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Sermon for Sunday February 14, 2016

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 26:1-11

1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.


PSALM Psalm 91:1-13

1You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty—2 you will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” 3 For God will rescue you from the snare of the hunter and from the deadly plague. 4 God’s wings will cover you, and you will find refuge beneath them; God’s faithfulness will be your shield and defense. 5 You shall not fear any terror in the night, nor the arrow that flies by day; 6 nor the plague that stalks in the darkness, nor the sickness that lays waste at noon. 7 A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.  8 You will only have to look with your eyes, and you will see the reward of the wicked. 9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, 10 no evil will befall you, nor shall affliction come near your dwelling. 11 For God will give the angels charge over you, to guard you in all your ways. 12 Upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread upon the lion cub and viper; you will trample down the lion and the serpent.


SECOND READING Romans 10:8b-13

8b “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”


GOSPEL Luke 4:1-13

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Welcome on this Valentine’s Day. It’s ironic that this is also the First Sunday in Lent. And as you know, Lent is generally that season of the year when people choose a favorite treat or some vice to give up for these six weeks. One man said his children traditionally gave up something like candy for Lent. Last year, however, he urged them to go beyond that to giving up some habit or sin that they knew was bad for them. About halfway through Lent he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. His youngest son had promised to give up fighting with his brothers and sisters during Lent. When his father asked him how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty good, Dad–but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!”
Anyone who’s tried to give up something they really enjoy, for any period of time, knows what the young man was talking about. It can seem like a long time until Easter. Now imagine you’ve decided to give up candy for Lent, and then your significant other decides to surprise you with a delicious looking box of rich chocolates for Valentine’s day. Talk about a dilemma. Who wins out–God or your sweetheart? Or should I have asked–which wins out, your will power or the power of temptation? And temptation is something we all know something about!
It’s like something witty author John Ortberg wrote in his book, The Me I Want to Be. He wrote about a time when he and his wife went fly-fishing. It was their first time and their guides told them that in order to “to catch a fish you have to think like a fish.” The guides said that, to a fish, life is about the maximum gratification of appetite at the minimum expenditure of energy. To a fish, life is “see a fly, want a fly, eat a fly.”
As Ortberg humorously puts it, “A rainbow trout never really reflects on where his life is headed. A girl carp rarely says to a boy carp, I don’t feel you’re as committed to our relationship as I am. I wonder, do you love me for me or just for my body? Fish are just a collection of appetites. A fish is a stomach, a mouth, and a pair of eyes.”
He says, “While we were on the water, I was struck by how dumb fish are.” Then he imagined a fisherman saying to the fish, “Hey, swallow this. It’s not the real thing; it’s just a lure. You’ll think it will feed you, but it won’t. It’ll trap you. If you were to look closely, fish, you’d see the hook. You’d know once you were hooked that it’s just a matter of time before the enemy reels you in.” You’d think fish would wise up and notice the hook or see the line. You’d think fish would look around at all their fish friends who go for a lure and fly off into space and never return. But they don’t. It is ironic,” Ortberg continues, “We say fish swim together in a school, but they never learn. Aren’t you glad we’re smarter?”
Well . . . I guess it depends on how we deal with temptation whether we’re smarter than a fish or not. It depends how often we see the lure without noticing the hook, just like fish. Far too often I think we’re more like fish than rational observant human beings. The bottom line is that we could learn a lot from our Master about temptation–for even He was tempted. In our lesson from today’s gospel, Luke tells the story. And interestingly enough, it occurs right after Jesus’ baptism. Sometimes, I think it’s when we feel closest to God that the tempter seems most determined to undermine us.
Luke begins like this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days He was tempted by the devil.” There are two very important things we need to notice here; first, scripture doesn’t say He was led by the devil into the wilderness, but by the Spirit. And secondly, this passage tells us that Jesus was tempted the entire time. For 40 days He was tempted by the devil. Evidently, this was some kind of test.
Now some have surmised that this was a test to prove that Christ was who He said He was–the sinless Lamb of God. The idea is that He was tested much in the same way car companies test their cars. When they crash those cars, they don’t do this to prove that the car can indeed crash. Rather, the goal is to prove that, if the car does crash, it will do what the car company says it would (for example that the airbags will deploy upon impact, etc.) That’s the purpose of a test.
The story is told about when the Union Pacific Railroad was being constructed. An elaborate trestle was built across a large canyon in the West. Wanting to test this important bridge, the builder loaded a train with enough extra cars and equipment to double its normal payload. The train was then driven to the middle of the bridge where it stayed an entire day. One worker asked, “Are you trying to break this bridge?”
“No,” the builder replied, “I’m trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.” You may wonder why God would create a world where temptation is even possible. It may be that temptation is God’s quality control test for human beings. Bible scholar William Barclay once explained it this way: “What we call temptation isn’t meant to make us sin; it’s meant to enable us to conquer sin. It’s not meant to make us bad, it’s meant to make us good. It’s not meant to weaken us, it’s meant to make us emerge stronger and finer and purer from the ordeal. Temptation isn’t the penalty of being a [human being], temptation is the glory of being [human]. It’s the test which comes to a [person] whom God wishes to use.”
In other words, the temptations Jesus faced weren’t designed to see if Christ would sin, but to prove that He wouldn’t. In this test, the Holy Spirit may have been showing us that Jesus was both human and, at the same time, able to resist sin. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days, he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” The first temptation, at the end of the fasting period, that Jesus faced was to give in to His physical needs.
Now I don’t want to get hung up on the fact that Jesus went forty days without eating. “How is that possible?” some may be asking. Remember, the phrase “forty days” is sometimes the Bible’s way of simply saying “a long time.” The point is that Jesus went without eating for a long time and at the end of that time He was extremely hungry. It makes sense then, that the devil said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus had physical needs, just as we do, and those requirements needed to be met. What’s important here is Jesus’ response to the devil.
Jesus responded to the devil’s enticement by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone.” In other words, He’s saying there’s something more important in life than our physical needs. He’s quoting from the passage where Moses reminded the people of Israel that God led them in the wilderness for forty years, to humble and test them. One of those tests was the manna that God provided for them. Though God provided the manna to sustain them in the wilderness, it was still a test of faith.
Remember, God told the Israelites to gather the manna daily. If they didn’t trust God and out of fear tried to gather enough manna for tomorrow as well for today, the manna turned into maggots. They had to believe that God’s promise was trustworthy. It’s the same test that we face from time to time. Life suddenly gets difficult. And we’re faced with a dilemma: do we trust God to meet our needs or not? The answer to that question will determine how we live our lives. The first temptation Christ faced was to give in to His physical needs. The second temptation was to seek after personal power and glory.
The devil then takes Jesus to a high place and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world. “I will give you all their authority and splendor,” the tempter says, “it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Again note Jesus’ response, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” In other words, not only are we forbidden from worshipping satan, but we’re also forbidden from worshipping our own selfish desires.
In His answer, Jesus again makes reference to Deuteronomy, this time chapter 6, where Moses warned the people about their attitude when they get to the Promised Land and begin to prosper. The temptation would be for them to subdue the land and then to sit back with pride and to pat themselves on the back for all they had accomplished and forget that it was God who had given them the land. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you–a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (10-12).
“You shall worship God alone and him only shall you serve” is the call for us to realize that God must take preeminence in our lives. We live in a land with so many conflicting gods, just as the Hebrews did. Ours are not gods of clay and stone. Our gods are gods of money and power, pride, position and possessions.
Keith Emerson, an Episcopal priest in Hudson, Ohio tells about a friend of his, a fellow priest, who invested some money in the stock market. Every day thereafter this priest would pore over the financial pages seeking better investment possibilities. Mind you, he had never shown an interest in any of this until he made this investment. He said that his friend eventually took this to an extreme.
One day out of the blue, he wanted a group of his fellow priests to go with him to a Wendy’s restaurant for lunch. And when they got there, he encouraged them to order as much as they wanted, but then scolded them for being too generous with things like ketchup and napkins. It wasn’t until a week later they discovered that this priest had purchased some stock in Wendy’s. This was his way of encouraging everyone he knew to go there to eat so that his investment could grow. He became obsessed with his investments.
Any obsession that captures the lion’s share of our time and attention can become an idol. A hobby or a sport can become idolatrous if it causes us to have less time for God. Even our own family can become an idol if we continually rationalize missing worship in the name of “quality family time.” Let’s not kid ourselves, we live in a time of easy rationalizations when our devotion to God has become watered down to a mere nod in God’s direction. The drive for money and power, pride, position, stuff or a host of other minor idols may pull us away from God.
Satan’s first temptation was for Christ to turn stone into bread in order to feed His physical hunger. His second temptation was the very human hunger for power and splendor. Jesus only need bow down to satan rather than to direct His worship exclusively to God. Satan’s third temptation was for Jesus to take an easier way to accomplish His mission and thus avoid the cross.
Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Certainly this test would have been good for Jesus’ mission.
If Jesus threw Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple and a host of angels caught Him in mid-air, then everyone would know, without question, that He truly was the Son of God. Satan even quotes Psalm 91:11-12, our Psalm for this morning, that prophesies that the messiah will be kept safe from harm. Satan, by the way, is a master at quoting scripture, almost as good at it as Jesus. Some of the most devilish people I know like to have a Bible in their hand, usually so they can throw it at people of whom they disapprove.
But thanks be to God, Jesus didn’t yield to the temptation to take the easy path. He knew His purpose; that He had come as the suffering servant (Philippians 2:7-8). To receive the acceptance of the people without going to the cross was to undermine the plan of the Father. That was exactly the situation Moses wrote of in Deuteronomy 6:16 which Jesus quotes in response to Satan. Jesus answers, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Moses referred to a time when people wondered if God was with them, just as sometimes we wonder if God is with us. If you don’t believe God is with you, you won’t be able to stand up to life’s greatest challenges. Christ wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be tempted to take a short cut, to take the easy way, the less demanding way to achieve their goals. We’re all tempted to avoid the hard work of being the best we can be–the best of what God has called us to be.
“When the devil had finished all this tempting,” says St. Luke, “he left him until an opportune time.” That opportune time could well refer to the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ was facing the cross. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” . . . “And being in anguish,” Luke writes, “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:42-44).
So this is where we begin our Lenten pilgrimage–with Christ being tempted, or tested, in the wilderness. Hebrews 2:18 explains why it was necessary for Christ to face this test: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” All of us are continually being tested.
It might be a temptation as benign as Valentine chocolates or it may be as life shattering as a temptation to an illicit sexual relationship. It may be a temptation to apathy regarding our use of time, or the more devastating temptation to outright fraud in the marketplace. The message of Christ’s test in the wilderness is that temptation can be resisted. At times it must be resisted. How? By making our primary allegiance to God and serving Him alone. It can be resisted by refusing to take the easy way, by seeking to pursue the honorable way.
Today is the beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage. Just as facing temptation wasn’t intended to weaken us by giving in to temptation, but to make us stronger as we resist the tempter, so this season of the year can make us stronger in our faith. As we go through these six weeks, pray that God will use us by His grace to make us more into the Christ-like people He has called us to be. Unlike Christ, we will never be without sin in this world. But with His help, we can resist temptations that are destructive and undermine our witness to the world. By the help of the Holy Spirit, we can grow stronger as we face the tests that come to us in our daily lives.

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