Saturday, March 12, 2011

Finding Ourselves in God's Hands

First Lutheran Church, Alexandria, MN
March 13, 2011
Lent 1/Year A/Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But [Jesus] answered, ‘It is written,  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.” ’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Later this year I’ll mark the 30th anniversary of my ordination. When you’ve been a Lutheran pastor for three decades, you’re officially considered “long in tooth.”

So you’d think a guy like me would have things pretty well figured out by now…and yet I never cease to be amazed at how little I know and how much I still have to learn…especially about the Bible.

To make matters worse, it’s often the most familiar Bible texts that catch me up short….like this gospel lesson from Matthew 4. I have pondered and preached on the Temptation of Jesus many times over the years….but I fear I’ve missed out on just what makes this story tick.

You see, I’ve tended to regard the Temptation story as a one-of-a-kind episode….utterly unique to Jesus….an “Olympics of Temptations,” far-removed from anything you or I might ever face. I’ve placed this story in a class by itself, and in so doing I’ve missed the point—the point that in this episode we come up against the essence of every temptation that you and I face.

For, the nub of the matter in these temptations that the devil hurled at our Lord, the hinge on which the door of this passage swings is this: we, like our Lord Jesus, are constantly being tempted to take matters into our own hands.

That’s what I’ve tended to miss here in Matthew 4. These three temptations—dramatic and eye-catching though they may be—each of them reiterates the same, basic question: “Are you or are you not, Jesus, going to take matters into your own hands?”

• So, famished after 40 days and nights of fasting, Jesus is invited to take matters into his own hands by rustling up bread from stones.

• Then, plopped up on the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus is urged to take matters into his own hands by offering to others a dramatic demonstration of trust in God.

• Finally, catapulted to the peak of a high mountain, Jesus is cajoled into taking matters into his own hands by winning the whole world at the seemingly small price of one momentary act of homage to his tempter.

Taking matters into your own hands—living as if you are essentially alone in the universe: that is at the heart of the temptations Jesus faced and the temptations that you and I also face.

Temptation worthy of the name, is always about more than falling off the wagon or cheating on your diet or engaging in some other “sin of the flesh.”

Temptation worthy of the name is always about something far more dangerous: it is about abandoning trust, it is about living as if you were calling all the shots, it is about taking matters into your own hands.

Temptation, in other words, is about succumbing to the biggest lie there is: the lie that we have to look out for ourselves because no one else will!

And why is that a lie? It’s a lie because “taking matters into our own hands” never finally works. We may imagine that we can control or steer our lives, but something always catches us up short—forces us to realize that we are finally incapable of truly taking matters into our own hands.

Which is why every year the season of Lent begins with a sooty cross on our foreheads, accompanied by the most honest words we ever hear: “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Remember that, although you’re constantly tempted to take matters into your own hands, you are not finally the one calling the shots.

Other forces, other realities prevent us from ever being fully successful in “taking matters into our own hands.”

Sin—both our own sin and the sin of others—sin messes up all our best efforts, even our best efforts to do the right thing—to preserve our physical lives, to lead others to God, to win the world for Jesus….even our highest and our best is always tainted by sin.

And what sin doesn’t gum up, circumstances surely will. Our eyes have been riveted, our hearts have been captured—have they not?--by the devastating earthquake in Japan…which is only the latest natural disaster to stop us in our tracks and reveal to us how we are not finally responsible for all that happens.

And, as if sin and circumstances (like natural disasters) were not enough, death also stalks us, relentlessly reminding us that “taking matters into our own hands” is ultimately an illusion. This Lent has begun for you here at First Lutheran with the most sobering sign of that, as together we grieve the sudden and untimely death of our beloved Pastor Sherry Billberg.

But here, precisely here, God gets a word in edgewise with you and with me….God enters into our sobering realization that we do not possess life within ourselves, we do not call all the shots, we are not capable of taking matters into our own hands….

God enters into this moment of radical honesty about all the things that thwart us or hold us back, and we realize again that even though we are incapable of “taking matters into our own hands,” God has nonetheless taken matters into his own hands.

Three times our Lord Jesus points us to “the way out” here in Matthew chapter four. Three times Jesus declares himself NOT to be alone in the universe. Three times Jesus places himself into the hands of almighty God, by immersing us in the mighty promises of God that truly do hold us, when all else fails.

You and I aren’t so great at taking matters into our own hands—but have no fear. We belong to the One who has placed us into his hands for ever. And that is enough!

So…when you wonder what you shall eat or drink or what you shall wear….remember that God has taken your life--your whole life--into his hands…and that as you dwell in God’s trust-engendering Word, you have all that you will ever need.

And when you are tempted to think that it’s all on your shoulders--to be a model of perfect trust in God--remember that that trust-building is God’s business…that God has done, is doing and will continue to do all that is needful in pointing us and all people to the Cross and the Resurrection of our savior Jesus.

Even if you imagine that you somehow have to win others, your family or even the whole world for God, no matter what that might take…remember that God has already won this world and is even now winning this world through the forgiveness, the freedom and the future that our Lord Jesus Christ has opened up for us.

This dramatic story of temptation in the wilderness ends with the devil slinking away, and Jesus being served by a company of angels….a sign that--despite the blandishments of the Tempter--our Lord knew and trusted that he was not alone in the universe…and neither are we.

The New Testament scholar Frederick Dale Bruner reminds us that the word “devil” comes from a root word that has to do with splitting. The diabolos, the devil is the one who always wants to split us off from God, to create the illusion that we are all we’ve got—and so we must take matters into our own hands.  (Matthew:  A Commentary, Vol. 1--The Christbook; Eerdmans 2004; p. 119)

This “splitter”—this diabolos—could not penetrate our Lord Jesus’s defenses on this point. Jesus knew—and we know, my dear friends—that we are not alone in the universe. And that it’s not about us taking matters into our own hands. But it is about finding ourselves—always, in spite of our sin, in the midst of dire circumstances, in the shadow of death—it is about finding ourselves always in God’s hands.

And that is enough!

In the name of Jesus.


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