How to Pass Wilderness Tests

A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 1, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We are in the season of Lent and among my personal practices for Lent I have given up refined sugar. I feel I need to let you know I am replacing it with sermon puns. So I “Goggled” “puns for Lent,” and to my surprise I found some, including this Lenten story: On the first Friday of Lent a parishioner who’d given up meat went to his church’s fish fry run by their monastery. He loved the meal, even filled up on seconds and then went to the kitchen and spoke to the cooks. “Thank you for a wonderful dinner. Those were the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. Which of you cooked what?” The head monk replied, “How nice of you to say. I’m Brother Simon, the fish FRIAR and this is Brother Alvin the CHIP MONK.”
That story may seem like I told it just for the HALIBUT . . . because I forgot to mention it was a SOLE-full dinner for the parishioner. The tie-in, of course, is Lent. I mention in our March newsletter Lent began last week on Ash Wednesday. I also pointed out that “Lent” is the Old English word for the season of spring. The word referred to lengthening of daylight this time of year. While we now call spring “spring,” Lent has remained the English name for the forty days (not counting Sundays) before Easter.
The length of Lent comes from the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism preparing for his ministry. Interestingly enough in a sort of reversal of the after-baptism nature of Jesus’ forty days, Lent in the early church centered on forty days of pre-baptismal practices as candidates fasted and studied in preparation for their Easter Day baptism. Once baptized Lent remained for all Christians a time of fasting and penitence in order to get right and ready for the next Easter. It served as a sort of spiritual spring cleaning of the soul. The tradition of fasting and preparation is meant to echo Jesus’ fasting and preparation during his forty days in the wilderness.
In Protestant mainline churches, like ours, Lenten fasting and preparation before Easter tends to still be a spiritual practice for many Christians. Many of us fast by “giving up something for Lent.” Some of us also study the faith a bit more. I tend to add a nature based meditative practice outside in the “wilderness.” Nowadays Lenten practices are by choice, but for centuries the fasting was mandatory and pretty intense. You could only eat at dinner time, and the meal could not include meat, fish, eggs or butter.
Lent of course is not just about personal practices and choices. It may not seem like it out in the secular world but on the church calendar Lent is to Easter what Advent is to Christmas, a weeks long season getting ready for Jesus’ arrival. At Christmas it is the arrival of Jesus experienced in human form, the King to be. At Easter it is the arrival of Jesus experienced in Divine form, Christ the King now and forever. In both Advent and Lent the official color of the season is purple, which in ancient times was the color of royalty, so the kingly connection is there. But purple was also the color of sorrow and mourning which in connects to the Holy Week sorrow and loss. Some also claim we use purple in Lent because it is made from red, the color of blood; and blue, the color associated with his mother Mary. This symbolism is understood to represent the blood of Jesus, and Mary who modeled human response to God and Jesus.
All of this color symbolism is why I have on a this stole and there are purple paraments in the sanctuary. See, while Lent does not have the same secular focus as Advent anymore, many churches still focus on it, including ours. We started Lent off with a very nice Ash Wednesday Service, Laura, Christa and the choir were wonderful and sounded great. The liturgy was moving and I am grateful for all the participants who braved the foul weather– and for Kathy who prepared the communion elements– and Pastor Mearle who co-officiated.
Our church’s Lenten practices do not end with Ash Wednesday. Each Wednesday until Easter there is a 7pm Lenten Class studying the faith. (There is still time to sign up!). Later in April as Holy Week unfolds, we will also continue our tradition of having a Palm Sunday service, and later in the week a Maundy Thursday service. All of these Lenten traditions we do to facilitate preparation for Easter, and education and Spirituality as Christians, to participate in the time honored tradition of this “spring cleaning of the soul.” If you have not experienced these practices I invite you to consider them. There is a reason Christians have done them every Lent. They have a track record of helping us focus on God, to learn about the faith, to forgive ourselves, to forgive others, and to be involved in the community of Love we call the church.
One other Lenten practice we often have on the first Sunday in Lent is a Lectionary reading related to Jesus’ forty days in desert. So today we just heard Ann read the famous selection of the story from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, the story unfolds right after Jesus is baptized. In Matthew’s Baptism story,
just as [Jesus] came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
As soon as those words from heaven were spoken Matthew tells us “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Spirit instantaneously led the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased to the wilderness and temptation. And while this may seem odd, if you recall last week we discussed how Matthew echoed Old Testament stories in his Transfiguration narrative. Matthew is also doing that here too. He does it a lot. Jesus is being sent on a fast track version of the Exodus of God’s people, so he goes out of a body of water and into the wilderness to endure three primary tests endured by Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness after they go out of a body of water– the Red Sea. Jesus does it in a symbolic forty-days instead of the Exodus’ forty years.
The three tests Jesus experiences echo three tests during from the Exodus. 1 The first test he faced from the devil in the wilderness is one that Moses and the Hebrews faced. It is about focusing only on physical necessities, food, represented by bread. Jesus is hungry. In Exodus 16 (1-4) the Hebrew people also wanted food and God tested them with a special bread, manna from heaven. Deuteronomy 8 (2-3) – a part of which Jesus quotes to the devil– sums up the nature of that test:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
See we are not to live for our bodily needs alone, we are not to put to the side or give up on God or God’s commandments because of physical needs. Our needs from the met by the Word of God must remain paramount. Starving Jesus is tempted by the devil to ask God not just for a serving of bread or even one loaf of bread but for loaves of bread. Jesus refuses, noting that bread is not the be all end all, rather the Word of God is.
The second test Jesus faced in the wilderness is also one Moses and the Hebrews faced. It is about testing – challenging– God’s presence. In Exodus 17 the Hebrews complain about water doubting God’s presence. God has Moses go to a rock that God is standing in front of, and tells Moses
“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
That’s Exodus 17:6-7. Deuteronomy 6(16) – which Jesus quotes in part to the devil– sums up the point of this second test: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Jesus is asked to test God’s presence by leaping off high place. Jesus refuses saying the first part of the Exodus lesson “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The third test Jesus faced in the wilderness is also one Moses and the Hebrews faced. It is about idolatry. Exodus 32 starts off with “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us . . .” Then they make a golden idol to worship. Deuteronomy 6(4) reflects back on this event– and that verse is the heart of the Shema posted on Jewish household doorposts for three thousand years, it reads:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
When the devil asks Jesus out in his wilderness to worship him in exchange for all the power and kingdoms of the world, Jesus summarizes the Shema:
“Away with you, Satan! for it is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
This responses chases the devil away and ends the testing.
In this day and age we might look at these tests that Moses, the Hebrews and Jesus faced as kinda irrelevant. Most of us don’t talk to the devil or worry about bread, or being asked to throw ourselves off of cliffs or to worship other gods. But we actually do face the heart of the temptations. We face not trusting God to help us in our trials, letting immediate physical needs rule our thoughts and actions instead of being guided by every Word that comes from our still speaking God.
We also are tempted to put the presence of the Lord our God to the test. Alone and corporately we ask for this or that to validate God, or worse we act in risky ways thinking God will defy natural law or natural consequences and supernaturally provide a safety net to rescue us. But God is not humankind’s magic genie. What we need to do is trust God in the awe, wonder and love of creation’s natural ways. We are not supposed to rely on the supernatural magic. There is natural magic enough, miracles aplenty in creation and in human compassion and love.
We may not think about it in these terms but we are also tempted to idolize many things in this culture. We may not call them gods, but “golden idols” are given top ranking over God. Things like money, power, politics, even other people or things become what humans worship and follow and center on more than God. We forget that “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” We forget that we are to love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, and with ALL our soul, and with ALL our might.
The lesson today is about how we are tempted in the wildernesses of our lives, just as Moses and the Hebrews and Jesus were tempted. We are tempted to challenge, dismiss and put other things above God. Both Torah and Jesus tell us the right path to take when tempted like that. The right path is away from Satan and always toward God. If it is a physical thing that we are tempted to give up God for, we need to remember were are to live for more than physical necessities, that The Word that comes from our still speaking God is what is important. If it is God’s presence that we are tempted to challenge or doubt, we must not test if it’s there, but trust that God is in the awe, wonder and love of existence. If it is some other thing that we are tempted to idolize, to center our life around – we must remember “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” We can even chase the devil away by remembering that and putting ti front and center.
Those are Jesus’ actions taken to pass the tests when he was tempted in the wilderness. They are actions we can, and should, also take in our own wilderness tests. That’s the lesson in our reading today. It’s the lesson in the Exodus. It is the lesson at Advent, Christmas, Easter and Lent. In whatever wilderness we may find our self in, may we trust and center on the Word of God. May we know God’s is with us. And in the words of the Shema may we all know, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” May we love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, and with ALL our soul, and with ALL our might.

1 See, e.g., Interp, p 24.