By Pastor Tracey Leslie
We all heard it as a child, right? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That has to be about the dumbest cliché anyone ever came up with because it’s wrong; just plain wrong. Words do hurt. Sometimes words cause more pain than physical blows.
Stop and think back for a moment. Who is someone in your life whose words deeply influenced you?
My dad was a very wise man. His words shaped me tremendously. When I was in college, I totally bombed a piano recital. I was supposed to play a sonata by memory. I crashed and burned. I was embarrassed and scared because I didn’t know how I would ever earn my degree if I couldn’t play by memory. It was a degree requirement. I allowed that one recital to loom large over my life. But my dad was there to support me. And a few days later in the mail, I received a little card from him with an inspirational saying. Here is what my dad wrote: “Dear Tracey, here is a special thought for you. ‘To participate is to win. To improve yourself is to win bigger, and the only way to lose is to stop.’ Love, Dad.” Now, here’s the funny part of the story. My dad was a really bad typist. On the first line of that inspirational saying, “to participate is to win,” my dad had typed “to participate is to win.” I have kept that little note all of these years and to this day when I try something that doesn’t go well or I find the results discouraging, since my dad is no longer living, it is Britt who tells me “honey, just remember, to participate is to win.”
Who is someone in your life whose words have deeply influenced you?
My dad’s words impacted me deeply. They were words from my father; words from someone who loved me and had proved himself trustworthy. He had proven over time that has interactions with me were always in my best interest.
This morning, I hope I can convince you that God’s Word can deeply impact you. God’s Word can transform you. God’s Word can change your circumstances as it “companions you” through your life’s journey because God’s Word reminds you that (1) you are God’s beloved child AND (2) it reminds you that God is worthy of your trust; that God’s actions in your life are always for your good. Of all the voices that surround us through the various stages of our life’s journey, none should exercise a greater influence over us than the voice of God, which is made known to us in large part through his Word.
First, a bit of background from some recent sermons I’ve preached that will help lay the foundation for this morning’s message.
Early in January, I preached about the baptism of Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Sunday I preached that sermon we renewed our baptism vows and I talked about the fact that when we are baptized we are named as God’s beloved sons and daughters; children of the heavenly Father.
In a different sermon, just a couple weeks back, I talked about how Jesus would go out to the wilderness for quiet prayer time with his heavenly Father. I talked about that wilderness space – those wide open, barren places – as a place where we experience vulnerability.
Now, those two themes of baptism and wilderness converge in this morning’s bible story. It is the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are all in agreement that between the time of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, he underwent a time of intense testing in the wilderness.
Now, in scripture, wilderness is a tricky thing. As I preached a couple weeks back, when we seek out wilderness time, as Jesus did when he went out in the wilderness to pray, it can be a restorative experience. When we choose to set aside that quiet time with God, it can be an intense experience of God’s sustaining and guiding presence.
But sometimes wilderness is imposed upon us and when it is imposed upon us, it can leave us feeling lonely, frightened, confused, even hopeless.
The forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness in this morning’s story may bring to our minds the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years; that story of Moses leading the exodus of God’s people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. Now, many of us may not be aware that the Israelites didn’t take forty years to reach Canaan. They reached the promised land of Canaan really fairly quickly. But, when scouts are sent out for reconnaissance they observe a land populated by strong, advanced people and it intimidates them. They allow their fear of the Canaanites to outweigh their trust in God. Let me say that again: They fear the Canaanites more than they trust God. So God pronounces his judgment; those Israelites – those doubters – will wander through the wilderness for forty years until all of them living now have died off. It’s a pretty severe lesson, for sure. But it is a story that should come to mind when we consider Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Those months-turned-into-years in the wilderness for the Israelites were an ongoing test of their trust in God. When they were thirsty, would they trust God could provide them with potable water or did they panic with fear that they would dehydrate and die? When they were hungry, would they trust God could provide them with food or did they panic with fear that they would starve? When the chariots were closing in on them, did they trust God would fight for them or were they convinced the Egyptian army would slaughter them in the desert? Well, God parted a sea; God made water bubble up from a rock; God made quail and manna rain down from the heavens. Yet none of those experiences seemed to stick. Each new predicament was perceived by those Israelites, not as an opportunity to experience God’s faithful provision, but as a threat to their survival.
Yet, the experience of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days and nights is very different. He is in a remote, barren place and he’s had nothing to eat for 40 days. He is in a weakened, vulnerable position and the devil intends to exploit his condition. And yet, each time the devil tries to entice Jesus, Jesus resists. And Jesus does so by quoting scripture. Jesus is able to defeat the devil – he is able to pass the test – by knowing, understanding and making appropriate application of God’s Word.
It’s significant for us to note that – even before the three temptations are spoken – the devil is already hard at work when he opens up the conversation with Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God…” “If”; what does he mean “if?” That little conditional conjunction; which, by the way, is just a two letter word in Greek and English… That tiny little word packs quite the punch. It is a challenge designed to plant doubt. “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, “Maybe you’re not who you think you are, Jesus.”
Now, I know that some of us find it hard in a scientific post-modern age to relate to a “devil.” It conjures up images of a guy in a red suit with a pitch fork and it’s true that many of our images of the devil are more reliant on Dante than on the bible. But let me break it down in a simple way. The word “devil” means “slanderer.” A slanderer is someone who makes untrue statements about another. A slanderer makes someone out to be someone they are not. And within this story it is very clear that the devil is trying to undermine who Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God…”
But Jesus knows who he is. In his baptism that voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[i] And for us, my friends, along with our baptismal pronouncement, scripture – God’s Word – confirms that we are children of the heavenly Father. That’s why we are taught by Jesus in God’s Word to address God in prayer as “Father.” Jesus tells us in God’s Word to not worry because it brings our heavenly Father pleasure to provide for us.[ii] And in God’s Word, Luke, chapter 15, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son to remind us that no matter how stupid, disrespectful, irresponsible or pathetic we could ever possibly be, God always welcomes us home and rolls out the red carpet for us.[iii]
So friends, when you find yourself in a barren place along your life’s journey; when you are feeling lonely, frightened, confused, and hopeless; God’s Word can sustain you because it is a constant reminder that you are God’s beloved son or daughter. God is a faithful, loving, patient and forgiving parent to you.
Furthermore, Jesus knew that God had his back. He didn’t have to take the devil up on any of his offers because he had confidence, grounded in God’s Word that God could and should be trusted to provide for his needs. He was in a barren place, devoid of resources; but that didn’t matter. Jesus quotes scripture that originates with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. And so Jesus, unlike those ancient Israelites, is going to trust in God no matter what. The situation looks desperate; it appears there are no resources to draw from in this barren place. But Jesus knows what he teaches us: that, despite appearances, God can always be relied upon to provide for us in our time of need.
Friends, when you are in difficult places along your life’s journey; when you are in a place that feels like a barren wilderness, hopeless and empty and discouraging; you need to know God’s Word because the Word of God is a constant reminder that (1) you are God’s beloved child and that (2) God will always provide for your needs. The Word of God has the power to transform your life; to change your reality because we both know and experience God through his Word.
Now, here are my closing words to you this morning: It’s not enough to read God’s Word; you need to understand God’s Word in order to apply God’s Word to your life. Even the devil knows scripture. He tries to use it against Jesus. Friends, anyone can use scripture to misrepresent God. It’s been misused across the centuries to abuse and subjugate Africans, women, children, you name it. So, you can’t just read God’s Word, you need to study God’s Word so that you understand it. And, you need to study God’s Word with reliable resources. If we don’t take the time to study and understand God’s Word, it can hurt us rather more than it helps us. We’ve all heard the cliché “God never gives you more than you can handle,” right? Well, that is not in God’s Word. It’s a misrepresentation someone came up with to “make us feel better?” I don’t know; it sure doesn’t make me feel better. Again, well-intentioned Christians have told people that God “took” their loved one. But folks, neither Jesus nor any of our New Testament writings say that. We need to read God’s Word; to study God’s Word with reliable resources; so that we can understand God’s Word; so that we can apply God’s Word to sustain us during the most difficult times of testing in our life’s journey.
So this is it; the end of the sermon. Let me challenge you. If you are not studying God’s Word, there’s no better time to start than now. Beginning this week and every week throughout Lent, I’ll be posting on our Trinity Voices blog. If you open the inside cover of your bulletin, at the bottom of the page, it tells you how to get to the blog. If you don’t have internet access, just call the church office and we’ll get you a printed copy. The blog will be up by Wednesday each week. In addition, starting the week after Easter, I’ll be leading a bible study at 9:15 each Sunday morning.
Friends, there is no better time than now to allow God’s Word to sustain us during the most difficult times of testing in our life’s journey.
[i] Luke 3:22
[ii] Luke 12:22-32.
[iii] Luke 15:11-24.
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