tell my spouse where I’ve really been just this once.

       — it couldn’t hurt to take out my frustrations on the kids, just this once.

— it couldn’t hurt to act now, pray later , just this once.

— it couldn’t hurt to leave God’s law and Christ’s love out of my decision making, just this once.

 

And Sweet concludes:

 

Although some situations may seem to challenge our commitment to God’s authority in tiny, even inconsequential ways, for Jesus, there was no such thing as being “kind of” obedient to God. We are either for God or against God.

And you see it is in that mythical middle ground between being for or against, that temptation comes . The temptations of Jesus were very real for him. But they were also representative for us. They represent the kind of choices that we are called upon to make every day.

Satan came to a hungry Jesus and enticed him to turn stones into bread.  Feed his appetites. One writer says:

Turning a stone into bread, that is, when we use our special gifts or special status to obtain benefits solely for ourselves without considering the impact these actions would have on others or on god’s plans for the world.

It is the temptation to become so self-absorbed that you are willing to do anything it takes to lift yourself out of a miserable situation, so that you will feel better and we can rationalize it. If I feel better, than it must be God’s will, no matter how many others are hurt in the process. Jesus knew and Satan knew, that Jesus had the power to turn the stones into bread. Throughout scripture Satan and his agents always recognize Jesus for who he was and are aware of his power, even when others are not. And you can almost hear the conversation can’t you. “what’s it going to hurt. Surely God, a Father who loves you, doesn’t want to see you suffer It was the same argument that Satan put on the lips of some gathered at the foot of the cross, “He saved others, now let  Him save Himself.” And he could have done that. But Jesus never used his power and authority to meet personal needs. His miracles were always for others. And the temptation to do otherwise is, perhaps, the most difficult one to deal with. This is the temptation to think only of yourself and rationalize it by saying that it is surely what a loving God would want for me. And, of course, Satan knows that once we start down that path of decision making, thinking first of self, it is hard to turn back. Because this temptation is the product of one of our most basic fears and that is that we will die before we really have a chance to live.

Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, writes:

 

I believe that it is not dying that people are afraid of. Something else, something more unsettling and more tragic than dying frightens us. We are afraid of never having lived, of coming to the end of our days with the sense that we were never really alive, that we never figured out what life was for. .. The pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. You become happy by living a life that means something.

Come on Jesus, live a little, stop your suffering.  We need to beware of stones turned into bread. They may look good, and we may think they are what we need to satisfy our hunger for happiness, until we bite down on the hard realities of life in the wilderness.

And then, having failed at this Satan takes Jesus up and says you came to save all of these kingdoms. I can help you make it happen right now. You don’t have to wait forty days, or three years, or an eternity. I can make you ruler of your world right now.  Don’t you want to help these people. Well, you’re not doing them much good wandering around in this wilderness”. This is the temptation of the quick fix. To do whatever ‘s necessary as long as the end result is good. The ends justify the means. It is a temptation that can invade all aspect of life. Business, religious, interpersonal, politics, athletics.

Leonard sweet writes:

The devils that usurp God’s authority in our world today rarely appear with cloven hooves  or pointy tails. Instead we worship and give our primary allegiance to such god’s as building up our social status, satisfying our craving for new and ever more thrilling experiences , believing that more is always  better, needing to feel in control , in charge and on top of the heap at all times. We are guilty of having been successfully tempted into worshipping all these demanding devils, leaving service and devotion to God’s authority on a far back burner.

 

And then having failed at that Satan tempts Jesus to put God to the test.  Witness to all these people, show them how powerful God is, throw yourself off of here and call on God to save you. So many of us have faith that is only as strong as the last time God’s power was demonstrated in our lives. As long as God is active and visible, we live a life of faith, but the wilderness can often be a quiet time, a time when we struggle to see and experience God and in the midst of that we lose faith. If most of us were asked if we ever put God to the test, we would say no, don’t test God.  But yet we do it all of the time. When a loved one lies ill in the hospital and we pray that god heals them, but they are not healed,  and often our faith wavers. Or we look around and see the wicked prospering while the faithful struggle. What good is our faith we wonder? But you see, true faith, faith that endures the wildernesses,  is not dependent on what God does, but on who He is. And who He is is a loving God who is always present , in the wilderness, on the mountaintops , and even here today.

So how do we make it through the wilderness times? Jesus answer to each of the temptations of the wilderness is clear. Keep focused on God. It is simple, but yet it is sometimes the hardest thing we can do.  But you see, the same spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness, led Him out. Luke says “then Jesus returned in the power of the spirit.” and it is that same spirit that leads us through the wilderness times of our lives. Frederick Buechner , in his book Whistling In The Dark writes:

 

After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question, what it meant to be Jesus, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be like Jesus.

 

These whom we Baptize today are going to experience some wilderness times as they grow.  And

we are saying by Baptizing them and then through the celebration of Holy Communion that follows is we will do everything we can to insure that wherever they go in this life,  they will go with the

Holy Spirit as their guide and companion.

© 2019 St. Luke UMC
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