Matthew 4:1-11
February 17, 2002

Here's a storyline about GOD. Jesus is baptized with the heavenly announcement that he is marked by GOD's love and is the delight of GOD's life. Then GOD's Spirit leads Jesus into a wilderness where he is tempted.

Wildernesses do not have Global Positioning technology. Wildernesses are places of disorientation. Wildernesses do not have signposts. Wildernesses do not have time.

Where am I? Which is the better way to go? How long do I have to get out of the wilderness before I'm done in?

These are key wilderness questions. As you know these are life questions because there are often holes "in the middle of a pretty good life." You could be in a wilderness right here in lovely La Crosse where it is hard to get too lost because of the river on the west side and the bluffs on the east.

Even knowing that you are marked by GOD's love through your baptism and previous experiences of assurance that you are loved, you can experience a wilderness -- even Jesus did.

Even having experienced being the delight of GOD's life and being told that again this morning there is no guarantee that tomorrow won't find you in the middle of a wilderness -- even Jesus was led to find a wilderness.

Jesus' experience of the wilderness is important for us to reflect on because the same basic issues arise for us today. How did Jesus get himself oriented in the middle of a series of temptation which were designed to draw him further into the wilderness and to trap him there?

We need to pay attention to this because Jesus' orientation led him out of the wilderness. If we can hear Jesus' orientation it will aid us when we find ourselves in a wilderness.

This same set of responses by Jesus will be of assistance to us as a congregation as we walk through Lent with the question of our mission. How do we get ourselves out of the wilderness of more than forty years of straight-line decline, a Sunday School pitifully small in numbers while there are loads of kids all around us, and an irresponsible lack of adult education and application of the spiritual gifts available to us?

Jesus was tempted by the disorientation of the marketplace which places an emphasis upon individual satisfaction. All we have to do is turn stones into bread. All we have to do is get ahead. All we have to do is speculate. All we have to do is have a bigger profit this quarter than last. All we have to do is pull an Enron. All we have to do is be sure we are never hungry, that we are always at the head of the line.

These temptations are always circling us.

Did you know it is possible to turn stone into bread by working to break the stone into soil and tilling the new soil and planting seeds and harvesting and milling the wheat and mixing and baking?

The temptation is to take the shortcuts in life to get the highest return in the shortest amount of time rather than the old-fashioned way of diligent work. We are tempted to do things the easiest way, the way which takes the least passion and risk and is short-run efficient and long-run foolish.

To foil this temptation Jesus quotes an early part of Deuteronomy chapter 8 about life needing the word of GOD. That gets expanded later in the chapter when we hear that wealth is not individual but communal (either all get wealthier together or the rich get richer and the poor get poorer until there is a revolution) -- "When you become successful, don't say, 'I'm rich and I've earned it all myself.' Instead, remember that GOD gives you the strength to make a living. That's how GOD's promises are kept."

To keep oriented on GOD's blessing of an ability to participate in diligent work over the long haul is a fruitful path to follow when in the wilderness.

Jesus was tempted by the disorientation of security which places an emphasis upon safety first. All we need is to be wrapped in angel bubble-wrap so we won't stub our toe. All we need is a missile defense shield. All we need is more police. All we need are tougher laws. All we need is stricter airport surveillance. All we need is people who know better. All we need are improved gene therapy and medications.

These temptations are always circling us.

Islands of security in an insecure world are always false. Airplane bombs on September 11th are all we need to remind us of this.

We keep forgetting the Lenten journey is a journey to death. We do look beyond death to resurrection at Easter, but Lent is a journey to clearing out all the clutter in life and the largest symbol of clearing the clutter is death.

The wilderness is a sign of getting down to the bare bones of life. This vulnerability is nothing more than real life which is always filled with risk.

This past weekend I heard of a church ready to die. They cleaned out everything from the church and had a huge garage sale and hauled the rest away in dumpsters. Then they recognized they were no longer bound by their previous views. Wow, an empty church! What can be done with this. Three years later they have three services and many vital ministries. Their way to health and real security lay through the wilderness of clearing the clutter and starting fresh.

Jesus responds by returning to Deuteronomy chapter 6 which is best known for the first of the two key commandments: "Love GOD with all your being." For if we keep loving ourselves as we are, as though we are the center of the universe, there is nowhere else to go but to build a bubble around us and to keep filling it in until all that is left is a solid sphere that will finally and simply sink into the sand, trapping us in the wilderness

To keep oriented on GOD as our only long-term security is a fruitful path to follow when in the wilderness.

Jesus was tempted by the disorientation of entitlement. All we need is absolute control. All we need is to be number one. All we need is to control someone else or some other axis of nations.

These temptations are always circling us.

Somehow we think that if we finally get to a good place it will stay that way forever. You know that a job promotion can cause more grief than good. You know that the wedding day is not the marriage for better and worse. Time is always moving on and bringing another challenge. We can't stay where we are.

Jesus responds to this temptation by again going back to Deuteronomy chapter 6. The context for Jesus' response is the remembrance of slavery. To give in to the temptation to be in control means we will be slaves to being in control -- to keep in control means everything we do is focused on keeping our position and not moving lower on the ladder of success.

To keep oriented on GOD as the source of our daily bread, of the resources we need, is a fruitful path to follow when in the wilderness.

Finally, Jesus tells these devilish temptations to "beat it!" In the final analysis, taking the easy way out, building temporary security hedges and being in charge is not worth the cost.

When you are facing your own wilderness and as we face St. Luke's wilderness together, we must remember the only way to escape the temptations which first seem so worthwhile but are ultimately so trapping is to follow the Jesus story:

1) come together to work diligently, even if it takes a long time;

2) be willing to clear out the clutter, be willing to die; and

3) praise GOD, from whom all blessings flow.

Let us pray:

O God, who has marked us with your love, forgive us for losing touch with our joint partnership with you by the ways in which we try to take over and become the senior partner. Forgive our disorientation.

You know the temptations we face in our own life to rely on miracles rather than diligent work, to put security as our number one concern rather than your call to caring for one another, and to hold on to whatever we have.

Bless us with Jesus' orientation - strength to take the long way to success, with courage to risk even death and with joy in humble partnership with you and one another.


Copyright 2002. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.

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