God Moves into the Wilderness
In the series “God on the Move”
While on earth, Jesus was not one to stay in one place for very long. His earthly life and ministry kept him moving from one place to the next, from one encounter to another, from one person to another. More than that, he also moved in and through every part of human experience. In this series during Lent, we’ll move with Jesus from temptation to condemnation, through miracles and teaching, and ultimately through the story of his death and resurrection. Along the way we’ll discover that moving with Jesus changes us and helps us to grow as disciples.
How many of you have ever moved to a new town, city, state or country? It’s always exciting to move to a new place, to make new friends and meet new neighbors, to attend new schools, to start a new job. But it can also be very stressful to start over in a place that is unfamiliar among people you don’t really know. Think about some of the changes you face. You have to figure out where to go shopping. You have to find new childcare, a new mechanic for your car, a new doctor to take care of you, new banks to do business with, new church to become your faith community. There are so many new experiences to have, new decisions to make, new struggles to overcome in a new and unfamiliar place.
When our family moved to Findlay in June of 2017, the city wasn’t completely unfamiliar to us. When Becky and I dated, we often met for dinner or entertainment in Findlay because it was midway between Elida and Bowling Green. But we had only visited; we’d never actually lived here, which is different. While there was a lot to figure out, at least we knew we were going to become part of the wonderful church family known as St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church.
Moving into a new place also involves unpacking boxes and finding things you need. Maybe you’re like us, we still have boxes to unpack in the basement. Every now and then, we wonder what ever happened to a certain item – for instance, a book Becky needed for the Moms’ group – which we found in a box in the basement.
We have started the church season known as Lent. Lent is a time for inviting God into our hearts and minds to examine what is there, to help us determine what to keep, and to prompt us to let go of things that we need to toss. As we open ourselves to God through spiritual disciplines, God moves through the process showing us something about ourselves and empowering us by grace and through the Spirit to do something about it.
Sometimes in life we face challenges or struggles: illness, pain, sadness, loneliness, grief, anger, rejection, and so on. We wonder, “Where is God when I struggle? Where is God when I am hurting?”
The good news of Christmas is that God moved into human flesh in Jesus and took on human experience. In the prologue to his gospel, John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14 NRSV). Or as Eugene Peterson rendered it in his paraphrase, The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Think about that relocation – from the glories of heaven to a feeding trough in a stall, from the heights of divinity to the humility of birth as a helpless baby.
In Jesus, God moved into human flesh and took on human experience. As we heard in our Gospel reading today, God in Jesus moved into the wilderness. Throughout scripture, the wilderness functions as a place of testing and of preparation. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. God is no bystander in the trials we face in life.
The gospel writer Luke tells us that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left Jordan and was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted and fasted for 40 days. In chapter 3, Luke had told the story of Jesus’ baptism. He went to the Jordan River where his cousin John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing people. Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism, and as he came out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus was baptized by John and a voice from heaven revealed Jesus’ identity. Think about that: before he preached his first sermon, before he performed his first miracle, before he did his first healing, he was already identified as “God’s beloved Son.” His identity as God’s beloved was not something Jesus earned – it is what God declared over him. It was a gift of God’s grace.
When the church celebrates baptism, we also declare the identity of the person being baptized as a beloved child of God. God’s grace is already active in that person’s life, and the church recognizes this truth. We also make promises to help the baptized to grow in their faith and learn to live out their new identity in Christ.
Now, the same Spirit that descended upon him filled him and led him into the wilderness for 40 days. In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted, but he was not defeated. His experience tested him, but he remained faithful to God and without sin.
Temptations come into our lives in many ways, and we usually think about temptations from the sense that they entice us to make wrong decisions, to engage in bad or hurtful behaviors, to break good rules. When we give into temptation, we grieve God’s heart. But I wonder if there isn’t another way to think about temptation. That is, what if temptation is not so much about what we are being lured to, as that we are being led away from God and the identity we find in God?
When times of testing come, when temptation comes, it is our identity in Christ that is being attacked first and foremost. Think about our story about Jesus’ temptation through that lens.
The first temptation presented to Jesus was, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3). Jesus had been fasting, and if you have ever fasted for a medical test or for a spiritual discipline, then you know how hunger sets in. The devil comes to Jesus and essentially tells him, “You’re hungry, so do something about it.”
If you have ever questioned whether you are loved or if you are enough, then you know this temptation. Human beings hunger for love from others and from God. Our relationship with others and with God can be eroded by dwelling on the questions. At different points in life, we wonder, “Why is life so hard? Why am I suffering? Why doesn’t God do something?” That sliver of doubt plays on your hunger.
Human beings hunger for love, as well as attention, acceptance, and approval. We turn to things or experiences to seek validation, to fill the void or to satisfy the need. We look for fulfillment in materialism, status, education or relationships. We chase after these things, hoping to complete us, but we soon realize that none of these can and will satisfy the need; they only get us through from this moment of need until the next.
Jesus was tempted to deny who he was, fulfill his earthly hunger, and take the easy way out, but he resisted. Rather than avoiding the harsh realities of life, he trusted God, and we also can learn to trust God to see us through and bring us the final victory.
The second temptation presented to Jesus was about power. “If you will worship me,” the devil said, “then authority over all the kingdoms of the world will be yours” (Lk 4:6-7). In this moment, the tempter is revealed as a liar, because God has the ultimate authority over all that is; the kingdoms of this world belong to God, not to the devil. Authority was never the devil’s to give anyway. The tempter invited Jesus simply to bow down and worship him, rather than God. In so doing, he would have denied his identity is the Son of God. The voice of temptation often lies to us – “No one will know; no one will get hurt; no one will ever find out.” Except … God knows and we know, and we are hurt by giving in, and our relationships with others are often hurt as well.
For the final temptation, Jesus was transported from the wilderness to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. As crowds of pilgrims and worshipers passed by below, the tempter said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written that the angels will protect you” (Lk 4:9-10). Here, the tempter quoted scripture in an attempt to prod Jesus into action. Think of it. This could have been the defining moment of Jesus’ life and ministry. With all the crowds below, this would have been his viral video moment – jumping off the Temple and being saved by angels. Word of mouth would have spread like wildfire; people would have flocked from everywhere to see the one who God saved in such a spectacular way. Jesus could have claimed his place as Messiah in marvelous glory, without ever having to go to and through the humiliation of the cruel cross. It would have been so amazing; it would have been so much easier. We are sometimes tempted to take the easy way in life, instead of taking the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to life with God.
Each temptation offered Jesus the opportunity to deny his identity and to take a shortcut through life. Shortcuts are often easy to justify. “After all,” we tell ourselves, “I deserve it; no one will be hurt by it; and God, if you really love, you’ll do this for me.” But Jesus rejected all the shortcuts, trusting and knowing that God has much more for him – that he is called on a mission to change the world in just three short years.
How can we deal with temptations that come our way? Jesus provides a wonderful example. When temptation came to him, Jesus leaned on God’s Word. He answered each temptation with guidance from the Bible. “One does not live by bread alone,” comes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses told the children of Israel that God led them on the Exodus and fed them with manna supplied by God, so they would understand that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He met the second temptation with Deuteronomy 6:13; “Worship the Lord your God and serve God only.” In the case of the third temptation, Jesus recognized scripture from Psalm 91:11 that the devil misused in tempting him, and he responded again with scripture from Deuteronomy 6:16, which reads, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Scripture is a tool that can help us today distinguish between what’s counterfeit and what’s authentic. Advertisers tell us that we are inadequate, that we lack something that would give us meaning and identity, and that for just three easy payments of $19.99 plus shipping and handling, we can have fulfillment delivered right to our doorstep. Shortcuts offer us counterfeit substitutes that lead us away from God and away from our true identity.
God loves us so much that God sent Jesus into the world and into the wilderness, where we are at our most vulnerable, suffering pain, rejection, temptation, where we had been led to die alone and abandoned, nameless and forgotten. God in Christ moved into the wilderness to meet us there, so we will realize we are never alone in our temptation and struggles. The Resurrection proves that love is more powerful than the tempting voices, the rejecting voices, than even death.
Our identity as God’s beloved children is declared over us in our baptism. In the wilderness, Jesus refused to give into temptation and to be someone he was not. When the voices of rejection, deception and temptation whisper to you, remember who and whose you are – you are a beloved child of God. In Christ, who moved into our neighborhood, you are loved, saved and healed, and you are offered a relationship that sustains and guides you through the assaults on your identity. You are accepted not because of what you have or have not done, but because you belong to God. That is a gift of grace poured out through the cross. You are enough because God says so.
I need to be reminded of that again and again. My identity is not based on whether you like me or not. It does not depend on whether this sermon is a home run or a strikeout. It is not based on the car I drive, the education I have achieved, the success of my children or my career. My identity is only found in Jesus Christ, who has given me his Spirit in baptism to empower, encourage and assure me.
We can give up trying to earn God’s grace that has already been freely offered and given as a gift for us simply to receive.
Amid trials, God has moved into the wilderness to walk with you and equip you. God understands you and what you are going through. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that in Christ “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). By his grace, say no to the shortcuts the world offers and yes to the promises of God’s word. This is the victory that overcomes the world.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you have been there; you understand our testing, adversity and even our death. You have overcome by the power of the Spirit. Pour out your Spirit and make us individually and as a congregation to be overcomers with you. To the glory of your name. Amen.