Jesus Leads the Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 10, 2019
1st Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” For those who gathered for our Ash Wednesday service, these are the words you heard as you were marked with the sign of the cross: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” As Maggie Dawn notes so well, “The ashing ritual is a symbol of the fact that we are quite literally made of dust—billion-year old carbon from burnt out stars, as Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970’s.”[i]
The Season of Lent is a time of preparation. It’s a time to walk the earth more gently and more wisely. It’s a time to step out of the rat race of life and face our own humanity squarely in the face. But must we really begin with words so somber, so gloomy: From dust you came and to dust you shall return? Must we begin with words spoken at a funeral? Is it necessary to dwell on our sinful, fallen, broken nature? Where is the gospel light in that?
Jesus enters the wilderness to face off with the devil. His fast of 40 days is not one of repentance, rather as one commentary puts it, “[It symbolizes] Jesus’ fullness of the Spirit and helplessness…and humbling of self before an omnipotent God who generously gives and sustains life.”[ii] Jesus, the Son of God, comes to earth to do the will of his Father, but he doesn’t just wake up one morning, roll out of bed, and start preaching. Even for Jesus, training is necessary. He is trained in Scripture. We know this because he uses it so often and so well. Jesus is baptized and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit accompanies him into the wilderness. (Jesus isn’t dropped off to fend for himself.) After a 40-day fast, Jesus is drained, vulnerable, and famished. So, of course, this is the opportune time for the devil to slink onto the scene.
Essentially, the temptations are not invitations to do bad things—the devil is much too sly for that. No, the temptations are tests to see whether even good things will lure Jesus away from God’s will.[iii] First, there is the obvious test—Jesus, fully divine, is also fully human—so he is hungry, and wouldn’t a piece of bread be mighty tasty right about now? Perhaps if we listen very carefully, we will hear an echo in the air of another man famished who succumbed to temptation—remember Esau who, driven by his appetite, gave up his birthright—all for a bowl of porridge? But when a similar temptation is set before Jesus, he will have none of it. Can’t you just see the devil smiling, “How about it, Jesus—with the snap of a finger you could set up your own bakery right here in the wilderness?” Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy and refuses to let his physical needs control him.
With the second temptation the devil offers authority and power over the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus recognizes the lie that pours from the devil’s lips—for nothing belongs to the devil. And any power he has is borrowed for a time—until that day when evil will breathe no more. Again, quoting Scripture, Jesus refuses to be led astray.
Finally, the devil assails Jesus from another angle, tries to beat Jesus at his own game, so as a last-ditch effort he pulls out a few words from the Psalms. It appears the devil can quote Scripture, too. It just isn’t something he lives by! Nevertheless, Jesus is not swayed. Defeated and out of ideas to bring Jesus down to his level, the devil slips away until an opportune time presents itself. Oh, it won’t take long. In fact, throughout Jesus’ ministry the powers of evil show themselves because they know full well what is at stake. Their time of rule upon the earth will soon come to an end and it will happen through Jesus, who will not be outwitted by that liar of all liars.
With our modern-day sensibilities, we may perceive Jesus’ time out in the wilderness as simply dreadful. But what happens, during those 40 days and nights, gives Jesus the strength he needs for the journey ahead. There in that quiet, desolate place, Jesus is being formed. Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us—has come to do the Father’s will—not his own. Because of this time of preparation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the new Adam, vanquishes the powers of evil. Through his trust and faith in his Abba Father and his reliance upon God’s word as his weapon against evil, Jesus shows us the way ahead. He is our model because he is our brother and he has gifted us with the Holy Spirit, too.[iv] Great is the mystery of our faith. During Lent we look our mortality in the face. It is a good time to consider who we are and whose we are. It is a good time to consider what we are doing with this one life we have been given.
Twenty years ago, I was beginning to feel God’s call to vocational ministry. Our eldest son, Samuel, was a freshman in college. In his second semester, tragedy struck when a dear friend of his died in her sleep. It was Valentine’s Day and Blakely did not wake up. A beautiful, bright, talented young woman, who loved God and all God’s children, went to her heavenly dwelling, leaving behind a gaping hole where once she stood. The funeral was held in a church that seated well over a thousand people—still, it was standing room only. Instead of a traditional service, there was lots of music and singing, liturgical dancers and readings from Scripture and from Blakely’s prayer journal. The theme of the evening was God’s love for Blakely and Blakely’s love for God. In the midst of a most somber and sad occasion, the light of God broke forth like the morning sun and all within its rays were blessed beyond measure.
As for me, I left the service pondering life—Blakely’s and my own. How could such a young soul hold so much love? How did she become so wise in her short 19 years on this earth? While she had made an impression on me during her life—it was the witness she left behind that remains with me still. Because of her, I began keeping a prayer journal as a spiritual practice. Oh, sometimes my writings are less like Blakely’s and more like my own version of holy whining. Yet, the discipline has helped me to start the day gazing toward God. Often, it has allowed me a place to examine how I am living this one life I’ve been given.
In a meditation on this season of the church year, Maggie Dawn offers words of encouragement:
Pausing to contemplate our mortality [and our true nature during the Season of Lent] is not for the sake of making us bleak, but to startle us into an awareness of the gift of life. We’re neither perfect nor immortal; we are merely and yet wonderfully human, and we need to know who we are in our imperfections as well as our gifts in order to live every day as if it counts for something. The call to repentance isn’t supposed to leave us dour or morbidly obsessed with our failings. Instead, it’s a call to turn away…from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us from living well. Lent [offers] a challenge to clear out the mental and spiritual clutter and so discover how to live life to the full.[v]
Jesus has a short but full life, with a ministry that lasts about 3 years, yet the impact he has on people in his own time and the impact he still has today is beyond comprehension. With lying lips, the devil offers the false hope of dominion and power—over the physical, political, and spiritual world. But Jesus will not waver. He will keep his eyes on his Father. He will life his life pointing to the Father with every fiber of his being.
The temptations offer Jesus an opportunity for instant gratification. But Jesus does not settle, and he will give his life so that we do not have to settle either. All this, and much more, Jesus endures and for what? For us…lowly humans who are often better at giving God a hard time than anything else. But Jesus wants us to have it all—abundant life—here on this earth and in the life to come. Jesus’ whole life and ministry demonstrates the bigger picture of God’s plan for as one scholar puts it,
Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching. Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.[vi]
Being faithful to God day in and day out isn’t easy. But if we choose the Lenten journey, if we choose to make ourselves available to the grace of God, “we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness, but through the wilderness.”[vii]
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Maggie Dawn, Giving it Up, 13.
[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.
[iii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 47.
[iv] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.
[v] Dawn, 15.
[vi] Ringe, 49.
[vii] Jeffery L Tribble, Sr., Feasting on the Word, 48.
*Cover Art “Spiritual Warfare” Ira Thomas; Catholic World Art; used by permission