Sunday, February 14, 2016

First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-13
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

For, whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

We begin Lent with the story of Jesus' temptation immediately following His baptism. We do this because Lent is a time when we are reminded of the temptations we face in this life. We are encouraged during Lent to face our own temptations and fight them with God's Word, just as Jesus did in the wilderness. Jesus confronted the temptation to fill His belly with the word, "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone." He rejected the temptation to receive worldly authority, because Satan demanded to be worshipped. Jesus answered, "It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." He confronted the temptation to follow an easier path with the word, "It is said, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God." Jesus faced the temptations of flesh, power and faith with God's Word and He prevailed against it.

Most of us have probably chosen something to fast for the next seven weeks. I have to admit that it would be far easier to fast from chocolate or whatever we love to eat if I had to do so wandering in a wilderness. It is extremely difficult to avoid eating that Oreo cookie that I know is in the cookie jar, and I don't rid my house of them because others are not fasting. I haven't really chosen to fast Oreos, so it doesn't really matter, but I am not sure that I'm strong enough to do so while there are Oreos around. We live in a world surrounded by temptations and it is very, very difficult to avoid falling for them.

Our pastor suggested that we choose to fast something that we don't eat; in particular he suggested we fast 'noise.' He was talking about how we are surrounded constantly by noise: the radio, televisions, computers, cell phones, etc. It isn't just that we live in a noisy world; we live in a world that is constantly demanding our attention. Advertisers want us to hear their pitch. Politicians want us to hear their campaign promises. Activists want us to hear their latest dispute with the world. You can't go anywhere these days without finding television screens, even the grocery store. Everyone wants to sell you something whether it is a product or an idea. They want your attention. They want your loyalty.

It would probably be a good idea for me to fast politics; I admit that I've done it other years. It is extremely difficult, however, to do so during such an important election year. I want to avoid hearing all the hype, but I know that somewhere in the midst of the noise is information I need to make a good decision. How do I avoid reading those articles or listening to the reports for the next seven weeks and still do my duty as a citizen of this country?

It would be much easier to avoid temptation in that wilderness where Jesus faced Satan. We can't put down our cell phones because we have learned to rely on them to keep us in touch with our family. We can't turn off the television because the one joy we have each week is watching "The Big Bang Theory." I certainly can't fast Facebook because it is where I do ministry. I will certainly try to avoid certain aspects of social media, like the games, but it will be tempting to be so close. Can I be strong?

I say that it would be much easier to avoid the temptation in that wilderness, but was it easy for Jesus? We find it difficult to understand this story because we know Jesus is perfect, sinless, both fully human and fully divine. How is temptation even a question for Him? Especially since us fallible, human beings are tempted by such unnecessary things.

The temptation in the wilderness was not an easy forty days for our Lord. Jesus doesn't need to be standing in a bakery to be tempted by bread. He is able to turn stones to bread, but it was important for Jesus to experience the time in the wilderness so that His focus is where it must be: on His Father and His Word. Satan didn't just force Jesus to confront flesh, power and faith; Satan forced Jesus to think about the ministry He was able to begin. Jesus faced not only the questions of human beings, but the questions of ministries.

Jesus was faced with three temptations, all of which we have faced at one time or another. I think the easiest for us, especially during Lent, is the temptation to fill our bellies. When we are fasting, particularly if we have chosen to give up something we love for the forty days, we hunger for it even more, especially at the end of forty days. How many people gorge themselves with chocolate on Easter Sunday because they have given it up for Lent? We justify our actions because we have been so good giving it up for so long. Notice that the devil does not come to Jesus until He was famished. The temptation was not during the forty days but at the end, "What will you do with your power once the fasting is over?"

In the first and third temptations, the devil taunts Jesus and questions His identity. "If you are the Son of God..." He is manipulating Jesus to prove Himself. How many of us keep ourselves busy with the work of the kingdom as a way of proving ourselves faithful? We think that if we are busy enough with good works then we will be assured of who we are and whose we are. Unfortunately, we get so caught up in the busy-ness of life that we often miss what is most important. We are tempted to fill our time and use all our resources on ministry that we forget to praise God and confess our faith in Him. It is honorable to do good works, to satisfy a need, to share what God has given. Jesus says, "Man does not live by bread alone." There is more to life. Good works do not save.

Jesus answered the devil's temptations with God's word. Jesus refused to worship the devil: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." Satan could not give Jesus what he was claiming anyway, but even if he could, Jesus knew that He was sent to rule a different Kingdom, not one of this world. Who are we serving when we get caught up in the busy-ness of our lives? Are we serving God, or are we serving our egos or the demands of the world around us? Sometimes we don't even realize that our busy-ness is Satan's way of keeping us from doing the very thing God is calling us to do. This happens to us as individuals, but it can also happen in our churches.

The third temptation is addressed once again to the Son of God. The devil tells Jesus to throw Himself off the roof of the temple. The angels of God are just waiting to protect Jesus from any harm, so why not prove to the world that He is the Son of God. Jesus was tempted to take a chance with His life to prove God's blessing on His life. Don't we face the same temptation? The world sees prosperity as proof of blessedness and dis-ease as proof of sin and rejection. If someone is suffering, then they must have done something wrong. If they are happy, healthy and wealthy then they must have done something right. If the pews of our megachurch are full, then we must be blessed, even if we are preaching something other than God's Word.

Some Christians have built their ministries on this idea" a theology of glory. This is righteousness that is defined by a manifestation of blessedness. They take God's Word and fit it to meet their needs and desires. They seek God's power for all the wrong reasons, to bring wealth and fame and power, rather than to glorify God. Jesus knew the temptations we would face today; He faced them Himself in that wilderness experience. Satan did not just offer Jesus a loaf of bread, a kingdom or angelic protection. He was offering Him an incredible ministry of miracles, authority and power. Satan was trying to prove Jesus was nothing more than any other man, easily tempted away from God's will to a self-centered ministry.

Sometimes Christians try to prove their faithfulness by testing God's promises. The Psalm for this week tells us that God will protect those who love Him from the sting of the snake and the teeth of the lion. Some Christians even prove their faith by wrestling with poisonous snakes or taking other chances. Yet Jesus reminds us that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test.

Jesus did not prove Himself to be the Son of God by turning stones into bread or by testing God's faithfulness with foolish actions like jumping off the roof of the Temple. Jesus proved He was the Son of God by dwelling in the presence of God and relying on His faithfulness. He was secure in His calling to save the world. The proof was not in what Jesus did. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry, to rule over the nations or to be a famous preacher. Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God because He dwelt in the power of the Most High God, turning to God's Word and God's promises as the foundation of all that He was to do. He came to die, to bring forgiveness and healing to a world that was sick and dying from sin. He was Immanuel, God with us, and from then until now God no longer lives in a temple. Instead, He lives within the hearts of those who believe.

Whatever we choose to do as we go on this Lenten journey, let's remember that we aren't trying to prove ourselves. We feel pretty good at the end of the forty days when we manage to survive our fasting without failure. I am still delighted to say that a Lenten fast from years ago continues today because I stopped drinking so much soda. I love the paintings I produced during last year's Lenten challenges. These practices had an impact on my, not just spiritually but in my daily life. But we are reminded that this is not the reason we go on this journey. We follow Jesus to draw near to God. We practice our devotions and fasting to remind ourselves how to call on the name of the Lord.

Lent teaches us how to abide in God even as we have to face the difficulties and temptations of this world. The end of our Lenten journey is not pleasant. We have to face the cross with Jesus, deal with His death and the end of our assumptions about what He really came to do. We want Jesus to feed us, to be our king and for the whole world to believe in Him as we do. But we realize as He is hanging on the cross that this is not how it is meant to be. Our troubles are far more complex, our pain is even deeper than we can imagine. Our sin is beyond our ability to overcome. There was no easy way to fix what was wrong with the world and we have to face that reality on Good Friday when even Jesus cried out to His Father in His suffering and pain.

And so we'll spend the next six weeks learning how to abide in the shelter of God so that when the storm does hit, we will trust that He can pull us through. We may use this time as a time for fasting, as Jesus fasted during His forty days in the wilderness. But even more so, let us take this Lenten season to listen to God's words, to keep His Word on our lips and in our hearts so that we, too, can face the devil with God's truth when he tries to tempt us to go by a different path.

Modern Christians prefer to have control. We like choice. We like to do things that make sense, and have multiple purposes. A forty day cleanse is good for our physical health and it can have spiritual advantages, too. But even Jesus wasn't given a choice in His wilderness experience. He was led by the Holy Spirit. He obeyed. Perhaps God is calling us through today's texts to listen to Him and follow in His footsteps in a radical way. Giving up chocolate and coffee and even video games has become almost cliche. What new thing is God leading you into? What new place will you go if you follow Him? How will you be transformed by the experience?

We might prefer to be guided by our own stomachs, minds and hearts, but last week we heard the command of God on the mountain to the disciples, "Listen to Him." We follow this week with the lesson of Jesus in the wilderness speaking God's Word to overcome the temptations of the devil. Perhaps this Lent should be a time of listening to Jesus, and using God's Word to overcome the temptations we face. We might think they are chocolate, coffee and video games, but perhaps there are greater temptations that we face which we do not even realize. The worst of them might just be our insistence that we are in control.

In today's Old Testament lesson, Moses told the people what they should say when they presented their first fruits at the temple. This was God's command. But we are bothered by the idea that every person had to say the same thing year after year? We wonder, "Where is the heart in rote speech?" Where is the individuality? We want to say the words that burn inside us, not a prescribed verse or prayer. Some even reject the use of creeds and the Lord's Prayer for that reason. They want to pour out their hearts to God in their own words and follow their own guidance about their life and work in this world.

There is certainly a place for individual prayer and God gives us the freedom to make choices. However, in this scripture we learn something more important; we are reminded that everything we have comes from God. We say the prescribed words because we are bound together by God's gracious acts, in the past, present and future. We might wonder how the Exodus affects us, but even acts that seemingly have little or nothing to do with our lives today are part of the story of God and they are part of our relationship with Him.

The words spoken in the Old Testament lesson are meaningful to all of us. All believers -- whether the first to enter into the Promised Land or the generations that follow up until today -- are identified by what God has done. He gave them a creed to remember their past as they thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on their hearts and in their minds forever. In the creed they remember that they have the land and the fruit of the land because God set them free by His grace and power. They knew that they did not have anything except that which God had given to them. We follow with the same understanding.

We weren't slaves in Egypt, but we are slaves to sin. We weren't led on an exodus out of Egypt, but God has saved us from death. We cried out, "...And Jehovah heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression; and Jehovah brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders; and he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." Our story is definitely different than that of the Israelites, but not really. Their words are still relevant to us.

And their temptations are ours, too. They, too, were threatened by temptation of stomach, power and faith. They complained about a lack of food. They turned to other gods. They tested God in their wilderness. Don't we do that, too? Despite all God has done for us, the devil can come and tempt us to go our own way, do our own thing, be in control of our own lives. The more we turn to God's words, however, the easier it is for us to overcome the temptation because by doing so we are abiding in God.

As Paul writes, "The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith..." The word is near to us; God is near to us. Do we have the strength and courage to face our temptations as Jesus did? Do we know God's Word well enough to turn Satan away when He tries to tempt us from God's will? Iím sure we could all work on that, and perhaps that's a way we can journey through Lent.

But for now, we have words that we can speak to turn away the devil: "God heard our cry and He saved us." It doesn't matter who we are or what we try to accomplish during this Lenten season. Whether we fast from those habits that we know are bad, or we take up some devotional practice, we can seek that greater relationship with God because He has saved us. There is no distinction between believers; Jesus is Lord over all who believe with their hearts and confess with their mouths.

And so during this Lenten season, let us remember that we do not choose to go into the wilderness, we are led there by the Holy Spirit. And though it is a place of temptation, we need not fear because we are not alone. We, like Jesus, are filled with His Spirit, and He will help us through. So, while it might do us well to fast, let's approach this time with God's Word in our mouth and in our heart so that we can overcome all the temptations that Satan forces us to face. We have nothing to fear, for God has already heard our cry and saved us. We already dwell in the secret place of God; we abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We have the words to remember our past as we thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on our hearts and in our minds forever. We have the words by which we have life and by which we live: "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

A WORD FOR TODAY
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