It is that time of the church year when we focus on our sins, both collectively and individually, and of our need for a Savior. Truthfully, this morning, I wanted to spend some time focusing on the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy. Truthfully, there is a bit of selfishness in that desire of mine. We spent a bit over three years in this parish studying the do’s and don’t of that book. I am well prepared to preach on Deuteronomy, or I had better be after studying a book for that long. But I found myself preaching during the early service on the Gospel of Luke. Just to make sure I did not switch books between the services, God seems to have decided to make it clear that I will stick to Luke in this service. Between the services, we had one of those moments when the congregation focused on a message in the sermon that I did not intend. But given our discussions, it needs to be said again in front of the second service to make sure the discussion is possible during Lent. We’ll call it a communal effort this morning. . .
That all being said, Luke’s narrative picks up immediately after the baptism of Jesus. Jesus is led by the Spirit from the Jordan immediately into the wilderness where He fasts and is confronted by Satan with these temptations of which we read this morning. This confrontation is no accident. Luke makes it abundantly clear that this confrontation between Satan and Jesus was allowed by God. There are a couple of details that make this confrontation strange to our ears. First, Jesus is allowed to be tempted after a fast of forty days. Who in their right mind would allow such an important confrontation to occur after 40 days of fasting? I know fasting is a bit out of favor among many in the Church today. We seem to treat it as a passe discipline, something that was done in ages past to help keep God from inflicting punishments or as a proof that the one fasting truly was committed to serving the Lord. A surprising number of clergy have discussed with me that fasting really serves no purpose in this age. Unsurprising to you, I do have some clergy friends who engage in regular fasts. It is on my mind because some of us fasted this past Wednesday and Thursday. Personally, I am always envious of those who claim a “faster’s buzz” not unlike a distant runner’s high or second wind. I find when I am fasting that I start to feel miserable about 16-18 hours in. I have a hard time concentrating. I seem a bit scatter-brained to myself. It just does not give me a great feeling, and I certainly cannot claim any more clarity from God. That being said, when I try and run distances, I never get the runner’s high. I always get the runner’s “I am going to die if I am lucky and just pass out if I am unlucky feeling” on those rare occasions that I try to run distances. The very thought that God would want Jesus to face Satan, His ultimate enemy, after 40 days of such uncomfortableness absolutely stuns me. If I were in charge, Jesus would have faced Satan after a good meal and limbering up period. I suppose that is yet another reason I am not in charge of salvation history.
The other detail that is strange is the location of this cosmic battle. Why the wilderness? Unfortunately, as I was dealing with those whom we serve through AA last week, the purpose of the wilderness as a background was driven home to me. As I shared mostly with them, but a few people here this morning, one of the reasons the Cross is so offensive is its stark reminder that you and I and everyone whom we meet is utterly dependent upon God’s grace. We midwesterners pride ourselves on our hard work and our ability to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to improve our lot. The wilderness, though, reminds us as a setting just how ill-equipped we to resist the Devil on our own.
Think of the last time we witnessed such a battle between God’s son and the Devil. Where did it occur? In a garden. In THE garden, to be specific. Remember the book of Genesis? Adam & Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden. The Garden produced all that they needed to eat and to drink. It sheltered them, and it provided a location where they could walk and talk with God. There was only one commandment. You shall not eat of the tree. With all that going for them, how able were Adam & Eve to keep the commandment. You know the story. Satan entered the garden, and tricked Eve. She ate and then shared it with Adam. He ate. And both their eyes were opened. Sin had entered the world, and the downward spiral of human depravity was begun. Think of that for a second. There is only one commandment, and all of their needs were provided by God. Oh, and unlike us who depend on faith, Adam and Even got to see God with their eyes, hear His voice with their ears. And because they had not yet sinned, they were not destroyed when they looked on His face. They saw the countenance of their loving Father. Still they failed. Still they could not resist eating of the one single tree off limits. One tree. If you ever wondered why we need a Savior, think on Adam’s example. He could not keep one commandment in the Garden of Eden when he enjoyed full communion with God. How can we expect our selves to keep all those commandments in Deuteronomy when we live in a world like this? When we see and hear Him only dimly? When many of us are, ahem, well fed? And Jesus is forced into this battle with God’s enemy having fasted for 40 days and in the middle of a wilderness.
And before I go any further, note that Luke describes this as a battle with cosmic repercussions. I know it is fashionable to believe that the devil is mythological now. We have fallen pray to that plot of Screwtape where he tells his son to convince people the devil is not real so that he can act unfettered. Even in the Church today you are likely to hear that the Devil is not real, that he is mythological, and that were he real, he would be serving God’s purpose and not acting against Him as an enemy. As a quick lesson, I will remind you that God treats the devil as a real person, that Jesus treats him as a real person, and that the Apostles treat him as a real person actively working against God and His purposes. There is a great line in the movie Constantine. The heroine is getting a crash course about spiritual warfare from the lead character. When he talks about the devil waging war against God she responds that she does not believe in him. Constantine responds by telling her “you should because he believes in you and wants your soul.” We dismiss the devil as an active enemy of God at our own peril. The moment that we think we can walk into any situation and avoid temptation because he does not exist is the moment we set ourselves up to be taken in by his snares. That, though, is another sermon.
Anyway, the cosmic battle begins with those diabolical words “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread.” Look at these words. Think of the trap being laid. Does Jesus know who He is? Of course He does. But Satan is always plotting. If Jesus refuses to turn the stone into bread, Satan can come back with the accusation that He must not really believe He is the Son of God. And if Jesus gives in after 40 days of hunger and turns the stone into a loaf of bread, Satan has won!
As we discussed earlier, Jesus turns to the book of Deuteronomy to engage in this battle. “Man shall not live on bread alone.” What the devil is tempting Jesus with is this idea of independence. Jesus has come to do the will of the Father who sent Him. Satan is offering Jesus the chance to do things His way. Do you really need to be hungry out here? Does it serve any real purpose? Wouldn’t you do a better job on a full stomach? The devil is always tempting God’s people, His adopted sons and daughters, with this offer of independence. Think of the temptation in your own life. How many of you have come into my office beating yourselves up? You knew an action was a sin before you did it. And, yet, you still committed the sin in knowledge certain it was wrong. Why? I’m no different. I know what I am supposed to do. Heck, in many cases, I know what I am supposed to do or not do better than you in your lives because I study His word that much more. And still I sin. And so do you. Why? In the end, you and I are all huge friends of Frank Sinatra. We all want to do it our way and sing out as we go about doing it. That is, until the consequences come home to roost. When the consequences of our sins begin to impact us, then we want to know where He is. Why doesn’t He protect me? Why doesn’t He stop these consequences? I said I was sorry. Doesn’t He forgive me?
And I say that looking around at each one of you recognizing we don’t have a lot of gruel eaters here in church today. Each of you has dragged yourself to church this first Sunday of Lent in the cold. Ideally, all of us gathered today are a bit more committed to our Lord than those sleeping in this morning. We will remind ourselves during the Eucharist that “By His will everything was created and have their being.” Think of that phrase and what it means when we gather. Not only did He create you but He wills your existence every moment of every day. Were He to forget you or me because Peace in the Middle East or the orbits of asteroids and meteorites were just requiring a bit more of His concentration, you and I would simply cease to exist. Poof. Ever wonder whether He really loves you and cares about you? Do you ever wonder if you serve a purpose in His plan of salvation history? If you are existing and wondering, you have your proof that He does. By His will you were created and have your being. We know this, brothers and sisters. We know this. And yet each one of us will be tempted to do things our way this week. Each of us will remember that we are dependent upon Him, and still we will choose to ignore His instruction. We will choose the path of independence and sin. As did Adam. Thankfully, our Lord chose wiser than we will.
The second temptation is also fascinating. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers Him power and authority if Jesus will worship him. Satan tells a half truth. The world has been given over to him; Satan is right in that assertion. He just neglects to mention that the authority granted to him is only for a time. He is pretending as if he has ultimate control over the earth for all time, and he is offering the honor and glory and authority that Jesus will be given. But notice the temptation. Jesus has come to do the will of the One who sent Him. Jesus knows His feet are set upon the path that leads to Calvary and the Cross. Jesus will be mocked, scourged, rejected, humiliated, and killed in order to come into His kingdom. Satan is offering the opportunity to “skip to the end.” Bypass the nasty stuff and just get to the good stuff. It had to be a temptation that you and I can’t possibly understand. How many of us would choose the paths of our lives which lead through valleys and shadows even if we knew the outcome of our suffering? If you had your choice, would you walk the difficult paths? Or would you rather just get to the end as fast as possible and avoid all the negative stuff?
Again, our Lord turns to Deuteronomy and answers the devil with the words, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.” Jesus reminds us by pulling out this ancient text that we worship only one person, our Father, our Lord, God. And the proper worship of God is not just a simple intellectual assent. Saying that He exists is not enough. Service is required. In New Testament language, Paul will remind us that faith without works is dead. Proper faith in God is expressed both by worship and by service. Brothers and sisters, if we had THE perfect liturgy here and were a bunch of navel gazers who only came to church and worshipped God, we would not be worth His thought nor His redemption. If all we did was gather here, we would not be winning souls for His kingdom. We would not be living into the inheritance he calls each one of us. And He would not be glorified by us.
Last week during the Annual Meeting, Michelle asked that question about how we evangelize and how we draw others into this community of faith. Here’s Jesus teaching us how we are to evangelize: through service. How do we serve Him? Through those whom He places in our path each and every day. You and I are called to remember that everyone is created in His image. Knowing that, we set out to feed the hungry or clothe the poor or protect the abused or free the enslaved. Why? Because in this battle and ultimately through His walk to Calvary, our Lord first served us. And it is incumbent upon us to figure out the needs of those whom we encounter. For some, we might need to tell them simply of His love for them. For others, it might be physical needs. For others, the needs might be emotional or spiritual. As the ones already adopted into the kingdom and empowered by His Spirit, we know simply that He will use us to glorify Himself. That’s part of His amazing promise to each one of us.
From there, Satan takes Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem and dares Him to cast Himself off the Temple. After all, God has promised that He has placed the angels in charge of His Anointed and that He will not let His Anointed stumble. The temptation is one of testing. The idea is that Jesus can find out for sure whether His Father in heaven loves Him. If God saves Him, He is clearly loved by His Father. If not, well, better to find out early and quick before the real suffering begins. Jesus turns again to Deuteronomy and reminds us that we are not to test our Lord.
It is a messianic temptation in this instance, but it is one with which you and I can be tempted at any time. How often do you find yourself wondering whether God really loves you or really cares about you in your circumstances? Did I mention we were not the gruel eaters? I am often amazed at how often Christians claim that God ought to be tested in order to prove His love of us. I grew up in WV. I’ve been to snake-handling churches where that theology is imbedded. But it is in other mainline churches in subtle ways. One of the repeated temptations is “If you guys now where people are being enslaved and who the bad guys are, why don’t you just force the confrontations with the organized crime people?” After all, if God loves us, He will protect us, right? It seems reasonable. It may even seem good. Yet, we are called to live as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents. We don’t serve Him to test Him. We are not in these ministries to prove to ourselves or others that He loves us. We know from that cross that He does. No, we do these ministries because we understand dimly the depth of the love He bears for each one of us.
And this testing can be used well by His enemy to lead us astray. Think of the possibilities for abuse. Go spend all your money on the poor. If He truly loves you, He will have to give you more because you spent it on His people. Don’t go see the doctor because if He really loves you, He is going to have to cure your disease and keep you from dying. Feel free to tell your boss off. If God really loves you, He will have to keep you from getting fired, or else get you a better job, because He can’t let those whom He really loves go unemployed. The temptation for us is always that we need to prove to ourselves, and to make Him prove to us, that He does love us. If He answers the need, we are assured. If He doesn’t, at least we won’t have to waste our lives serving Him. As if the cross does not stand as THE stark reminder of His love for each one of us.
The truth of the matter, brothers and sisters, you and I are privileged. Because Jesus resisted these temptations and walked that road, we are saved. We are lucky in this setting in that our founding families understood that truth. That cross hangs over us in everything that we do in here. Visually, you and I cannot escape it in this setting, and its shadow is cast over us at all times, reminding us of the love our Lord bore for each one us, knowing how often we would fail Him when our turn came. Think of these temptations. Jesus has fasted for 40 days -- He is famished. He is wandering in the wilderness. And His enemy is hitting Him in hard spots, spots in which you and I repeatedly fail. And yet, through it all and though the setting seems stack against Him, our Lord does not fail. He came to do the will of the Father, to save us, and nothing will keep Him from His appointed task. No physical need, no lack, no fear will keep Him from saving us and restoring us to our Father in Heaven.
Brothers and sisters, during the season of Lent we will spend a great deal of time discussing sin and its consequences in our lives. People are more cognizant of things that they are doing in their lives to separate them from the love of God. Attention is rightfully paid to those temptations which constantly lead people astray. My question for you this morning is this: Where are the soft spots in your life that the devil is reaching in and leading you astray? Where is he poking and prodding and making you wonder does He really love me? Where is it that the enemy of God is using your circumstances to lead you from God, either by convincing you to do your own will or to falsely believe that He no longer loves you? This is that intentional season in which you and I should be asking God for the grace to see and to resist those temptations in our lives, temptations which the enemy ultimately intends to use to convince us each that we are not truly loved by God--the only lie the devil knows. And then ask Him to send the Holy Spirit to empower you to live as He would have you live. Not for our sake. But that we might rightly repent of those sins and their consequences and live the life of the redeemed, honoring Him and drawing others into His saving embrace.