Into the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11 – March 5, 2017

jesus-temptation-wilderness

“Into the Wilderness”

Have you ever overheard a conversation at a restaurant where someone was absolutely raving about the food served? About how delicious it was, how well seasoned, or well prepared? The magnificent desserts, or the fantastic dishes? “Out of this world!” or, “It’s to die for!” I’ve even heard a few people say, “That was positively sinful!”

Enjoying our creature comforts so much, we are not able to focus on anything else. Not able to focus on each other, and reaching out to the needy, sick and hungry. Not able to focus on God, either, much less worship God’s name regularly.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Yes, back to the very beginning, the book of Genesis. Eileen just read for us several verses from chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are tempted by the Devil.

We find out that the garden from Genesis has everything a person could want—except for one thing. There is one prohibition: a tree in the middle of the garden. Adam and Eve already have been told never to eat from that tree. Never, ever, ever eat from that specific tree. (Or they—we—shall surely die.)

We all know the story. The Tempter comes to Eve in the form of a snake, plants doubt in her mind, and convinces her to eat the fruit of the tree. What’s more, she gives some to Adam and he eats. And because of this sin, this disobedience, Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden of Eden.

What got in the way between Adam and Eve, and God? Adam and Eve said “Yes” to the serpent. In saying “Yes” to the snake, they found themselves saying “No” to God. They renounced the God who created them, who loved them, and who gave them all things. And, they were sent into the wilderness.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus led out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. For forty days Jesus fasts and prays, away by Himself, in the wilderness. Jesus was preparing Himself for His time of ministry ahead, as well. At the end of this time, the tempter comes to a weakened, depleted Jesus, and tempts Him. The devil tempts Jesus with food, with control, and with power. The devil very much wanted to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him, to say “Yes” to at least one of the temptations he brought to Jesus.

At the beginning of each Lenten season, each year, the lectionary readings begin with the Gospel reading of Jesus and the temptation. The devil tries very hard to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him and the phony, flashy, fake things he offers. And by saying “Yes” to the devil, Jesus would end up saying “No” to God. The devil wanted to get Jesus to renounce His heavenly Father.

The period of Lent as a time of fasting, penitence and self-examination was followed early on, in the church’s history. The Church Council of Nicaea in 325 discussed a 40-day period of Lent, but did not get that period codified at that point.

What was a common practice by that time was an extended period for people intending to prepare themselves for baptism on Easter Day. Yes, this did include fasting, penitence and self-examination, along with learning the catechism of the Church.

The rest of the congregation did not take it easy during this 40-day period. They had to fast, be penitent, and examine themselves, too. We still do this today, remembering Jesus and His time of fasting and penitence in the wilderness just before He began His ministry. A time when He renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways.

Renounce. Renounce what? This is a confusing term, for some. But—what gets in the way between us and God? What tempts us to turn from God and the good things God wants for each of us?  What does it mean for us to follow after Jesus, and to renounce the devil?

The first temptation was that of hunger. The devil tempted Jesus with bread. (And, not just physical hunger.) “It is about all of those things that we use in an attempt to fill ourselves up, to satisfy our many hungers. We have a problem with excess.  We eat too much.  We drink too much.  We buy too much.  We spend too much.  We have too much.” [1]

Augustine, that great saint of the Church, said there was a God-shaped hole inside of each of us. We try to fill that empty hole, that void, with all kinds of things. Both physical as well as spiritual.  “And the food and clothes and jewels, all the drugs and alcohol and sex and movies and vacations and entertainment and money and toys in the world, aren’t going to be enough to fill up that empty space inside us.” [2]

The second and third temptations are all about control and power. And, putting God to the test. Do we try to take control of our own lives? Or, how about micro-managing everyone around us? Do you know anyone who willfully, stubbornly goes off on their own, whose theme song is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra? Not following God, not putting themselves into God’s caring, loving hands. Perhaps making bargains with God?

The commentator says this week, “Do we worship our lifestyle? The (fill in your nationality) way? Military power? Economic domination? The rich and the famous? Football or [baseball or hockey or] other sports? The almighty dollar?” [3] What do we need to renounce in order to come back into a close, loving relationship with God?

We can take for our example how Jesus responded to the devil. Three different temptations, and three times Jesus responded with the Word of God.  

Do we remember baptism? Not necessarily our own baptisms, but the more recent baptisms that have happened here. Several months ago, I baptized Claire. Part of the liturgy for that service includes several questions. The pastor says the words “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of the devil, his works and ways, and to receive the power of new life in Christ?” The parents and the sponsors respond, “We will, with the help of God.”

It doesn’t matter where we are, we have promised, on our behalf or on our children’s, to encourage ourselves or our loved ones to renounce the devil. With the help of God, we will say “No” to the devil. It says so, right here in the service of baptism. That is exactly what Jesus did, at His temptation, and we’re encouraged to say “No,” too!

It can be as simple and straightforward as saying “No” to the tempter, to his works and ways, and saying “Yes” to God. Turning our backs on the tempting things that beckon to us, lure us in, and instead, following after Jesus.

Whether having to do with our bodies, desires, excess, addiction, power, control; in deserts, gardens, the country, cities, mountains—wherever we find ourselves, we need to consider renouncing the devil. Refusing to follow after the devil’s pied piper flute.  Lent is not just giving up chocolate or sweets, or meat on Fridays, but this is a special time to follow Jesus, to examine ourselves, and to learn and practice the works and ways of God.

Whether we are in the wilderness or not, I encourage all of us to follow after Jesus. Say “Yes” to God, and “No” to the devil and the seductive power of evil. And, God will be with us, in the wilderness, on the mountain, in the cities, wherever we are. Thank God! Amen.
[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/first-sunday-in-lent7#preaching

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)

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Born of the Spirit

“Born of the Spirit” – May 31, 2015

Trinity - Holy Spirit

John 3:8

The wind can be really powerful. Has anyone here experienced a really strong wind? I remember the wind blowing so strong that I almost got blown off the highway while I was driving in Michigan. And when walking, I had to really lean into the wind to make any headway at all. We can watch the wind rush the clouds along and whip the trees and leaves. And what about devastating windstorms? Think of the tremendous power of hurricanes and tornados! We see the strong power of wind at work, regularly.

Wind is also a symbol from the Bible—a symbol of the Holy Spirit, in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is all over our Scripture passage today. We’ll hear our Lord Jesus mention the Holy Spirit in a few minutes, but first let’s set the stage.

Here it is, early in Jesus’ ministry. He had already made a name for Himself, with the marvelous teaching He had done and the wonderful miracles He had performed. A lot of people were talking about Jesus, this itinerant rabbi from Galilee. Even the most important leaders among the Jews, the Pharisees, were talking about Rabbi Jesus. One of the Jewish leaders, a man named Nicodemus, summoned up enough courage one night to sneak over to where Jesus was staying.

Nicodemus wanted to know more about Jesus.

Isn’t that just like some people? Some people know a little bit about Jesus, but they don’t know much. There is a veil across their understanding. This state is not godly; the Bible calls it the natural state of man, or of people. In their natural state, people often do not even consider God at all. They cannot come close to God. So, we often see people in their natural state feeling defeated and frustrated because they have a hole in their lives. There is something missing.

St. Augustine wrote a book centuries ago, an autobiography called The Confessions. He speaks of this emptiness, this void, this God-shaped hole inside of people. Augustine also talked about how it was impossible for anyone to fill up that hole with anything else but God.

People do try. They try to fill that hole with all kinds of things: work, money, education, status, alcohol, drugs, computers, family, exercise, shopping. All these things are ways to fill our lives, and to keep us busy. But—we cannot fill that God-shaped hole all by ourselves. No matter how hard we try.

Let’s go back to Nicodemus, coming to see this itinerant Rabbi Jesus in the middle of the night. Nicodemus is worried, or frightened, or a bit of both. But he does come to Jesus.

Did Nicodemus—a leader and prominent teacher among the Jews—come to have an intellectual, theological discussion with Jesus? Or, was it something else that convinced him to seek out this upstart Rabbi?

We discover he is drawn to Jesus by the wise words Jesus has said, as well as the witness of the mighty signs He has done. In other words, the word and the works of God draw Nicodemus to Jesus. Let me say that again: the word of God and the works of God draw Nicodemus to Jesus.

Early on in the interview—for that is what Nicodemus came to do, have an in depth interview with Rabbi Jesus—Jesus makes a surprising comment—surprising to Nicodemus, anyway. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus begins to stutter and stammer, and complains that he cannot crawl back inside of his mother to be reborn, can he?

Again and again, the prophets in the Old Testament mention the new birth and the new life from God. This was nothing surprising. As a teacher of the Jews, Nicodemus should have known this teaching. Jesus is patient and answers again in the same vein. He even jokes with Nicodemus—as one of the premier teachers and scholars in Israel, Nicodemus needed some itinerant rabbi to fill him in on the hope of Israel??

Here we are, almost two thousand years after this conversation. Are you and I any further along in belief? Do we understand everything about the Holy Spirit’s work in the typical believer’s life? Or, are we still trying to painstakingly piece together the activity of God? I know I am. I don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay by God.

Many deep, theological books have been written over the centuries to explain the theology of this third chapter of the Gospel of John. But—I don’t want to give you just a hodgepodge of theology. Instead, I want to tell you about Jesus and His response to Nicodemus’ questions. I want to lift up to you the One who was sent to earth by God, His Heavenly Father. I want to point to the One who gave testimony of the power of God through the Holy Spirit.

Just as no one can actually see electricity or the wind in operation, no one can tell us exactly how they work. But, we all can see their effects. In the same way, God works in our lives today in much the same way. God’s hand is not visible. The power of the Holy Spirit is very often invisible—it is sort of like the wind, similar to electricity. We can see the Holy Spirit’s effects. And we can definitely tell how God works in our lives and hearts. We can see people’s lives changed by the mighty power of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus here is mentioning powerHoly Spirit power. Do you believe it? Can you feel it? Like a gentle breeze, or even a strong wind, blowing through our lives?

Jesus forgives us our sins and wipes out the past. God cleanses us, and strengthens us. The Holy Spirit provides a way for us to be reborn, born from above. The Holy Spirit allows us to enter eternal life as children of God. Do you believe it? Can you feel it? What a wonderful opportunity! Praise God for His everlasting love.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Believe the good news of the Gospel!

Alleluia. Amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)