Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Through Resistance…
A Sermon on the Temptation Narrative (Matthew 4:1-11)
By Griff Martin
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the First Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2017

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter. 

My first reaction to this text is to run as fast as I can. This is one of those texts that makes my heart beat a bit faster and my palms get a bit sweaty and my gut reaction is simply to get through it.

In Baton Rouge Abby and I somehow got roped into this horrible fall Halloween tradition of going to the 13th Gate with some church families each year. The 13th Gate on it’s website proudly states that it is “widely regarded as one of the Top Haunted attractions in the nation” followed by sources to prove this including the Washington Post, USA Today and NBC news. It is described as “a haunted attraction known for it’s ultrarealism and is one of the most detailed haunted houses in existence”, one that (in their words again) “blurs the line between horror and reality.”

And each fall we would meet some friends and we would have a wonderful meal together downtown and then we would go stand in line for an hour or so to get into the 13th Gate. Once you entered a guide went over the rules with you, which simply were: they (the actors whom he referred to as “the patients, ghosts, murderers and the possessed”)… they can’t touch you unless you touch them and then all bets are off. Abby and I had different approaches to this task. Abby would go through the Haunted House with her eyes closed and letting the crowd lead her while simply screaming, “you can’t touch me, that’s the rule.” Whereas I just closed my eyes and ran as fast as possible to get the experience over with.  And then we would gather with our friends in the parking lot and decide we would do it all over again next year.

This is how I approach this text this morning…. Close my eyes and run through it as fast as possible to get it over with, fully knowing that I will be back here once again next year because the season of Lent always begins with following Jesus straight from his baptism out into the desert to face the devil and temptations.

And that fact must mean that this is an important text but that does not stop it from being a scary text as well. This is a text where we come face to face with the devil, Satan, the tempter, whatever we choose to call it. Here in this text we face a spirit that is counter to the spirit of God, one who wants evil, one whose desire is not to do the will of God, and one here is very active here in our world. It’s a reality most of us would rather not name.

And beyond that this text contains one of the most troubling lines in all of Scripture: “Then Jesus was lead up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And try as hard as I can, I can’t find a way to make that verse comforting. I have never found anyone who told me this verse was the most meaningful biblical passage for them. I have never seen it cross-stitched onto a pillow. It’s troubling and difficult.

And then on top of all that the text forces us to look at Jesus’ humanity in a way we rarely do: a Jesus who truly faced real temptations because to be a temptation he had to have the chance to say yes to them, otherwise it’s not real. For this to be a real test, there has to exist the possibility Jesus could say yes to one of them, that they contain the real possibility of enticing Jesus. And I deeply believe these are real if for no other reason than this: this story has to come from Jesus, no one else is there. So Jesus has to tell this story at some point to someone and he must do so because this was real to him and he needs us to know he went through this.

And in reply I want to shut my eyes and run through this passage as quickly as I can… however just look the 13th Gate, that horror house where the line is blurred between horror and reality, that happens here too. Running through the text as quick as possible also helps me to escape the reality of this text… in the words of Sister Joan Chittister: this text “reminds us not to be surprised at our own struggles with the will to have power, the desire for things, the propensity for the morally malign- all of which threaten to deter our giving ourselves to the things that count in life.”

The temptations are all about pride, power and possession and as such it’s as if this text has been reading the email inbox of my very soul. These are the temptations that I know well and I suspect you do too…. pride, power, possession…the temptation to treat God as less than God, the temptation to put something in God’s place.

Our story begins with Jesus still wet from the waters of baptism and being led straight from the river to the wilderness. Dripping with divinity, Jesus is lead into the wilderness. With the echo of God’s voice still ringing in his ears, “This is my Beloved…” Jesus heads into the wild.

Now the wilderness itself plays an interesting role in Scripture. It’s in the wilderness that Israel wanders for 40 years… the book of Numbers original title was actually in the wilderness (which is much more exciting if you ask me). It’s in the wilderness that Elijah hears God, that Moses climbs the mountain, John the Baptist is holding church out in the wilderness. 

The wilderness itself seems to be a terrain of thin places, in our Christian history the wilderness is one of those places where God is present in a tangible way for many, here God is readily encountered. The wilderness is the place where the desert and the mountains meet and according to Theologian Beldon Lane, the wilderness is “all terrain beyond the safety of the Nile river, a place regarded as equally hazardous, a place of brokenness where divine mercy alone must suffice.” Hear that again, “a place of brokenness where divine mercy alone must suffice.”

It’s a place you can’t control, it’s a place you can’t prepare for, it’s a place you have to live minute by minute in the moment and you have to face your fear equally with your courage. It’s a place where God is God and you are not. It’s a place where everything you are used to depending on is suddenly gone.

And it’s here in the wilderness where the Spirit leads Jesus. And there Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights (again a numbers that is significant in our text). And then after 40 days of practicing faithfulness in the wild, we are told it’s at the end of those 40 days and 40 nights when Jesus is so hungry and Jesus is alone and Jesus must be tired. It’s here that the tempter shows up, in this moment of vulnerability.

“You must be hungry and if you are turn these stones to bread.”

And here is our first aha moment… we know this… the temptation to put bodily needs ahead of spiritual nourishment, the temptation to put ourselves first and God second, the temptation to wish for magical solutions, the temptation to change the way things should be in order to make it easier for us, the temptation to think I deserve more, the temptation to treat God as less than God.

Then to the top of the temple, “if you are Son of God throw yourself down and the angels will catch you because God won’t let God’s son be harmed.”

And we know this one as well: the temptation to put myself first again, the temptation to test God instead of trust God, the temptation of power, the temptation of spectacle, the temptation to be seen and not just seen but followed, to use God fore personal gain, to use power for safety and security, to call on God for special favors, the temptation to think I deserve better, again the temptation to treat God as less than God.

And then looking over the world, “bow down and worship me and I will give you everything you can see and you will be powerful.”

And again: it’s an echo: the temptation to put myself first, the temptation to put wealth above faithfulness, the temptation of possession, the temptation of having it all, to control all kingdoms or at least some kingdoms, the temptation of privilege and political power, the temptation to take the easy road and get it all by cheating, the temptation of bowing down to another god for temporary pleasure, and again to treat God as less than God.

Stones to bread, safety, worship…. Pride, power and possession.

And to each of these Jesus replies with a Scripture, he goes back to the grand story of God and resists the Tempter. And then the Scripture ends with the angels coming down to wait on Jesus, he has refused the food from the devil and in turns receives the Bread of Life.

So how does he do it? How does Jesus have the strength to resist that which most of us fall for each and every day?

This week I’ve been thinking about the first 40 days, those days that lead up to the temptations, those days of which we know nothing except Jesus is in the wilderness- fasting- alone- contemplating the words spoken over him at baptism. What has Jesus learned in those 40 days? Has Jesus learned who he truly is? Has Jesus surrendered to who God has called him to be? Has Jesus found his place in the story? Has Jesus learned that all you need in life is God? Has Jesus come to see that God’s story is the only story worth living?

I think so and once you know that, then you can resist the tempter. Once you know the one who loves you, you know what is true love and what is not. Once you know true power you turn your nose at temporary power. Once you know what is real everything else seems fake. Once you know love, you can know no other.

In those 40 days Jesus comes face to face with the reality that changes everything: God is all I need.

You see for so many of us we have been taught extremely cheap grace. We have been taught that because of the Cross all is forgiven and all is washed away, which is true, however we have forgotten that the Cross is not a get out of jail free card. The truth is the life of Christ following is about sanctification, it’s about making ourselves better for the sake of Christ and the world, it’s about resisting the temptations that would tear us apart and destroy us. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “it is easier and less painful for us to rely on God’s forgiveness of our sins than it is to believe that God might support us to quit them.”

And maybe it’s time as a church we start thinking a bit more about quitting our sins.

It’s the words from Joe this morning: “sometimes you have to lose a lot to gain a lot” and it’s that word that was pivotal to his testimony, “surrender.”

Maybe it’s time we spent 40 days in the desert asking the same questions Jesus did:
Who are we truly? What is our place in this story? Do we truly believe that all we need in life is God? Have we come to see that the only story worth living is God’s story?

The New York Times ran a brilliant article two Monday’s ago with the headline: “In the Land of Opera, a Chorus Lets the Tone Deaf Find Their Voice.” In Milan, Italy the country where opera was invented there exists an absence of musical education today. Most children do not take choral classes as part of their education. In the face of this several years ago Maestro Maria Theresa Transmotin began a choir for the tone deaf. Everyone was invited to audition and all you had to do was sing aloud in front of peers to prove you were tone deaf and once you auditioned everyone got in and without fail after years of singing in the choir no one said they were tone deaf any longer, in fact most of them can readily sing on tune.

Maestro Transmontin does not believe the work she does is magical, in fact in her words: “in many cases, tone-deaf people have to be unblocked from a psychological point of view.” People simply believe they are tone deaf because they have been told that when the truth is true done deafness, where a person has the inability to recognize or reproduce musical tones, is incredibly rare in a person. Again in her words, “most people who come to the choir only have to learn how to listen. Those who think they are tone deaf are not actually allowing their brains to capture sounds.”

They need to be put in a place where they can learn to listen.

And maybe that is why immediately following Jesus’ baptism he is lead out into the wilderness, so there are no distractions and so he can learn who he is and whose he is. So that he can claim the one truth that changes everything: God is all I need.

And maybe that is what you and I need to learn in this season: God is all we need. And by learning that maybe we can finally fight the temptations in our own lives, to begin to be victorious over the evil that is in our own hearts so that we can begin to be victorious over the evil that is in our world.

And maybe that’s what I need and what you need too… some time to be still and learn that. Which means this text is not a text that we need to go running through but is instead a text in which we need to spend the season of Lent. Out in the wilderness of our own souls, finding the place in our lives where God’s mercy alone will suffice, to find the place where we can truly learn who we are and whose we are.

Because it’s only when you have learned the real story, when you have seen your true value, when you know who you are and what this is all about…. It’s only when you know the Really Real that you can resist the not real.

May this be the season where we stop and listen and in listening may we hear a truth, a Love, that is greater and stronger and more compelling than anything the devil can ever offer. 

*Artwork: Broken Vessel, by Dan Christopher,


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