Sermon: An Opportune Time

cartoon angel and devil

Luke 4: 1 – 15:  Jesus is Tempted in the Wilderness

When I think about temptation, I think back to when I was watching cartoons as a kid.  There was one cartoon where Sylvester the Puddy tat, was eyeing Tweetie Bird in his cage, and suddenly a red devil Sylvester with horns appears on one shoulder and says, “do it.”

Immediately, an angel Sylvester, dressed in a long white robe, complete with harp and halo appears and says, “don’t do it.”  Sylvester is clearly torn until finally the devil Sylvester jumps across to the other shoulder and kicks the angel Sylvester out of the picture. Sylvester grins, Free at last, and attempts, as always, to gobble up poor Tweetie Bird.

As a child, I would often imagine those two figures, devil and angel, balancing on my shoulders whispering “do it”/”don’t do it” with great enthusiasm, when I found myself internally debating the wisdom of one of my Mom’s rules regarding sharing with my little brother; or the practicality of my teacher’s admonitions against peeking at my neighbor’s test when I didn’t know the answer; or even debating the reasonableness of the great commandment about loving everyone, because the boys that lived next door to us could be so annoying!

I would like to say the angel always won out…but that is far from true, apparently I was quite a handful.  But I can look back at those childhood times of wrestling with temptation, and see the beginning of my development of a conscience, and a heart, and a sense of justice, and a consideration for others, all within a child’s idea of what it means to try to tag along behind Jesus.

I wish I could say that as an adult it’s easier to wrestle with temptation but the dilemmas we face get more challenging and the choices are not as simple and clear cut as when we are children.

Wouldn’t it be great if temptation really did appear to us as a red devil with horns and cloven hooves, and a long pointy tail?  It would be so much easier to resist because the right choice would be so obvious and temptation would be so scary that we would run away screaming in fear and terror instead of giving in.

Unfortunately, temptation comes to us with a pleasant smile and an outstretched hand of friendship.  Temptation speaks to us with a soft spoken voice that makes solid and logical arguments, or a vibrant and commanding voice that seems to make complete sense.

Temptation comes to us covered with chocolate frosting, or wearing our favorite color, or offering us our heart’s desire for nothing more than the cost of shipping and handling, or our mere signature on a deal that’s too good to be true.  That is because our greatest tempter dwells within our own hearts and therefore, intimately knows our wants and our desires.

Today, when we join Jesus, he has already been in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, eating nothing at all, tempted by the devil.  His 40 days are over and he is famished, starving to the point of death.”

During this time of testing, Jesus is his most human, his most vulnerable… What is more fleshly than starving?  What is more human than being near death?  And his time of depletion and suffering is exactly when Satan, the tempter, the adversary, raises his most insidious and compelling arguments.

The adversary makes very reasonable and practical suggestions to Jesus, after all, why shouldn’t Jesus satisfy his hunger with a little bread – it’s only a stone after all – no harm, no foul; and wouldn’t it be GREAT if Jesus ruled the world instead of all the corrupt and oppressive rulers, like Rome for example; think of all the good Jesus could do if he took their place…what a better world it would be with Jesus in charge of everything…

…and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself from the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him?  That would show the Sadducees and Pharisees who was boss!  That would be all the proof anyone would ever need!  That would end all debate and convert every non-believer in one grand, heavenly gesture, Wouldn’t it?  Huh?  Wouldn’t it??

Wouldn’t it be worth it Jesus…to just bend your knee…to me?

Seems like a fair trade-off, but Jesus reminds us with each of his replies that what is at stake, is his trust and faith in God.

-“One does not live by bread alone…but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

 -“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

 -“Do not put the Lord your God to the test…you must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God…do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…”

The greatest temptation going on here is that Jesus has the power to change the whole world for the better, but it would change Jesus…it would change who Jesus is…it would change Jesus relationship with God, and he won’t do that….not for anything.

Jesus prevails because he rejects power as defined in human terms illustrating most clearly that he is a Messiah unlike any other.  Jesus’ time of testing increases his reliance on God and makes it clear that his ministry is going to be about saving, not enslaving,

…that his power will only be used for others, never for himself…not even when he is starving to the point of death, or taken prisoner in Gethsemane, or hanging from a cross.

Temptation hits us at the most opportune time…when we are weak and vulnerable…when we are hungry or hurting.  When we are feeling frail and fearful….that is when we are most vulnerable to doubt…

…in the midst of our suffering when we most need God, we most often distrust God’s ability to help us, to lead us, to comfort us, to heal us…to save us.

No one ever said that following Jesus would be easy….and yet here we are…doing our best to resist the daily temptations in our lives that can separate us from God and God’s word…that can isolate us from one another, that can trip us up as we try to tag along after Jesus.

The disciples had no idea what they were getting into when they left their nets in their boats and followed after Jesus.  Neither do we when we gather together to try to discern God’s will.  That’s where the trust part comes in.  That’s where the faith part comes in.

That’s when we brush the little devil off our shoulder or at least put a finger in our ear…and try to listen for where the voice of God is calling us…we to try to reach out and grab hold of the hem of Jesus robe so that we can follow blindly, faithfully, where he is leading us.

Jesus resisted using his power to save the whole world.  He left the whole world in God’s hands and instead, he used his power to save people, one at a time, face to face, heart to heart, renewing their faith and trust in God with a smile, a touch, a look, a loaf of bread, and water jugs filled with wine at a wedding.

Jesus didn’t use his power to save the whole world, he used it to build God’s kingdom…he was God’s kingdom. Everywhere we go is God’s kingdom.  Like Jesus, we carry the power of God’s kingdom within us.

And so each week we gather and we pray as Jesus taught us to pray saying, …lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil..

Each of us has our own demons that we wrestle with…those things that cut us off from God, or interfere with us being our own best self, or isolate us from others.  And Our trials and temptations are many….There are all manner of things that lead us into wilderness places where we can wander lost, feeling abandon and alone, but,

“John Stendahl, a local pastor and blogger, says, “the desert is not God-forsaken nor does it belong to the devil.  It is God’s home.  The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us.  And if we cannot feel that spirit inside of us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave.”

So next time you feel lost and alone in the wilderness being tempted with doubt and hopelessness, Imagine Jesus on both your shoulders, patting you on the back, pointing out the way to go.  Imagine Jesus at your side, his gentle voice cheering you on.  Imagine Jesus, opening you to the presence of the Spirit and strengthening your trust in God.

Imagine Jesus leading you through the wilderness and bringing you safely home to God.

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