Sermon: Into the Wilderness

Sunday 5 March 2017
The First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

Once again we come to the season of Lent. Once again we follow Jesus into the wilderness.  Once again we walk alongside him for forty days and forty nights. Once again with him we fast and pray.

The wilderness is not an unfamiliar place in the stories of the bible. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before they came to the promised land. David fled into the wilderness to hide from King Saul. Elijah ran in despair into the wilderness, only to have a mystical experience of the living God. John baptized and preached in the wilderness. And now Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

But what is this wilderness? And what is its significance to the story of Jesus, or to our stories today?

Some English translations of the Bible tell us that Jesus went into the desert, but wilderness is probably a better word to use. We’re not talking about a barren, sand drenched landscape from Lawrence of Arabia. The wilderness includes any area that is outside of human control, any land that is uncultivated, unfenced, and is open to the forces of nature.

The wilderness is certainly inhospitable. It is usually dry, with little vegetation. There are wild animals to contend with. It is also a hiding place for fugitives, so going into the wilderness one risks danger of attack. Dying of thirst or starvation are real possibilities.

The wilderness represents the forces of chaos. It cannot be controlled by humanity. It acts according to its own laws and timetables. It is a place of danger, a place of desolation, a place of unpredictability. It is sometimes described as being inhabited by demons and other supernatural creatures. And it is sometimes considered to be in opposition to God, a chaotic force that God has to continually beat back and hem in in order to maintain order in the world.

On the other hand, the wilderness can be a place to meet God. The newly-freed Hebrew slaves fled Egypt and met God on Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness, where Moses received the law, and they were fed from God’s hand in the wilderness with manna: bread from heaven. The prophets were often going into the wilderness and meeting God, like when Elijah heard God in the “still, small voice.” And many people came to hear John the Baptist preach in the wilderness, and were convicted and repented of their sin.

The wilderness is a place of fear, of danger, of loneliness, of desolation. But it is also a place of possibility, a place of discernment, and a place to meet God.

And that is the wilderness that Jesus enters. Forty days. Forty nights. Fasting and praying. And then the devil comes to test him, to tempt him. To see if he really is the Son of God, if he really is ready to be the Savior, if he really has what it takes to be the Messiah.

Matthew tells us that it was a three-part test. First, the test of bread. The devil encourages Jesus to ease his own physical hunger by turning stones into bread. You can do it, can’t you? Aren’t you the Son of God?

But Jesus doesn’t give in. He knows that he isn’t the Son of God in order to fulfill himself. He is the Son of God in order to fulfill God’s will and in order to bring God’s salvation to humanity. And he proves himself as a good son by using God’s own words from scripture, “People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

The second test: the test of fame. Throw yourself down from the temple. If you really are the Son of God, then the angels will come and catch you, and everyone will know who you are. Everyone will recognize you as the Son of God. Because, you are the Son of God, aren’t you? Or are you afraid they won’t catch you?

But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He knows that being the Son of God isn’t about showing off, it isn’t about making a flashy spectacle of himself. No, being the Son of God is about bringing people to God, it’s about being a humble, suffering servant. And he proves himself to be a faithful Son by using his Father’s words from scripture, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”

Well, now the devil is in trouble. He’s tried appealing to Jesus’s physical needs, but Jesus doesn’t give in. He’s tried appealing to Jesus’ ego, but Jesus doesn’t fall for it. And he’s tried calling Jesus a chicken. If you really were the Son of God, you could do it. What are you afraid of? But Jesus does not fail.

So the devil tries one last test: the test of power. Look, Jesus: I am the prince of this world. I have authority over all of the nations. You know that it’s true. But look, I will give my authority to you. You can have control over all of the nations of the world. Isn’t that what you want? Just think of all the good you could do. And all that you have to do in return is acknowledge me as your benefactor. That’s all.

But Jesus will not give in. He knows that being the Son of God is not about flexing his own political muscles, and it is not about accumulating power for himself. Being the Son of God is about working for God’s kingdom, about bringing people into the fold of God. And he proves himself to be a loyal Son by using his Father’s own words in scripture: “Satan, get lost! Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

That’s what the wilderness was like for Jesus. It was about proving himself worthy and ready to do the work of the Son of God. And he proved himself wonderfully.

But what does the wilderness look like for us? What is it like for you and for me? What dangers and temptations lie in wait for us? And what is it that God is calling us to?

As we make our wilderness journey together in these forty days and forty nights of Lent, let us keep our ears and our eyes open to the messages that surround us. Let us keep our ears and our eyes open. Some of those messages will tempt us, will try to draw us away from God’s path, will try to distract us from God’s mission for us. Those voices are so prevalent in our culture.

If you are a child of God, don’t you deserve to treat yourself? Don’t you deserve to pamper yourself? Why don’t you buy this product? Why don’t you wear this clothing? Why don’t you drink this beverage? Why don’t you invest in this stock? You deserve it. It will make you happy. Why don’t you, if you are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you hate your neighbor. After all, you are better than them, aren’t you? You are chosen by God.  You are blessed, aren’t you? You live in the most powerful, the most affluent nation in the world. It’s because God has chosen you. Shouldn’t you take advantage of that blessing? Shouldn’t you get your way in the world? Shouldn’t you let the rest of world know that you are the chosen ones, if you are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you take pride in your salvation? After all, you are the ones who will receive the eternal reward. You are the one’s who will receive the promises of Christ, aren’t you?  It’s not those other people. It’s not those other religions, not those other cultures, not those people that don’t look like you and don’t speak your language. Why not let them know that you are the elect, if you really are a child of God?

If you are a child of God, why don’t you just sit back and relax? After all, Jesus has done everything for you and ensured your salvation. Shouldn’t you just enjoy it? Shouldn’t you just wait idly for your promised reward, if you are a child of God?

But there are other voices in the wilderness, voices that lead us on into God’s path. Voices that say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Voices that say, “I have come to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, healing to the sick, to set the prisoners free and preach good news to the poor.” Voices that say, “Whatever you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.”

So as we take this wilderness journey, let us be careful which voices we listen to. Because we know that being a child of God is not about buying every new thing that promises to make us happy. Being a child of God is not about flaunting our power, it’s not about basking in our privilege. And being a child of God is not about sitting idly by waiting for our glory in the sky by and by.

No, being a child of God is about lifting each other up and sharing one another’s burdens. Being a child of God is about loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us. Being a child of God is about feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, clothing the naked, and setting the oppressed free.

As we walk this wilderness road together, let us remember that. Let us remember who we are, and whose we are. We are God’s children, and we belong to God. So let us live lives worthy and fitting of those who is blest to be called beloved children of God, following the one who came to share our burdens in order to set us free, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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