In Pursuit of Godliness

(Lent 1, Luke 4.1-13)

February 25, 2007

 

The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4.3-4)

All right – this is your four day check up.  How are we all coming on those Lenten disciplines? 

Well, if you are like me, as soon as you decide to give something up for six weeks, it seems to automatically increase in importance.  And that is in spite of the fact that there are plenty of other things to eat – right? 

So why is it such a constant temptation to give in? 

All I know is that if I can be so tempted when I am surrounded by plenty; then that makes me so much more impressed with our Gospel reading today.  Because Jesus faced his temptations, not with a full stomach like me, but in the midst of a 40-day fast.  Forty days without any of the niceties of life.  Forty days of being exposed to all of the elements of a harsh desert environment.  Forty days of wondering if his human body would hold up. 

That kind of puts our fasting in a very different light, doesn’t it?

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So, let’s look at Jesus’ desert experience to see what we can learn from how he responds to temptation and hardship. 

The first thing we read is that Jesus went into the desert immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan.  Therefore, his desert experience occurs before his ministry begins.  The world knows very little about Jesus prior to his time in the desert.  Other than the pronouncement by John the Baptizer and God’s confirming voice from heaven, Jesus has done nothing that would indicate that he is the Messiah, the one who comes to bring in the kingdom of God. 

Therefore; Jesus’ desert experience is more than just saying no to the devil.  Much more than six weeks of self-denial.  It is in fact – an important formational time for Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting?  That the defining event for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is forty days in the desert wilderness.  An experience in which his commitment to God’s plan and purpose for him is severely tested and challenged. 

The desert was the first time that Jesus had to face the harsh realities that would come with his calling.  The first time to have to make the hard choices that his ministry would demand. 

Luke tells us that Jesus was confronted by three major temptations.  And in each case, Jesus turned to Scripture – turned to God - for his answer. 

The first temptation was security – all the bread that he could ever want to eat.  But Jesus says that “one does not live by bread alone.”  True security in life does not come from accumulating things.  Having everything (in a material sense) does not mean that you have the ONE thing that counts.  Because no amount of treasure on earth can bring everlasting happiness. 

Next, Jesus is offered power.  Power over others.  Power to be in control of things.  But Jesus answers, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  Jesus came to serve – not to be served.  Out of love, Jesus came to offer a better way.  He did not come to force us to obey. 

Power ultimately means nothing, because we will never have power over death.  Only God conquers death.  And only faith in that God can bring us eternal life.

Finally, Jesus is offered fame and glory – an opportunity to do something spectacular in front of everyone. 

But Jesus says, “Do not put God to the test.”  Worldly fame today means absolutely nothing in the next life.  Being too busy for God today and assuming that we can ask for forgiveness tomorrow is putting God to the test.  All you have is today – give it to God.

Jesus’ trial in the desert was an absolutely necessary phase of his formation for his public ministry.  He comes back from that desert experience with a new sense of purpose.  With an absolute sense of who he is and what he is to do.  And you can bet that he probably would not have been prepared to willingly face death on the cross without the lessons learned in the wilderness.

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And while Jesus literally had a time of trial in the desert, we have desert experiences in a figurative sense at different times in our lives.  Our desert experiences also shape who we are – and what we will become.  They can bring out our best or they can bring out our worst. 

When we encounter things that are profoundly sad or unfair or when our lives are completely out of control – we are in the desert. 

When we have an overwhelming sense of being all alone – of nobody caring whether we come or go, we are in the desert. 

Above all, when we find ourselves doubting – doubting whether or not a loving God really does care about us – then we are truly in the desert. 

And it is a place that we choose to be.  But we get there.  And  being in the desert forces us to reflect on what is truly important in our lives.  Being in the desert requires us to decide between what is essential - essential for the sake of our souls - and what are just nice worldly trappings.  Surviving and coming out the other side of those desert experiences of life shape us and teach us. 

They teach us about life and death and who we are in a profound way that cannot be learned when everything is A-O.K. 

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I am reminded of a recent movie with Will Smith, called The Pursuit of Happyness.  It is based on a true story of Christopher Gardner, a man that had to overcome significant obstacles in order to make something of his life.

For most of the movie, we see his struggle – his time in the desert. 

Chris was plenty smart, but not smart enough to stay out of trouble. 

He was hard working, but he managed to lose his small savings on a get rich quick scheme. 

He loved his family dearly, but was undependable, and could not provide the security that his wife so desperately wanted. 

So Chris loses his home and his wife – and ends up staying in homeless shelters with his young son and eating in soup kitchens.

But Chris Gardner’s dream is to become a stock broker, and he does not relinquish that dream easily.  Even when he is at the bottom of life’s pile; in the middle of the desert with no means of support – he is determined to not to give up.

In one of the late night conversations that he has with himself, he talks about why he is so driven to make good.

Chris says, “I thought about Thomas Jefferson writing that Declaration of Independence. Him saying that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I thought about how he knew to put the 'pursuit' in there, like no one can actually have happiness. We can only pursue it.”

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Sometimes I think that describes my faith, or my relationship with God.  Always in pursuit – never quite there.  Trying each day for godliness, but always coming up short.  And so we go, don’t we?  In and out of the desert.

Desert experiences are unavoidable in our lives.  But I absolutely believe that God can and will use those experiences to bring us closer to him. 

The key is whether or not those tough times – those barren times – cause us to turn toward God for help – or to turn away from God. 

When we lose someone very dear to us:

Do we pick up our Bibles and try to get closer to God, or do rail against the unfairness of life? 

When it is a struggle just to get up and face the day:

Do we pray to God without ceasing, or do we take pills or alcohol and wait for the pain to go away? 

When we have to make hard choices about right and wrong for ourselves or our children:

Do we claim our inheritance as a child of God, or do we allow the world to dictate who we are and what is important to us?

Jesus turned to the Father in the desert.  We cannot be too proud, to not do the same.  Our real problem with this story is that we are looking at Jesus’ experience with the wrong paradigm.  We are using our worldly eyes instead of our Spiritual ones. 

Because we automatically assume that after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was at his weakest point.  But as one of the commentators that I read pointed out, “Jesus encounters the devil in the strength of forty days of fasting.”  He is in peak spiritual condition because of his fasting.

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See, the point is not the fast – going without a certain food.  The point of the fast is to remind us – remind us that God is the source of our true nourishment.   It is God’s holy Word and God’s grace that sustains us and nourishes us always. 

Every year, when we begin this season, I point out that while Lent is a time for fasting – it is also a time for feasting!  A time for feasting on Holy Scripture.  A time for feasting on the grace and forgiveness that comes only from God.  A time for feasting on the special liturgy, or worship, that we do here during the Lenten season. 

For the first Sunday of Lent, I always work on my list of things that I want to try to remove from my life – my fasting list.  And also its counterpart - the good habits that I hope to replace them. 

I will share my list again this year with you, and I invite you in your Lenten mediations, to work on your own. 

Fast and Feast

Fast from always having to be right . . . Feast on doing the right thing. 

Fast from clever words that hurt others . . . Feast on encouraging words that affirm and offer comfort. 

Fast from being negative and complaining . . . Feast on the many blessings of my life. 

Fast from feeling discouraged and anxious . . . Feast on the comfort of being a beloved child of God. 

Fast from feeling hurt and bitter . . . Feast on grace and forgiveness. 

Fast from the noise of my television . . . Feast on silence and time alone with God.

And finally, Fast from greed and self-indulgence . . . Feast on the smiles of gratitude from those I help.

Amen.