First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Having committed to enter full-time pastoral ministry when I was sixteen, there was little doubt that I’d end up at a Baptist-related university to begin my studies. That’s generally the way it was done back then. I had hoped to go to Baylor, but that was when I still had dreams of an athletic scholarship. When that didn’t pan out, due to multiple knee injuries, I decided to go to Ouachita.
There were definite advantages to doing so. For one thing, it was closer to home... though back in those days, getting from northeast Arkansas to southwest Arkansas was not as easy as it is today. There was no I-630 bisecting Little Rock, and obviously no I-430 that skirted around it. And most of the highways in my part of the state were still two-lane. That’s why I often joke that I went to college when the earth was still cooling.
Another advantage to attending OBU was that I found myself in school with people who largely shared my values. That is not to mean, of course, that everyone who walked the campus of Ouachita during my four years there in the late 60's and early 70's were southern-born, southern-bred, and southern Baptist. It does mean that I could choose to have fellowship with those who were. And if I so chose, to pretty much ignore those who weren’t. As you might expect, because my major course of study was in the area of religion, I found myself attending classes with those who had the same interests I did.
One of the disadvantages of going to a Baptist university was that I shared life with those who basically had my same values. Wait a minute... didn’t I just say that was an advantage? Yes, I did. Like a two-edged sword, it was both. It was a disadvantage in that it made for a rather sheltered experience. But it still didn’t keep me, as well as a number of other folk I knew, from struggling with the natural urges and pulls that confront a person of college age.
Even the most sheltered college campus cannot keep its students from experiencing an education beyond the classroom. Life itself is quite a laboratory, and most college students, whether they go to a “church school” or not, enter their freshman year as teenagers with acne and attitude, and emerge at graduation as young adults who know it all and are ready to take on the world.
It was at college that I first heard some of my contemporaries talking about being in “the center of God’s will.” I recall that at the time it really struck a chord with me. That was what I was looking for. I had come to college to get a degree, to be sure, but I also found myself searching for something more intangible but just as real. And that was it. I wanted to be in the center of God’s will! Not only was I trying to cram as much information as possible into my often unwilling brain, but I was attempting to figure out at the same time what I was going to do with my life.
I was trying to move from acne to avocation. I was searching for the center of God’s will. I wanted to be as close to where Jesus was in his journey of life as I could possibly be. Yes, that was it... I wanted to be like Jesus.
Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and as he emerges the voice of God comes booming through the skies, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” It just can’t get any better than that, can it? If Jesus had any doubts before that he was especially chosen by God to proclaim and embody the kingdom of heaven, this experience should have removed any and all of it. Talk about being in the center of God’s will.
And then bang! Like a shot out of a cannon, the banks of the Jordan are replaced by the gritty sands of the wilderness desert.
We are told that Jesus is transported into this — if you will excuse the expression – this God-forsaken place by the Holy Spirit, no less, where he spends forty days and forty nights in reflection, in prayer and fasting. Forty days, forty nights. How many of us can pray forty minutes? Forty seconds is more like it, if we pray at all. Forty days and forty nights! Nothing to eat. No television to watch. Not even a good book to read.
Go figure. Jesus, at one point, is at the top of his game and then, in the next instant, he’s at the bottom of the pit. If there was ever anyone at any time who was in the center of God’s will, it was Jesus on the banks of the Jordan. In contrast, if there was ever anyone who had earned the right to question the very existence of God at all, it was Jesus in the wilderness after forty days and forty nights of nothing to eat.
Is that what it takes to be in the center of God’s will?... Suffering, doing without? Because if it is, if that’s what it gets you, our response, no doubt, would be, “No thanks, I think I’ll pass.” Most of us simply have too fond an affection for food and a comfortable bed and other creaturely comforts.
Being in the center of God’s will should mean — shouldn’t it? — that everything is A-Okay. Everything is coming up roses, life finds us on a roll, we’re moving on all cylinders and things are falling right into place. Doesn’t it follow that being in the center of God’s will means life just can’t get any better?
Maybe not. Not if Jesus’ experience is the example. He’s gone from mountaintop to valley before he can say lickety-split, and to top it all off, he no longer hears the voice of God offering heavenly endorsement. Instead, he’s got the devil whispering enticements in his ear. From the face of John the Baptist to the face of evil, Jesus is now confronted with temptation at a time when we would think he would be at his most vulnerable.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
How many of you go out to eat on occasion, and find yourself really hungry? Maybe you skipped lunch in anticipation of going out that night. The waiter or waitress takes your drink order, and then delivers a basket full of steaming hot bread right out of the oven. Let me ask you, is there anything better – when you’re really hungry, I mean – than a hot piece of bread? Top it off with some butter. Not too much! Just enough to add some additional flavor, not to mention a bit of lubrication. Feel it slide down your throat, tickling your taste buds. Ahh! It just doesn’t get any better than that, does it?
You think the devil doesn’t know how good some bread would taste to Jesus at that very moment?
But there’s more here in this story than just the issue of physical hunger. The number forty should have rung a bell with you. It’s a pretty prominent figure in scripture, isn’t it? The Hebrews wandered forty years in the wilderness before they finally entered the Promised Land. Do you think there’s a connection between that and this story of Jesus in the wilderness?
If there isn’t a connection, there is certainly a contrast. Moses wasn’t up on Mount Sinai forty minutes, it seems, before the people down below became impatient and fashioned for themselves a god made from gold. If the God of Moses was going to stay up there on the mountain and leave them in the valley below, they would take matters into their own hands. And then, once they had set out for the Promised Land, they complained when they had bread that they had no meat. When they had meat they complained that they had no bread. They just couldn’t be satisfied no matter what God gave them. The temptation to want life on their terms was too great, and they gave in to it.
And that’s how just about all of our temptations are framed, isn’t it? We want life on our terms. We want our hunger to be satisfied. We want instant solutions to our problems. We want a healing band-aid on our hurts. Even when we pray to be in the center of God’s will, the truth is, we want God to be at the center of our will.
The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin. We tend to focus on that last part... that he did not sin. But the most important part of that theological statement just may be the first. He was tempted as we are. “In every respect,” the writer says, “he was tempted as we are.” In every respect. Just like you and me, and maybe even greater than you and me.
Tempted to do what? Perhaps the better question is, tempted to be what? To be what the people expected and wanted. And what the people expected and wanted was a messiah who would come, rid their land of the Romans, and re-establish Israel as God’s promised land for God’s promised people.
Jesus knows he’s not that kind of messiah. So as he languishes in the wilderness, with nothing to eat and no one to accompany him, he ponders what kind of messiah he is called to be. Would he be a popular, warring savior, or would he be a suffering servant? Popular would be much easier. Warring would bring him more followers. Give the people what they want. Turn a few magic tricks, bask in the applause, develop a movement for the masses, create insurrection. He could be a real hero.
Did you notice the progression of the temptations the devil tosses at Jesus? Bread for his hunger, a dramatic miracle to get the attention of the people, then the appeal to the ego. The devil is saying to Jesus, “You can have it all.” And Jesus rejects it straightaway. And what does he get for his trouble? A cross. A trial, a mugging, a cross.
He was tempted as we are, we are told in scripture, yet without sin.
Understand this if you understand nothing else. Just because he was obedient to his calling as the Son of God does not in any way mean he was not fully human. He may have come back at the devil with a quick quoting of scripture, but don’t think for a moment that it was easy, that his temptations were any less real than anything you and I face on any given day. In fact, given the magnitude of what he was giving up by being obedient to his heavenly Father, his temptations were far, far greater than anything you or I could ever imagine or will ever have to face.
We can take comfort in that Jesus is not so unlike us that he can’t understand what we go through every day. It is precisely because he was tempted as we are that he can walk beside us and encourage us to respond as he did... obediently.
So the next time you hear someone whisper in your ear, turn around and look your companion in the face. It might just be the devil himself. But listen and look again. Standing between you is the One who speaks firmly and clearly and says, “Follow me. Follow me.”
Lord, walk with us, we pray. But then, perhaps we should pray for the strength to walk with you, even in the face of temptation. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.