Monday, February 11, 2008

Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 10

Based on the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, the Matthew account, Matthew 4:1-11.

Each year toward the beginning of Lent we read this story, and so it is very familiar to us. Sometimes, familiarity with a story strips away its power to speak to us. So I hope this morning you’ll join me in trying to take a fresh look at this story; I hope you’ll join me in trying to hear this story as if we were hearing it for the first time, and to see what message God may have for us in it.

The first thing that I want you to see is right there in verse 1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” Perhaps we do not fully understand what’s happening in this passage. It’s obvious from the first sentence here that Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness just by chance. He was led there by the Spirit and it was with a purpose: he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, or at least so the Scripture says.

Now, I don’t know exactly what you would do if I told you that you were soon going to be tempted by the devil, and I don’t mean tempted to eat an extra doughnut or tempted to tell a little white lie. I’m not sure what I would do if you told me that evil incarnate, the devil, horns, tail and all was going to meet me tomorrow morning, and that he would tempt me to betray my faith and everything I hold dear. I would go home and prepare somehow, I guess. I would pray, I’d read the Bible, I’d talk to mentors whose faith I trust. I’d be sure to go to bed early tonight, no football to watch anyway, and I’d make sure to get up bright and early, get a cup of coffee, and get a good breakfast. For Jill & I, French toast, eggs and bacon is a good breakfast. Gotta have the bacon or the scrapple, anyway; Jill doesn’t get into the scrapple, but I love it. Anyway, if you told me I’d meet the devil in the morning, I would take the next 20 hours of my life to prepare to be at my best for this encounter.

But as wise as I think this tactic would be, this is not what Jesus does. The Scripture says, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” As I said, this is specifically why he went; to be tempted by the devil. But before the temptation, Jesus apparently has a time of planning in mind. And we read that before being tempted, Jesus fasts forty days and forty nights; and then the Scripture tells us that after that, he was famished, which is perhaps the least surprising line of Scripture in the Bible.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been around someone who has fasted for forty days and nights. I have, once, an African fellow from seminary who explained that he fasted the forty days of Lent taking only a little water in the morning and a little tea at night, “by the grace of God,” he said. I thought that was a bit of an understatement. For most of us, this is not something we would regularly do, or ever do, really. In fact, in our office, Wendy usually jokes with me around 12:30 that I’d better get my lunch or I’ll start to get grouchy. And yet, Jesus sensed that the only way he was going to be prepared to achieve the awful and awesome task of meeting the devil head-on was to fast until he was famished. The only way he could accomplish this feat was not through strength, but through weakness.

And look how he succeeds! Let’s take a look at the three temptations and see how Jesus’ weakness enabled him to resist the devil’s temptation. The devil comes to him and the first thing he says is, “You’re hungry, aren’t you? Well, if you’re the Son of God, why don’t you take these stones and command them to become loaves of bread?” The first temptation Satan puts before Jesus is food. And yet through his time of fasting, Jesus has developed some internal ability to see through this plot, and he says, “Ah, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

This is the kind of thing that only a person who fasts can say. This is the kind of power that you find when you become weak. Because Jesus has been so long without food, he has found other ways of being nourished. Sure, Jesus is just quoting Scripture from the Old Testament, but he’s not just doing it from off the top of his head–he is reciting it from deep in his heart. It is now something he knows deep down in his soul, that he is not hungry for food, he is hungry for the word of God. In Jesus’ case, it was the fasting, it was the weakness, that made him hunger to BE the word of God to the world. The weakness of fasting taught him that there was more nourishment than food could provide; the weakness of fasting taught him that there are hungers in the human heart that no comfort food can fulfill; there is a hunger within each of us to live and love the word of God.

And then Satan comes to Jesus and he takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple, the very peak of the religious establishment, the very highest a man can go on the religious career ladder. And he says to him, “If you are the Son of God, then jump. Jump off this Temple. And you’ll be safe, right? Because the Scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you;” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you do not dash your foot against a stone.” This second temptation Satan has put before Jesus is influence. As I say, he takes him to a place with religious significance, and he challenges him to jump off and allow the angels to catch him. This might not sound very tempting, really, “Jump off this roof.” But the idea here is that Jesus could get instant legitimacy as a religious teacher by doing this kind of miracle.

I mean, Jesus, you can go around teaching people in Galilee if you want to; you can go around to the little podunk towns out in Galilee and speak to ten people here, twelve people there, twenty people there. You could heal people in their homes and talk to people out in the middle of nowhere if you want to. Or, you could come here, to the Temple, where the real action is, where real prophets come; and you could jump off of the very top of the Temple, have the angels escort you down to earth, and be greeted by a cheering, adoring crowd who would fall at your feet and worship you. Isn’t that what you really want, Jesus? Isn’t that what you want, to get your message out to lots and lots of people? Go ahead, then, jump.

But Jesus responds to this temptation with the kind of confidence that only weakness can give you. He says, “The Scripture also says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” In other words, I know who I am, I know what I came to do, and I know that that path is not for me. Don’t you try to tell me otherwise, since I already know the truth.” This time in the wilderness, this time of fasting, this time of refusing to chase the things of the world, had cleared Jesus’ head. Because he had stopped striving for everything else, because he had laid aside everything else that might distract him, he was rewarded with this deep self-knowledge. And he was able to recognize it when someone gave him another option that was attractive, but was really just not for him. And that self-knowledge was something only weakness could give him. If you spend all your time chasing strength, chasing status, you will never really know who you are; but if you are willing to become weak, if you are willing to lay aside the need to be strong, you can see yourself in a new and different way; you can see yourself as God created you to be.

And then there is the third temptation, where Satan transports Jesus in his mind’s eye to a high mountain where he can see all the kingdoms of the world, and their splendor; and he says, “All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Satan has become more brash; the first two times, he quoted Scripture but now he doesn’t even bother with that. He merely shows Jesus the most overwhelming sight, the kingdoms of the world and their splendor: the old riches of Egypt and the new riches of Rome; the architecture of ancient Greece and the untapped splendor of North America; he showed him the great Russian north and the islands of the South Seas and he says, I will give this to you if you worship me. The first temptation was about food, and the second temptation was about influence and legitimacy; but this is about sheer, unbridled power. And Satan says I’ve got it, and I’ll give it to you if you will worship me.”

But Jesus responds to this temptation with the kind of clear thinking that only weakness can provide. We might think that Jesus would be cloudy after not eating for 40 days, but it turns out that the weakness has sharpened his mind rather than dulled it. And Jesus is able to see right through this trick of Satan and to realize that Satan’s power is simply an illusion; it is not real; and even if it were, we are called on to worship only God and no one else. Again, it might surprise us that Jesus could respond so well even though he was so weak. But it is his weakness that makes him able to respond in this way. Because he left the world behind for forty days, because he went out into the wilderness by himself, he was able to see that all worldly power was an illusion. When he was out there, by himself, he got wet in the rain, he burned in the sun, he sought shelter from the sandstorms, and he learned what it was to really live. In the wilderness, the political life of the city was revealed for what it was: political people doing political things but not having any real power. Because Jesus got away from all that, he could see it clearly and he knew it was an illusion. So when Satan came telling him, “here, take all this power,” Jesus could sharply refuse, because he knew it just wasn’t real.

I think this story is a very important one, and I think it has been misread in churches for many, many years. Looking at this story as a whole, we see that Jesus was tempted with three things: food, influence, and political power. These are deeply primal urges rooted in our human nature; they are appetites that can be helpful but are all too often destructive. And often, when we read this story, we read a story about resisting temptation. We have all heard sermons that essentially boil down to: “Jesus resisted temptation and so can you.” Jesus resisted the worst temptations from Satan himself, and so you can certainly resist your little temptations not to indulge in road rage, or overeating, or harmful behavior. Often, we hear this sermon preached from a position of strength; essentially, we often read this story and think, “We have the same power in us, if we would just exercise our willpower, we could say no to temptation as well.”

Unfortunately, I think that’s exactly the wrong way to read it. What sustained Jesus in the wilderness, what enabled him to resist temptation, was not his amazing willpower. It was the fact that he was willing to take on weakness in his life. It was the fact that he went out to the wilderness for forty days not in order to become strong, but to become weak. When he was weak, when he rejected food, when he rejected worldly influence, when he rejected political power, when he rejected all of those things he was able to withstand the temptation to abuse those things. It was when he was at his weakest that he understood who he really was and it was because he was willing to become weak that he could stand up to temptation.

The Christian life is not an isolated series of decisions. If you remember, a few years ago, there were little bracelets that were popular that said on them WWJD, which stood for What would Jesus Do? And the idea behind those bracelets was that you would wear them, and when you were tempted or facing a difficult decision, you would look down and say “What Would Jesus Do?” and then presumably, you would do the same thing as Jesus.

I never really liked those bracelets. Because there are some times that we face decisions where we just don’t know what Jesus would do. When we have a loved one who is dying, do we or do we not take extraordinary measures to save their life at least temporarily? When we are facing a choice between two jobs, where each job has something to commend it, what would Jesus do? What should we do? It’s not as if we always know what it is Jesus would do. That’s why I say the Christian life is not an isolated series of decisions.

Instead, the Christian vision is a whole new life that we take on, where we choose to live differently so that when temptation presents itself, when difficult decisions arise, we are able to naturally respond like Jesus did because we have been living like Jesus all along. Jesus didn’t succeed in resisting temptation because he made really good choices in the heat of the moment. Jesus resisted temptation because he lived the kind of life that made him good at resisting temptation. He went out into the wilderness because it was there that he learned to be weak, and when he learned to be weak, then he could resist temptation. And so my goal is not to persuade you to always choose the right thing in the heat of the moment, in the midst of temptation. None of us can do that. My goal is to persuade you to take on this kind of life where you become weak, because if you will become weak, if you will stop chasing the things the strong people chase, you will be able to resist temptation too.

For the second year in a row, I went to the Catholic church this year on Ash Wednesday to receive ashes. Most Baptists don’t do this, and I realize that it may make some of you uncomfortable, so I don’t offer to do that here, but it’s become important to me to have ashes marked on my forehead. So I went up to St. Elizabeth’s; those of you who attended the Christian unity service remember Msgr. Mullin, who preached that night. He’s a good friend of mine. Actually, I got there after the service ended. With their new preschool, the service which used to be at noon now was at 11:30, and so I was getting there as all these ashy Catholic children were running around leaving the church. But Msgr. Mullin saw me, and he said I had missed the service but then he said, “I’ve got some ashes in the back. Wait here.” And he ran back and he took the ashes and smeared them on my forehead and said, “Turn from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I’m torn as to whether I wish he had used the traditional language or not. The traditional language, of course is, “Remember, man, that you are from dust; and to dust you shall return.”

There is something deeply profound about receiving ashes, and deeply profound about the traditional language. It doesn’t play around. When you wear ashes, you are aware in a new way of who you are; when you accidentally rub your forehead, and it gets all over your hands, you start to think, “Wow; the stuff that makes up the dust in these ashes is the same stuff that makes up me.” To hear, “Remember that you are dust,” has a way of immediately taking you out into the wilderness. It pricks your pride like a pin, and you realize how many illusions and compulsions you spend your time chasing. It makes you realize how weak you really are.

Some of us run from that. But those of us who know Christ know this is where the good life begins. The good life begins not with self-assertions and achievements. The good life begins by embracing your weakness. It begins by saying, “I need to become weak if I really want to be strong for Jesus.” The good life begins in fasting, and discipline, and if I may say it, the good life begins with death–the death of the old self and the putting on of the new self. And when we are weak, when we are in the wilderness with Jesus, we can see how addicted we are to food, to influence, to power, and all the other appetites that dominate us if we let them–the appetites for sex and money and pleasure and control. And then, when we are weak, we can begin to say no to them and yes to God.