A Forty-Day Journey

Pastor Monte Stevens  ―  North Riverdale Lutheran Church
February 14, 2016  ―  Luke 4:1-13

A Forty-Day Journey

Welcome on this Valentine’s Day. I suppose it’s ironic that this is also the First Sunday in Lent.

Lent is generally that season of the year when people have chosen a favorite treat or some vice to give up for these six weeks. One man said his children traditionally gave up something like candy for Lent. Last year, however, he urged them to go beyond that to giving up some habit or sin that they knew was bad for them. About halfway through Lent he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. His youngest son had promised to give up fighting with his brothers and sisters during Lent. When his father asked him how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty well, Dad–but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!”

Any of you who have tried to give up anything you really enjoy, for the long season of Lent, you know what he’s talking about. It’s a long time until Easter. As you read in my Lenten letter that I sent out this year, I stated I was going to give up doughnuts, ice cream and overtly sugary things. What’s the definition of overtly sugary things?  Right, that leaves me a little wiggle room.

So the letter went out last Sunday afternoon, and Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday, the front door bell of the church rings and someone wants to give me this -Three pounds of M&M delight! As you can see it will be a long-time to Easter!

Now while I’m giving up a few things for Lent, I don’t think that is what this temptation story is really about. When the gospel writers were creating this story, they were not thinking that this would be an inspirational story for folks like me to kick bad habits, and put the kibosh on chocolate. I don’t think the gospel writers even knew what chocolate was. So what were the gospel writers up to if they were not trying to have us kick some of our bad habits?

First, we must remember that St. Paul, the earliest writer in our New Testament never talks about Jesus being in the wilderness. And neither does our latest writer the gospel of John. Only Mark, Matthew and Luke have this story, and all Mark says is, that Jesus was driven out by the spirit into the wilderness, and tempted by Satan for 40 days. Mark is the earliest Gospel writer and has the simplest story.  Actually he has next to no details. It’s only when we get to Matthew and Luke that they create all the details of the wilderness experience.

They are the ones who created the dialog between Jesus and his adversary, and created three specific temptations. So they have taken the bare bones story of Mark and expanded it, and filled it with theological content. First of all we know it’s a theological story rather than a literal story because of the 40 days. Remember 40 is a symbolic and theological number in the Bible: it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, Moses’ 40 days on the mountain without food,  Ex 34, Duet 9, Elijah’s 40 days in flight to the mountain of God, 1 Kings 19, and, of course, Israel’s 40 years of struggle in the wilderness. All these stories, in one way or another, have to do with the struggle of temptation and the gravitas of temptation to pull us away from that which is important and holy.

All these stories, in one way or another, have to do with the struggle of discovering what a meaningful life is, and how one can be tempted to follow other paths that promise meaning.  In many ways, these all relate to being tempted away from life with God, or being prepared to live out a life of faithfulness with God.

The gospel writers know the history of Israel – you can’t find the Promise Land – the land flowing with milk and honey, unless you go through the wilderness.

Today we might say it this way, before you get life right, it’s inevitable that you get it wrong a few times. We have all gone through some wilderness trips and come up empty. So the gospel writers are reminding their communities of faith that they are on the right path because they are following the right Messiah. They are on the right path, because they are following the One who has gone through the wilderness and come out victorious. To reach the Promise land you must go through the wilderness.

It was true of God’s people then, and it is true for God’s people now, as they follow this One by the name of Jesus, God’s chosen and Anointed.

We know he’s true and worthy of our following, and we can trust him, because he has been tested, and has come out the other side. Jesus was tempted by all the bread you can eat, all the power you could want, and all the security you would desire. Jesus was tempted by bread, power and safety tempted by the false promises of power, ego control.

The question the gospel writer’s answer with this wilderness story is this, would Jesus be the messiah God’s people needed, or would Jesus be tempted by power, ego and control and leave us looking for another messiah? Would Jesus remain on the path of self-less love, or be just like every other leader, and grab enough for himself and his own pleasures? Would Jesus be Me-centered, or remain Other-centered? Because being Other-centered is essential to living out our state of blessedness, and is essential to staying on the path of living a meaningful life.  So the gospel writers send Jesus out into the wilderness to see just what type of Messiah Jesus was going to be. Could he withstand all the temptations to easier paths, and more selfish paths, that all others had already taken, or could he resist the easier substitutes that falsely promised life, but which only led to diminished life?

Well, Jesus passes all the tests, and the gospel writers display Jesus before the world as the One to follow, and as the One who will lead us to the promise land of life and life abundant.  They are saying you have been created for LIFE, and you are begin tempted, all the time, by meager substitutes. Jesus did not choose the meager substitutes – ego, power, wealth – he chose the path of true and meaningful life. So we choose to follow him, because we were created to experience the true richness and depth of life. And Jesus teaches us how to reach that depth of life; we call it life and life abundant.

But we know all too well how we can be tempted to get life all wrong. And we find ourselves in the wildness, wandering, and trying on the temptations of ego, power, wealth, and all sorts of other lesser substitutes, trading the richness and depth of life, for instant pleasures, and false promise of happiness.

On Ash Wednesday I shared how I understand the season of Lent these days. I see Lent as a 40 day period to reflect deeply about how I have missed the wholeness of Life. How I have gotten off track in following Jesus, and once again discover that I am in the wilderness substituting real Life with cheaper imitations of life. How I have a propensity to shift my allegiance, trust and confidence, away from God, toward substitutes that falsely promise what they can’t deliver, deep, rich meaningful Life. And we are tempted every day, as we watch TV, participate in social networking, and scan the media landscape.

Promises of happiness, fun, joy, prosperity, meaning, and the blessed life, are offered by the Me-centered culture, but buyers beware, of the Me-centered temptations. For Jesus repeatedly leads us in the direction, and down the path of Other-centered living. Every day we are tempted by, power, wealth, and security; by youth, beauty, and fame, and too many others to list that call for your allegiance, and falsely promise you the world.

A meaningful life starts with following Jesus, the one who, in his living, passed by all the temptations that still face us today, and invites us toward true and abundant life.  Jesus invites us “Follow me” to try the path of Other-centered living, the only path that leads us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

I love the way Luke ends this story, the adversary of God had finished every test, and he departed until an opportune time. That time for Jesus was the cross, would he bear it or not – that’s 40 days hence for us – and we will learn Jesus’ final lesson of selfless loving and living then.

So during these 40 days of lent, I encourage you to find new ways to follow Jesus, and give your allegiance to God, saying goodbye to the false promises that leads one away from life and life abundant.

May you have a blessed 40 day journey!