“Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety”
“Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety”
February 21, 2021 — First Sunday in Lent First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Rev. Jack Hodges
The Prayer for Understanding:
The Witness of the Scripture:
Old Testament: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 The Gospel: Mark 1:12-15
Ash Wednesday is history; Lent is upon us. Lenten days can be a crucial cog in the machinery of our spiritual life. I like the way Psalm 51 lays it out:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”1
Speaking before the Lincoln Memorial in the gathering dusk of his pre-inauguration day, I think President Joe Biden got it right: “We must remember, so that we may heal.”
Perhaps this is a key to finding our way in tough times. If your soul is troubled, anxious, scattered, Lent can be your balm in Gilead.
Circumnavigation around these feelings seldom works. Fix the pothole or it will grow. Ignore it and you might crack your wheel rim, break your axil, or worse, swerve into another car.
Today’s Gospel passage may have some Lenten clues for us.
12 At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, 13 where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.
That’s the short version of Jesus’ temptation experience – covered in two sentences: the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he was there forty days, Satan tempted him, wild beasts kept him company, angels waited on him. Period.
Is that all Mark knew? Or is it all he thought we needed to know before rushing on to Jesus proclaiming the coming Kingdom? So, anything we remember about the temptations comes from Matthew and Luke. Only they record what the devil said and what Jesus said back.
Barbara Brown Taylor observes:
“What their dialog proves, among other things, is that the devil is
biblically literate. He knows exactly where to find the Bible verses he needs to put Jesus to the test, but Jesus knows more than what the Bible says. Jesus knows how to do what the Bible says, which is how he passes his wilderness exam.”2
Scripture presents us with the distinction between saying and doing.
Since John records no temptation story at all, I flipped a coin — Luke won “heads.” Here is a reading from the Good News Bible. Listen for a word from the Lord:
1 Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, 2 where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. In all that time he ate nothing, so that he was famished when it was over.
3 The Devil said to him,
“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.”
4 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says,
‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone.’
5 Then the Devil took him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world.
6 “I will give you all this power and all this wealth,” the Devil told him. “It has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. 7 All this will be yours, then, if you worship me.”
8 Jesus answered,
“The scripture says,
‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!”
9 Then the Devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him,
“If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here. 10 For the scripture says, ‘God will order his angels to take good care of you.’ 11 It also says, ‘They will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.’”
12 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says,
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the Devil finished tempting Jesus in every way, he left him for a while.
Did you notice? Every time the devil offered – more bread, more power, more protection – Jesus turns him down.
• No to the bread, Jesus says,
• No to political power,
• No to an angelic parachute and a soft landing beside the Temple.
Jesus says he is full up on worshiping God and serving only him. So by the end of the story, the devil’s bribe bag is still full and Jesus is free to go.
More particularly, the Exodus provides the background for Luke. As God led his people through the forty years of wilderness, so here the Spirit of God leads Jesus into the forty days.
• As the Hebrew people rebelled against the monotonous food God provided (“our stomachs were full back in Egypt”); the Devil entices Jesus with bread, warm from the oven;
• As the Hebrews compromise their covenant commitment to God (“maybe some other god will get us out of this mess”); the Devil offers Jesus the ever popular carrots of power, wealth, and domination;
• As the Hebrews put God to the test; the Devil devises a spectacular display to awe the crowd into mindless allegiance. How can you top that death defying act?
Let’s note, what the Devil dangled before Jesus was not an evil of heinous debauchery, depravity, not the First Century equivalent of wild wine, women, song; rather the Devil sought to seduce Jesus (and here it is) by dangling a legitimate end secured by illegitimate means. Our passage is very present tense. A real temptation is when something less worthy that is all too easy to justify:
• Stones to bread, the hungry hope so;
• Take political control, the oppressed are yearning for it and well, a new
government will set things right;
• Display some audacious power and those longing for proof of God’s power
– questions answered, certainty of faith – they will follow.
Our temptations may not be so grand, but you and I struggle all the time. It’s easy to be bamboozled into believing the ends justifying the means … but we’ll do it just this once, … of course, never ever again (wink, wink).
The temptations of Jesus focus us: What does it mean to be about God’s business?
• The first is social:
Will the ministry of Jesus be one of alleviating hunger, provide a
super food bank for all?
• The second is political:
Will Jesus submit to the ruler of this world in order to achieve what
masquerades as good enough for the people of this world?
• The third is religious:
Will Jesus win the crowds by coercing faith, the pyrotechnics of landing on his feet after a death defying leap?
The Devil can quote scripture, but Jesus understands the message behind the words:
• Human beings cannot live authentically on satisfactions that fade away;
• Priorities have meaning, purpose, authenticity: worship the Lord your God
and serve only him;
• Is Trust in God viable? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Which is to say, don’t try to take the place of God.
The temptation stories explore the most contemporary question of all: Do the ends justify the means?
I am deeply grateful for last Sunday’s preacher. Steve Hollaway lifted up one of our nation’s most fearful temptations: Christian Nationalism.3
“Some of the people who marched on the Capitol January 6 were convinced they needed to save America for God. They were convinced that the other party is on the side of Satan and their party is on the side of God.”
“It is a heresy that misunderstands how interconnected all humans are and misunderstands what God requires.”
An example emerged this past week from some relatives of Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. They sent him a letter. The focus of their distress is very much not the issue for this sermon, but the way their letter frames it gives cause for thought.
“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God! We were once so proud of your accomplishments! Instead you go against your Christian principles and join the ‘Devils Army’ (Democrats and fake news media). How do you call yourself a Christian ….”
I guess we do live in wilderness times. It comes in so many shapes and sizes. I suspect every one of us has been there. We can tell we are in the wilderness if we look around for what we normally count on to save our life and we come up empty; just a Bible-quoting devil and a horizon of rocks and sand.
Maybe our wilderness looked like a hospital waiting room or a loved one in the ICU; maybe the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job; right now, for many it is Texas, power gone, water pipes in house and hospitals pouring forth. It may even have been the desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing of your own breath.
I have no easy answers, but I have some thoughts.
Mainly, my thought is to seek the oases in the wilderness, undergird the foundations of our faith, secure the foundation, tend to it.
Have you heard of the 5-5-5 plan? Five minutes of scripture, five minutes of reflection, five minutes of prayer. Who cannot afford 15 minutes a day to stay focused, to keep the foundation strong? This Lent, why not a Psalm a day, or travel bit by bit through the Gospel of Mark, or chapter by chapter through Luke?
Five minutes of scripture, five minutes of reflection, five minutes of prayer. VII.
William Willimon, in his book What’s Right with the Church,4 tells about leading a Sunday School class that was studying the temptations. After some reflections, Dr. Willimon asked, “How are we tempted today?”
A young salesman was the first to speak. “Temptation is when your boss calls you in, as mine did yesterday, and says, ‘I’m going to give you a real opportunity. I’m going to give you a bigger sales territory. We believe that you are going places, young man.’
“But I don’t want a bigger sales territory,” the he told his boss. “I’m already away from home four nights a week. It wouldn’t be fair to my wife and daughter.”
“Look,” his boss replied, “we’re asking you to do this for your wife and daughter. Don’t you want to be a good father? It takes money to support a family. Sure, your little girl doesn’t take much money now, but think of the future. Think of her future. I’m only asking you to do this for them,” the boss said.
The young man told the class, “Now, that’s temptation.” VII.
The oasis for Jesus was his trust in God. That can be good for us. We try to generate our own strength so concerned we are about “having it all.” It’s wise to look beyond ourselves for the deep provisions of life, it’s called trusting in God for our deepest needs.
There are a million ways to end a sermon. Today I want to do it by singing a hymn which explores the dynamics of faith.5
I’m quite taken with this hymn. See what you think.
– Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure, Taking risks and pressing on, though the way feels less secure: Pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God.
– Faith endures by holding on, keeping memory’s roots alive
so that hope may bear its fruit; promise-fed our souls will thrive, Not through merit we possess but by God’s faithfulness.
– Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts, Sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up the broken parts;
Till we find the commonplace ripe with witness to God’s grace.
Scripture in Context
The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness
The lectionary is a series of scripture passages, read Sunday-by-Sunday over a three-year period. If you are anywhere near a “regular” in worship, you can anticipate hearing the New Testament in its entirety and significant portions of the Old Testament with the Psalms appearing separately.
Alas, there is a problem: when scripture is divided into bits and pieces we can miss the full scope of the passage; the great canvas of scripture can elude us.
Each Gospel – Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), Luke (4:1-13) – tells a slightly different story of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. John says nothing at all about Jesus’ temptation.
The wilderness experience appears to be an important story for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, those books we call the “synoptic gospels” (for ‘together’ + ‘see). Clearly, there is a connection and interaction between them. It is also clear each gospel writer has their own “take” or understanding regarding Jesus’ forty-day trial in the wilderness.
The Greek word “tempt” means “to try” or “to test.” There is a neutral quality here with a good intent to prove the true nature of a person; or evil, to incite or push a person into wrongdoing or sin. That tension or ambiguity makes for a nuanced reading of the text.
The three synoptic gospels hold in common the following points:
1. Jesus faced temptation;
2. It was in a wilderness setting;
3. The temptation endured for forty days;
4. Jesus was tempted by Satan, the Devil, the Tempter;
5. Jesus was directed and/or sustained by the Spirit.
• Mark is startlingly brief in his telling, there are only two verses. Verse 12 begins with “immediately.” Mark is eager to get on the story. The Greek word for “immediately” (euthys) is used forty-two times in the gospel, eleven times in the first chapter alone.
• Luke’s telling is the most expansive with some thirteen verses. In Luke, it takes two trials before the Devil resorts to using scripture to fine-hone his test – the third trial.
• In Matthew’s eleven verses, a scripture war develops between Jesus and his tempter; it is a thrust and parry of scripture.
In Mark’s brief account, the fasting and the three challenges are omitted (he does throw in some “wild beasts” for color). Matthew and Luke both present a dramatic dialogue between the tempter and tempted.
It is not by chance that Jesus reputes the Devil’s proposals with quotes from Deuteronomy 6:13, 6:16, and
8:3. For the readers, the references from Deuteronomy would easily recall the wilderness experience in Exodus experience of the people of Israel in their forty years of wandering. There are three events of the Exodus in which the Israelites were put to the test; they failed with each test. Jesus is being compared to them: where Israel of old missed the mark, here Jesus succeeds in meeting each temptation.
Matthew and Mark end their account with angels in ministry; Luke is silent on the angels, saying only that the Devil “left him for awhile.” In this foreshadowing, Luke alerts us of things to come.
So, What Can this Mean for Us?
Keith Nickle suggests a dynamic of tempatation that is universal and very contemporary: our tempataion to adjust the Gospel to what is comfortable for us.
“The contest [between Jesus and the devil] revolved around traditional but inadequate and incomplete messianic anticipations of the Jewish people. The devil challenged Jesus to reduce his Messiahship so that it would conform with their expectations, and thereby become perverted.
“Each temptation assailed Jesus not at a place of weakness and vulnerability, but at the point of his greatest strength – his compassion, his commitment to God, his faith. The Devil’s challenges represent the allure of popular but shallow enthusiasm ….
“The diabolic dimensions of the temptations cannot be underestimated. What the devil demanded of Jesus was not heinous debauchery, depravity, or outrage. [On the contrary, the point is that] desires that seem proper become just as sinful when fulfilled and an improper context. The devil sought to induce Jesus to secure [what any of us might call] a legitimate end through illegitimate means.
[This helps us] “to broaden our understanding of the extent, scope, and duration of Jesus’ temptations. As portrayed in this story, the temptations really serve as a synopsis of the entire spiritual journey of Jesus as he ran-up against the allure of popular acclaim.
“Without trivializing … Jesus’ wilderness encounter, it is nonetheless appropriate to point out that all Christians find themselves struggling with similar temptations to dilute the quality – and even exchange – the object of their commitment….
“There are times when we too, in response to the call of God are tempted to:
• be satisfied with only an adequate offering rather than the best we can offer;
• succumb to impatience and seek to accomplish God’s purpose by means that are alien to God’s character;
• trivialize God by taking shortcuts to a success that is perceived as desired.”
The Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God’s Royal Rule, Keith F. Nickle, Westminster Press, 2000. Pg 39-40
The Temptation on the Mountain — Today’s English Version – The Good News Bible
1 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; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10Jesus 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.
12 At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, 13where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.
Everything seems to happen very quickly in Mark. The Greek word for “immediately” (euthys) is used forty-two times in the gospel, eleven times in the first chapter alone. After his brief telling of the temptation, Mark rushes on to the first words from Jesus: “the time is fulfilled!” (1:15)
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 After John had been put in prison, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the Good News from God. He said:
15 “The right time has come, and the Kingdom of
God is near! Turn away from your sins
and believe the Good News!”
4 Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, 2 where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. In all that time he ate nothing, so that he was famished when it was over.
3 The Devil said to him, “If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.”
4 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone.’”
5 Then the Devil took him up and in a second showed him all the kingdoms of the world. 6 “I will give you all this power and all this wealth,” the Devil told him. “It has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. 7 All this will be yours, then, if you worship me.”
8 Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’”
9Then the Devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here. 10 For the scripture says, ‘God will order his angels to take good care of you.’ 11 It also says, ‘They will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.’”
12 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the Devil finished tempting Jesus in every way, he left him for a while.
1. Psalm 51:10
2. Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Wilderness Exam”
3. Steve Holloway, “Were There No Lepers in Israel?” 2/14/2021
4. William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985
5. Carl P. Daw, Jr., 1995