Through the Wilderness

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 10, 2019

Luke 4: 1-13 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
5Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
9The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

In the passage from Deuteronomy that Debbie read earlier in the service, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years following their exodus from Egypt. In fact, they have been in the wilderness so long that none of the people who were once enslaved in Egypt are still living. They have all passed on. This is a new generation on the brink of the Promised Land. With Joshua now leading them, they stand at the edge of the wilderness, looking across the Jordan Valley and into the Promised Land. In this passage from Deuteronomy, they are receiving instructions about how they are to remember this part of their history, even as they build for themselves new lives in “the land flowing with milk and honey.”

It’s truly fascinating to consider that some 1,500 years later, Jesus would step into the Jordan River to be baptized by John, only to emerge from the water and walk into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. Needless to say, the wilderness is an important part of our faith history, even as it is a reality in our life of faith today. This morning, we are invited to follow Jesus into the wilderness.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is the 40 days (6.5 weeks, not including Sundays) that Christians observe as a time of preparation for Easter. It began first as a period of intense preparation for converts to the faith, who would then be baptized and join the Christian Church on Easter Sunday. In some Christian traditions that practice remains, but for others the observance of Lent has broadened to be a time of fasting, examination, and repentance for all Christians. That’s why we observe Lent; because we all need some intentional time to get ourselves “back on track,” so to speak. This year, during this season of Lent, our worship together will take us on a Journey to New Life. We will walk with Christ. We will study the Scriptures. We will examine our own lives. We will face the necessity of change to remain faithful. On our 75th Anniversary, Palm Sunday, we will consider what has been and what is yet to come. All of these things are necessary for new life, and because all of these are necessary for new life, we must also acknowledge that the journey to new life frequently treks right through the wilderness. No journey is easy, especially not when new life is the destination.

So we begin our journey this morning in the wilderness. It’s interesting to think that God choses the wilderness setting to re-form Israel as the people of God. The Deuteronomy passage reminds us of this; as the Israelites stand at the edge of the Promised Land and receive instructions for their new life, they are told to remember this place, the reformation that happened through those wandering years where the people learned again to rely on God; to put their faith and trust in God and God alone. Before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land, they had to be molded, shaped, and formed for this new life. And lest we think we are somehow exempt from such wilderness wanderings, let us remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Before Christ’s ministry began, he was baptized, and then Luke tells us, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is part of Jesus’ fully human life; this is part of Jesus experiencing what we experience. In the desert, in the wilderness, we are faced with our mortality and our finitude. In the wilderness, we confront our uncertainty and look toward a new and untold future. For us, the wilderness is where faith is forged. Jesus’ temptation in the desert is less about the temptation and more about the transformation. The same was true for the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. That was a time of punishment upon the Israelites because of their lack of faith, but more importantly, it was a time of reformation—preparing the Israelites for what was to come.

Wandering in the wilderness is not some aimless pursuit. For Christ, it was a time to face the trials and temptations of human life; to learn what it is to live these lives we live, to struggle as we struggle, so that his sacrifice for humanity was total. And precisely because Christ spent these 40 days in the desert, tempted by Satan, we too have a “promised land” that lies in our rising with Christ. Through these 40 days of Lent, we would do well to remember that as we explore the desert of our own hearts—we will need God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” to give direction to our sojourn. We need to be reminded over and over again who we are and to whom we belong. We need to open our hearts to God’s movement within us, stripping away the self-reliance upon which our lives are built, and instead remembering our story of faith—our grounded-ness in the very heart of God. “Just because we read and quote scripture, and just because we jabber away about trusting God, it does not mean we are in sync with what God is asking us to do” with our lives (James Howell). Facing this reality head-on in the wilderness is the way to get our lives in sync with God. And when our lives are in sync with God, it’s much easier to face the challenges and temptations before us. We can enter the wilderness and allow for the sometimes painful but life-giving process of transformation, or we can stand at the edge of the wilderness as mere spectators.

Several years ago, I was privileged to hear Bishop Robert Schnase speak. Bishop Schnase currently serves the Rio Texas Annual Conference, and he is the author of a book some of you may be familiar with called The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Anyway, Bishop Schnase shared this story:

“My parents were nominal Lutherans, which meant that we didn’t really go to church. My father worked hard in a blue collar job at a factory and my mother worked hard keeping the kids and the home in one piece.

“Eventually we moved to Texas, and my parents decided that they would go ‘shopping for a church.’ About once a month or so we would visit a worship service, and then move on to another one the next month. One evening, my dad and I decided to visit the evening service at the local Methodist Church. My mother stayed home to watch my younger siblings for we didn’t know whether or not they had childcare. We didn’t know much about church and I don’t remember much about the service. What I do remember is that the next evening we had a knock on the door from some members of the church. They welcomed us to the area, and told us how happy they were that we had visited the church. They obviously really loved their church! They told us about some of the important ministries that were taking place and the Sunday school classes and the activities for children. Then they told us they hoped we would come back. Their enthusiasm worked, and for the first time, our family started going to church on a regular basis.

“Soon, they started to ask us if we would like to join the church. Though my parents were reluctant at first, we eventually joined. Next someone asked my mother if she would teach one of the Sunday school classes. She declined right off saying ‘How could I do that? I know hardly anything about the Bible.’ They persisted and told her she could be a ‘helper.’ And to this, she said, ‘Yes.’ She was put in charge of the arts and crafts, and helped in that Sunday school class for the next 7 years.

“At one point, my parents were asked to come join the Bible study that met at the church every Wednesday night. ‘Not at this time, thanks,’ they replied. They were invited again and again, until finally, someone asked them why they would not come. My parents told them that they felt they didn’t know the Bible well enough, and were afraid they would be embarrassed and wouldn’t fit in! But the person who had invited them promised them that this would not be the case; that there was a diverse group in this class. So my parents gave the Bible Study class a try.” Bishop Schnase went on to share with us that it was within this Bible study group that his parents came to form their strongest friendships; life-long friendships that continue to this day!

Of course, Bishop Schnase went on to seminary; entered into the ordained ministry, became a pastor and is now a Bishop. These days his father, who is now retired, spends three days a week at the church volunteering with some of the church ministries. His mother is active in the United Methodist Women, and is now a Sunday School teacher.

The church is and has been the center of their lives. But imagine extracting out of them all of those church experiences. Imagine if they had never visited that church or if those excited members had never visited them. Imagine if they had never joined the church or become involved in Sunday school and Bible study. Bishop Schnase says that his family would be unrecognizable! A deep, abiding relationship with Christ lived in community fundamentally changed their lives, and it changes ours, too!

So I’m wondering today… Are we willing to trust God enough to take the risks that are involved in growing in our relationship with Christ and helping to bring others into a relationship with Christ as well? Are we willing to surrender all of our hindrances and all of our hang-ups so we can follow Christ and be transformed by him? As disciples, our task is to overcome the hindrances of this world that keep ourselves and others from growing in a relationship with Christ. Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” We serve Christ best when we surrender to him completely and allow him to work complete change in our lives.

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