Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2018
“Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.”
IN THE JUDEAN TERRITORIES lies a large wilderness, dry most of the year, where spring grass withers under the blast of sunlight, and wadis that run in the winter with water, come to dust as the heat rises. This wilderness is a jumble of rocky cliffs and channels like broken teeth—a man could get lost in there. In fact, when David was on the run from King Saul, it was there that he sought refuge among the scorpions and snakes and bat caves. It was there also that Jeremiah hid his cloak, and where Herod built Masada, the last fortress for the Jews after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. John the Baptist preached in that wilderness and ate his locusts and wild honey, dressing himself in the skins of its native camels, keeping a close watch for jackals.
It was out onto that rugged landscape that the Son of God set His feet during His 40 days’ fast, and there He faced the enemy of us all. What was He seeking out there? Why leave the comforts of the city, the companionship of people, and source of food? What could a perfect man gain by denying Himself a roof over His head and creature comforts?
Why do we go camping? What draw has the wilderness got for us?
In some ways, Jesus’ reason for fasting in that desert place was very different from why we choose a picturesque spot in the Sierras to pitch our tent and go fishing. But both He and we have one common reason for such self denial: we need to know what we are made of. When a man spends all his days and nights in a room, having meals served in bed, he is considered mentally ill, clinically depressed or agoraphobic. But although a man who will go alone into the wilderness may be called reckless, his act is certainly not that of a madman.
For it was out in the wild that man was created. Out of that hard ground God formed the shape of a man, then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living soul. Only in the next verse does God fashion a garden in the East and calls it Eden, and at last He places the man in it. And only after Adam has lived alone, and eaten opulent fruit, and named animals that came to his call, God said it wasn’t good for him to be alone, and Eve was made, in the garden.
Something in a man calls to him from the wilderness. We feel it. We rejoice to see boney rocks and barrenness that often frightens or alienates the city born Scheherazades, the more civilized among us. Give me a granite basin, tiny wildflowers and water fresh off the glacier and I feel something in me call it ‘home.’
Garrison Keillor once made an inventory of useful things that he did not know how to do, like to cut down a large tree, hunt wild game and eat it, live out in the wild and survive. Instead, he had learned how to make coffee and operate a fax machine. Who do we admire in our heart of hearts? A scholar or someone who sets out to discover the North Pole?
John Eldredge is one of my favorite Christian writers, and his book, Wild at Heart, gave me back the right to be a human male and feel good about it. He writes that:
“To recover his heart’s desire a man needs to get away from the noise and distraction of his daily life for time with his own soul. He needs to head into the wilderness, to silence and solitude.”
“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, or microwavable.”
“There is something else I am after, out here in the wild. I am searching for an even more elusive prey . . . something that can only be found through the help of wilderness. I am looking for my heart.”
Jesus received the Holy Spirit in a vision of white light descending from above as the waters of the Jordan streamed off of Him and He rose up the riverbank. As John declared Him, “The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” Jesus heard the Spirit urging Him to keep walking, to go out on the desert and to meet His Father out there. Moreover, He was to meet the enemy. In the contest that would ensue, He would come to know more about Himself.
Think of it. The eternal Son of God, always being begotten of the Eternal Father, out of the very essence of God the Father, sharing all His attributes, co-creator of an immense universe, of living creatures, of human males and females, now comes for a brief life as one of them. It is as one of them with its frailty and breakable bones, its need for constant feeding, shelter, company, society—it is as one of these, the Son of God must go reckon with Himself on the desert and see just what He is made of. He’s lived among His family and His Nazareth home for 30 years. Now He will spend 40 days in nobody’s presence except God’s, and eat nothing but the Spirit’s strength. And finally His body, imagining food and too weak to walk far, or to do much of anything, He would test His spirit against the master of deceit.
A test is to see what you know and also what you don’t know. It’s fine to ace a test and get a 100. A+ is always a good grade. But there is one thing you don’t know after you’ve done a flawless job: you don’t know how much you don’t know. There are a lot of quizzes on the Internet and I like to test myself. I get some wrong sometimes, but I often score 100%. Then I see most of my friends post 100s online as well, and though I don’t feel bad, I haven’t really tested myself to my own breaking point.
A slump test is to pour a small cone of a certain concrete batch that is then cured to 28 days hardness, then set on a giant pneumatic press and pushed down until it explodes. At that point, you know the number of pounds it will take, and you know if that concrete is strong enough. You test it by destroying it.
Jesus was tested almost to that point. And it was at His weakest moment that the enemy chose to come in for the kill. Jesus was sitting, feeling His hunger, seeing He was only hours away from finishing His trial, but wondering perhaps how He would have the strength to walk back to the city and get fed. A voice whispered and He must have jumped at hearing it.
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”
It was more than a selfish thought. Jesus was God: that much He knew. He had powers none of us regular humans have thought of. He was God… or was He? He must have entertained doubts, His human side sensing and imposing its limits on the dual-natured, but single Person of Christ. Could He come through? Was this life He was to lead possible, even for Him? He was to save humanity, get enough people with Him to start a movement that would survive Him, and go out into the world with… with what? Bread would be nice. Many people were starving. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”
The flesh was weak in Christ. He knew that now. It would make Him wiser as others failed around Him. But the Spirit rose up in Him and He had His answer: “Scripture says, ‘A person cannot live on bread alone but on every word that come from God.’” It was a multi-leveled response and Jesus knew, as did the devil, that the word that God had spoken was also the hungry man who was speaking it.
“Then the devil took him into the holy city and had him stand on the highest part of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, jump! Scripture says, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you. They will carry you in their hands so that you never hit your foot against a rock.’”
Satan was telling Jesus he knew scripture as well. And here was one promise in God’s word that the Son of promise would not be hurt. Jesus looked beneath Him as hundreds of His fellow countrymen milled about, seeking God, wanting Messiah to come, finding it hard to live the Law of Moses sufficiently for their salvation. All He had to do was a grand miracle here, and the problem of getting a following was accomplished.
No deal. Jesus replied, “Again, Scripture says, ‘Never tempt the Lord your God.’” It’s one thing to know scripture. But seldom does God tell us to put Him to the test. We rely on Him to fulfill His promises, but we don’t throw ourselves off pinnacles, daring God to catch us. And besides, what were they doing in the city? Back out into the wild they went.
The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms in the world and their glory. It must have been a fantastic sight, because all the world’s population, for all time, of every nation, every ethnicity, kingdoms rising and falling, armies, palaces, space exploration, silver cities glistening, great bridges, naval fleets, the pride and glory of man stood before His wondering eyes: His people, those He loved and would die for, that He had created, for whom the Father had sent Him to be born…
“I will give you all this if you will bow down and worship me.” The voice jarred Jesus back from the vision. At what cost? Have them all, but with a price like that? Satan had overplayed his hand. “Be gone, Satan! Scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came to take care of him.” Matthew 4:3-11
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat.”
Eldredge in Wild at Heart again wrote: “The most dangerous man on earth is the man who has reckoned with his own death. All men die; few men ever really live.” “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, because what the world needs are men who have come alive.”
We are ‘citified’ men, guys with cellphones in their hands, walking sidewalks face down. A planet filled with wonder at our feet, but we would often rather tamely watch it on TV. We are not tested to the breaking point, not even to the point of getting really hungry, or pulling a muscle, or getting sunburn, or risking a little refined sugar, or a muffin that isn’t gluten-free. We can run a fax machine, but can we run an Olympic-style event called a human life? What is our life?
I find that, at 68 years and counting, I don’t want the rest of my life just to be spent in ease and comfort. I need some wilderness. I must test myself again, see what I’m made of, do something memorable, something lasting while I still draw breath, that breath of life God gave us all in the wild.
St. Paul may have grown up a scholar, a man of letters, a citizen of Rome, but he set out to prove something and he faced the natural wild and the wilder hostility of men set against His Gospel. “We have endured many things: suffering, distress, anxiety, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, and lack of food.” But that was not his aim. Through his sacrifices, Paul knew that people could see his followers’ “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit’s presence, our sincere love, truthfulness, and the presence of God’s power… We are praised and dishonored, as we are slandered and honored… we are treated as dishonest although we are honest, as dying although we go on living. People think we’re beggars although we make many rich, that we have nothing although—in truth—we possess everything.” 1 Cor 6 GWT
Paul’s got it. He’s tested himself beyond breaking. He knows his own power and the power of God. Nothing can frighten such a man. What can we do? Run a fax machine? I think we are made of sterner stuff than that. And I’m not just speaking to men. But it is for men to lead out in courage, and for women then to say, “Finally! We’ve found the real men and we can join them in their adventure!”
We have years before us. How will those years be spent? Time is a precious commodity, and we too often foolishly waste it. God’s idea of your life would make a great movie, and we’d all like to see it. The script is in His hands. Are you ready for your part in this epic, O leading man and leading woman?
Are you up to it? Test yourself.
It is Lent. Your wilderness is before you.