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February 13, 2005 (Lent I)—“In the Wilderness—Alone!”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
 

Today in our scripture readings we are confronted with some timeless stories that continue to speak the truth to us even though the names and the places change throughout the centuries. Times of trial and testing happen to every single one of us, and because this is so, these stories continue to relate to us on this First Sunday of Lent.

Some of you of an older vintage like myself--and like fine wine--may remember a classic Western movie released in 1952 entitled High Noon. It featured Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and Lloyd Bridges, and among other things, it's the study of one man facing danger and death alone when everyone else deserted him.

At 10:30 on the morning of his scheduled retirement, Will Kane, the United States marshal in Hadleyville learns that a desperado by the name of Frank Miller has just been released from the state prison.

Five years earlier, the townspeople assisted the marshal when he arrested Miller, but now Miller and three fellow thugs are arriving on the noon train. They're not coming to attend Will Kane's retirement party--or to receive the "rehabilitated man-of-the-year" award.

They want revenge. They want to kill the veteran marshal, and the good folks of Hadleyville no longer seem to care. When the marshal seeks help, everyone finds some excuse to say no.

His wife, played by Grace Kelly, tries to convince him to leave town. And another character supports her by saying, "A town that won't defend itself deserves no help."

But the marshal because of his integrity refuses to be convinced. And so with persistence and determination, the marshal, Will Kane, goes out to face death alone.

In this Lenten Season, our thoughts turn to another man who will journey to Jerusalem--another man who will face danger and death alone. Too many folks and followers will also "Just say no" when they begin to sense the danger that's present from hanging around this man Jesus.

Even his closest followers abandoned him. As scripture tells us, "They all forsook him and fled." Whether at high noon or in the dead of night, the stories sound similar. Forsaken by supposedly good and upright people, Jesus goes alone to endure a horrible end.

Our Gospel for today is a foretaste of what lies ahead for Jesus as he meets the devil alone in the wilderness. At this point he is not abandoned by any of his followers, for this event in Matthew's Gospel is situated just after his baptism and just before he begins his public ministry.

Although Matthew's version is not as harsh as Mark's - where the Spirit throws Jesus out into the wilderness - he still meets the devil alone. And the three temptations that are hurled at Jesus is a choice between life and death and between obedience and disobedience.

It's a choice between faithfulness and selling out to the devil--a devil that speaks of kingship without suffering and power without trust and loyalty to God.

Following his baptism, the tempter hits at the core of Jesus' identity and his very being. Twice the devil tries to seduce Jesus by saying, "Since you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple."

This same temptation is hurled at Jesus by the religious authorities and others who mocked Jesus at the foot of the cross, "Save yourself. Since you are the Son of God, come down from that cross and we will believe in you."

In our Gospel for today, the devil invites Jesus to save himself, to take life into his own hands, and to avoid the suffering of servanthood and the cross. Here at high noon Jesus confronts the tempter alone, and he emerges from this time of testing victorious.

You and I often find ourselves in the wilderness, sometimes alone, sometimes supported by family and friends, to do battle at high noon with the devil.

Douglas John Hall, a contemporary theologian, tells us that the testing that confronts us is to live as a "human being, pure and simple, nothing more and nothing less. Grace," he says, "has liberated us to be truly human.

We're liberated from the demeaning attempt to rise above our humanness and the equally demeaning desire to slink out from underneath the possibilities and the responsibilities of our humanity. Divine grace does not intend to make me into someone else but to make me the self that I am before God."

That's where the devil enters the picture because the tempter tries to seduce me into giving up my humanity and not live as a child of God in trust and obedience.

The seduction to take life into our own hands and become like God is not just some ancient folktale which has no relevance for today, but this same seduction is played out again and again in so many variations and themes in all of our lives.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a wonderful name for the tempter. They call him "Slick," and that's exactly what he is--smooth and cunning--and you can be in his grasp before you know it.

Slick will tell someone struggling with addiction: "You've been sober now for two years. I think you've learned your lesson. You're stronger now, and you deserve to be good to yourself and have some fun like everyone else. Having just one drink won't hurt you--you can handle it."

Or, "You don't need to go to all those silly meetings. Those meetings are just for those who are weak, and all they do is just sit around and tell stories about their exploits when they were drinking.

How will that help you? Besides, just think about all the extra time you'll have to spend with your family, or doing something you really enjoy, or even helping someone else."

Of course, we sometimes like to think that Slick does his best work among those who are addicted, but Slick is an equal opportunity tempter.

In fact, he probably does his best work among those who are good, righteous, and strong. He does exceptional work when he's able to exploit us in the very midst of our strengths and those qualities that are often lifted up as admirable. Contrary to what we sometimes believe, it's not our weaknesses that are vulnerable but our goodness.

This is especially true when he's able to convince us that the end justifies the means. Isn't that the trump card that he tosses down before Jesus today?

Just look at all that you could accomplish, Jesus, as Son of God! All the kingdoms of the world would be yours. The hungry would be fed. Justice and peace would be established and the Reign of God would be fulfilled upon the earth.

"Be like God, Jesus, and act like it! Be like God, and use your power for good!"

We often live as if "the end justifies the means" and then we backtrack to defend, to justify, and to rationalize our actions because of the worthy and successful end result. Or we may blame others and fail to take responsibility when the end result is not what we desire.

A couple of weeks ago, Katy and I attended the Bishop's Retreat at Volcano on the Big Island. Al Miles, who is a chaplain at Queens Hospital and has done extensive work with domestic violence, spoke to us about providing helpful pastoral care in these situations.

He painted this particular scenario. A woman comes into the pastor's office. She tells about the violence and the abuse that she has endured for many years at the hands of her husband. She's afraid for her life, and she doesn't know what to do.

Her husband is a good man, active in the church and the community. He's well thought of and greatly respected, and of course, who would believe her?

The pastor believes her, but more than that, because she's in danger and because the pastor is a good person, always wanting to help--which is a strength - tells her, "We're going to get you out of this situation right now."

Unfortunately, the focus at this point has shifted to what the pastor wants and not necessarily what she wants and is prepared to do. The pastor totally ignores her feelings because the end justifies the means. But if she's not ready and it's not handled properly, the consequences could be far more deadly than what's happening now.

Whether it's in foreign policy, or our personal lives, or even in our congregational life together, "Slick," the tempter is often present, seducing us into believing that because of the end result and what we can achieve, we don't have to live faithfully in the meantime.

We don't have to live in trust and obedience as a child of God but we can be like God--exercising God's authority by making our own rules, or passing our own judgment, or determining what's best for everyone else in the world.

"And we're going to make sure that this happens," says Slick, "because you are good and strong and you can use your power for good. After all, the end justifies the means."

This morning we are invited to return to the covenant and the promise of our baptism where we renounce our sin and where we hear God's claim that we're children of God. We come trusting in God's grace alone, and this grace frees us and nurtures us to be fully human before God--nothing more and nothing less.

We are also invited to come forward this morning to receive the body and blood of Jesus. Assured of our forgiveness, we receive his presence into our lives, and we travel out there into the wilderness with the confidence that we are never alone.

We are never alone in whatever struggles and temptations we encounter, and we, too, will emerge victorious, not because of our strength.

We are dressed in the strength and the power of Jesus--the One who has faced every temptation and even death itself - alone, and has come forth as Lord and Savior of all creation.

Amen.


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