This is my message for tonight at our Ash Wednesday service at 6 p.m. at Blandford UMC in Prince George, Va. If you’re looking for a place to worship, to begin your Lenten journey, I hope you’ll join us.
Think about the last time you went away. Was it on vacation? Was it for business? Some of you probably wrote a checklist, complete with the things you wanted to make sure you didn’t forget. Some of you waited until the last minute and then hurriedly threw it into the suitcase you probably left half-packed since the last time! Either way, your packing included some things you needed, and some things you wanted.
Imagine with me for a moment that you were leaving for forty days. Even the spontaneous would stop and think for a moment, right?
In our Scripture tonight from Matthew 3 and 4, Jesus leaves with the clothes on his back, without a kiss goodbye to anyone. But he does stop to get baptized first.
Jesus surprises his cousin John by showing up in the wilderness, at the Jordan River, where his cousin is preaching about “hamartia” or “sin.” He’s calling people to repent, to come back, from the way that they have strayed from the mark. This is the setup for Jesus’ first real mission.
John knows that people aren’t really living like they’re supposed to, that they’ve lost sight of what it means to be part of God’s kingdom. So he tells them to turn around, to stop acting like they know God’s heart when they don’t act like God wants them to. But that whole straying from the mark thing? That means there’s a mark to stray from, a way TO act, and that those who have strayed can find their way back. The Christian faith does have standards, right? It’s not just a free-for-all, but there’s also this thing called grace.
See, there is judgment in John’s baptism but there is also hope. John wants his hearers to turn from their self-involved lives of sin, of God-ignorance, of neighbor-avoidance. But he believes that a time is coming, this kingdom of God thing, where people are going to get it. He may be the “sky is falling” Henny Penny of the present but that’s because he’s the “happy ever after” Ken of the future. (It’s just that he’s dressed in some crazy, Grizzly Adams garb, not the Beverly Hills line of clothes.)
When Jesus shows up, John knows that the hope he’s alluded to has just become tangible. When the spirit like a dove descends and says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” John knows that his work of preparation for the coming of the Messiah is about done. It’s not just a hope for a Messiah, but an actuality. A real, tangible, God thing.
As John is wrapping up, Jesus’ mission is just getting started. Three years of preaching, teaching, and healing, before three days of dying, and one new, eternal everlasting life. But the testing that Jesus will endure for forty days before his three years? There’s some treacherous stuff here.
Matthew 4 lays out Jesus’ three-part temptation this way.
First, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Yes, the same Spirit that just claimed Jesus on God’s behalf, that descended on him and now resides with him, is also the causal agent in Jesus being driven from the relative comfort of his home, friends, and creature comforts (in 3 B.C….) into a month of loneliness, hunger, and struggle.
Stop and check that out for a minute: God’s Spirit, which bestows on Jesus the gift and blessing of God, is also the thing which leads him to experience a time of testing, of struggle, of frustration. Do we recognize that God is calling us to live a life of blessing but that in the times of frustration, those are the moments when we often recognize God… the most?
Next, the devil AKA tempter AKA ‘other options’ arrives.
The tempter provides three suggestions to Jesus to ‘make his life a little easier,’ to lighten the load of his mission.
1. The devil plays on Jesus’ hunger. Fully human and fully God, Jesus is hungry. I can’t not eat for forty hours; Jesus has fasted for forty days. I don’t like to be alone for a couple of days in a row; Jesus has embraced isolation for the sake of hearing God’s voice and his mission more clearly.
The tempter knows this, and so he goads Jesus: “if you really are God’s Son, then use your newfound power to make these stones bread.” The tempter knows that Jesus is God, that he could get himself out of it, and he knows that Jesus’ human nature is straining beneath the weight of the Spirit’s guidance. Jesus as God could get himself out of this; Jesus as human probably wants to. But Jesus is the person who was tempted by everything we are/will be and was without sin.
We hear that voice and those temptations, but sometimes they sound different.
It’s the voice that tells us when we’ve had a bad day, that we could just eat more than normal, just pull ourselves up on the couch and make ourselves comfortable, rather than facing real life.
It’s the voice that says that we have the means to make ourselves happy, so why not use it? That God has given us the money, the resources, the opportunity to do this thing or that thing for our own pleasure, so what could it really hurt?
It’s the voice that tells us we don’t really need to worry about anyone else because taking care of ourselves is hard enough.
It’s the voice that says, if God really loved us, he’d have taken care of this or that, so maybe God doesn’t actually love us that much.
But Jesus answers the devil with Scripture, and reminds him that the things the body needs aren’t what make a person. That it’s the soul of a person that makes them go.
2. Having been turned back, the devil turns to Jesus’ isolation, frustration, and internal desperation. Remember, he’s hungry, lonely, tired, and weakened. How many more days could he keep this regimen up? How long did God actually expect him to go without food?
The tempter tells Jesus to throw himself off of the temple roof, so that God would have to save him.
Did the devil think that God wouldn’t rescue Jesus? Did he think he could bluff Jesus into “showing his hand,” the degree of power which he possessed? Did he think that Jesus was ready to die, to shortcut his way back to heaven and circumvent ‘the plan?’
We may never know why. But any of these would’ve resulted in giving up, would’ve resulted in ringing the bell to end the training exercise early, rather than Jesus finishing his race.
Whatever you think of Jesus, know that he did not ever give up. And here, he answers again from his core, from what he had obviously learned before and focused in on while he was in the wilderness, that is, the Scripture: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
If Jesus didn’t give up, and he was fully human, then why do we throw in the towel? Is it because we don’t know the Scripture well enough? Is it because we’re not in a relationship with the Holy Spirit? Is it because we haven’t prepared for this?
Jesus was prepared: he was ready for the spiritual onslaught.
3. Again turned away, the devil takes him to the top of the mountain. He has challenged Jesus’ physical needs, his emotional state of commitment, and now, his need to be justified and make a point of the forty days of suffering. He challenges the holy mission that the Spirit has driven Jesus to embrace.
The tempter offers him a deal: trade your soul, your worship, and your glory for the “stuff.” Trade worshipping evil, your enemy, for instant gratification.
Now, some commentaries say that the devil said if Jesus would just worship him for a moment, he’d give up all the souls that had succumbed to evil already. That the devil was offering Jesus a shortcut, to God’s endgame, around the cross. That Jesus knew pain was coming and the devil was playing on that here.
I think it was more of an immediate thing: the tempter thought maybe Jesus, God made flesh, would settle for what he could see. That maybe, just maybe, Jesus would opt for the immediate payoff rather than see the big picture. Because sometimes, we humans have an inclination toward grabbing what we can hold than holding on in faith…
But Jesus says, “Leave me alone! It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
Jesus might as well have said, “Hey, this isn’t a great situation for me. I know some bad stuff is headed my way, but I believe God has a plan, and I’m holding onto that hope that God’s plan will pay off.” Maybe Jeremiah 29:11-14 was playing in his head: maybe he was too stubborn (wait, Jesus could be stubborn?) to let some pesky, tattered devil get in his head.
Then, having past the three tests, Jesus is waited on by angels. Then, having completed the exam, Jesus recognizes the peace and sustenance he can receive from God. Then, having survived the peirazo, the testing, Jesus sees that what he had believed in faith to be true in the Scriptures has been proven true in his life.
Rob Colwell called Lent the “Christian boot camp” for the early church. New Christians, who had professed a desire to follow Jesus, used those forty days to train, to examine their souls, and see if they still wanted to be baptized. And then they would be baptized on Easter Eve, to rise to new life with Christ on Easter Sunday morning. Not only were they tested by their public profession, but they were supposed to test themselves.
I wonder what it would look like if we approached Lent this year like it was a test. A test to see what we were made of, if we could put aside the lust for luxury, the desire to be comfortable, the thrill of attention and power, and embrace the simple.
I wonder what it would look like if we took offense at the things that tempted us, if we recognized that our temptations are all different, but no less real, and we set out to stare them down and reject them.
I wonder what would happen if we proactively, aggressively, with extreme prejudice, denied our temptations the juice they needed to bring us down, the way that you can starve a fire of oxygen to put it out?
So, what’s the thing that most keeps you from being who you’re supposed to be? When you think of temptation, what comes to mind?
Is it physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual?
Can you be real with yourself and name it?
What if you focused on ‘defeating’ that thing for the next 40 days?
If you made time to be like Jesus, to know your Scripture, to study it and live and breathe it, through Bible study, prayer, and worship, what might your life look like at the end of forty days?
What would it look like if you took a good, hard look at yourself, a spiritual inventory, and declared that one of those things that isn’t good for you would no longer have a hold over you. I want to invite you to come forward in a few minutes and nail that thing to the cross. I want you to give it to Jesus and take up something else.
Maybe you’re supposed to journal every day.
Maybe you’re supposed to make the church prayer list your hourly prayer to God.
Maybe you’re supposed to sign up for a Bible study or make an effort to come to Sunday School.
Whatever it is, recognize that the same Spirit that blows through to comfort, anoint, empower, bless, and feed us is there to challenge, disrupt, push, and open us up to testing.
May you look back over Lent and realize that your commitment to Jesus Christ has been tempted and challenged, that you have stared your fears, addictions, troubles, brokenness, and flaws in the face. And that you have overcome.
I imagine that the angels would attend then to you as well.