Monday, 14 March 2011 00:00

"Tempted in the Wilderness, March 13, 2011

“Tempted in the Wilderness”
Matthew 4:1-11
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 13, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted for 40 days and afterwards he was hungry. Have you ever been hungry?  I don’t mean missing a snack.  I don’t mean starving yourself on the latest diet.  So hungry that you just don’t know where your next meal is coming from?  So hungry that you can think of nothing but food.  So hungry that you actually wonder if you are going to make it through.  I know some of us have been there. I think about the thousands who starve every day all over the world and here in the US.

Today’s scripture makes me think of an experience with hunger.  Certainly no forty-day fast, but significant nonetheless.  My church youth group went to Zion National Park in Utah.  The idea was that we were going to start in the highlands, forge our own trail and eventually make it down to the park via the canyon of the Virgin River.  No problem, right?

We set out for our two and a half day hike with all of the food and supplies we would need for a 20-mile trip.  We predicted that by the evening of the first day, we would be at the tip of the canyon and we would begin our trip through the narrows the next day.

After the first day, we had taken some wrong turns and followed deer trails that disappeared before our eyes and we got sour legs all scratched up by oak shrubs.  We only made it about a mile and a half instead of our anticipated four or five miles.  But we were not discouraged.  We still had plenty of food to last us.  Besides, we eventually got used to these types of trails.

But the next day brought us more frustration.  We only made it another 3 or 4 miles.  At this point, we realized that we were going to have to begin rationing food. Luckily some folks came by on horseback, took pity on us, and gave us their day’s catch of fresh trout. By the time we reached the narrows later that next day, we were almost out of food, nothing but some jelly and a few packets of dried soup. We were too far into the woods to turn back.  The only way we were going to get more food was to go through the narrows—an 11-mile trip through the river at the bottom of the canyon.


The narrows are aptly named.  The Virgin River carved a narrow sandstone canyon 300 feet deep.  We hugged one wall of the canyon until the ground disappeared.  Then we crossed the river to the other side.  We pushed our backpacks high on our backs and got our shoes all wet.  Luckily there had been a drought and the water level was low. In some places the canyon narrowed to only 30 feet across.  No problem, though.  The narrows is only a one-day hike.  But when you’re hungry and irritable, everything takes longer.  One of our leaders got sick.  We had to spend the night on a sand bar in the narrows.  One flash flood would have done us in.

“Jesus fasted 40 days and nights and afterwards, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
In the narrows came these words:

“John, I’m sure you have a packet of pita bread in your pack”.

“No, I’m telling you, I don’t have any more.”  We were tempted to look through his pack, but John refused us entry.  His word ought to be enough.

“I wonder if you can eat toothpaste,” said Heidi.

George actually tried it, to his dismay.

“I wish we were out of this place.”

“What I wouldn’t give for an ice cream sandwich.”

“Or a piece of that bread that’s in John’s pack.”

“I’m telling you for the last time, I don’t have any food!”

One boy was looking through his pack during a rest break and found a treasure.  “Hey Mark, come here.  Remember that beef jerky we bought together out in Salt Lake City?  Look, there are two pieces left.”

“Yeah, you can chew on that stuff for a half an hour”, said Mark.  “Let’s have some.  I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.  We’ll just hang back here so no one will see us.”

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “I will give you dominion over the whole world, if you just worship me.”

The two boys hung back from the pack.  They felt so relieved having something in their mouths.  Their speed began to increase until finally they had caught up with the others.  You could tell something was different about those two.  That’s when one of them slipped.  He bit down on his piece of jerky while someone was looking.

“Hey, these two have food!”

“How dare you?”

“We’re supposed to be a group—a church group at that.  Why aren’t you sharing?”

“Well, there wasn’t enough to go around.”  The temptation of hunger and the urge to satisfy selfish needs blinded them to their responsibility to the others.  That is, until they got caught and were jolted back to reality.

“The Devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said all the world is yours.”

The two boys felt awful.  They broke off what was remaining on the stick of jerky and gave them to the others.

When we are pulled and stretched, it is hard to keep one’s mind focused upon the reign of God.  The ideals of justice and good will and love are pulled and stretched when we are pulled and stretched.

Today, we are living in a nuclear wilderness. It’s so much easier to respond to a natural disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami.  As awful as it is, we know the right response.  We channel relief aid to established agencies.  We pray for people. We rely on news from our missionaries.  But the meltdown of nuclear reactors presents us with unknown consequences.  What will the fallout be?  Have we already made an energy pact with the Devil and this is our payback?  What do we need to learn in this wilderness time?

Would that we could just avoid the wilderness.  But ignoring the wilderness is a form of denial and it won’t make it go away.  We’re stuck in the wilderness and we’re hungry and scared.  But the wilderness can teach us lessons: like our dependency on non-renewable energy resources, be they electricity, coal, oil or gas; like our interdependency one with another.

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted with food, with influence and with political power.  What are we tempted with?  I see the devastation in Japan and I’m tempted to turn the channel.  It’s too much. We are tempted to deny our roles as children of God. We are tempted to forget our sister and brother.  We are tempted to look out only for number one. I’m tempted to take the privilege that I have as a straight white male professional and ignore my responsibility to the rest of the world.  No one will notice if I just hang back, if I keep my chewing very subtle.

When we had finished what was left of the jerky, we trudged on.  We no longer had food to sustain us. We were all in it together, up to our waists. The stronger ones took on some extra gear.  We gave each other encouraging words.  And we prayed a lot.  We tried to stop thinking of our bellies.  We began concentrating much more on each other.

Being hungry can tempt us.  It can stretch our faith.  How do we act when our faith is stretched?

We kept thinking that each turn in the canyon might bring us some hope for an end to this long trip.  But with each turn came just more river and canyon. “People” someone finally shouted.  Our pace tripled.  These saviors gave us Oreos and told us how much farther it was to the park. The stories of the days without food were of course exaggerated by these teenagers as we recounted our tale to anyone who would listen.

A good five days after beginning our three-day trip, we had a memorable feast and a celebration at a campsite near a store. Over ice cream sandwiches, we spoke about how we came to love each other—even though we were at times tempted to kill each other. The wilderness taught us to forgive and to concentrate on what’s most important.  It was something about knowing our burdens and feeling them collectively.  When there was not any food to go around, we nourished ourselves with the faith in each other and in the beauty of the creation, which we loved and hated at the same time.

Perhaps the church should go through a time in the wilderness without food, we wondered.  Could taking on each others burden help us grow?  Isn’t that part of the Lenten discipline?  Assuring ourselves that bread is not only what we live by, but truly by the love of God which is expressed through love, justice, peace, and faithfulness in community.  Somehow, with that key ingredient, the love and assurance of God, the rest seems miniscule and insignificant.

This is what we learned in the narrows.  The only way to get through it was to go through it.  The only way to Easter is through the Lenten season.  We emerge on the other side of the wilderness, remembering how we were tempted, remembering who was there with us, remembering that God has never left us.

What are your wildernesses?  
The struggle to make ends meet eve with a job?
Basketball losing streaks?  

To worry too much and take the weight of the world on our shoulders?

The bad news is you can’t escape the wilderness.  There will always be lows to offset the highs.

The good news is that the wilderness is temporary, even though it seems endless at times.  And you don’t go through the wilderness alone.  The only way through the wilderness is through it.  Therefore make the most of the wilderness.

Think of those who sustain you in the wilderness: family, friends, worship partners, colleagues, people who have your back.  Hang on to them.  We can navigate this wilderness together.  The message of Jesus is to not give in to the temptation in the wilderness.

It was a good three days after we survived the narrows that John found in the bottom of his pack under a whole bunch of wet clothes, a loaf of pita bread.

But somehow it just didn’t matter anymore.  We had already become angels to each other so we just laughed.

“And Jesus answered the tempter, “It is written, you shall not live by bread alone, but by every words that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Then the devil left him and behold, angels came and ministered to him.”