March 1, 2020
Please open your hymnals to the front section to page 229.
In our baptism ceremony there are three questions related to renouncing sin, the devil, and all the forces that defy God. To each question, the parents and sponsors of the child being baptized, or the person himself/herself, if they are of age, are to respond, “I renounce them.” which means “I reject them.” I’ll ask those questions now, and your job is to respond, “I renounce them.” Ready?
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
- I renounce them
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
- I renounce them
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
- I renounce them
Can you imagine, if just after a baptism ceremony, we were to send the newly baptized person to meet with Satan, to test them see if they really reject sin, the devil, and all the forces of evil. Not just for a short while, but for 40 days! That’s what happened to Jesus.
Jesus is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. A voice from heaven says, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then the next thing is our verse for today “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Why would God do this to Jesus? Why would the Holy Spirit put Jesus into such a tough situation?
God had important work for Jesus to do. It wasn’t going to be easy. There would be many temptations along the way. With the power Jesus had to turn water to wine, to multiply loaves of bread and fish, to heal the sick, to walk on water, it would be so tempting to use those powers to satisfy his own desires. But that wasn’t why God gave him those powers. Jesus needed to learn how to control his desires. And the wilderness was the place for those lessons.
People had expectations that the Messiah would be a worldly king. It would be tempting for Jesus to try to live into people’s expectations and enjoy the popularity. That wasn’t what Jesus was sent to do. It would be tempting to use his power in ways that would amaze people and draw a lot of attention to himself. That wasn’t what Jesus was sent to do. Ultimately, Jesus would need to be strong enough to face the cross and willingly sacrifice himself for others. That was what Jesus was sent to do.
Jesus had to be prepared for all that lie ahead. Jesus needed to know that he could depend on God to care for him. He needed to be secure in his identity as God’s Beloved Son. He needed to be clear on his mission. So, God sent him on a 40-day wilderness journey, to help him learn those lessons.
Each of us faces wilderness journeys of our own. Each of us faces temptations. Each of us goes through times of testing. Hard as our wilderness journeys may be it is in the wilderness that God shapes us to be the people God created us to be.
Those wilderness journeys can take many forms. Maybe it is as we or a loved one faces a health challenge. We wonder how it will all turn out. We hope for the best, but we worry about whether God will provide the cure. Maybe it is the loss of a job or the stress of trying to keep a job when the demands are very high. We can be tempted to take short cuts or to make compromises that we know are just not right. Maybe it is tension in a marriage, or strife in other significant relationships. Family struggles can undermine our sense of identity and security. Can we come through these wilderness journeys with our faith intact and living as God would have us live?
We have just embarked on a 40-day journey through Lent. Lent is our time of journeying with God. It is our time of learning to trust and depend on God. It is a time to become more secure in our identity as God’s beloved children. It is a time to be more centered in our faith. The Lenten journey can prepare us for other wilderness journeys we will travel in this life.
When Jesus was in the wilderness, he faced temptation. Satan tried to trick Jesus by presenting temptations as good things. The first temptation was to turn a stone into bread. Bread is a good wholesome food. Jesus was hungry. What could be wrong with making some bread to feed a hungry person? Satan tried to convince Jesus that God couldn’t be relied upon to care for him – that he couldn’t trust God to meet his needs, that he needed to take matters into his own hands. Jesus didn’t fall for it.
We can learn from this. What makes Satan effective at tempting people to sin, is presenting the sin in ways that make it seem good, or at least not so bad. Think of all the good you could do if you had more money, more power, more time to care for your family and to help people in need. What short-cuts might Satan be tempting you to take, in the guise of doing something good? Don’t fall for it. Trust God. Stay firm and do what you know is right.
Satan tried to undermine Jesus’ sense of identity. Twice he said to him, “If you’re the Son of God, prove it by turning these stones to bread or jumping off this high place.” Jesus was secure in his identity. He didn’t have to prove it to Satan or anyone else, so he didn’t fall for it.
You, too, are a beloved child of God. You, too, can be secure in your identity. You don’t have to do anything to impress people or fit in. You don’t have to undercut who you are by acting as someone you’re not. You don’t have to take foolish risks. There can be a lot of pressure to do things to get attention, to be popular, or to win people’s approval. It is not the approval of people you need to win. You just need to faithfully live your life as God’s beloved child.
The third test for Jesus was to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for worldly power and success. We don’t need to look to evil for success in life. In fact, the word EVIL is LIVE spelled backwards. Evil is the opposite of the good life. Evil is destructive. Evil tears down. God builds us up when we live as God’s people. God gives us all that we need to live a good life.
One of my seminary professors, David Lose, once said:
“To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs our sense of purpose and our identity as children of God, the temptations of the world have little appeal. To the degree that we allow our insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to temptation.”
David is a wise man, let me say that again to let those words really sink in. “To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, our sense of purpose and our identity as children of God, the temptations of the world have little appeal. To the degree that we allow our insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to temptation.”
It all comes down to trusting God. Underlying the temptations of Jesus is the implication that God cannot be trusted; that God should be taking better care of his son. Underlying these temptations is the idea that Jesus should have everything he wants and that he shouldn’t have to suffer. Jesus didn’t get everything he wanted and he did suffer mightily. Does that mean Jesus couldn’t trust God? Does that mean we can’t trust God?
No! It means that the expectations of a trouble-free life are out of step with how this world works. What makes us think that we should have a life free of suffering, when God’s own Son suffered as he did?
I want to share with you a story about a man who struggled with this, as many people do. We’ll call him John. John was a good man who served courageously in WWII. After returning from the war he got married to the love of his life and together they had three daughters. He was a quiet man, a hard worker, a good family man. He eventually became a business owner. He was active in his church and built a good life for himself and his family.
One day tragedy struck. His oldest daughter, Nancy, was killed in a car accident. There were four teenagers in the car. Three of them walked away from the accident, but Nancy was thrown from the vehicle, the car rolled over and rolled on top of her. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, but her injuries were too severe, and she didn’t survive.
John was devastated. He said that losing Nancy was the most difficult experience of his life. It made him question everything. He went into a long period of wandering in his own personal wilderness. He was mad at God that the friends of Nancy survived, but that God hadn’t protected his little girl. He had prayed regularly. He had given generously to the church. Was that too much to ask that God should look out for his daughter?
It ate him up inside. He didn’t want to go back to church. He figured “What’s the point?” If God can’t be depended upon to protect his daughter in her time of danger, why should he worship such a God? For years he went on like this – angry at God, staying away from church, wandering in his own private wilderness, his own private hell.
Then one day, something changed. He realized that he was angry at God because he thought he knew how life was supposed to work. He thought that if you live a good life, work hard, are faithful to your wife, provide for your family, go to church regularly, then God will reward you with good things in return. He realized that he had turned his relationship with God into a business deal. John thought he had kept his side of the bargain, but that God had shortchanged him.
His turning point came when he recognized that his expectations were out of line with the way things really work. That tempted him to believe that God cannot be trusted. When he realized it was his expectations that were the problem, and not God, he had a choice to make. He could either continue to be mad at God and let his anger control him, or he could accept life on God’s terms. He chose to put his trust in God once again.
Many of us struggle with trusting God when things in life don’t go the way we think they should. When bad things happen to good people, we need to realize that God doesn’t wish us ill or intentionally bring us harm. We live in a broken, sinful world. Bad stuff happens. But God walks with us through the tough times, and God can take the hard stuff and use it for good. Ultimately, God brings us home to be with him.
Lent provides us with time to focus on our relationship with God. It provides us with the opportunity to come to God in prayer, to read God’s word, to spend more time in worship and Christian fellowship. It gives us the incentive to reflect on our journey with God, and realize that wherever we are at, God is walking with us, loving us, guiding us, caring for us each step of the way. And it reminds us that from the time of our baptism, we were named and claimed as God’s beloved children forever. God made promises on that day and God always keeps his promises.
During this season of Lent, let us live into our baptismal identity. Let us recommit to walking through life’s trials and temptations, hand-in-hand with our Savior. Amen!