The Devil’s Hunger Games: Sermon by Keith, 3.17.13, Lent 5, 40-Day Journeys

Texts: Mark 1:9-15, Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-15

Some of you may remember my sermon a few months ago were I told a story about a friend from Alaska who was ‘over the top’ in following Jesus.  If you recall, Keith read the scripture about giving all that you have away and following Jesus.   So, he left all his possessions in his car and walked away from it all naked in January in Alaska.  Keith lived, of course, because I have another Keith story to tell you.

We were back up in Alaska to complete some of the requirements to become pastors when we had dinner with Keith’s family. Now, he believes that the reason for scripture is so we can model our life after Jesus.  I can agree with that, up to a point.  He takes it to an extreme, if you couldn’t guess.  Keith had just finished a wilderness experience of prayer and fasting.  He had decided to do a fast in the wilderness because Jesus did a fast in the wilderness.  So, here he was at his dinner table, talking about his experience, the hunger, the visions he had, and how he had faced up to the temptations that had been put before him.  And as Keith finished his story, he says, “And on the 38th day, I came off of the mountain.”  “What do you mean, 38 days?  Jesus was in the wilderness for 40.”  “Oh, I didn’t want to upstage Jesus, so I only planned on being out for 38 days.”  I sat there, shaking my head thinking, “Man, I think you missed the point.”

So, what is the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness?  Now, I’ve heard people say that Jesus couldn’t really be tempted–he was God, after all.  But we cannot forget that besides being fully divine, he was also fully human.  I have to believe that because of his humanity, he could be tempted, he was capable of giving into these temptations and that he faced true trials, both in the wilderness and during his ministry.  For me, this is one of the reasons he is my Savior, and not just some 33 year experiment that God decided to try.   But it is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be fully  human and live into God’s divine will for us and his creation.

First, Luke assures us that that Jesus is not alone and separated from God’s love as the Holy Spirit fills him and is with him at both the beginning and the ending of this time.  I had to include Mark’s short reading of this experience because of how the Spirit drove or thrust Jesus into the wilderness.  I recently heard a quote about the Holy Spirit that went something like this, “Don’t expect the Holy Spirit to show up and sit quietly in back row.”  Where the Spirit it, there is movement and action.  I can picture the Spirit getting behind Jesus and shoving him into the wilderness.

So, I see this time for Jesus as a time of sorting after his experience of his baptism.  It’s not like a vision quest in some cultures where one goes out to find one’s identity and name.  His identity was found in his baptism.  What did that experience that happened in his baptism mean for his future?  It’s apt that this time of reflection, fasting and prayer happens in the wilderness, a place where both Moses and Elijah began their ministries as people of God.  And it is here that he begins that process of discernment of what it means for him to be the Beloved, the Son of God.  How will he live into God’s will?

And it’s also apt that this is where the temptations come in.  Again, I’ve heard people discount this story because they don’t believe there is a devil.  Whether you do or not, take the temptations that Jesus faced seriously.  If we are able to trivialize what happened to Jesus, we might be tempted to trivialize the temptations we face.  Temptations and trials were part of Jesus’ every day life, and they are a part of our real daily lives.  They are not theoretical, hypothetical, nor are they imaginary.  So whether you see them coming from some outside force or a character with horns or from somewhere deep in the psyche, they are to be taken seriously for the damage they can cause, even if they appear good.

And that is what the devil tempts Jesus with.  From the outside, the temptation don’t appear all that bad.  The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to do obviously bad things.  And these temptations are not the kind of temptations for something desirable but not good for him.  The devil didn’t tell Jesus to make the rock into an angel food cake with sprinkles and cherry on top, but just bread to satisfy his hunger.  These temptations are placed before Jesus to see whether even good things can pull him away from following God’s will.

First, turn a stone into a loaf of bread.  Jesus is famished.  But by implication, if he can do that, he can feed everyone.  Why not alleviate the hunger of Israel?  And changing the rocks to bread also has a political implication.  The Roman Caesars would have wagons full of bread go through the streets of the larger cities handing out bread to the poor.  I remember reading in my history books of one Caesar saying that to keep the poor from uprising was to keep them fed and entertained.  The one who kept them fed had the keys to empire.

Second, you can rule all the kingdoms of the world if you just worship me.   Remember that most of the known world in Luke’s day was under the heavy-handed control of the Roman Empire.   The Roman peace came and was enforced with violence and oppression.  Wouldn’t a regime change with Jesus on the throne be for the world’s good?

And with the third temptation, Jesus is whisked away to the top the temple by the devil where he quotes scripture that God will protect the righteous.  Isn’t the temple is the place where the most righteous–the priests–carry out their work?  But, again, weren’t they just working hand-in-hand with the political leaders at the detriment of the people, especially the poorest?  “Throw yourself down and show the world your righteousness!  This will prove you are the Son of God and they will all see it!  They will truly know you are the Son of God!”

Do you see what each of these ‘good’ temptations are attempting to do?  They are attempting to put Jesus at the center of things, play into his ego, and elevate the self.   And Jesus says no to each and every one.  No, bread is not enough to define my mission and who I follow.  No, I cannot worship you, for worship belongs only to God.  And No, I will not test God.  Where the temptations attempted to put the focus on Jesus, Jesus puts the focus on God and God’s will.  And we see how this plays out in his life and ministry.  Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he feeds the hungry in the feeding of the 5000.  He does this not so people believe in him, but in the one who sent him.  He refused political power, but preached about God’s kingdom of love and grace that can be experienced now and cannot be crushed by the world’s powers.  Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross to show the world that God’s will for life is greater than any power that may attempt to control or destroy it.

So, what’s the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness for us?  We take temptation seriously.  We do not downplay them; we do not try to justify them.  I don’t know how many times I have read in a Dear Abby column the long list of reasons someone is having an affair.  Justifying temptations won’t take away the pain and damage that happen when we succumb to our pride, our greed, our lust, our power, and even our self-deprecation.

But mostly we take seriously the temptations in our lives because we take even more serious the new identity we find in our baptism:  Beloved Child of God.  God now claims us as we claim God.   The Holy Spirit guides us everyday as we learn to walk in God’s will.  We are transformed from people with individual wants and desires to disciples eagerly praying and discerning God’s will.  Our questions change from “God, what is your will for me?” and “What will the church do for me?” From one way, those look like good questions, but do you see who they are about?  (point at self) The questions change to “God, what is your will?”  and “God, what is your Spirit up to?”  Those questions are about God and keeping God in the center of everything.  When we step out of the way, when we stop learning to depend upon ourselves, we learn to depend on God, and we will find that is when God will truly use us.

Now, we will still mess up and get in God’s way, and I share that from experience, even when I thought I was doing good.  But I also believe that the strength of God must be taken seriously in our lives, that God’s strength to resist temptation is not imaginary and the resources of God are not hypothetical theological dreams.  God does empower us with the Holy Spirit, the divine Word living inside and with us so that we can resist and overcome the real temptations in our lives and truly live into and follow the Divine will.  I’ve learned to ask a simple question, “How is God glorified in this?”  If I can’t see how, usually my will, my wants, and my desires have gotten in the way of God’s will.

Friends, the Lenten journey is a time to be intentional and receptive to the grace and love of God, but also to a time to receptive to discerning God’s will.  It takes time, it takes prayer, and it may even take a little fasting to learn to get ourselves out of God’s way.   But along the way, we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness but also through the wilderness.  Amen.

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“What Are You Doing Here?” Sermon by Keith, 3.3.13, Lent 3, 40-Day Journeys Elijah

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39; 1 Kings 19:1-18

I’ll have to admit, it is easy to put words in the mouth and heads of Biblical characters, especially when they react in a way that we don’t think they should.  Now, this isn’t a bad thing, to use your imagination.  We all do, and I’m guessing you had a picture in your mind of this encounter with Elijah and God on the holy mountain.  We use our imagination to fill in the gaps and answer the questions that come to mind as we read.   I had to do that this week, to help me answer the question God asked Elijah, because I wondered why he would be afraid and flee Israel after such an incredible display of God’s power.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

(Brief pause with shoulder shrug, looking up.)  “God, you know why I’m here.  You just had this awesome display of might that showed you truly are the one and only true God.  The fire from heaven should have convinced all that were watching.  But they did nothing to her.   Jezebel still sits on the throne, and the people fear her more than they fear you.  In the moment they could have done something about her, they failed to act.  I knew what her so-called prophets were capable of, and that was nothing, they all saw that.  But I know what she is capable of; I’ve seen what she has done to the others, the murderous plots she hatched.  I stood alone at that moment, afraid I would have to contend with her by myself, so I fled, traveling hundreds of miles to get here.   Even with your awesome display of power, when they could have fully turned to you and run her out of Israel, they let their fear get in the way.  I’m the only one left who truly believes in you, and those that don’t, they seek my life.”

“Stand on the mountain,” says God, “for I am about to pass by.”  Then comes the powerful wind, strong enough to crack rock.  But God was not in the wind.  After that an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  And then an all consuming fire spread over the mountain, but God would not be found in the fire.  And then silence.  I had the choir members read different versions of that phrase this morning because it is a hard passage to translate, to get to the deep meaning of Hebrew.  The best we can do with the Hebrew is to combine a whisper, a silence, and a stillness with a dash of thinness and smallness.  Alan Jackson in his song, “Song for the Life” reflects on how he has learned to listen for a sound like the sun going down.  That image helps me grasp what this sound might have been like.

Elijah had already had an encounter with God in the fire from heaven that shook the foundation of the earth on Mount Carmel when Elijah had overthrown the false prophets.  He had also seen God at work when God opened the heavens and the wind and rain came thick on the land that had been stricken by drought.  Now God had to get Elijah’s attention with silence.  Elijah covers his face and steps out of the cave to encounter God.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here?”  Why is it you are here, in this sanctuary, this morning?  Are you here because this is what you feel is expected of you?  Are you are here because this is what your family always did Sunday morning, an unwritten obligation you feel you have toward God? Are you here because you ‘should’ be here, because you fear that there may be guilt involved if you don’t?  Or maybe the fear comes from feeling that if you weren’t here, you might not please God.  Maybe for you coming to church is part of a to-do list of getting on God’s good side, thinking that if you do the right things for God, maybe God will do the right things for you.  “What are you doing here?” Or, are you here to have a personal encounter with the living God of scripture?

That’s who Elijah meets that day on the mountain.  The personal, living, real God revealed in scripture comes to Elijah.  Here, we find God revealing himself not by the manipulation of natural forces, even though those forces are set into turmoil by God’s appearance, but by the word, the spoken word.

That word is calm, comprehensible, personal, and purposeful.  The first two times God speaks to Elijah, God asks him why he is there.  The third time, God reaffirms Elijah’s call as a prophet, sending him to Damascus, where he will anoint a new king.  God tells Elijah to get back to work.  Is Elijah still frustrated?  Probably.  But God will not let him give into his frustration and fear and will not let him hide from his call.  God has called him to be a prophet, to speak God’s word.

And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone in living out that calling.  First and foremost, God is with him.  God is a personal God who does not abandon Elijah, no matter what forces he must face.  But also God reveals there are still 7000 who have not bowed to the false gods that Jezebel brought to Israel.  God’s call on Elijah is both personal and communal.  From this remote encounter with God will come major changing events for Elijah and the people of Israel.   If we were to read on, we come to the calling of Elisha, Elijah’s successor, and the eventual demise of Jezebel.

“What are you doing here?” First and foremost, we are here to have an encounter with the living God who enters into history and lays claim to each of us so we can discern God’s purpose for our lives.  The sound of sheer silence is not just another way of talking about seeking peace and getting centered in the midst of life’s pressure.  It is about hearing the word of God who speaks to us plainly and clearly through his Word in scripture by the Holy Spirit.  It is about reaching out to a personal God who is reaching for us to save us and walk with us and calling us as his own.  And that same God is molding us and shaping us as individuals so we can live into the purpose God created us to be and do.  And there is no saying, “I’ve done my time” or “I am afraid to try.”  You cannot hide from your calling, and you cannot run from it, because God will remind you of it, even if he uses the intensity of silence to get your attention.

We not only encounter God here as individuals; we encounter him in the community of faith.   God works within and through this community to fulfill his purposes.  God does work in history through singular, jaw dropping events like what happen on top of Mt.Carmel when fire rained down on the sacrifice.  But, God also works in time and in the course of history through the interworking of many called individuals who are part of the community.  God’s call doesn’t rest on just a spectacular few.  Everyone is significant in God’s redeeming work in history.  As one commentator paraphrases George Eliot, “the greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives,” like the 7000 people quietly going about their lives in resistance to the false gods of Jezebel.  There is no ignoring the least of these, as God may have the biggest plans for them.

And we are here to be sent.  Elijah didn’t stay on the mountain; he went and did what he was called to do.  And he didn’t leave God’s presence; God went with him and before him.  Sometimes I think we feel that this is God’s house and this is the only place we will experience him.  Individually and as a community, we are called to go out into the world and share the grace and love that God has shared with us.  The kingdom that God wants us to experience and share exists out there.  That is where we live into our calling.  God puts the words into our mouths to share with a broken world that needs to hear about his love and grace they can experience in Christ.  It is God who puts the fire in our hearts that leads to our call.  The way Fredrick Buechner puts it, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Friends, what are you doing here?  I cannot answer that question for you.  But I do know God has a purpose for you and a purpose for us.  You may need to spend some time listening in the silence for that still small voice of God.  Lent is a time to take a quiet journey to hear God’s call upon and purpose for your life.  If you have been waiting for that earthquake, that fire from heaven, or that voice to come booming across the valley in the wind to tell you who you should be and what you should do, stop and consider the silence. Pray and listen.   The living God is calling you.  Amen.