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Into the Wilderness

Delivered at Resurrection Circuit Online Service, Pine Run UMC, & Glassport UMC. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

"The Temptation" by R Ceesay

Good morning church. I am happy to be back with you today. As many of you know, Rev. Airgood had surgery this week. He is doing well but wanted some time to recover, so he asked me to preach this week on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. I will ask you to say a prayer for Pastor Airgood in his recovery and for our neighbors in the south and all around us who are struggling to stay warm in this cold weather.

For many of us, we associate the wilderness with the land that surrounds us, seeing trees, some that hundreds of years old, block the sunlight from view with their wide branches and leaves. We picture water rushing over rocks through winding mountains. We Appalachians are wilderness people, and this passage may feel as if Jesus is taking a walk in the woods. Even those of us who live in urban areas live among the rolling hills, building our homes into the rock and learning to drive through twisted roads guarded by all types of trees.

Now that the snow has fallen, our wilderness is covered with white, with occasional pine trees showing off their bright green to the world, while smoke from chimneys and cars and steam from houses billow through the cold air. The wilderness is a good place for us. This was not the wilderness of Jesus.

I have been to the Judean wilderness. It does not have trees. It has rocks and dusty dirt for as far as the eye can see. Roads are bordered not by shady oaks but sharp cliffsides. There is little water to be found, and certainly, none rushing over rocks. It is a desolate place. But the Judean people were wilderness people too. Ages before Jesus, Jesus' ancestors had wandered waiting to enter the promised land. They too, were met with trials and temptations, and now the savior is reliving his peoples' past. This was the perfect place for Satan to approach Jesus. Even when imagining where Jesus was in this story, I am comforted by this story. This story gives me hope, and I invite you to journey into the desolate wilderness with me today.

Let us pray

For context, this passage came right after Jesus was baptized and right before he begins his public ministry in his hometown. When reading the narrative in context, we see a profound experience where he is baptized and then, being led by the Spirit, goes into the wilderness where the devil meets him. A first-time reader may assume that there ensues a great battle between good and evil. After all, this narrator guides us through a striking moment when the devil returns to ruin good again. Using the same dirty trick he used to tempt Eve and Adam, the devil tries again to bring humanity to its knees. However, the narrative takes a turn when evil and good battle it out not by sword but by spoken word; both claiming to know scripture, but only one proclaiming truth.

"Even the devil knows scripture" is a phrase that my momma grew up telling me. In reflection on this phrase, it was mostly used in the context of someone telling me a half-truth or a lie based in some truth, and this was her southern-raised, Baptist-inspired way of politely drawing me nearer to the truth. Or worse, it was used when someone she didn't like was saying something she didn't like. That proverb, inspired by this story, invites us to consider the means that Jesus is made a hero in this narrative.

Jesus is tempted because of his humanity. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was truly God on Earth. Just like us, Jesus got hungry. He felt pain and emotions, and here we see that just like us, he was tempted. The devil tempts him using the temptations of food, power, and wealth. Each time, Jesus refutes the devil by proclaiming truth, and in doing so, proclaims his humility.

But in all of his glory, the frail and tired Jesus does not use his power to destroy Satan but instead uses his power to be humble. And in this passage, more than many, we get a better picture of both Jesus' humanity and his Godliness. As all humans have the capability of doing, Jesus proclaims truths over the devil's use of scripture. Even the devil knows scripture, but only Jesus proclaims truth in this passage.

What is most striking for me in this passage is that Jesus is great not for the things reserved for a God but for things that we can all do. Jesus is the hero of this story because of his humility and humanity. Jesus shows his divinity not by performing acts of wonder or miracles but by his humble submission to the Father and following the Spirit.

Seemingly in defiance of the fall of Eve and Adam, our savior shows that following God's will is enough to defeat the lies surrounding us - the lies of greed, rejection, injustice, insecurity, fear, captivity, illness, pain, and so much more. We do not need to be a god to do this. We need to trust in God. This story challenges us also to speak out against the lies that are so prevalent in this world. Jesus did not remain silent when Satan was using the words of scripture in evil ways. Jesus was bold in proclaiming the truth that they held and reclaimed the text for the purpose of righteousness. If we are to live by the example of Jesus, we must fight the evil present in world, especially when preached by folks who proclaim to be followers of Christ. Jesus shows us that our words are powerful.

On Wednesday, we entered the Christian season of Lent. I feel like Lent had not ended in many ways since last year when Lent and the pandemic's start seemed to correlate. I have thought for some time now that I am in the wilderness. During lent, we are challenged to examine our mortality and what it means in the context of the life that God gives us. This season is set aside for us to mature in our faiths, to be formed, and to be hopeful in the resurrection. But like Jesus, surrounding us is so much emptiness, death, and pain. The temptation for us is not only power, material needs, and wealth but also to let go of the hope that is the Good News.

This Lent, I invite you to enter the desolate wilderness with Jesus. I invite you to examine the temptations you feel. What is keeping your heart from accepting the Good News? What is keeping you from more fully hoping in the resurrection? And how can we do better? This is why we encourage giving up or taking up things that bring us closer to God. We should aim to more clearly and sincerely seek the will of God in our lives, the church and the world.

Like in this passage, it can be easy to be tempted to reject truth in favor of convenient lies. But in this passage, Jesus shows us that we do not need all the wealth in the world, or all the power in the world, or even all our material needs to be met in order to overcome evil and get out of the wilderness. Jesus stood on the truth alone, and because of Jesus, this truth is accessible for us.

We worship a God whose will is powerful enough to hurdle the boldest lie, the most difficult obstacle, and biggest temptation. Together, let us seek God’s will this lent in a spirit of humility and hope. Amen.

Watch the full service here:

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