March 5, 2017 – It is written

Lent 1    March 5, 2017   (Psalm 32, Genesis 2:15-17, Romans 5:12-17)

Matthew 4:1-11    It is written

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We’re out in the wilderness today with Jesus, as he undergoes temptation and testing. (The same Greek word means both testing and temptation.)

As it happens, our family has had some recent wilderness experience,  visiting family in Las Vegas recently. Las Vegas is desert terrain. Once you reach city limits you’re in desert wilderness, where from the highway everything looks very dry and barren. Yet when we paid a visit to an urban cactus garden we saw desert plants blooming with glorious blossoms in February. We learned the wilderness can be fertile, and strangely beautiful, up close…

Much more beautiful than some of the human wilderness we also observed. As Reah’s brother drove us around sight-seeing, we saw many a drive-by Wedding Chapel (same day reservations accepted, Elvis outfits available for rent)…

And Quickie-Stop Divorce offices next-door to wedding chapels. Tall towering casinos shaped the sky line, all lit-up in neon. Loud music piped into the streets. The Doors playing People are Strange… On cue, people walking by looking as if they’d been gambling for many days without sleep… Others dressed to look like  walking advertisements for temptation. I’m pretty sure I saw someone dressed as a devil, but I don’t really trust my memory… It was surrealistic like a bad dream… Advertisements for gambling, gawking, and strong drink everywhere… All the things the angel showed James Stewart that would have happened to his home town if he had not made all the little  sacrifices he did in that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life…And it’s easy to pick on Las Vegas. But Vegas is a parable, actually, for a  part of Everywhere USA, Everywhere Planet Earth…

Though at first glance, the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness don’t seem much like those on display in Las Vegas. Except that… the devil’s temptations do remind me of the view as soon as we came through the airport gates in Nevada…Facing row-after-row-after row of slot machines. Traveler try your luck.  Just a quarter a pull… to start…

And “Just turn a few of these stones on the ground into loaves of bread,” the devil suggests. What can be wrong with that? God provided manna on the ground every day for the people of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Surely the Son of God’s entitled to feed himself?

The temptation seems small. Use your God-given powers, Son of God. Put on your own oxygen mask first. You’re the Son of God. You’ve got to feed the world. Feed yourself first.

But Jesus replies “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.’” Quoting Deuteronomy (chapter 8), where it is written – God lets Israel hunger in the wilderness to teach us appreciation for our daily bread – and let us know – the food we need most of all is the word of God.

Jesus could have quoted Isaiah 49 where God says “they shall not hunger or thirst” or Isaiah 55 where God says “eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food.” But Jesus knows the mission he’s on. Knows he is both Son of God and Son of Man. Born to show us how to live as humans made in the image of God, without easy access to super-human powers. So Jesus chooses human hunger in solidarity with hungry humankind over a private banquet by himself… Teaching a kingdom lesson by example. The kingdom of God is not about our privileged position. It’s about listening to God, and taking care for others first.

Jesus isn’t biting on the devil’s first temptation. So the devil offers to raise the stakes – taking Jesus, likely in the power of a vision, up to the heights of the Jerusalem temple. Testing him, this time, with scripture, Psalm 91, saying: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge over you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” You’re the Son of God. Show your godly power.

Jesus of course knows the psalm. And Jesus tells us later in this gospel – yes, he could ask, and God would send troops of angels on his behalf. But Jesus again knows his mission. Again he won’t use divine power, except to advance God’s kingdom. Again, he goes to Deuteronomy, chapter six now, where it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, setting a kingdom of God example for us. Godly power, used unselfishly works divine good. While even divine power used selfishly becomes demonic.

Finally the devil reveals his true purpose in all the temptations – as he raises the stakes again. “Just worship me – one good bow in my direction – I’ll give you possession of all the kingdoms of earth.” No more quarter-ante games, as now the devil proposes No-limit Freeze-out poker…(and…)

Jesus knows the devil does have power and influence over the politics of this world. In John’s gospel (chapters 12, 14, and 16) the devil is called “the ruler of this world.”

Jesus also knows, as the psalmist (Ps 24) says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” The power of the devil on earth is a temporary condition. It will come to an end. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me….” But here in the wilderness context, Jesus again goes to Deuteronomy (6) where it is written – “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

All the temptations the devil brings out are all aimed at undermining our allegiance to God. The devil knows even a little worship of other gods is a slippery slope… Like playing the slot machines in Vegas…

Reah’s brother told us he’s seen colleagues lose their whole paychecks in half an hour at the slots… Many come to town for a weekend, and lose their live savings, winding up as permanent residents of the streets and homeless shelters of the Entertainment Capitol of the World… Starting with just a little twenty five cent pull on a slot machine… Life, too often, really is like this.

And of course… We all experience many testings and temptations in life. As the bible tells us, and as life amply illustrates… (And…)

The back-stories to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness are the primal stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden…And Israel of old in the wilderness exodus… Adam, Eve and Israel famously, paradigmatically failing their temptation-tests. And this kind of failure is still the pattern we’re all born into…

Many of our temptations are small enough to go by almost unnoticed… Except for little pangs of conscience… Which we often learn to ignore, suppress, and overlook, ignore… Unless they become impossible to ignore.

If we have an obvious problem like drinking or drugging, usually someone will tell us. And try to get us into a twelve-step program…

But if we’re strung out on power, privilege and possessions – the contemporary version of what the devil offers Jesus today – people are more likely to congratulate us on our success in life… And ask our advice on how to get some of what we have…

All have sinned, Romans tells us. Our particulars are different, but whether the nature of our temptation comes mostly through drugs or pornography or money or gossip is probably less important…Then whether or not we know Who to go to when we realize we have a problem…

And thanks be to God… The flash-forward story we glimpse on the fly in Romans today is all about the victory of Jesus – overcoming all the sin of the world, all the forces of death – not by just a little, but decisively, forever… Which is the Good News. The gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Good News is never to be taken lightly. The grace of God is given freely. But given also at great cost.

Here in the wilderness… Jesus is truly famished. Here in his trials, Jesus suffers great hunger, endures real pain. As the letter to the Hebrews (4) tells us, Jesus has been tempted in every way like us, except without sin. And his wilderness testing is not the end of suffering for Jesus. The same words the devil speaks here, “If you are the Son of God…” will be spoken again by priests and crowds, as if channeling for the devil, as Jesus hangs, crucified, on the cross…

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The devil knows God’s word well enough to keep us well supplied with temptation… Including most dangerously temptation to misinterpret and misunderstand the word of God… and our situation in life…

Unless we know Jesus… well enough to distinguish his word from the demons’ words… We could wind up in the spiritual equivalent of Vegas without a dime to our name or a ticket back home…

Thanks be to God, we don’t ever have to go there. Thanks be to God, Jesus has made a way where there was no way… through the wilderness of this world…

Thanks God, Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate (in-the-flesh) is always willing to teach us and guide us and bring us into life abundant… when we come to him, and trust in him. And…

Thanks God, when we study the word with Jesus… When we walk and talk with Jesus… Even our temptations and testings… draw us closer to our gracious God…

Walking with Jesus even the wilderness becomes a fruitful garden… As we walk with the Lord of life… to the cross and beyond… Walk on to the perfect joy of resurrection life… where we may eat together of the tree of life…

Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us walk together with Jesus – letting nothing between us and him…

He is the Way, the Truth, the Life…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.