1st Sunday in Lent 2/18/2024

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Genesis 9:8-17   8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” 

Matthew 4:1-11  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The Road Into the Wilderness

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. This Lenten season we are going to go on a journey with Jesus, if you will. Each week we will travel the road to different destinations. Today we are going down the road into the wilderness. 

Have you ever been in the wilderness?  I think the furthest I was ever out in wilderness was up in Alaska.  I went along with others on a salmon fishing trip.  The first part was by boat and then I hiked in the rest of the way while others continued by boat so I spent several hours alone in what are temperate rain forests on the island of Ketchikan.  I saw hundreds of salmon swimming upstream, otters playing in the water, bald eagles soaring high above, and luckily no bears.  There is something about being alone in the wilderness that brings you closer to God.  Of course, this was a good wilderness experience.  I planned to go there and I knew there would be a cabin stocked with food at the end of the day.  

There are many places of wilderness, many not as nice as the one I was in.  In the Bible, the wilderness is usually a place of testing.  Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden into what was surely a wilderness to them after living in the Garden.  Noah’s wilderness experience came while riding in the ark on the waters of the flood.  Moses and the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness.  In each case, God used the wilderness experience to teach.  Have you had a wilderness experience in your life?  A time of testing and trial?  It may not have been in a physical wilderness, it may have been in the wilderness of grief, injury, depression or disease.  It may have been a struggle through an addiction, a divorce or long-term unemployment.  Any time in your life where you struggle with your faith, where you find yourself calling out to God for rescue can be a wilderness experience.  

In our Old Testament lesson today, we heard the end of Noah’s story of the Flood.  God finds the world filled with evil and determines that the only way to ‘redeem’ the world is to begin again. Noah was the one righteous man found in his generation.  God used Noah to rescue a remnant from the Flood so there could be a new beginning.  At the end of the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendents to never again cause a flood to destroy the earth and gave us the rainbow as a sign to remind us of God’s promise.    

Starting over with Noah, covenants with Abraham, rescuing the people from Egypt through Moses, none of this resulted in a people who love and follow God.  So God sent his only son Jesus to show us the way.  We are in the gospel of Matthew today just after Jesus has been baptized.

Our Gospel lesson today gives us a chance to examine Jesus’ own wilderness experience and how he was tempted.  Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights, then the tempter came.  Jesus was already in a hard place before the temptations even began.  All of the temptations are challenges to who Jesus is and what he has come to do.  The first two are challenges to Jesus’ identity and purpose as the Son of God.  Each time Satan says, “IF you are the Son of God,” implying doubt as to Jesus’ identity.  It’s as if he is saying, “Son of God, huh, I don’t believe you, prove it!”  Satan tried to get Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God rather than relying on what God had just proclaimed at his baptism when the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Satan often attacks our identity as children of God.  It is his voice that we hear telling us we are no good, we will never measure up, God doesn’t love us, what we have done is too bad to ever be forgiven.  This is a lie!  God most certainly does love us.  Our identity as God’s children comes not through what we have done or not done but through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross who redeemed us all.  

An opposite attack on our identity comes through pride.  The idea that we are better than others, that we deserve more, that we are special.  Pride is a slippery slope that leads to nothing good, for us or others.  When we depend on God for our identity, we learn to live out of the truth that we are beloved sons and daughters of God as are others, and we learn to love and serve others as Jesus did.

In the first temptation Satan says, “IF you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  He tempted Jesus to use his God-given power for his own comfort.  After all, we know Jesus had the power to turn the stones into bread if he had wished.  In the first recorded miracle, he changed water into wine; later he feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  Stones into bread, no problem!  Remember though, Jesus wasn’t fasting because he was out of food.  Jesus was fasting as a discipline; Satan tempted Jesus to break that discipline, to put comfort first ahead of purpose.  

Jesus responds to Satan with scripture from Deuteronomy 8:3; one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3b).  Listen to the full verse: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  God forced the Israelites to be dependent on him so that they learned to trust him.  

A good question for us this morning is do we trust God?  We know we are supposed to, but do we?  What we see from the Israelites, others in the Bible and Jesus is that God uses wilderness experiences to teach us to trust him.  What does it mean to trust God, to fully rely on God?  Partly it means to surrender to the will of God.  When we trust God, we are saying not my will but yours be done.  Trust in God means relying on the character of God, knowing beyond doubt that God is good.  When we trust God to see us through the circumstances of life, we trust that our God will be with us through the bad and that God will bring good even out of bad.

Next Satan takes Jesus to Jerusalem, the holy city.  This was the center of religious and political power for Israel.  It was more holy, more filled with God’s presence than any other place.  Satan takes Jesus to the very top of the temple, the pinnacle, where heaven and earth intersect.  Then Satan said, “IF you are the Son of God throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”  Satan is quoting from Psalm 91.  Jesus used scripture against him in the first temptation and now Satan is trying to use scripture against Jesus.  This temptation, also an attack on his identity, is to test God rather than trust God; to make God prove he is worthy of trust.  Will God intervene to save Jesus’ life?  Eventually, Jesus will walk the journey to the cross and God will not intervene to save his life because that is not what Jesus came for.  Jesus does not test God’s faithfulness but trusts in God for the realization of his identity and purpose.  Later on during the passion account, Jesus will refuse both the aid of angels to escape the cross and calls to come down from the cross to save himself.

 Now Jesus answers Satan again with scripture from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.  (Deut 6:16).  This verse recalls the time in Exodus 17 when the Israelites had no water in the wilderness and they complained to Moses saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  God has Moses strike a rock and water came out of it for the people.  Scripture says, “This is where the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

How do we test the Lord instead of trust the Lord?  Sometimes we want God to prove himself to us.  God, if you’re up there then…  Sometimes we think we know better than God and want to tell him what to do.  If what we want doesn’t happen then we think God isn’t there.  I know I struggled to keep trusting God through seminary.  I kept reminding God that the money was going to run out.  I would trust for a while and then fear would take over.  God would come through, I would get the money for a semester and I would trust for a while.  Then another bill would arrive and I would be back to not trusting God.  I find it very easy to trust God when life is easy, much harder to trust when I’m going through a trial.  I have come to realize that every time I worry, I am not trusting God.  

Something I want us to see this morning is that in each temptation, Jesus is led higher and higher.  From the wilderness to the pinnacle of the temple to the high mountain and each temptation offers a higher level of power.  The final temptation is to disregard his identity as the Son of God, to turn from God and worship Satan.  Satan took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  Then he said, “I will give you all this if you will fall down and worship me.”  Satan was tempting him to turn from his God-given purpose, to seek power instead of God’s will.  If Jesus were to accept the devil’s offer he would achieve control of the world without the necessity of the cross but this would be turning from God’s power of love to the power of Satan and death, the power of domination, exploitation and manipulation.  A power that divides and destroys rather than God’s power of love and mercy that brings healing and wholeness.  God’s reign is realized not through the power of the world but through the power of love, of service, of following the path of Jesus.  After the resurrection, Jesus does receive all power in heaven and on earth, far more than that offered by Satan.

In response to Satan’s temptation, Jesus turns the tables on him completely and orders him, “Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

 We are all tempted to worship Satan or other idols; fame, fortune, power.  When we worship the things of this world we are again not trusting God to care for us and are instead relying on created things instead of the Creator.  How foolish we are!  Trusting in houses and bank accounts instead of God.  

The result of the temptations is that Jesus’ path to the cross now clearly lies ahead.  Jesus’ refusal to worship Satan and his refusal to use worldly forms of power mean that they will now defeat him at the cross but they will ultimately be defeated through the resurrection.  Both ourselves as individuals and the church are tested as Jesus was.  The question always before us is whether we will trust the things of this world or trust God, whether we will choose the power of the world or the power of the cross.  It is with confidence that we can follow Jesus’ way because Jesus has overcome the world and the powers of death and won the victory for us over sin and death.  It is ultimately up to us to turn from temptation, turn from the easy path and instead seek the way of the cross, the way of Jesus of Nazareth, the one and only Son of God.

The season of Lent is a opportunity to contemplate what our Lord Jesus Christ really did for us on the cross. Our hymn of response this morning is one we will be singing throughout Lent. The words go right to the heart of Lent, of what this Lenten season can be for us. The song tells of the depth of God’s love for us, and of how far the Father went and what the Son endured to bring us back from the wilderness of our separation. Please listen closely to the words as we sing, I pray they speak to your heart as they have spoken to mine.