First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of Jehovah, He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in whom I trust.
We live in tornado country, although at the very southern end of where they are probable, so we don’t see nearly as many as they do to the north. But since they are possible, we receive the yearly reports instructing people how to survive a storm if we should find ourselves in the middle of one. They want everyone to know what is safe and what isn’t safe. The reporters want to dispel misinformation and give everyone the knowledge they need to do the right thing.
Many people think that the safest place to be is under a bridge. They’ll often park their car on the side under the bridge, and then climb up to where the bridge meets the hillside. They think that because the bridge is strong and those corners seem protected, that they’ll survive better there than out in the open. This is not true. In reality, if a tornado crosses at that point, the winds created underneath the bridge are fiercer than those in the open. You are more likely to get hit by debris or get thrown against the metal and concrete of the bridge. The vacuum created by the tornado can suck you out of your safe place and into more danger. The proper place to be protected during a tornado is face down in a ditch.
Now, we’ve had a lot of rain lately, with the slight possibility of severe storms. If I have to be out during nasty weather, I think about those lessons I’ve learned about safety. “Turn around, don’t drown” is one of the most important ones in our area, because flash flooding is expected when it rains. A road can be covered in water in minutes and if there is water on the road, a car can be swept away no matter how good the driver is. We think we can handle the water, especially since those flash floods usually run where there is a dry creek bed for most of the year. We think, “How dangerous can that really be?” and go around the barricades. But the barricades are there because it is very dangerous.
As I was driving the other day, I looked at those ditches by the side of the road and while doing so I thought about the tornado lesson. The problem, as I see it, is that those ditches along the side of the road become raging rivers during a rainstorm. So, where do you go for safety? I hope I’ll have the wisdom to know if I’m ever in that position.
Living is risky. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. We might face an enemy that seeks to harm us or we might just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We might have challenges that seem beyond our ability to overcome. Our troubles aren’t always physical; they are also financial and emotional. How do we deal with the storms of life when they come? Where do we hide from the wind? How do we hold on when it seems like we will be washed away?
The psalmist writes, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” Dwelling in the shelter of God does not guarantee that we won’t see the storms. As a matter of fact, living with God often means that we’ll be sent out right in the middle of it to share God’s grace with someone who doesn’t know where to turn. But dwelling in the shelter of God means that God will be with you through it, to get you through.
This does not mean that we walk out into an open field when we know a tornado is coming. We who trust God have no need to test Him. We live obeying His call with wisdom and knowledge. It is tempting, however, to do what seems ridiculous to prove that we believe. We think, “If I really believe, then I must do this to show the world how good and gracious is my God.” We tell ourselves that it is for God’s sake, to prove to the world His greatness. Yet, it is really a selfish and self-centered attitude to test God’s promises.
The devil quoted this very psalm in today’s Gospel lesson. He said to Jesus, “If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to guard thee: and, on their hands they shall bear thee up, lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Yes, these things are written, but not for us to test. They are written so that we’ll face the world dwelling in the shelter of God, knowing that He is with us when the storm hits.
But that’s the job of the devil: to twist God’s Word in such a way as to make it sound good. Imagine what a wonderful vision that would have been for the people of Jerusalem, and how they would have looked at Jesus in a whole new way. The story, as we know it, would be very different. If legions of angels had swept out of the sky at the Temple to save Jesus, the people would have all seen it: Roman, Jew, foreigners alike. They would have been awed by the vision and drawn to believe in this “being” that has angels serving Him. He would have been made into a god, like the other gods. The Temple would have become a temple like the other temples. He would have gained the world’s notice, but lost the reality of God’s purpose for His life.
That’s what the devil was giving Jesus when he placed Him on the pinnacle of the Temple: the easy answer. “Do this and you’ll have them eating out of your hands. No one will question your authority. No one will wonder who you are. They’ll listen to you, follow you, and do whatever you say. Do this one thing and you will be the Messiah.” But the reality is much different. Jesus didn’t come to make everyone look to Him, but to make it possible for everyone to see God. If He threw Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, He would be worshipped, but for all the wrong reasons. It may have been tempting to Jesus, for He knew the rest of the words of the psalm, and He lived them. He did abide in the secret place of God, but He didn’t have to prove it to anyone. There was no need to test God’s promises. Jesus knew them to be true and He lived accordingly.
Jesus also knew the rest of the scriptures. He answered the devil with a quote from Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 6:16) Jesus was not willing to demand from God special privileges, just because He was who He was. Neither are we to demand special treatment just because we are children of God. The mission and the ministry are not always easy. Sometimes we end up in the middle of a storm, but walking in faith means knowing that God walks with those who love Him wherever we go. We abide in God’s shadow and live according to the wisdom of His Word.
Jesus faced two other temptations during His time in the wilderness. We begin the Lenten season with this text because it helps us to enter into this time of contemplation and preparation. Lent lasts for forty days (not including Sundays) as a remembrance of the wilderness time of the Israelites. It is a time to remember and to worship God, considering all His promises and what He has done for His people. That’s what the Old Testament lesson is all about. When the people finally finish their wilderness wandering, and they enter into the Promised Land, they will worship God with their gifts and their voices, believing in their hearts and confessing with their mouths all God has done. Jesus knew this scripture, and He most surely thought about this scripture as He came to the end of His own wilderness wandering. As He was entering into the Promised Land, His mission and ministry, He would have worshipped God in the way of His forefathers for bringing Him through the wilderness.
The Spirit led him in the wilderness for forty days where He was tempted by the devil. Though all three of the synoptic Gospels have temptation stories, each are unique to the purpose of the writer. We need to remember that the Gospel writers each had their own perspective and that their stories might differ from the others, not because the experience was different for Jesus but because they had different reasons for reporting the event. So, as we consider Luke’s version of the story, don’t get confused by the things you know from the others.
Luke tells us that the Spirit led him in the wilderness. Jesus was never alone. Just as the Israelites were led through the wilderness by the manifestation of God in the cloud, so too, did Jesus have someone to lead the way. Luke also tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. I can almost imagine Jesus in the wilderness with two miniatures of himself on His shoulder, like they show in the movies. On one side would be a Jesus wearing white, on the other side a Jesus wearing black. For forty days these two fought back and forth, trying to keep Jesus on the path that they wanted him to walk. Did His own conscience wrestle with the purpose of His mission? Perhaps. We certainly wrestle with what we believe to be God’s will for our life, and Jesus identified with us in every way.
So, at the end of the forty days, after Jesus had wrestled with His thoughts, the devil was ready to go in for the kill. After all, Jesus was now weak from hunger, tired from wandering for so long and vulnerable in mind. The devil went after His physical hunger first. “If thou art the Son of God, command this stone that it become bread.” The temptation here is to choose the easy life. After all, Jesus could make the stone become bread. He made wine out of water. He fed thousands of people with just a few fish. But that was not the way of God: being chosen did not mean that we should take advantage of the power God has given to us.
Jesus answered the devil, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” This quote is taken from Deuteronomy, at the end of their wilderness wandering. Moses is instructing the people in how to live. He warns them to be careful to obey God’s commands, because in doing so they will prosper in God’s promises. He tells them to remember why God lead them in the wilderness for forty years: to humble and to test them. He reminds them of the manna they ate, which God gave to them so that they would know that man does not live on bread alone. If the Israelites had done what they wanted, which was to return to Egypt where they could eat their fill, they never would have reached the Promised Land. They learned that God does provide and that they need not take matters into their own hands.
The devil thought he could appeal to Jesus’ hunger by suggesting He eat a loaf of bread, but Jesus stood firm in His trust of God. He learned the lesson in the wilderness: that God provides. He did not need to take matters into His own hands.
So, the devil took another shot. He led Jesus high and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus would be King; that was prophesied and promised in the scriptures. So, the devil gave Him the easy way to power. It was a lie. We can’t take the easy way out or settle for less than what God intends. Ruling over the entire world is not the kind of King Jesus was meant to be. It might have been tempting to think that if He got the whole world to listen to Him, then they would hear what He has to say about God. However, He could not worship the devil and God. Jesus reminds the devil, “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
Then the devil made his final offer at the pinnacle of the Temple. While the second temptation focused on worldly power, the third takes us into spiritual. Jesus could have proven His divinity without question at that moment; the whole world would have turned and worshipped Him. But He did not come to be worshipped; He came to share God’s grace so that God would be worshipped. It is so easy for us to make ourselves the center of God’s will and purpose for our lives, but Jesus shows us that isn’t the way. We learn from this story, just as the Israelites learned during their wilderness wandering, to keep God at the center and to abide in Him.
That’s what 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 wilderness wandering for the next several weeks 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.
And so we’ll spend the next six weeks learning how to dwell in the shelter of God, so 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, so that His Word will truly be near us, 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.
Jesus fought the devil with scripture, we can do the same. It is not enough for us to memorize the words on the page: we need to know God’s promises by heart. As Paul writes, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Faith is internal, confession is external. We are made right before God by faith through grace and that righteousness is made manifest in our confession. In our hearts and through our mouths, faith is made sure.
When we are tempted to take care of ourselves, or take control of our destiny, or worship the wrong gods, we will be ready with God’s Word on our lips and in our hearts. The temptations we face may be external, very real people, places or things. But temptation can also be internal, as we battle over what we want and what we know God wants from us. The key is to remember, like Jesus, what God has done and what God has promised. There we will abide in the shadow of our God and make it through whatever storms we encounter. This does not mean that we should be running out into an open field in the path of a tornado to prove we believe. But by God’s grace we can trust that He will be with us when it can not be avoided. He is faithful to all who believe, just as He was faithful to the Israelites and to Jesus.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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