Questions in the wilderness (A sermon from Matthew 4:1-11)

I may have told you about the minister’s wife who was shopping one afternoon and a dress caught her eye. They were on a fairly tight budget and it was quite a bit more than she could afford, but she bought it anyway. She told her husband that she had no intention of buying it, but when she tried it on, it looked and felt so good that she could not resist the temptation. Her husband said, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Satan’ get behind me.” She said, “I did. And he said it looks even better from that angle.”

Some of you may remember Flip Wilson of “Laugh in” fame popularizing the old saying, “The devil made me do it.” We poke fun at the Devil, but in scripture the Devil is the symbol for that which is deceptive and manipulative and adversarial to the kin-dom of God. Our text today says that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted or tested by the Devil. The “wilderness” is a common scriptural theme and reference to Jesus fasting forty days and forty nights recalls the story of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The symbolism shows the continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. And while the wilderness is a hard place and a dangerous place, it is also a place where character is formed and courage is forged. The text says that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. It is necessary. Wilderness experiences play an important role in our spiritual formation. In the little book of James the writer commends his readers to count it joy when they fall into various kinds of trials – wilderness experiences – because, as James describes it the testing of our faith produces endurance, and when endurance has its full effect, we stand mature, complete, lacking nothing. Without some wilderness experiences there can be little spiritual growth and development.

I would like to suggest that these three temptations raise three questions. The first question raised by the first temptation is: What makes me who I am? What makes you who you are? The tempter says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Keep in mind that the wilderness testing comes right after the revelation given to Jesus as his baptism, where the divine voiced affirmed: “You are beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” The tempter calls into question that affirmation: “Are you really God’s beloved son? If you are, then prove it.” And so the question: What makes me what I am? What makes you who you are?

Sisters and brothers as long as we are swayed by group think, as long as we play the world’s game of meritocracy based on comparisons and competition, as long as we judge our worth and value by the world’s standards of success, we will always feel like we have to prove ourselves, that we have to earn our worth. Why can’t we rest in grace? Why can’t we accept that we don’t earn anything from God? All of life, everything, is a gift. I am a child of God, you are a child of God by grace. It’s not because of what you believe, or what you do – it’s simply who you are. If you have to believe certain things or do certain things in order to be a child of God, then it’s not grace.

In the movie Ironweed there is a scene where the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Street, two vagrants, stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. A bit smashed themselves they debate what to do. “Is she drunk or a bum,” asks Nicholson. “Just a bum. Been one all her life.” “And before that?” “She was a whore in Alaska.” “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?” “I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess.” “Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Listen sisters and brothers, everyone is something. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone bears God’s image no matter how marred that image may be. If the truth were known, many of us who are critical of the poor or those addicted to drugs or involved in crime, if the truth were known we would be in the same state if we inherited the circumstances in life they inherited. Now, not everyone can admit that. Many are too proud to admit that. But the one who has experienced God’s grace firsthand knows that it is true. I love the way the evangelical writer Philip Yancey defines grace. He says divine grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – nothing. We are the beloved sons and daughters of God by grace. This is the true bread, a living word, that sustains us against all the slander, disrespect, judgmentalism, and condemnation we might receive from the world caught up in the folly of competing and comparing. Now, we have to choose to live like it. It takes a life of commitment and faithfulness to follow Jesus and become who we are. It take human effort to live out our connection to God and become who we are. But we are who we are by grace.

In the second temptation Jesus is tempted to do something spectacular, namely, to dazzle the crowd with a miraculous deliverance. The question this raises is: Why do I need the applause of others? And along with that question a second one: What will I do to acquire the applause of others, to get others to respect me, like me, and honor me? If the first temptation is about proving our worth to ourselves, this temptation is about proving our worth to others. It appeals to our ego. It appeals to our desire to be special, to be a step above the rest, to be honored and recognized above our peers.

Jesus did not seek popularity or honor; in fact, he seems to have intentionally avoided it. When the crowds became too much, he would withdraw in solitude to some desolate place. Jesus seems to have known intuitively how popularity and praise can ensnare the ego and become an obstacle to the kin-dom of God.

Samir Selmanovic has written a very good book titled, It’s Really All About God. It’s largely an account of his own spiritual journey. He says that when he first came to New York City as a minister he came to make it as a pastor. He says he did not serve the city, but rather used the city, and the city used him. For six months he had not taken a day off, and one morning he found himself in the emergency room with his heart pounding, a severe headache, and dizziness. The doctors could not tell him anything other than to slow down or perish from the stress. That night as he and his wife were lying in bed Semir rattled off to his wife an impressive set of reasons why he had been ignoring her pleas to slow down and take time off. He went on and on, but she was not moved. When he finally exhausted his list of excuses she said to him point blank, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

When we are driven by a need to prove ourselves, to be popular and important, then we have allowed the ego to take over. It becomes all about us, and not the kingdom of God and God’s restorative justice. How do we resist this temptation? We resist by resting in God’s grace and by finding our identity in God. And the more we do that, the more we are able to let go of any need to be applauded by others. This is part of what Jesus mean when he talks about losing life in order to find life and when he tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. The more we experience and live in light of God’s grace, the more we realize that it’s not about us. That we are part of a much larger story.   

In the third temptation Jesus is led to a high mountain and given a glimpse of all the kingdoms of the world. They will be his if he will worship and serve the Devil. The Devil symbolizes a false god, the god of power. The question that I think this last temptation raises is: What kind of power do I seek? This temptation speaks to the ego’s need to control.

Consider the way religious people often yield to this temptation. This temptation often comes to us in the form of needing to be right. There is a certain power and authority that comes with being right, of being God’s favorites, of having exclusive access to God –that is, one can only get to God through our way, our mediator, our faith. For many religious people this means limiting access to God to our religious faith, our group, our church, our people.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock tells about his encounter Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an amazing man. He had several earned doctorates. He was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work. In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. And that quest continues

When Craddock first read that book he was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds. Craddock read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.

Even though Craddock was working in Knoxville, he bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of Christ and set him straight. After the concert Craddock was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Craddock was eager for his chance to have at him.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.”

Craddock said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Craddock says: “I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

I love the way Bro. David Steindl-Rast defines God as “Almighty.” He says that it is only in the context of God’s fatherly and motherly love that we can call God almighty, for nothing is omnipotent except love. Only love can impart lasting meaning and hope. Only love can impart new life. And love is expressed not in control or power over others, but in service to others. When we pursue power over others we worship a false god, the god of power, and we are not free at all. We are in bondage to ambition. Our need for power has power over us and it corrupts us. And we have certainly seen how destructively this can play out internationally and nationally. God’s power, the power of love, the power of Spirit, is not expressed in power over others, rather, it is expressed in the power to be with and for others, to suffer with others and advocate for others.

The story ends with the Devil leaving Jesus. But the Devil didn’t leave for good. Luke’s version says, “he left until an opportune time.” Jesus would encounter these temptations all through his short life, and we can expect to face them all through our lives as well. And we need to be aware that these temptations can be very subtle and deceptive. Think how much good I could do if I were popular and powerful. This becomes a cover for the ego. The ego is a cunning creature. It can conjure up alternative facts that are very believable. So, we can never let up and let down our guard. We have to choose the power of love over everything else every day.

The three temptations raise three question: First, what makes me who I am? Divine grace. Grace is everything. And the same grace given to me is the same grace given to you and everyone else who are all God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Second, why do I need the applause and approval of others? I don’t. You don’t. All we need is to be rooted in God’s love and grace. We don’t need to dazzle anyone. We don’t need to impress anyone

And third, what sort of power do I seek? The only power I need and you need is the power of love – the power to be with and for those who suffer. We don’t need to be right. We don’t need to be in control. And we certainly don’t need to win. All we need to do is love and serve one another.

Our good God, help us to be awake every day to the many subtle ways these temptations seek to draw us into our little selves, our false selves. Our egos can be so fragile and defensive. Help us to find our identity in you. May we know in the depths of our soul that we are loved with an eternal love, so that we will not need the applause and approval of others. May the only power we seek be the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of love that embraces everyone. Help us to become who we already are. Amen. 


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