Sermon: The Wilderness

Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

Date: January 31, 2016

 

The next place we come to in our journey to Discipleship with Jesus is the Wilderness. From Baptism to the wilderness of temptation is a short journey both physically and spiritually for most of 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.  I really like what Frederick Streets, says about this:

 

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 so the first reality we must confront at this point in our discipleship journey is that there are wildernesses ahead for all who follow the Spirit because the Spirit leads us through life on a this earth, through a world that is sometimes full of wildernesses. 

Indeed, it is hard to look around at our world sometimes and see places that are not wildernesses of some kind. And so Luke says that the personification of evil,  the devil placed before Jesus three temptations that spoke directly to the very concerns that Jesus had been wrestling with.

Are you hungry Jesus? You have the power to change those stones into bread. Go ahead. You’ve got a big job in front of you. You w o n ‘t do anyone any good if you starve to d e a t h  here in the desert. 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 here 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 and they present us with the easy way 

out of the wilderness.

Sometimes I find myself longing for choices that are so clear, even though I too often choose wrongly. But 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 just 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.

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 the wilderness comes. The temptations of Jesus were very real for him. And 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 stone into bread. Feed his appetites. 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 say if I feel better, than it must be God’s will, no matter how many others are hurt in the process. Sometimes Satan whispers in our ear, “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 in the lips of some who gathered at the foot of the cross, tryingto justify their complicity in His crucifixion. “He saved others, surely He can prove who He is by saving Himself”

 

And he could have done that. Just as surely as He could have changed stones into bread. He must have been tempted. 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 temptation to deal with. It is the temptation to pursue happiness no matter the cost Rabbi 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 dyingfrightens 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.

(But) the pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.

 

Come on, live a little Jesus, stop your suffering. Turn those stones into some bread. On this journey of Discipleship we need to beware of stones turned into bread. They may look good at first, 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 that Satan takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the Temple and shows Him all the Kingdoms of earth and says you came to save all of these kingdoms. I can 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. We see our politicians give into this temptation all of the time.The tactics they use don’t matter, as long as the end is good for the people. And we find it on the sporting fields. Winning is what’s important, being the best, no matter what we have to do to get there.

For many years I sat on the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Kentucky Conference which is the body that decides who will become ministers in the church. The candidates turn in lots of paperwork and go through evaluations and interviews. On at least one occasion we had a young man who tried to cheat in the process.  Turning in work that was not his own. And when I asked him why, he said “God called me into the ministry, not to do a bunch of paper work.” The ends justified the means in his eyes. This is a temptation that invades all aspect of life. Business, religious, interpersonal The wilderness requires a degree of patience, but if we sell our  soul then we can have the quick fix, have it all right now.

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 your God is, throw yourself off this Temple  and call on God to save you. So many of us have faith that is only as  strong as the last timeGod’s power was demonstrated inour lives. 

As long as God is active and visible, we live a life of faith, but the wilderness can often be a lonely time, 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. We ask God to respond to our needs in a specific way and when it doesn’t happen our faith begins to waver. 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, faith that allows us to complete the discipleship journey, is not dependent on what God does for us, 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 is clear.

We must keep focused on God at all times. All of Satan’s temptations were with worldly things. But Jesus kept His focus on the things of God. It is a simple answer, but yet it is sometimes the hardest thing we can dowhen we face temptations of our own. But the same spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness, led him out.  Look at what Luke says: “then Jesus returned in the Power of the spirit.”

And it is that same spirit that leads us through the wilderness times o f our lives.  Frederick Buechner, in his book Whistling In Th e  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.

And so as His followers, as we journey with Him, sometimes through wilderness times, we need to ask ourselves that same question. What does it mean for us to be Jesus right now? On the mountain tops, in the valleys, but especially in the Wilderness. And so as we make this third stop on our journey from membership to Discipleship , from belonging to Christ to being Christ, what can we learn that will help us on the rest of our journey with Christ?

 

Well first of all we learn that following Jesus means that there will be times when we will follow Him into the wildernesses of life. Being a Disciple of Christ does not protect us from the pain and heartaches and difficulties, even the tragedies that are sometimes a part of life in this world. God does not prove His presence or His power in our lives by taking away our times of struggle. In fact, sometimes it is just the opposite. Sometimes it is because we follow Christ that we find ourselves in wilderness situations. And though the path of Discipleship may lead us into the wilderness, Christ never abandons us there. And if we stay committed to this journey, with Christ, we will emerge on the other side stronger than ever before. Then the second lesson we learn from this stop on the journey is that the path of Discipleship does not lead us away from temptation and sin. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sometimes the path leads us right into temptation. There are no perfect disciples. In fact, the quest for perfection is often a road block on the path of discipleship. Probably the clearest GPS or map (other than the Gospel accounts of Jesus life) that we have for this Discipleship journey are the letters that Paul wrote to the early Christian communities that he helped establish all over Turkey and Greece and even Rome. These letters were Paul’s attempts to keep those communities on the right path. And so they would write to him about issues and concerns that arose in their community, seeking Paul’s counsel on the right way to go. And the letters we have would then be Paul’s response to those questions and concerns. The problem is that we have only one side of the conversation. We don’t really know specifically what all the issues were that Paul was addressing. We can only assume what the questions were – based on Paul’s answers. His letter to the Romans is a good example of that. And one of the issues that Paul addresses in that letter is one of the first controversies (some even say heresies) that arose in the early church. Simply stated there were those who believed and taught that to follow Christ, to receive Him as Lord, you must first be sinless. And so some early Christians were exercising a judgmental spirit and determining who was worthy to be a disciple and who wasn’t. So they wrote to Paul asking if one needed to be sinless, perfect, before becoming one of the “people of the way”. And in Romans 3 Paul responds that “all have sinned and fallen short of the law of God.” Now we may think that this is not a problem in the church today, but yet people are excluded from the church every day because they are deemed to be unworthy based on lifestyle and the temptations that they give in to. There are some temptations, some wildernesses that we deem so extreme that through our attitudes and prejudices and even judgmental spirit, we exclude people from this journey of discipleship. We say that in the wilderness Jesus wrestled with sin and temptation, but what He really wrestled with was the difference between grace and judgment, sacrifice and atonement. What we discover in the wilderness is that God’s grace does not erase our sin, but that God’s grace is greater than our sin. And that the path of Discipleship is a grace filled path. And then the final thing that we can learn from the wilderness is that there are no short cuts on this path of discipleship. If you are looking for the easy way, then you might want to get off the path now. You see, we can’t follow Jesus and bypass the wilderness. And ultimately we can’t follow Jesus and just skirt around the cross. It is in the wilderness that we discover the true cost of discipleship. Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and shows Him the kingdoms of the world. And he says to Him, “you came to establish your Kingdom in this world. But you are going about it all wrong. It’s going to take you forever. But I can give it all to you right now. You don’t have to spend one more day in the wilderness. There doesn’t have to be a cross in your path. You can have it all right now.” You see, moving from membership to discipleship means understanding the difference between being a church member who is a receiver and one who is a giver. In the wilderness we move from simply receiving to giving of our whole selves. If we are going to travel this path with Jesus, we can’t be content to just sit back and receive everything from Jesus. Come on Jesus, I am a member of your church, won’t you turn those stones into bread so I can feast in your presence. Fill me up. But the hungry times in the wilderness compel us to get up out of the pew and follow the spirit wherever the spirit leads. In the wilderness we learn patience and perseverance. And we learn obedience and discipline. We learn that it is more blessed to give than receive. And we learn that God’s way can be long and hard sometimes. Sometimes rather than taking us around the wilderness times, the difficult times, the painful times, God leads us right through them. There are no short cuts. It is a journey that takes great discipline and total commitment. For instance we can’t bypass prayer and expect to make it through the wilderness. We can’t skip over worship and complete the journey. We can’t ignore God’s word and expect to find our way. We can’t bypass service and sacrifice and expect to complete the journey with Christ. We completed the Annual reports for the Annual Conference this week. The first section of the report asks for the number of members in comparison to the previous year. And it showed that we had increased slightly in total membership. And that’s good. It will make the Conference leaders happy. But I am much more interested in a question that is asked much further down in the report. Line 30 asks the number of persons served by community ministries for outreach, justice and mercy. And that line shows a 97% increase from the end of 2014 to 2015. In other words, we served almost twice as many persons this past year then we did the year before. That is an amazing gauge of our discipleship. And as we move from membership to discipleship, that number will continue to increase, because that’s what Disciples do. But if we give in to the temptation to settle for short cuts in our journey, in the end we will find ourselves wandering lost and alone in the wilderness times of life, susceptible to all the temptations that this world can place in our way. And so one of the early stops on the journey with Jesus is the wilderness. But it is here that many get off the bus, go no further in their journey. We have a lot of Christians who are stuck in the wilderness. Because here’s a word of warning. If we continue on this journey this will not be the only time when Jesus will lead us into the wilderness. In fact, if we really think about it, we will realize that Jesus spent more time in his short life in the wilderness than out of it. Turn those stones into bread Jesus. No, he said, I think I’d rather satisfy my hunger at that sinners house. Come teach in the Temple Jesus. No I think I’d rather teach in the leper colony. Come claim your Kingdom, Jesus. Live in luxury and comfort as the Son of God should. No, He said, I would rather claim that wooden cross and a crown of thorns. Come follow me and I can lead you to your true self, Satan said. No, Jesus said, instead you deny yourself and follow me. But, Satan said, you didn’t learn to live that way in Heaven. No, Jesus said, I learned it in the wilderness. And so can we.

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