200301 – BeWildered – World

Yr A ~ Lent 1 ~ Matthew 4:1-11

Every year we begin the season of Lent with an examination of what we call Jesus’ temptations in the desert. This year I want to emphasize something a little different. Instead of it being a story about Jesus being tempted I want us to see that the story is actually about us. Because, if we make it all about Jesus, like we usually do, I’m afraid we’ll miss the most powerful part.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew had one overarching agenda – to make the reader believe that Jesus was the long promised Jewish Messiah, the fulfilment of prophecies and scripture. Ok, fantastic, great job Matthew! Mission accomplished. We’re all here because we acknowledge that Jesus is the dude! So I don’t need to spend very much time identifying how spiritually mature Jesus was in his temptation time – you already know all that. Of course Jesus is going to give all the right answers – he’s Jesus!

The thing is, I’m not Jesus. And neither are you.
And hero worship of how someone else does faith may inspire you a bit but it doesn’t necessarily change anything about you, or give you any tools to go and do likewise. And really, that’s what we’re all here for. So today I’m going to try to help us see that we are actually the ones in the wilderness, and the temptations that Jesus faces are really ours, and we face them every single day.

This story follows on the heels of the baptism story in Matthew’s telling. Jesus has just had a profoundly wonderful spiritual experience. He’s all aglow from a personally electrifying encounter with the very Presence of God and has sensed God’s blessing filling him up and inspiring him in a new outlook on life. Immediately, it says, that same Spirit that filled him up propels him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Ok, couple of things.
Notice that this is the Spirit’s idea, not Jesus’ idea. Having just been baptized I’d imagine Jesus would rather have hung around and enjoyed some cake and maybe a few pictures by the font – but instead, while still dripping wet he’s whisked off into the wilderness. Why? Because as soon as you lay claim to a blessing from God and start to live in the glow of that blessing you’ll start to experience challenges and pushback from the world.

Second thing I’d like you to notice is that this takes place in the wilderness. Wilderness is a specific symbol in the bible and every time it’s used it’s meant to signify a liminal space of being in-between things – a place of danger and possibility – a place of transformation. It literally means a place away from houses and things, not sand dunes and dryness. A place set apart where a person is not distracted by the usual distractions of the world.

Except the problem is that even when we try to get away to a place set apart we take our distractions with us. You can go on a vacation to try to “get away from it all” but the problem is you tend to take your brain with you – and all your thinking comes along for the ride. Enter the character called the devil. This is really important. The bible does NOT have any sense of a single person called the ‘Devil’ with a capital D. It’s a role, a function – not a person.

Have you ever had to make a decision, or a choice, or had a moral dilemma and you found yourself arguing with yourself? There’s that voice in your head that’s nattering at you, maybe trying to get you to compromise a deeply held value for the sake of expediency, or maybe just to avoid a hard conversation or situation. We call that our inner dialogue, or maybe our consciousness.
Doesn’t that make a whole lot more sense than imagining some fictional character in a red suit with horns and a tail and a pitchfork working against us? And besides, that’s not even from the bible – it’s from literature from the Middle Ages.
Simply put – we don’t need a personified devil.
Our consciousness is tempting enough!

Jesus is said to be in the wilderness for 40 days and nights before the temptations begin. Again, 40 is a symbolic number in the bible that means a time of transformation. So Jesus is in a place of transformation (the wilderness), for a time of transformation (40 days), (gee, that sounds a lot like the season of Lent!), and at the end of that time when he’s at his weakest (or possibly his strongest because he’s been praying for 40 days), he wrestles and battles with his consciousness, his inner voice.
That is something I can definitely relate to!

It says he’s famished. Well duh, he hasn’t eaten for 40 days. But actually the word is much richer than that.
Famished here means to desire earnestly. Hence the first great temptation.
The inner voice says, “I know you’re a spiritual and religious person and all that, and you have all these great ideas and great values that you say you hold so dear – but I also know you’ve got some pretty deep worldly desires. So go ahead, take the easy way out. Satisfy your desires. You can do it. And no one would ever know. Don’t worry about all that other stuff, just take care of your own needs and desires. You know you want to.”

Does that strike a chord for anyone?

What would Jesus do? He’d quote scripture to resist temptation!
In this story he quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, as he says in Matthew 4:4 It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

What does that mean? How about – sure we have needs and desires and on basic levels we must address those needs in order to live – but there’s much more to life, and especially much more to life in God’s Presence and love than just meeting my own desires, no matter how earnestly I may feel them.

Next his inner voice tempts him with a challenge to what he thinks the very nature of God is.
Well, what do you think?
What is your theology of God?
What is God’s purpose in your life?
How does God function in your view?

In our theological tradition we strive to hold a very nuanced theology of God. Versions of Christianity where God is a punisher, or God is a behaviour police person, or God is the granter of every wish (as long as you say the right words or make a big enough donation in the offering plate) – those versions of God get all the headlines and have dominated the conversation out there about who or what God is – but those versions of God are alien and incomprehensible to us. We may have a hard time putting God into words but we’re sure that caricature of God ain’t it.

But it seems awfully inviting, doesn’t it?
Wouldn’t it be convenient if God really was our wish granter and at our beck and call?
Wouldn’t it be great if living a faithful life meant you never got sick, or never suffered, or never had a problem?
Wouldn’t it be awesome to have your very own personal holy lifeguard who would bail you out of any situation you got yourself into?
“Throw yourself off the roof! Surely God will catch you!”
Isn’t that a tempting thought? Doesn’t your inner voice go there sometimes – especially when the road is kinda rough?

What would Jesus do? He’d quote scripture to resist temptation!
In this case he quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, as he says in Matthew 4:7 Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

If I’m in a relationship with you I have certain expectations that you’ll be there for me in hard times. But if the entire nature of our relationship is me only calling on you for help and testing your willingness to do my bidding it’s not much of a relationship, is it?
What are relationships for? Mutual flourishing – sharing in loving-kindness – honouring one another’s uniqueness and value. I have no idea how my being in an intimate and personal relationship with the Divine benefits God, but I have given my life to the reality that it benefits me in deeper ways than I could ever articulate. Perhaps my abundant life and living in harmony with God’s love blesses God and amplifies that love. If so, then that’s mutual flourishing – a relationship – not a service contract with on-demand overnight delivery.

Finally, Jesus’ inner voice tempts him with perhaps the most insidious of all temptations – the desire for power and riches. Here’s where we get to talk about materialism, and environmentalism, and injustice, and privilege.
Here, in a beautiful suburban church, filled with people who are mostly quite comfortable, and are mostly part of the dominant racial culture, we have the dangerous luxury of not really worrying about our next meal, or whether we have a roof over our heads, or whether we’ll be oppressed or discriminated against in our day-to-day life, and so we let ourselves get distracted by all sorts of other challenges – like acquiring more and more stuff, and earning promotions, and living the so-called good life.
The world loves to distract us with those things.

Don’t get me wrong – those things aren’t inherently bad – but if the pursuit of those things distracts us from living the life that we’ve opened ourselves to and accepted – the life of love that God inspires, the life of compassion and justice that Jesus taught – if we let ourselves get distracted by all that other stuff then that worldly inner voice is winning.

What would Jesus do? He’d quote scripture to resist temptation!
In this case he quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, as he says in Matthew 4:10 Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

The world tempts us to worship all sorts of things.
As people of faith we’re called to worship only God. Coming here each week helps us keep that in focus!

The temptations and distractions of the world are great.
Satisfying your desires, solving your problems, having riches and power – these are all potentially very distracting from the life of faith we’ve signed up for.
Is it all just talk or do I really believe this stuff?
The struggle is real!

What do you draw on to resist?
Here’s the catch – you have to have a deep reservoir of the thing to draw on it in times of trouble!

Jesus clearly had a deep reservoir of scripture. What do you have?

Scripture? Prayer? Church attendance? Worship music and hymns? Willpower? Habits? Life experience? Teachings? Good examples and mentors?
Yes, yes, and yes to all of these and more! Whatever works!
Build your reservoir and draw on it! – Because distractions abound!

It’s the season of Lent, and a very popular thing to do is to give up for these 6 weeks something that tempts you.
It’s not actually a part of our theological tradition, but it’s certainly something people talk about, so here’s something to ponder if it should come up in conversation.

What should you give up for Lent?

How about giving up just satisfying your desires, taking the easy way out, settling for comfort above compassion, and taking care of number one and letting the next guy fend for themselves?

The world says your individual needs are all that matters.

Jesus says, We do not live by bread alone, by our base needs alone (even though they are real and valid and worthy as a starting place), but in addition to those we live by the very word that comes from the mouth of God – we live by God’s Way, God’s ethic, God’s justice, God’s loving-kindness.

What should you give up for Lent?

How about giving up saccharine, Hallmark card theology that thinks God is like some cosmic vending machine ready to solve your problems if you just pray the “right” way (whatever the heck that is), that if you were good enough or believed the right things that God would magically heal your illness, eliminate your obstacle, remove your challenge, swoop in and save the day at your beck and call?

The world says if you’ve got a fairy godfather in the sky why doesn’t he just help you when you make a wish.

Jesus says, Do not put the Lord your God to the test – because that is fundamentally contrary to what our relationship with God is supposed to look like. It’s supposed to be about love, about honour, about awe and reverence, about harmony and peace of heart and peace of mind.

What should you give up for Lent?

How about giving up our relentless pursuit of more stuff, more toys, more possessions, more power, more fame, more prestige, more money, more square footage in our homes, more square inches on our TVs – and not just more but cheaper regardless of the human cost of slave labour in sweat shops, or the self-destructive cost of environmental degradation, or the cost of doing justice because it’s inconvenient and slows down the trains.

The world says you can have it all if you just worship it – and we do.

Jesus says, Worship the Lord your God, because only God is worthy of your worship – but it’s not out of fear of retribution or punishment; it’s out of love, and it’s far deeper and more satisfying and life-giving that all the stuff in the world.

The world is bewildered by us, because we value being wildered – being in the wilderness – being open to transformation – drawing on our ever deepening spiritual reserves to carry us through the challenges and temptations that come our way.

May our journey through Lent, our journey toward the cross, our journey in the wilderness, be blessed.

Matthew 4:11 – And then their inner voices were quieted for a time, and suddenly the Presence of God enfolded them and filled them with purpose and power to live God’s way.