Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 4th chapter of Matthew, beginning with the 1st verse.
4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the Devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also 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 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the Devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:1-11)
What is a sinner? Let me repeat that question, what is a sinner? Pascal says: “There are only two kinds of people, the righteous who believe themselves a sinner and the sinner who believes themselves righteous.” Mary Wilson Little put it this way, “People who make no pretensions of being good one day out of the week are known as sinners.” Or, as Oscar Wilde says, “Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.”
Or here is what another person says about a sinner as he looked at his own life. “I often find I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don’t accomplish the good things that I set out to do, and the evil things that I don’t want to do, I find I’m always doing. Yet, if I do the things that I don’t really want to do, then it is not I, repeat, it is not I that do them, but it is my own nature in which I am a slave to sin and death. It’s a distressing situation, a constant conflict, and who on earth can free me from the clutches of my own sinful nature?” That was St. Paul writing to the Romans about his own struggle with sin.
The first couple of people I quoted about sin made it seem like something one could easily brush off, like water dripping off of a duck’s back. Sin was not taken seriously in their lives. But I think Paul said it best. Sin is something that affects a person’s whole being. It is not something that can be brushed off very easily. It doesn’t work that way. You know it, and I know it. Every one of us labors under the terrible weight of guilt and sin. We feel guilty about the wrongs we have done, the hurts we have caused others, and at the same time, we feel guilty about those things we should have done but didn’t do. For example, maybe we needed to apologize to someone but were too proud. Or, perhaps, we couldn’t express forgiveness to another because of the hatred that filled our hearts. Or maybe, it was the hurt we said to a loved one, and after realizing what we had done, we couldn’t or wouldn’t say we were sorry. Or maybe we are guilty of not including the stranger, the new person to town in our circle of friends. Sin is more than what we have done wrong. It is also as our confessional service says: those things we have left undone.
In the scheme of life, we sin against not only people, or creation, when we are not good stewards, but finally, all sin is a sin against God Himself. In Rejoice and Realize, written by Richard Hoefler, he says: “When we sin we do not break a law; we break our Father’s heart. God grieves when we sin against him, but he does not disown us. The certainty of our status in the family of a loving Father is found all through the New Testament. It is Paul’s central message as seen, especially in Romans 8:31-39.”
Also, our gospel lesson this morning, The temptation of Jesus, is a clear example of the love God has for us as we face all the brownness of this world. For, I think, all the gospel writers included this story of the temptation of Jesus as a way of showing us, as clearly as possible, that God understands the human condition in which we live. We live in a fallen world. There are sin and brokenness all around. He even had His only Son tempted in the wilderness as a clear indication of His comprehension of the difficulties we face day in and day out.
Many times this temptation story of Jesus seems far removed from our world, our life. On the surface we have a difficult time relating to these temptations, turning stones into bread, or jumping off the highest part of the temple and having God’s angels catch you, or being placed on a very high mountain so that you could see the whole world, then having the Devil giving you a chance of owning it all. That is far removed from the sins we face day in and day out. However, I would like to suggest this morning as we look at just one of these temptations, it is in the subtlety of these temptations where we really find ourselves and see the real craftiness of the Devil and sin.
The first temptation speaks of turning stones into bread. As Jesus sits in the desert, his stomach is empty; he hasn’t eaten for 40 days, his throat is parched. The Devil approaches, and I don’t believe he was the red horned person with a pitchfork we dream of; he was more subtle, more inventive, he was in actuality, the voice of reason in Jesus’ mind and ear. Maybe he said, “Jesus, sir, you look like you are having a rough time. By the way, you are the Son of God, right? So, why don’t you turn all of these stones into bread? Not just for yourself, for I know you are a loving and compassionate person, but for all the starving people of the world. They need you. They need this food. They need the power you possess. Give them what they want, what they need, give them food. And then you would be their hero. They would follow you anywhere.”
Think about that for a moment. That doesn’t sound too diabolical, does it? Feed the world, take care of the hungry, that is a noble cause. The temptation wasn’t in the act so much as in the attitude, the motivation. Jesus was tempted to take the easy way, a short cut, if you will, to bypass God’s natural order of things. Instead of growing food, just change stones into bread. That is the essence of all of these temptations, to take the easy way, to bypass God’s plan, God’s order to life. Turn stone into bread, jump off the temple, show the people a great magic act, then they will follow. Be the ruler of the whole world, bring peace, bring justice, bring love, but in reality, it is the easy way, the way that leaves God out of the picture. Leaving God out of the picture is what sin is all about.
The temptations of Jesus are not so far removed from our lives if we think of them as leaving God out of the picture of life and you controlling your own life. Control, power, accountability, those are the sins of our lives. We like to pretend, to play games with each other and with God that we are not as bad, or as unrighteous, or as unholy as someone else we can point a finger at, as we sit in the smugness of our own sin and pride. Living life my way is the calling words for many people. One of the fast-food chains had a slogan a few years back, saying, “Have it your way!!” or maybe some will remember Frank Sinatra’s hit song, “I did it my way!!” Isn’t there a lot of theological truth in those two lines.?? You and I like to have things our own way. We want to take God out of the picture of our lives. We want to control and run our lives our way. But many times, no, all the time, we do not live up to our potential, our goals, our vision of what we want for ourselves, so then we become angry, we lash out, maybe at God, perhaps at a loved one, perhaps at ourselves. We want control, but when we think we have it, we are in all reality out of control, because we are like Paul as he says: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)
In the situation we find ourselves, two things can happen, we can become like the man in the following:
“A young man said this about his life. It seems like I was a man trying to climb out of a muddy, clinging swamp and every time I just about reached the solid bank, someone would come along, put his foot in my face and push me back into the mud. And so, finally, I decided to stay in the swamp. And what the heck, I have a lot of company.” We can live a broken and desperate life, never finding our true self, never being happy with who we are or what we are doing. Life can be one big swampy mud pit. We can constantly be moving, thrashing, climbing out of the mud pit.
Or we can surrender our lives over to God and allow Him to recreate us. We can put God back into the picture of our lives.
Our lesson from Genesis this morning is the story of creation, how God turned dust and mud into a human being. When God is in the picture, mud is changed. The difference between God and us is seen in the mud. God molded the mud, blew on it, and created life. We mold the mud, blow on it, and end up with—mud. We like to play God. We like to pretend that we are as wise and powerful as God. But we still end up with mud.
However, our mud pies, so to speak, our lives, get so complicated than even when we think we are allowing God to control our lives, He isn’t. The following poem was written in the poetry section of the New York Times: “I wish there was someone that would hear my confession. Not a pastor, I do not want to be told of my sin. Not a mother, I don’t want to bring sorrow. Not a friend, she would not know enough. Not a lover, he would be too partial. Not a God, He is too far away. But someone who would be a friend, mother, lover, pastor, and God all in one. A stranger besides, who would not interfere. Who, when everything is said, from beginning to end, would show the reason for it all. And then tell me to go ahead and work it out in my own way.” My friends that is the perfect picture of someone, or maybe, I am afraid of a lot of people, who think God is in control of their lives, but in reality, He isn’t.
Working it out in your own way is stupid nonsense because you will never be able to make anything with that mud, your life, but keep playing with it until it is worn out and dies. You will never be able to change it, to make something else out of the mud. But turn it over to God, allow the breath of God to enter life, allow God to fill life, allow God to pour Himself into your life, then change will happen. You will no longer be a mud turtle; you will be a child of God’s. And in that relationship, God will be in control, and life will change. Maybe not all at once, perhaps not the way you might have expected it. But when God pulls us out of the mud and then remolds that mud, reshapes it and breathes His breath, His Spirit, into that mud, into your life, amazing things can happen.
The first step is to acknowledge that my control of life is not getting me anywhere in terms of finding peace, self-worth, and a sense of contentment. I need to admit to myself and to God that I am a mud turtle caught in the swamp of life and no matter how much I try, or how much I struggle, or how busy I seem to be, or how far I bury in the closets of the deepest part of my soul those hurts, those pains, those emotions, those situations which remind me over and over again, I am broken, and I live in a broken world. I cannot escape from these until I am ready to surrender control of my life to Almighty God.
Martin Luther had a prayer he prayed each day in which he asked God to allow him to surrender these things and then fill him with God’s breath, God’s Spirit. “Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in faith; strengthen thou me. I am cold in love; warm and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbors. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust Thee altogether. O Lord, help me. In Thee I have sealed the treasure of all I have. I am poor, Thou art rich and didst come to be merciful to the poor. I am a sinner; Thou are upright. With me, there is an abundance of sin, in Thee is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore I will remain with Thee whom I can receive, but to Whom I may not give. Amen.”
The closing story, I think, sums up this surrendering our selves, our beings, our emotions, our pains, our hurts, our hidden closet items over to God who can handle it. He is God Almighty and can deal with our deepest emotions as He listened to His own son cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God can handle your life as it is with all of its brownness, with all of its sinfulness, with all of its self-pride. God can handle it, and He wants to be in the picture of your life.
The tragedy left the man homeless, widowed, and fatherless. A fire had swept through their trailer, and all was lost. It took some time for the full weight of the loss to descend, and when it did, he was nearly crushed. Like Job in the O.T., he would not be comforted. When the guilt of shock was lifted, anger, resentment filled every waking thought. God had not been fair to him—God had not protected his family. He had not come to him with a special visitation to explain the “why” and the “what next.” He was in a wilderness as rugged as the Sinai. The greatest temptation was to add to his losses by forfeiting his faith. He felt justified. No one would fault him. Some might even support him. He prayed angrily now, daring God to hurt him further, and challenging Him to give any reason to hold on to the thin thread of his faith that was left. He prayed angrily, but he prayed, and God could handle it. The anguish continued to mount until one afternoon he uttered a cry so forcefully, it could only be described as a scream. No word was spoken, just a loud, angry scream against the forces of heaven and hell, as if to say, “I’ve hurt all I can, and I’ve paid my dues for love... Help me!!!.”.......... The silence that followed was quieter than silence. Peace was evident for the first time in months.”
Scripture might have said, “angels came and attended him.” Satan had been overthrown, and health was coming back, for he believed, at last, that God was caring for those he lost. That God was caring for him. God could handle his honest anger and his honest emotions.
God can handle all our pent up emotions, feelings, denials, and running away from the hurts and pain of life. God can handle it. We must let Him, for when we do, then, we will come to know the great and powerful love and mercy He has for us. God can handle it, period. Let Him.
Let us pray: Lord, it seems as though Lent came too early this year. We wanted more time to recover from the activity and anxiety of Christmas, yet here we are: the first Sunday in Lent. Our hearts need cleansing, Lord. Our spirits need restoration and healing. During this season of Lent you send us on a journey to the cross with Jesus, and beyond the cross to the resurrection. We would just rather skip to the happiness of Easter and enjoy the flowers and all the trimmings, but you insist on the journey. We cannot truly understand the power of the resurrection until we have been to the cross. Today we travel to the cross where Jesus encounters Satan who flashes before him visions of power, wealth, and individual security. How shall we respond to those same temptations when they are presented so seductively to us? Help us, O Lord. Guide and restore us. Give us courage and strength as we journey to you. Amen.
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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Rev. Tim Zingale.
There are only two kinds of people, the righteous who believe themselves a sinner and the sinner who believes themselves righteous.