"Serve only him"-Sermon for Lent 1, Matthew 4:1-11:
In our familiar Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus in the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil three times. And, I say familiar, for Jesus’ 40-day and 40-night wilderness adventure is our Gospel reading each and every year on this…the first Sunday of Lent. And, as you likely know, these 40 days take place at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. So, we are still about 3 years from the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus has just been baptized by John in the River Jordan, but, before venturing out on his healing, teaching and love-spreading mission, again, he heads into the wilderness for some time alone. So why…why does Jesus’ ministry begin in this particular way? Why does he not just launch out post baptism, form his ministry team (aka the disciples), and get his work of sharing the life-altering love of God going just as soon as possible. The world surely needs it…needs him…ASAP. So, why the wilderness first…fasting, all alone, and utterly vulnerable.
Well, perhaps, as Matthew notes, the purpose was fundamentally about the temptations. Or more accurately, facing and finding the resolve within himself to overcome those temptations. I like to sum up the three temptations set before Jesus by the devil as material comfort, fame and power. Tempting indeed! There are many in our world who make the pursuit of each, or some combination thereof, as their life-long purpose for living. And, the motivation for such pursuits are legion…a search for meaning and relevance…a desire for autonomy and some semblance of control…a need to pump up the ego to combat self-doubt or deep seeded insecurity. Or, perhaps at the most basic level, the desire for wealth, fame and power is rooted in a desire for safety and security. A bank balance that can weather any economic storm, being worshipped and adored, and the power to control and manipulate one’s immediate environment and the people in it…may to some degree protect a person and maybe even those they love from some, if not all, of the uncertainties in life. And, in a world so full of uncertainties, it is at least understandable that one would desire the protections that these three temptations represent. And so, Jesus is facing the question of where he will seek his own meaning and relevance, his own autonomy and ability to control his environment…determine his own safety and security. So, what will Jesus choose…where will he place his faith?
Well, as Matthew tells us, even in the weakened state that Jesus finds himself in when facing his own actual moment of temptation…Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses to place his faith in God alone. And that is ultimately why I believe Jesus is in the wilderness in the first place…to choose God. Yes, in overcoming these temptations, Jesus’ moral character is tested and affirmed. He leaves the wilderness knowing something of his strength, his power of perseverance, his ability to suffer and still prevail. I imagine Jesus leaves the wilderness knowing a whole lot about himself…what he can overcome and endure. All of which will empower all that still lies ahead of him…three years on the road…entering into all the heartbreak and disease that our world can muster and leaving behind healing and hope. Three years of good, Godly, hard and life-giving work that doesn’t end in retirement…but at the cross.
But, friends, for all that Jesus must have learned about himself in the wilderness, about his character and strength…and all the confidence that overcoming those temptations must have provided for all the good and hard work that would follow, I still think that Jesus’ time in the wilderness was about a more fundamental choice, which was, again, where he would place his faith. Would he choose to believe in God…to place his life in its entirety in the hands of God…even in the midst of all the uncertainties he would face…all the death and disease he would stand in the very middle of…even in a world profoundly in love with wealth, fame and power…and, most especially, even…like as he hung dying on the cross alone…when God doesn’t seem to be there at all. It was this question that Jesus had to answer first…in the wilderness moment of his life…at the beginning…before anything that followed would become possible.
And, friends, I think the same is true for us. And, perhaps, Lent, our seasonal time of wandering in the wilderness, is a chance to answer, whether for the first time or the thousandth, the fundamental question of whether or not we believe in God…whether or not we will place our own lives in the hands of God…in the midst of our uncertainties…as we struggle with and face the reality of all the suffering in the world…when we feel rent asunder by the principalities and powers to which we are subject. In the midst of all of this that could make any reasonable person question the existence of God, do we believe…where will we place our faith?
In his book Real Live Preacher.Com, Gordon Atkinson, an ordained Baptist minister, tells the story of the day he stopped believing in God…the day he turned his back on God and walked away. He was a young minister. He had recently finished seminary and was serving as a hospital chaplain. In the course of his work he met a patient in the hospital named Jenny. Jenny was thirty something…in the prime of her life. She was a wife, a new mother of two little children…and she had breast cancer that was found too late. It was all over her body. The doctors said she was going to die.
And, Jenny had only one request. She said to the young hospital chaplain, “I know I am going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It’s for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.” She then showed the young minister a needlepoint pillow that she was making for her children. Jenny knew that she would not be there for them in this world much longer. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. So, she had this idea that the needlepoint pillow would be a thing her children would cherish…sleep with, snuggle with…she wanted it to be a reminder that some part of her would always be there with them. So, they prayed. They believed. This, after all, was the kind of prayer you could believe in.
A couple of days later the chaplain went to see her only to find the room full of doctors and nurses. The young chaplain said, “I watched her while she died hard. Real hard.” As the young minister shut the door, the last thing he saw was the needlepoint pillow lying on the floor…unfinished. He went on to say, “It’s funny, when your faith finally caves, it goes all at once. You realize you were just a shell held together with hackneyed rituals and desperate hopes. You are not strong. You do not have answers.” He continued, “I looked in the restroom mirror and said, ‘I do not believe in God.’ I knew this was the truth and felt the need to say it out loud.” He concluded, “[Jenny’s death and the shattering of my faith] broke my heart. I grieved in joint and marrow. My reptilian brain cried. I was sad all the way to the bottom.”
Now, even in the midst of our own heartbreak, our own moments of weakness, those times when we feel utterly overwhelmed, you may be thinking, Miles, I believe. I have faith in God. I believe that God loves me. And, I want you to know I do to. But, as Pastor Atkinson vulnerably shares with us, I also believe life can be hard. It is full of suffering and loss…earthquakes, war and violence. We lose jobs, hope, and even those we love…sometimes too soon. And, I want you to know that your doubts in times of crisis of faith are normal, healthy, spiritual and entirely welcome in this church. Jonathan and I know those struggles…and we welcome your doubts and questions…and it is a privilege to struggle and journey alongside you. Further, my experience is that wealth, fame and power, though they can be used for both good and bad, hold no power over the most important things…like life and death…like making meaning and finding purpose in an uncertain and disordered world. But, I believe, by faith alone, that God does…that God does have power over life and death…and that by following God’s leading…meaning and purpose can be discovered and make life entirely worth living.
I am glad to say that the young hospital chaplain’s story continues. Even with a broken heart caused by the loss of both Jenny and his faith, the young chaplain is eventually able to believe in God again. He writes, “I learned some things. I found my way. I prayed the most honest prayer of my life. God, I don’t have great faith, but I can be faithful. My belief in you may be seasonal, but my faithfulness will not. I will follow in the way of Christ. I will act as though my life and the lives of others matter. I will love. I have no greater gift to offer than my life. Take it.” He says further, “That’s it. I pushed all my chips across the table. [I] bet it all. Why? Because the idea that there is a God who cares for us bursts my heart wide open. Because I pushed reason as far as it can go but I wanted to go farther still. Because I wanted to, and…well…I just wanted to.”
Perhaps Lent, this wilderness like time, is an opportunity to stand in front of the mirror and ask ourselves what we want…what we want to believe…what we choose to believe…where we will place our faith. To just begin to resolve, at least for now, this first and most important question…that like for Jesus makes all that follows possible. And, I hope what you find there, like the young chaplain…like me…like Jesus in the wilderness, bursts your heart wide open…the God of love who brought again, out of death, our Lord Jesus Christ…making love and all the good things…and the power to overcome all the bad things…that lie before each of us…possible. Amen.