I was at an airport awhile back just walking around while waiting on my next flight. I saw a young woman with a baby in one arm, while trying to hold the hand of a child on her other side. She looked down at her son and said, "Max, big boys don't run. Good boys stay with their Mommy." And almost immediately Max looked up, smiled, and then took off. The thought had been planted in his head, and it was just too tempting. Max ran right into the arms of a man coming from the other direction. It was obviously his father, who said - I kid you not -- "that was some good running Max." I looked back at the mother and I did not have to be a mind reader to know what she was thinking. I’ve seen that look too many times.
To be human is to face temptation. Temptation is a part of the way we learn how to be faithful and fruitful. We note that even Jesus faced temptation as he humbled himself and entered into our struggle.
We just heard the story of the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness. In other words, this is a God thing. Now, to be clear, we can’t blame God for the darkness, heartache, and pain that comes in the wilderness. The wilderness is a metaphor for all that. It is a place where are hearts can be hardened and our love for God and others can grow cold as a log that is removed from the fire. That can happen in the wilderness of life. But God does not cause the “wilderness.” In our fallen world, the wilderness is reality and God is there, in the midst of it all, and is able to use the wilderness for good. The hope is that we would discover light in the darkness, grace in the struggle, and life as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Now here it gets complicated. There’s more than one view of the devil in the Bible. The view of an evil Satan-type devil can be found in the Bible, but in actuality, that view comes more from the middle ages and from books like Dante's Inferno than it does from the Bible. Here, in this passage and in many others, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, the "devil" is seen more as the member of the heavenly court; he is the antagonist, he is the one who doesn't like or trust humans very much. This devil, as a full member of the heavenly court, doesn't understand God's desire to connect with us disgusting humans, and so he is the one who tests Jesus and tries to get him to see that we humans aren’t worth his time. Jesus doesn’t buy it. There are many humans who treat other humans this way, as if they aren’t worth much, but Jesus doesn’t give into this hardness of heart. (See also Job 1:6; I Chron 21:1; Num 22:22; Zec 3:1-12, among others).
The devil says, "Why don't you use your power to feed yourself ... who cares about others." Jesus says no. "Why don't you test God and make him save you..." Jesus says no. "Why don't you just take over the kingdoms of the earth and rule...?" At every turn, Jesus says "no." And in doing so, he is ultimately able to say “yes” to so much more.
In order for us to embrace God's yes, we must be able to say "no." That's the big point here. For example, God says "yes" to forgiveness and calls us to say “yes” to forgiveness. To do so, we have to find ourselves in situations where we learn to say “no” to jealousy, for example, or the arrogance and self-righteousness that leads us to want revenge. God says "yes" to love – love enough to even embrace our enemies. For us to say "yes" to this love we must say “no” to all forms of hatred and contempt. God says "yes" to life and wants this life for us. And Jesus teaches us how to enter this life. He says things like “those who try to save their own life will lose it and those who give life away that find true life.” It is the opposite of what the devil tempts Jesus to do in the wilderness. The devil tempts him, and us, to look out for number one – others aren’t worth anything. Jesus says “no” to this.
We can think about this, not just in terms of us as individuals, but also for us as the church. What happens to a church that tries to save its own life – when a church is only concerned about itself? What happens when we start to focus on keeping the people who are already here comfortable? What happens when we become more concerned about maintaining our customs than we do about making disciples and transforming the world? Those who seek to save their own life will lose it. True, abundant, eternal life is found in sharing life and giving it away. So, what do we, as a community of faith together, need to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to God?
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. This is a 40-day period for us to reflect, and pray, and fast, and prepare ourselves for God’s ultimate “yes” that comes with Easter. Perhaps a good way to think of this season is to think of it as a time to work on our “no’s” and our “yes’s.” It is a time to be more intentional about living as God intends. And I would invite you to read the paraphrase of John Wesley’s sermon where he deals with the wilderness in which we find ourselves. He gives details about the way sin can work in our lives and shares resources for how we can overcome and grow.
Know this. It is not too late to start a Lenten discipline ... to give up something as a way to make room for God to come in and pour blessings into you ... to make a commitment to give in some way ... to engage in prayer and reading of scripture in order to grow in your understanding of what God wants for you. To use a traditional phrase, I invite you to observe a holy Lent. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.