By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
All of Britt’s and my dogs have been rescues. Most were several months old when we adopted them. But our Naomi, who passed away last summer, was born in a rescue program and we adopted her at 10 weeks old. Having her at such a young age, Naomi’s trust in us was exceptional. Although stubborn at times, she always wanted to be with us and no obstacle could prevent her from getting to her people. She was also an impetuous dog and the combination of exceptional trust and her impetuous behavior nearly had a catastrophic result. When Naomi was probably around two, we went to visit my sister and her family in Johnstown. We took the dogs to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown to walk. It’s a beautiful campus. In the center of it is a big wall, with steps leading to the top of a platform with a panther statue at the top (as in the Pittsburgh Panthers). Naomi was a very athletic and energetic dog and we needed to always keep her mentally and physically stimulated. Britt walked her up the stairs to the top of the platform, about seven feet high. He gave her the “stay” command and walked away back down the stairs. Then, stepping further away, after some delay he hollered, “Naomi, come.” It was both of our assumptions that she would run down the stairs she had climbed up – and the stairs she’d watched Britt descend. But, no; to our utter horror, Naomi shot out over the wall. Why waste time on steps, right? Flying would get her to her people faster. Britt’s and my hearts nearly stopped. It was one of the most dreadful, panicked moments in our lives. We rushed to the wall as she landed, stumbling a bit and skinning her nose, but none the worse for the wear. In hindsight, we should have never engaged in such an exercise. That day, Naomi’s trust in us could have been her death.
This morning we begin our Lenten sermon series, “Table Talk.” Yet, today’s Bible story is not a meal or table story. In fact, we might call it the “un-table” story for it is a story of fasting. But this story, in Matthew’s gospel, in many ways, “sets the table” for all that is to come. Within Matthew’s gospel, this story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness is bookended by the story of his baptism and the inauguration of his public ministry.
It is God’s Spirit that will drive Jesus into the wilderness, but later in the gospel – and in other gospels – Jesus will seek wilderness for himself. Wilderness is a recurring theme all throughout our Bible. The wilderness is a desolate, uninhabited space. This morning up front is a wilderness picture. This is a photo I took on my sabbatical of the volcanic base of Sunset Crater in Arizona, a desolate, barren place.
Wilderness can be dangerous and risky, but also a place of spiritual growth and blessing because when we are alone we cannot numb our senses with distractions. To put it in modern terms, wilderness is a place without smart phones, laptops, social media, or streaming services. In the wilderness, we have to be present to the moment. At our March Fusion, you can hear Mike Herzog tell the story of his vision quest in the wilderness and how it helped him see deep within himself. I think we can consider Jesus’ time in the wilderness a vision quest. Author Steven Charleston identifies four components of a vision quest: solitude (Jesus is alone in the wilderness), fasting (he is without food for forty days and forty nights), nature (implicit in the story), and contemplation towards a specific goal. That final one is especially important because Jesus emerges from this wilderness experience to launch his public ministry; the ministry God has entrusted to him of teaching, revealing, proclaiming the kingdom of God.
In this wilderness gospel story, Jesus is encountered by the tempter, the one who entices and deceives. He comes to Jesus after he’s been fasting for forty days. And, confronting Jesus at his weakest moment, he tries to deceive and entice him into placing his trust in something other than God.
Now, I’ve read bible commentaries that categorize what each of Jesus’ three temptations represent. I’m not really sure how accurate or helpful that is. But I do think it’s helpful to consider the kind of things we, today, are tempted to trust in. Because, whether it is the devil or societal pressure, we, too, are enticed into trusting in things that are not ultimately reliable.
Let me give a few examples. Now mind you, many of these things can be good. But, our trouble comes when we buy into the lie that they will save us.
The first is money. Now, it is wise to save and have a retirement plan. It’s wise to have a financial advisor if you can afford one.
Health and fitness is another. Again, it is wise to get regular medical check-ups and follow a doctor’s advice. It is wise to exercise, get adequate sleep and eat a healthy diet.
Another is education and ambition. Again, it is wise to pursue and prepare for employment that will be rewarding and compensate us in a way that allows us to care for ourselves and our families.
And here is another that we don’t often consider: human relationships. We need human relationships to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. We need those connections.
But none of the things I’ve just named are fully reliable; none of them can save us; and when we place our trust in them, we are setting ourselves up for pain, suffering, frustration and loneliness. Even with the best financial advisor and the most responsible planning, we are not guaranteed a “secure retirement.” Likewise, seeing a doctor, eating well, exercising, and sleeping 8 hours a night are all smart things to do, yet none of them guarantee you won’t get sick… even in a untimely and inexplicable way. Good grades, a college degree, a strong work ethic, and quality job performance do not guarantee you will get your dream job or that you will keep that job until you are ready to retire. And even your best efforts to cultivate healthy relationships do not guarantee that people will not disappoint you or betray you. We can, in fact, sabotage our relationships if we place unreasonable and unrealistic expectations on people because sometimes even the nicest of us hurt and disappoint one another.
Now, again, I’m not saying you should blow all your money on bling, quit your job, ignore your doctor’s advice, sit around all day eating chocolates and corn dogs, and “ghost” your friends.
But what I’m saying is that only God is truly worthy of our deepest and most loyal trust. That is the trust that Jesus resolutely clings to during his wilderness testing.
And, why does Jesus trust in his heavenly Father? Well, first of all, he’s Jesus. But if we break it down a little more, he clearly understands who he is, who his heavenly Father is, and the nature of their relationship. Again, Jesus has just been baptized and, at his baptism, the heavenly voice proclaims: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Notice the first words out of the devil’s mouth: “If you are the Son of God…” Now, in reality, both Jesus and the devil know who Jesus is. But, it is the hope of the devil that he can tempt and entice Jesus into rejecting his identity… or at the very least, misunderstanding it. But Jesus knows what it means for him to be God’s beloved Son. Likewise, quoting from Scripture, Jesus reveals his understanding of God and God’s purposes. The devil fails in tempting Jesus to put his trust in anything other than God and God’s will for his life and ministry. Having resisted the devil’s attempts to entice and deceive, Jesus emerges from the wilderness ready to begin his public ministry; ready to announce that God’s Kingdom is near. Remember that four component of the vision quest – contemplation towards a specific goal.
Friends: we too face times of intense testing in our lives; times we feel the aloneness of the wilderness; times when we feel vulnerable and exposed. And in regard to that, there is one thing I want to point out in this morning’s story. It might seem like a bit of a tangent but I think it is an important one. And that is that we are not Jesus and it will not be God’s Spirit that will put us to the test. We must recognize that, although we too face tests and temptations in our lives, we are not led by the Spirit of God into these situations in the way that Jesus was. We shouldn’t have a messiah complex. That common cliché, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” is nowhere in the Bible. Let me repeat that because it is so important. That cliché, “God never gives you more than you can handle” is not found anywhere in scripture. That’s not God’s Word. I don’t know who came up with it; but it wasn’t God. Now, it’s true that in the Old Testament, we do read that God’s people were tested by God but that is primarily because in ancient times people attributed everything to God or the gods. That was true of the Hebrew or Jewish religion and of all the other ancient near eastern religions. But in the New Testament, it becomes clear that God is not the one who tests people. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus warns Peter that, Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion will be a time when Satan will put Peter to the test but that Jesus will be interceding for Peter while Satan is testing him.[i] Likewise in the New Testament Book of James, we read, “No one, when tested, should say, ‘I am being tested by God,’ for… God tests no one.”[ii] A couple verses later, our New Testament writer counters, “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.”[iii] So, good stuff comes from God; bad stuff comes from the devil. I just want to make sure that is crystal clear to all of us.
Yet, once again, we will face times of testing in life and, when we do, what will we do? Will we succumb? Will we embrace the lie that there is something or someone else in this world that is worthy of our full and absolute trust? Or, will we hold tight to the knowledge of who we are, who God is, and what God’s will and purpose for us is.
We, my friends, like Jesus and because of Jesus, are God’s beloved children and that is something we can’t ever forget. Even today, the adversary works through negative thoughts and difficult experiences to corrupt our understanding of who we are.
I have two Salvador Dali paintings on the wall in my living room. In 1931, Dali painted “Persistence of Memory.” In 1954, he painted “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory,” after we dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dali was fascinated with the power of the nuclear bomb; but he was also concerned that, as time passed, we would forget the destruction of Hiroshima. Our memories would disintegrate and that, nuclear weapons would lead humanity to its own destruction.
Brothers and sisters, we can’t ever forget who we are. Sometimes when tragedies happen, we may feel our memories disintegrating; but we need to persist in remembering that we are God’s beloved children. We can’t ever forget who we are and whose we are because here is the thing: God, our heavenly parent is always worthy of our trust. The world tells us to trust in other things. But, when we buy into that lie, when we allow ourselves to be deceived, it results in frustration and fear and loneliness. It results in frustration because an idea or concept we trusted has disintegrated. We thought taking care of ourselves would guarantee good health, but now we are ill and have lost our independence and we are angry at medicine and science and the world. When we buy into that lie, it results in fear because something we relied on has disintegrated. Our financial planning and saving wasn’t enough and we will outlive our money. What will we do? When we buy into that lie that other people will fix things for us, we destroy our relationships and become resentful and angry because others do not do what we expect of them. To place our trust in anything or anyone other than God leads us down a path of fear and anger, loneliness and isolation.
But finally, how do we grow our trust in God? What can we do if we feel that we have succumbed to the enticements of the world, have bought into those lies? Well, through a deeper knowledge of ourselves and God, we can grow that trust and it is spiritual practices like Scripture and prayer that build our relationship with God and deepen our knowledge of God, ourselves and God’s purpose for our lives. In this story, Jesus fends off the devil’s testing by quoting Scripture. Scripture is a primary way in which we come to know God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and he teaches us to trust as we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Prayer builds our trust in God.
Friends, regardless of what the world tells us, God is the one who sets the table before us. God is the source of all good gifts. And, God is the only one worthy of our trust.
[i] Luke 22:31-34
[ii] James 1:13
[iii] James 1:17
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