Monday, 18 February 2013 00:00

"Plight", February 17, 2013

Luke 4:1-13
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 17, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Here we are at the beginning of the Lenten season. The season of Lent is 40 days plus 7 Sundays.  It is designed take us deeper in our Christian journey.  It’s when we take down our colorful flags.  It’s when we remember our mortality as we did on Ash Wednesday.  It’s when we contemplate the terror and judgment that typified Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross.  It is also through that cross that we get to the celebration of Easter.  So, we take this Lenten season as a way to look deeper at our lives and our struggles.

In Luke’s narrative, Jesus is baptized, goes off to the wilderness for 40 days, preaches his first sermon and gets run out of town.  Why didn’t he pack it in right there?  Or were those 40 days there to test him?  As if God was saying, “you think not eating bread is bad, try being run out of town by your own people again and again and again.”  It’s as if God was saying, “welcome to my world, son.”

We need to go to the wilderness to look at ourselves clearly.  Henry David Thoreau put it so eloquently in his memoir Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”


I think of the wilderness these days as a frozen tundra with no seeming end to it, no matter what the groundhog saw.

Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness.  If it were being written in Minnesota, Satan might have tempted Jesus with shelter or warmth, or a snowplowing service or even control over the climate.  It was like an extended seasonal affective disorder. Some of us are there.  We don’t need Lent to remind us of suffering.

The 40 days are a biblical way of saying a long time. Noah and his menagerie endured a 40-day monsoon. Moses and company travelled the desert for 40 years. The Hebrew people spent 40 years in exile. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, a long time.

It says he was tempted by the Devil.

Commentators even gave p words for the three temptations:  Be prosperous, be powerful and be popular.

I think the word plight works for all three of them.

As Jesus was getting ready to launch his ministry, he was met with temptations to take the easy way out. Jesus is first tempted to eat his fill, even turning stones into bread, I mean after a while the round stones kinda look like pita bread. He could feed lots of people and he could have more strength. Jesus could have proved his worthiness by making stones into bread and maybe even got some magic-obsessed followers. Imagine the money he could make, the buildings he could build, the jobs he could create. He could be prosperous.  But he said, “One does not live by bread alone.”

It’s no accident that Jesus quoted Deuteronomy twice.  Deuteronomy tells about the Hebrew people in the wilderness. In that context, the Jews were criticized for not trusting God in the midst of their plight.

The second temptation was for worldly power.  The devil showed him all of the kingdoms in the world and told Jesus he could control all of them, if he just worshipped the Devil. The people wanted a warrior messiah.  Sometimes the best temptations are to get the ends regardless of the means.  It’s like not knowing what’s in sausage or blissful ignorance of what it takes to pass laws in this country.  Couldn’t we just skip all of that messy red tape and just impose what is right?  That sounds tempting, doesn’t it?  Dictatorships are efficient, after all. But Jesus resisted the temptation to be powerful at least the way the world defined power.

The third temptation is to jump off the temple roof and float down without a parachute.  Maybe God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun…Imagine how popular you would be.

The temptations to be prosperous, powerful and popular were all rejected by Jesus. Now here’s the rub, we are defined even our churches are defined by how prosperous, powerful and popular we are.  If we are not there, and we struggle to make ends meet, if we are constantly the object of condescending jokes, then we are seen by the world as losers and not worth the time the energy and certainly the money.  Popular, powerful and prosperous people shake their heads at our plight.

This is one of the great turnarounds of the Bible.

We follow one who said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We follow one whose mother envisioned the poor being lifted up and the rich sent away empty-handed.

We follow one who succeeded by being executed by the state for advocating peace of all things.

We follow one who was constantly misunderstood, underestimated, laughed at by those who were in positions of domination.  But he had a following from people who had always been left out.  He spoke truth to them. They danced at his words.  They laughed at the way the story was told.  Although the narrative speaks about the devil, all could point to those who are tempted to be popular, powerful and prosperous.  Luke says “woe to you when people think well of you for they thought well of the false prophets, too.  Instead, blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Human One.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” (Luke 6 26, 22-23)

Hear this:  Satan will tempt you to forsake God.
Satan will tempt you to live by bread alone.
Satan will tempt you with worldly power.
Satan will tempt you to deny your faith.

In our own frozen wilderness, Satan may tempt us as well.

Satan may tempt you to believe that you were not made with dignity.

Satan may convince you to embrace hatred in the name of Christianity

Satan may tempt us by saying, “It’s just not worth it. Stay in bed.  Flip on the remote. Numb yourself away.  It’s too hard.  There’s nothing you can do about anything.  So don’t worry, be happy.”

Satan may tempt you to measure your own self worth by your financial resources more than your capacity to love and show compassion.

Tony Cartledge in his commentary in a recent issue of Baptists Today wrote: “There may be times when we don’t feel “spiritually strong” and do not feel uncommonly tempted.  But temptation comes most forcefully when we are weak, when we are hungry for something, when we feel most powerless, when we feel most alone.  These trials of Jesus suggest that when we are struggling, the devil works overtime precisely because he knows that such extremity may afford our best opportunity for spiritual growth.”

So where are your vulnerabilities?  Where are those places where there is a crack in your armor?  When are you tempted to take the easy way out, accepting a convenient half-truth rather than the inconvenient full truth?

Those of us visiting our sister church in Nicaragua were faced with the very basics that we take for granted missing.  Things like walls and floors and ceilings, and air conditioning and fresh water, a familiar language and privacy.  And there were times when we were tempted to check out.  Not engage.  Say, “it’s just for a few days, I can handle that.” But the more we were there, the more accustomed we became to the ebb and flow of life in the third world.  We learned to love the lilt in the voices.  The fresh fruit.  The joy that came not from external entertainment, but from deep relationships.  We were tempted to check out but we were captivated and changed.

A year ago, we were faced with two divisive constitutional amendments that polls showed would almost certainly pass.  But with hard work by jay linnell, Char Follett and countless others, we were able to make history in Minnesota by defeating both amendments.  We did it be painstakingly telling our stories over and over again.  And just this past Valentines Day over a thousand people gathered at the state capital (led by dozens of clergy) to advocate for marriage equality to become the law of our land.

My dad lived a great deal of his life with regret.  As we told and heard stories at his memorial service last week, we gave thanks that he spent the last 20 years of his life in recovery from addiction.  Through his recovery groups he resisted the temptation to slip back into the numbing place of self-medication.  He faced as best he could the demons that had haunted him in his wilderness time.  And the time he spent in recovery were probably some of the happiest years of his life.

Isaac Watts famously wrote:

When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I'll bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.

Should earth against my soul engage,
And hellish darts be hurled,
Then I can smile at Satan's rage,
And face a frowning world.

Let cares like a wild deluge come,
And storms of sorrow fall,
May I but safely reach my home,
My God, my heaven, my all.

There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heavenly rest,
And not a wave of trouble roll
Across my peaceful breast.

My friends, there will be temptations in this wilderness.
Are we defined by our plight or are we who we are because we have lived through our plights?  Plights give us character.  Would Jesus have been able to face it all if he hadn’t gone through the plight in the wilderness?  If I can be tempted by the Devil, what’s a little persecution and misunderstanding?  I can do anything through the one who strengthens me.

And hear this.  The wilderness, even the frozen wilderness is not the last word.  Even now, the soil below the frozen top few inches, is alive with activity, just waiting for the snow to clear.  The trees are preparing t run their sap to their branches.  In less than a month, we will see crocuses shooting up and in 42 days or so, we will celebrate the return of color and hope on Easter.

Our task is to recognize the plight of the wilderness and to remember that plight is not God’s only purpose.  The plight of the wilderness gets us in touch with our passion and we start to imagine the possibilities on the other side.

Should earth against my soul engage,
And hellish darts be hurled,
Then I can smile at Satan's rage,
And face a frowning world.

May it be so.  Amen.