1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
A woman returned home from shopping one day with a very expensive dress, a dress that she knew very well she could not afford. Her husband asked her, “Well if you knew that we couldn’t afford that dress, then why did you buy it?”
The woman replied, “Well, I was trying it on in the store and the devil said to me, ‘I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman than you in that dress. It is magnificent.’”
The husband said to her, “Then why didn’t you follow Jesus’ example and say ‘Get behind me Satan!’?”
“I did,” said the woman. “He told me that it looked great from that angle as well.”
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. I personally did not grow up in a faith tradition that observed Lent, and I assume that many of you did not either. So it is always good to look at what this season is all about. Lent is a word that is possibly from a German word that means “spring”. We celebrate Lent each year as the time leading up to Easter Sunday, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a period of 40 days, not including Sundays, which are considered mini-Easters.
Why forty? Forty is a common number throughout the Bible. We find in the Old Testament that Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days, conversing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments, Elijah fasted and traveled for forty days to arrive at the same mountain, only this time it is called Horeb. We read that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. And in today’s scripture, we find Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days.
Many faith traditions encourage their members to fast or abstain in some way during the forty days of Lent as a way to connect with God. This seems to be the reason Jesus fasted in the wilderness as well. He freed up time with God by not eating and not speaking to other people; just escaping from all of the hustle and the bustle of the world to be with God. So for us today, if you choose to fast for one day each week, or if you give up television for Lent, you are to fill that time with prayer, scripture reading, or just being in God’s presence.
Now the reason that many of us did not grow up observing Lent is because there is no mandate in the Bible saying that we must do this. And during the Protestant Reformation some of the reformers decided that since there was no command to observe Lent that they did not need to.
I would agree with those reformers. We do not need to observe Lent. We do not have to give up something for those forty days. But like so much of the Christian tradition, just because we don’t have to do something, doesn’t mean that it isn’t beneficial to do it anyway. So today I want to look at the scripture that seems to be the basis for Lent and I hope to show you that while we may not be obligated to give something up for Lent, God is calling us to give up something for good. God is calling us to give our temptations over to Him.
Our scripture for this morning is a familiar one to many of us, often referred to as The Temptation of Jesus. Our scripture tells us that Jesus has just been baptized and he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. While he was there Jesus fasted, we presume so that he could focus on prayer and connecting with God. And our text tells us that after forty days had passed, Jesus was tempted by the devil.
I believe that temptation can come upon us any where and any time. But as Jesus finds out, sometimes temptation comes upon us the strongest when nobody else is looking. Temptation comes upon us when we are alone and when we know that nobody else will see us doing the thing that we know we should not be doing. Whether it is taking a cookie from the cookie jar or taking an inappropriate look at the newest issue of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, temptation is always the greatest when we know that we will not get caught.
So I find it kind of interesting that Jesus did not avoid being alone in the dessert where he knew that temptation would be the strongest. And I believe that he did this because he also knew that his time alone could provide him an opportunity to connect with God through prayer and to experience a victory over temptation. Jesus knew that experiencing these temptations would make him stronger.
We all have our wilderness places. These are the places where we are most tempted to do the things that we know that we should not do. We would probably all agree that a person with a drinking problem should stay out of a bar, but it is not always that easy to avoid our wilderness places. If gossip is a temptation to you, can you stay out of the beauty salon or off of the telephone? If you tend to have a short temper with a coworker, should you not go to work so that you are not tempted to get mad at him? We cannot always avoid our wilderness places.
Sometimes we may even be called to enter into our wilderness places, just as Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. If we read through Matthew’s account of the Temptation of Jesus, Matthew says that Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted. Perhaps there are times when we are called to face our temptations, to overcome them, so that we can release those temptations and begin living the life that God has called us to live.
Sonya and I have been spending a lot of time indoors that last month or so. Between having a new baby and seeing record-breaking snowfall in the Shenandoah Valley, we have felt called to spend more time in the comfort of our own home. And we have taken to renting television series on DVD so that we can watch them in our free time.
One series that we have been watching recently is called Arrested Development. It is a show about a dysfunctional family that goes from being a well-respected and wealthy family to being financially burdened because of the poor and unethical business practices of the father, George Bluth. I don’t need to get into the entire plot of the series, but in one episode the youngest Bluth son, Buster, is training to go into the Army. But Buster can’t get up the courage to climb and jump over the wall that you always see in the movies during basic training. So Buster asks his older brother Gob to help him to overcome his fear.
After some motivating words from Gob, Buster takes off, running full steam at the climbing wall. He ascends the wall with ease, swings his legs over to the other side, and begins to jump off the wall. But just as Buster is beginning to land on his feet, his brother Gob jumps out from behind the wall and punches Buster right in the stomach. Gob says to Buster, “Next time it won’t be as scary because I won’t be here to punch you.”
I hope that it is obvious that I don’t advocate violence. Please, don’t go punching people in the stomach. That is not the point of my sermon today. The point that I am trying to make is really a bit of an old cliché: That what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
I’m not saying that we need to put ourselves within the reach of temptation at all times. Again, don’t wander into a bar if you have a drinking problem. But if you, like Jesus, are led into your own personal wilderness by God, perhaps God is doing so to make you stronger.
I believe that Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to make him stronger. God was providing a non-violent punch to the stomach of Jesus and saying to him, “After this, you won’t be afraid any more because you will know that you can overcome this temptation.” And many people have debated exactly what these temptations are to Jesus, because most of us don’t see anything wrong with turning stones into bread. These are worthwhile conversations to have, but that is not my plan for this morning. But I want to look at what the devil says to Jesus in verses 3 and 9. He says, “If you are the Son of God…”
Yes, Jesus was tempted with power and prestige and with bread. But he was also tempted to question his own Messianic reality. Remember that just 40 days earlier Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. And upon exiting the water, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove and a voice calls out from the heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But now the devil is questioning Jesus’ sonship, trying to make him question it himself. Perhaps Jesus started to think, Maybe if I just turned this stone into bread or threw myself off of this high tower, then the devil and I would know for sure that I am truly the one. But Jesus did not give in to the devil. He did not give in to temptation, he did not doubt what God had spoken to him only 40 days earlier. And he was stronger because of it and able to live out the calling God had placed upon his life.
So I believe that God leading Jesus into the wilderness by the Holy Sprit was a non-violent punch in the stomach. God said, If you can withstand the doubt that the devil puts in you while secluded in the wilderness where nobody would ever know if you turned stones into bread, then you will be able to withstand the doubt that you will be confronted with over the next three years. And indeed, Jesus was faced with doubt. We read about the doubt of the Pharisees and the High Priest as they doubt who Jesus was. One of Jesus’ closest companions, Thomas, was nicknamed the doubter because he didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. We even find at one point Jesus’ mother and brothers coming to him, questioning his methods, perhaps questioning his thinking. Jesus was surrounded by doubters and naysayers. But by overcoming this temptation to doubt his Messianic identity in the wilderness, Jesus is able to hear God saying, “You are my Beloved Son, and now you will never forget it.”
I believe that God knows what we are tempted by or tempted with. And I believe that we can learn to overcome those temptations by not avoiding our wilderness places, but entering into them when God calls us to do so. Again, I emphasize that Jesus was led by the Spirit into his wilderness, and that for us to enter into our personal wilderness without that prompting may only lead us to fail and give in to that temptation. But I know that I have been called to enter into certain wildernesses within my life.
One area that I find to be a wilderness for me is competition. I don’t find myself as competitive in athletics as I used to. Now I am okay if I lose a game of basketball every now and then. But I actually find myself being competitive with other pastors and other churches. We had our monthly district pastors’ lunch this past Thursday, and we take time for everyone to go around and share about what is going on in our congregations. One of the pastors from a larger church shared how proud he is of his congregation’s effort in bringing completed relief kits for Haiti to the church. He said that his congregation had brought in eleven relief kits. So what do you think was one of the first things I did when I came into the office the next day? I counted our relief kits to see how many we had. And we had eleven as well. Ha! We maybe don’t have more than you, but we have more per capita than you!
Now I don’t necessarily think that competition like this is a bad thing. A friendly competition between churches can really help to drive relief efforts like this. The problem is when the focus goes from being on glorifying God through our work to glorifying ourselves through our work. The problem comes when we seek to outdo one another to receive praise. And if we were to read further in Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 22 just after Jesus finishes giving the disciples the instructions for communion, we find them discussing among themselves who is the greatest. I have to think of Jesus there, shaking his head, saying, “Did you miss that entire footwashing thing we just did here?” And just like the disciples, I am a slow learner.
As I read through the Staunton newspaper Friday morning, I was excited to see that there was an article about the relief kit assembly that is being done in our district by the churches of our district. I read the article and I noticed something that made me a little uncomfortable. Every since this project began, it was intended to be a district event. The Southern District of Virginia Mennonite Conference was going to collect materials for and assemble 1,400 relief kits for Haiti. And Fishersville would be the church that was heading up the efforts.
But when I read the article, I noticed that Fishersville was mentioned, not once, not twice, but five times. None of the other churches participating were mentioned at all. And I don’t blame Fishersville for this, but the newspaper reporter only spoke with people from Fishersville and it was headed up by a member of Fishersville, and Fishersville got great publicity for doing this. But what about the other six churches that contributed? Where was our credit?
Later that morning, I was preparing for this sermon and I read a quote that said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I realized that my competitive nature and the desire to do the most good was nothing less than sinful. I was so worried about the bigger churches overshadowing what we are doing that I lost sight of the bigger picture. Does it matter who gets credit for all of the relief work that is being poured into Haiti? Yes, it does. God should get the credit. Not me, not Staunton Mennonite, but God.
In a satirical way I began to sing an old hymn, but making one prideful change. I began singing to myself the song To God be the Glory, but I replaced the word God with my own name. To Kevin be the glory, great things he has done! What a joke. This competition between me and the other churches caused me to lose focus on our purpose. And I felt almost sick to my stomach when I realized what I was experiencing. It felt like a punch to the stomach and God was saying, “Now I want you to continue to work with other pastors and other churches and overcome this temptation.”
So if I am tempted to get credit or glory when working to fulfill God’s mission to the world, should I avoid any situation where I might be tempted to seek the attention? No. I believe that God is calling me into that wilderness where competition can overtake the main purpose so that I can overcome that temptation and be stronger because of it. Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness and there he was tempted by the devil. Matthew chapter four says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. We are not always called to avoid temptation. Sometimes we are called to confront our temptation head on. And in doing so, we can better do the things that the Lord is calling us to.