[This message was delivered at John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Henrietta NY. It was not videotaped.]
First Sunday in Lent February 26, 2023 Matthew 4:1-11
Two weeks ago, you may have watched the most watched event of the year on television. I did. Does anyone here remember which team won the Super Bowl and what the final score was? Let me take this quiz up a notch or two. How many of the commercials do you remember? Can you remember a commercial that didn’t feature a dog? And, if you remember a commercial, for which some sponsor spent about $7,000,000 to show, do you remember the product? One sponsor bought two commercial spots, which means that sponsor spent at least $14,000,000 and a whole lot more because the production values of the two commercials were really good: expert photography, staging, and music. At the end of each came the punchline, not spoken, but written: “He gets us.” The he is Jesus.
I have been listening to a podcast about these “He Gets Us” ads that aired on the Super Bowl, costing a boatload–make that an aircraft carrier load–of money. The question I have doesn’t deal with how much it cost to air these or make these, or whether it was good stewardship. No. My question is this: does Jesus get us? Does he get me? Does he really?
Now that we have looked back two weeks, let’s look ahead 88 weeks and two days. That won’t be a Super Bowl dates, but our next presidential election. Already the questions are swirling:
- Are Biden and Trump too old to run again?
- Will Niki Haley emerge as a powerful candidate?
- Will DeSantis, Pence, and Pompeo join the field?
- If Biden decides not to run, what Democrats will jump in?
Starting a campaign requires strategy, money, and timing. With former president Jimmy Carter having entered hospice care at his home in Plains, GA, many are remembering how he campaigned early and long in Iowa and became a national player when, against all odds, he won the Iowa caucuses of his party and then the nomination and then became president. His launch strategy worked. He spent far more than 40 days in Iowa. Are 40 days in the wilderness any way to launch a public campaign or ministry?
In Matthew’s account of the gospel, today’s passage is how Jesus starts his public ministry. In chapter one he is born. In chapter two he receives strange gifts from strange foreign visitors. In chapter three, his cousin John the Baptist prepares the way and then baptizes Jesus. Ready? Get out the banners, bumper stickers, and lawn signs. Jesus is going–not to Iowa or New
Hampshire– but to the wilderness. The stark Palestinian wilderness. A dangerous place to travel alone. A dangerous place to be alone.
Michael Card, my favorite writer and singer of scripture songs, writes:
In the wilderness/ In the wilderness
He calls His sons and daughters/ To the wilderness
But He gives grace sufficient/ To survive any test
And that’s the painful purpose/ Of the wilderness
In the wilderness we wander/ In the wilderness we weep
In the wasteland of our wanting/ Where the darkness seems so deep
We search for the beginning/ For an exodus to hold
We find that those who follow Him/ Must often walk alone
No crowds follow him into the wilderness. The Spirit of God thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. It’s not like he said, book me a six-week adventure in the wilderness. This is not an Outward Bound experience. A few weeks ago, Aaron Rodgers, a football player for the Green Bay Packers took a four-day dark retreat. He had a big matter before him. Should he re-sign with the Packers for another season at about $50,000,000 or see if another team wants him for a year or two, probably for more money. So Rodgers booked a dark room in southern Oregon to be alone. His dark room had a queen size bed, a toilet, a meditation mat, and a switch for turning on lights. A few weeks ago I booked a room for a day at the Mercy Spirituality Center near Highland Park to be quiet before God and do some listening and praying. During those six hours I ate nothing, drank only tea and water, and was in a small room. Small but comfortable. A chair, a single bed, a small desk, and a lamp. It was hardly a wilderness of fasting and temptation for 40 days.
Jesus is not on a dark retreat or a spa vacation or an Outward Bound adventure. So far as we can tell, he doesn’t much want to be there. But the Spirit of God pushes him into the wilderness. He is going to be out there for 40 days. No food. No cushy bed. No light switch. But he won’t be exactly alone. The devil will be there giving him a guided tour. The Bible takes seriously the devil, sometimes called Satan. The evil one. The rebel against God. The fallen angel. In the Bible, the devil is not a literary symbol of evil, but evil incarnate.
Thrust into the wilderness by God’s Spirit, the devil makes his best plays on Jesus in three parries. Each one has a potentially good and God-honoring outcome:
- To make bread from stones, bread that could feed multitudes;
- To survive bodily danger, that could bring healing to broken bodies;
- To have authority over the world, which could advance the Kingdom of God globally in no time.
All Jesus had to do was submit to the devil’s timeline. And he wouldn’t do that. Ever.
The toughest choices we face in life are not between good and bad, but between good and better. Between short cuts that sound so good and doing the work of slow and steady progress. I have learned that short cuts usually cut us short, not the promised end.
In these wilderness exchanges we note that both the devil and Jesus quoted scripture. The devil can do that, making sin look so alluring. Offering shortcuts to what seem to be good ends. Beware of shortcuts, of too-good-to-be true schemes, and of people that cherry-pick Bible verses to say what they want them to say.
Jesus taught is to pray, “Lead us not into temptation…” I take that to mean something like this. Enough temptation comes to my life that I don’t need to court more. So I pray that God will keep me from making bad decisions and stupid moves putting me in places of vulnerability. Temptation will always be present in our earthly journeys. Jesus knows that, for he shared in our earthly journey. He was tempted more severely than we will ever be—and he passed the test. Does he get us? Does Jesus get us? When it comes to temptation, there is no question. He knows what it is like. He experienced it in the most extreme ways and honored God at every moment of temptation.
Are some of us in a wilderness just now? We are not alone. He gets us. He is with us in the Lenten journey—all the way to the cross and beyond. He gets us.