Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Tasks in the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13, February 14th
Temptation! Temptation is what this scripture lesson is all about! You and me we both know this word and all about its lure. It is enticing, attractive and it has appeal. No question about it, no one is ignorant of the pull that seeks to persuade us to do something that we know just isn’t right! Our gospel dialog this morning between, Jesus and the devil, is meant to ‘raise up’ for us the significance, the magnitude, and the importance of the ministry of this ‘carpenter’ from Nazareth. You see, Jesus was a man, fully human. His mother Mary gave birth to him just like you or me. This is crucial for us to grasp and accept, or the importance of the rest of the story of Jesus’ journey, is not very meaningful.
“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.” /Luke 4:1/ It is recorded that John Wesley stated that the “The wilderness – supposed by some to have been in Judea; by others to have been that great desert of Horeb or Sinai, where the children of Israel were tried (and tested) for forty years, and Moses and Elijah fasted (for) forty days.” Once again there is uncertainty as to which location, just like the question as to which mountain did Moses bring down the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from: Horeb or Sinai. Depends of course, from which book of the Bible, or which Biblical scholar you listen to. Either way, we find Jesus in a desert like wilderness, all by himself; except, of course, the devil was there!
The first temptation the devil offers is a simple loaf of bread. Hardly worthy of losing your soul over. Right? Tell me if this brings any memories to mind. I went to a birthday party for two of our grandchildren last week. There were two birthday cakes: one was a rather plain white cake with a simple white coconut frosting on it. The other was one of these multi layered chocolate cakes with that rich chocolate mousse filling and deep chocolate frosting covering the whole cake, and with pure chocolate decorations heaped high on the top! Talk about appeal! My tongue was craving that chocolate; I could feel the longing, the urge to take a nice big slice, all the way down to my toes! As I looked around the room, the two birthday celebrants, their gathered family and friends, I could clearly see which cake was going to be eaten first! And to top it off they pulled a half gallon of Brier’s vanilla ice cream out of the freezer to go with that cake!
Oh, I think everyone here knows what temptation is! That’s not the question. The real question is how will you handle or overcome that next temptation put in front of you? How hungry do you need to get before you would be tempted to borrow or ‘lift’ a bit of food? Will you be able to swallow your pride and ask for help, when your pantry is bare, rather than do something you’ll be sorry for in the morning, just to get a few needed groceries on the table? The task at hand for you and me, is quite clear. The undertaking is for us to stay true to one’s conscious. The task is to stay awake to what really matters. “Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”/Luke 4:4/ When we hear Jesus saying these words what are we to think? Are we to simply starve?
A professor of New Testament studies, Jirair Tashjian, tells us that “It is doubtful whether the devil would have suggested that Jesus turn the stone to bread had Jesus not been hungry. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires. The desire for food, sexual intimacy, approval of others is not from the devil. These are wholesome, normal, legitimate desires. How do they become sinful?” This is an important question for us to answer. It is a task, an assignment we cannot ignore. Going hungry is not a sin, not a personal sin, but perhaps a social sin, whereas a society has allowed certain groups of people to be marginalized and thereby left out or left behind without the means to care for themselves.
Clearly, the words of Jesus were written seeking to point us in the direction of the ideal, the paradigm or model by which we ought to pursue, as we struggle through the difficulties we encounter throughout life. Jesus wants for us to turn to spiritual axioms and guidelines before we make deals with the mischievous sprite we find hiding in the dark corners of our lives. Alan Brehm, author of the ‘Waking Dreamer” tells us that: “The willingness to acknowledge Jesus or God or anyone besides “me” as sovereign in my soul is a very important first step in finding the freedom to live life with joy and purpose.” That same freedom shall relieve us of the temptations that haunt and trouble us each day.
The second temptation the devil offers to Jesus is power, financial power and authority, sprinkled with a little public ego recognition! A few weeks back there was a $1.6 billion dollar ‘Power Ball’ jackpot. Ultimately it was split three ways by three winners. Just $533million dollars for each winner. Tell me you don’t wish that had been you! Did you at least buy a ticket! Millions bought large amounts of tickets, yet the winners often only buy one ticket. How would you handle such a vast sum of money? Frequently, a windfall of vast amounts of money destroy people, destroy families, simply because they believe the money will fix all areas of their lives. This just isn’t the way it is.
I know of a church, here in Florida that was bequeathed, in the form of a will, ten million dollars. In the end, after much wrangling and finally prayer, they used about three million to start a charitable organization needed in their local community and gave the rest to the national church to decide how to use it. They kept none for their personal church use. Apparently, as I heard the story, they felt that the ‘task at hand’ was to continue their ministry as a community in a way that avoided the temptation of being distracted by such wealth. Perhaps they had grappled with the position that the Rev. Bryan Findlayson, an Anglican clergyman from Sydney Australia, has taken. “Large congregations, powerful charismatic ministries, hype and energy, ‘signs and wonders’, are the surefire elements to gain recognition and succeed in the church-building game. (Yet) We put the Lord (our God) to the test when we forget that he (that it is God, not us that) builds his (that builds God’s) church.”
Of course we all know that the vast majority of us will never win or receive such a sum of money.
Yet, how many have focused their whole lives on achieving financial success, over every other thing, in their lives? How often have we found ourselves in a situation where we were forced to make a chose that could put us in a stronger financial position – if only we were willing to go against our conscious? So simple to do really, just don’t look in the mirror after you do it. The task, as we journey ever onward, is to maintain some level of integrity, some level of God consciousness as we try to shore up our sagging financial positions. Many a church has struggled with the question as how best to raise needed funds, for their mortgage or to rebuild a steeple, or repair the boiler or the next air conditioning unit that fails. The temptations to take short cuts, put business ahead of the spiritual needs of a faith community are all too apparent! Which is more important in the eyes of God: to keep an institution stable and viable, or secure a place in heaven for the fellowship of believers that once worshiped there? Tough question and not an easy one to live with. Our task, yours and mine, is to grapple with this a bit, from time to time, as we journey, in faith, toward the day we will meet Jesus face to face.
The final temptation put before us, from this writing pertaining to the temptations of Jesus, is perhaps the most difficult to avoid: making God lesser or secondary to our priorities, rather than being loyal and devoted to God, at all times and in all situations. Jesus’ response is simply that “we are not to put God to the test”. How have you, how have we: tested God, thus becoming unfaithful and inauthentic in our relationship with God? Isn’t our task, our commission, as we enter into this season called Lent, isn’t it meant for us to examine ourselves and determine who we are, what we are meant to do and be, and ultimately to discern how we are to accomplish our goals. Are we not meant to do all this while strengthening our relationship with Jesus? Thereby, being faithful to and following the will of God.
The temptations of Jesus tie directly to our Ash Wednesday service of this past week, just as our temptations and our humanness are linked together. We need to understand that being tempted is the nature of being human; giving in to them is sinfulness. Jesus was tempted because his essence was human. Yet, the essence of Jesus was also divine. Some of you, here gathered, came and humbled yourselves long enough to remember your mortality. Acting as your priest, I applied the black smug of palm ashes, with the mark of the cross, on your forehead. In doing so, you had to humble yourself, as I said the words: “from ashes you came and from ashes you shall return”. In the end, one of you did the same for me and I had to accept the weight of those words for myself. In humility, we must accept the fact that we too are human, one hundred percent, just as was the carpenter’s son, Jesus.
William Loader, from the Uniting Church in Australia tells us: “Wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert. It is the Lenten space par excellence.” It seems to me we do not need to travel out to the, Mojave Desert in Southern Nevada, to be on the desert as described here. It can be anywhere and you can enter into it at any time. Sometimes the Spirit leads us there, other times we push ourselves to make time to tend to our spiritual lives. Recently, I took a three day spiritual retreat. Our keynote speaker, one of my professors from Andover Newton Theological School, where I got my Masters of Divinity, Reverend Mary Luti, spook of finding silence and of being in touch with one’s mortality. I had set aside that time to grapple with God and prepare myself and I had made that retreat setting into the desert where I could do so.
I urge, all of you, to find a place of silence, both physically and metaphorically, to grapple with who you are, what your relationship with God is, and how you might continue to ascertain God’s ‘holy will’ for you as you continue your ‘finite’ and limited human journey. Perhaps we have not and will not always triumph over temptation as Jesus did. But, our task surely must be, that we cannot succumb to the temptation to give God less than our best efforts!
“Let us now open our ears, as-well-as our hearts, as we listen now to these words from the New Testament, the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 4, verses 1 thru 13.
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.
“Allow God to touch our hearts and minds, as we seek out and look for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of these ancient writings.”