Monday, January 26, 2015

A New Kingdom - Trust under Fire

Preached on Sunday, January 25, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 91; Matthew 4:1-11

In My Garden: January 26, 2015
My first real thinking about the Devil goes way back to the time when I was a real swinger. I was about six years old, and I was playing on the swing set in our back yard with my friend Johnny.
Johnny asked me if I believed in the Devil. I said that I didn’t know but I would ask my mom. I went into the house and yelled, “Mommy, do we believe in the Devil.” She said, “No, we don’t.” So I went back outside and told Johnny, “No, I don’t believe in the Devil.” And Johnny said, “Um, then you’re going to hell!”
I believe that Johnny was wrong about me going to hell if I didn’t believe in the Devil. At that age, I already had a deeply felt love for Jesus and a deeply felt sense of Jesus’ love for me. That would have kept me safe.
In the end, it did keep me safe. But my ignorance of the Devil turned out to be dangerous. My discovery of the reality of the Devil was one of the scariest things that ever happened to me. I was ambushed by him when I didn’t even believe in him. I was seventeen at the time. But that’s another story.
By Devil I don’t mean a character with horns, and bat wings, and a red cape, and a pitchfork. The devil is not really like the pictures of him in old books or in modern movies. The Devil is a spirit, and he doesn’t have to look like anything or sound like anything.
The devil is the chief of the fallen angels. Devils are creatures like the good angels, and like us. They are at war with God because they hate the truth that God is so much more than they are (and so much greater than they are).
In a long, long story they got us humans to join their rebellion against sharing life with the God who is the source of all life. They got us to join their war of independence against a God on whom we must depend; a God whose love is inescapable; a God from whom there is no refuge, although he is the greatest refuge of all.
In the Garden of Eden, the Devil and his minions got us to cut the ties that really were an essential part of us. We cut off part of what we must be in order to live as the creatures of love and trust that we were created to be.
From Adam and Eve we have inherited a nature made in the image of God. Yet we have also inherited a nature that vandalizes, mutilates, and wounds itself and others.
The Devil sacrificed his wholeness for his independence and he, and his fellow devils, work with all their might to keep us away from the ties of life. They fight everything that threatens to lead us back to a life with God which they have rejected for themselves.
It’s hard for us to fight against this because half of our hearts are on the enemy’s side. Even when we are on Jesus’ side we still have to fight against ourselves. The enemy is within, even when the Devil is no where about. We really don’t even need the Devil in order to be tempted. We have all the resources we need for temptation inside us: in our minds, in our hearts, and in some of our other parts.
We were created for love: to be loved and to give love. This is part of what we are as creatures created in the image of God: for God is love. In the Garden of Eden, the Devil tempted the first humans to doubt the fact that they were beloved.
They were tempted to think that God was holding something back from them, so that they had the right to take what God denied them: the knowledge of good and evil. Really this means the knowledge of what will benefit us and what will hurt us; what will bless us and what will curse us.
Eating the knowledge of good and evil meant that Adam and Eve wouldn’t have to rely on a God who was holding out on them, who didn’t really love them in spite of all he said. If they weren’t sincerely beloved, then they needed to look out for number one, and number one wasn’t God any more.
If they had trusted that they were beloved, they would have trusted God, who defined who they were by loving them. Their trust would be a way of making God their beloved. But they didn’t choose that, and so they mutilated human nature and deformed it into a life that didn’t feel or live like a beloved life. This was a great loss.
We live in a world of conflict because we live in a world of people who do not know that they and everyone else are beloved. We see this between races and ethnic groups. We see this conflict between nations and religions. We see this conflict in communities, and families, and churches.
In Jesus, God came into this conflict in order to create a new world of beloved lives living in a beloved world. And so, at the Jordan River, Jesus stood in the place of humans who needed to repent, who needed to turn their lives around to God’s love and purpose.
Jesus entered the waters of baptism and began his journey to the cross, and he heard his Father say the words that all human beings need to hear, “You are my Son, my Daughter, whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” (Paraphrase of Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11)
Then the Holy Spirit of God led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1) The Greek word that is often translated as “tempted” can, just as well, be translated as “tested”.
The reason this matters is that we often misunderstand what temptation is. When we are tempted to compromise, when we are tempted to get what we want even though it means hurting those who know us and trust us, we think that the desire is only working in one direction. We feel as though all the weight of what we are going through is pushing us to say “yes” to what we are supposed to say “no”.
But a test can work two ways. A test can be failed, and a test can be passed. Martin Luther said that temptations were like birds. He said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying around your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your beard.”
When I was in college and when I was waiting to be ordained, after seminary, I worked in a cannery. This work tested me. I worked under a metal roof in summers when the temperatures rose above one hundred degrees. I worked with the retorts (the giant pressure cookers) that cooked loads of cans. This made it even hotter. I sometimes worked twelve or even fourteen hours a day, six and a half days a week.
It was a test. Sometimes I hated it. Sometimes I loved it. I did my work well. I was co-manager, which meant that I still did all my own work, plus I had to make sure that the other employees did all their work as well. I passed the test.
In the town where I served my first church there was a guy about my age named Allen. He wasn’t in the church. But he came to me a lot, to talk. He was messing up his life like crazy.
One shining moment he got a job with a roofer. I congratulated him with all my heart, but he quit after a week. “You have no idea,” he said, “of what it is like to work up on a roof all day long in the hot sun.” This was on the Oregon coast.
I told him I did too know. I told him about my work in the cannery. I told him that he needed to take some test like being a roofer and pass that test. He needed to be able to do what was hard.
In the desert, Jesus did what was hard for him and impossible for us. Jesus didn’t need to do any of this for us, except that by doing it for us he was being true to himself.
Jesus took hunger, and thirst, and desire, and weariness, and pain, and the persuasive voices telling him to take the easy way. He didn’t listen to the voices, or to his own misery, or to his own desires. He won the test.
Yet the test wasn’t over. It was a test that lasted all his life in this world, not just in the desert. The Lord’s test included the cross. It brought us the forgiveness of grace, but it also gave to him the completeness that we need to find in him. In Jesus we find a God who knows us from the inside. He has been tested just as we are, but without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) And so he went all the way in the hardest things where we fall short.
When we are weak, he is still strong for us. He can be strong in us, if we learn to let him. He is strong enough, even when we fail, to call us beloved in such a way that we must believe him and let him in.
How was Jesus tested for us? He was tested in ways that we cannot be tested because we aren’t Jesus. We can’t turn stones into bread. We can’t throw ourselves off buildings and live. We can’t rule the world. Jesus could do all those things. He was tested according to what he could do.
Like Jesus, we are tested by what we can do. We are tempted to do what we can get away with. We do it because we can. Jesus teaches us to not make decisions based on the simple fact that we do it because we can, or because we can get away with it.
Jesus was tempted to jump off the temple that was full of people who were waiting for the Messiah. They were waiting for the right person to make an impression on them. Jesus was tempted to win by impressing people, not by treating them as beloved. We are tempted to not treat others as beloved, but as objects to be won and used for our self fulfillment.
Jesus was tempted to gain the world by worshiping the Devil. You realize this compromise would save Jesus from the right kind of savior. There would be no cross to make us new. There would be no cross to create a new heaven and earth. The devil would still have us, and he would also have beaten God. Jesus would win the world that was his by right, but he would rule it without the sacrifice that comes from true love. We would never truly be the beloved.
This was not an easy choice; not even for Jesus. More than once, Jesus was tempted by his desire to not die on the cross. The night before his death he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup (this cross) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
And so we would never have known what it meant to be beloved. We would live in a world like ours that was condemned to never change: a world where power and wealth make right, a world not ruled by love.
And so we would rule our lives and our choices without love because love can be hard. Jesus was tempted to see the plan of love (the plan of the cross) as being too hard.
How do we pass the test? Jesus met each test with words from the scriptures. They all happen to come from close together in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament (chapters six and eight). Maybe this tells us we don’t need to know much in order to know what we need.
All of the words and the stories from the scriptures are about us being made to love God and to be loved by God, or else they tell us what happens when we don’t respond to love. They tell us that the greatest thing in life is to love God and to know God’s worth and goodness. In this way, the Bible is inspired for the purpose of telling us who God is and who we are and the story of his long, long faithful love.
The Bible is a miracle. It is like a magic book, but there are no magic words in it. Its inspiration is meant to tell us the secret of being beloved. That is the magic. That is how we meet the test.
To be beloved is to know that who you are and how you live matters to God, to the people who know and love you, and to the whole world.
The scriptures quoted by Jesus told him that. They tell us the same thing. It matters what you choose to do and to be.
The testing of Jesus gives us some warnings. Jesus was tested or tempted all his life. We never graduate from being tested and tempted.
Jesus was tempted to use good things in self serving ways. Bread is good, but Jesus had gone into the desert to meet a test and not to eat. Jesus would eat bread in the future. He would even go on to make lots of bread out of practically nothing, when the time was right.
Passing our test does not mean believing that the good things in life are bad, or that God doesn’t want us to have them. Passing our test simply means believing that the good things in life are made for a love, and a joy, and a relationship that lasts. That relationship is what counts. It’s the best thing in a world full of good things.
Jesus was tested in the most inconvenient times and places, when he was least up to it. Our temptations come the same way. The Devil does not play fair. The part of us that is still in rebellion against the inescapable love of God does not play fair.
The words from Psalm Ninety One were used by the devil to tempt Jesus. We will find that we are tempted even by the scriptures. This happens because of our appetite for self serving. Our appetite tricks us into the misuse of holy things: the scriptures, prayer, the church, and even God himself.
Jesus was tempted to think that the words of scripture were magic words to get gifts from God. He was tempted to think that if he used certain words, in a certain way, he would be blessed. He was being tempted to use God’s word in order to use God for himself and for his own causes. We can be tempted the same way.
Go back to Psalm Ninety One: “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12) These words really are about Jesus. Jesus is the Son who always lives at the side of the Father. He truly is the one for whom this is true, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1)
The truth is that, if anyone was ever safe, Jesus was safe. It is true, in the end, that nothing hurt Jesus. Nothing defeated him. He was whipped and he felt it. Nails were driven into his hands and feet and he felt them. Jesus died on the cross just as anyone who dies a painful death. But Jesus rules. Jesus is the victor. Jesus has victory and peace to share with us, for we are his beloved and he is ours, and we are following Jesus.
Just because Jesus was hungry, and thirsty, and misunderstood, and hated, and crucified doesn’t mean that Jesus was ever anything but safe and sheltered. So are we. We are most likely to fail the test when we fail to believe that we are just as beloved (and that others are just as beloved) as Jesus is.

God will take just as good care of us as the everlasting Father took care of his everlasting Son. The cross and the empty grave of Jesus is the guarantee of that: of that sheltering love, of that refuge we find in God.

1 comment:

  1. Such a wonderful sermon, I want to print your sermons and keep them with me to re-read!
    When Jesus was in the desert, "the angels attended to his needs".
    I love that, they gave him what was needed.
    For me, that makes me think that when we are going through our times in the desert, we need to let the angels in our lives to care for us. That is God coming to us, our real refuge in the world!