Sunday, March 12, 2023

Learning to Follow: Who Will You Be?

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
        alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
    the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
        and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.

From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” --Matthew 3:1-17, 4:1-17 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? If so, what do you know about them? (Sidenote: Did you know that one of the fragments left behind includes language that suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married?) 

It is believed that these scrolls belonged to the Essenes. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that arose around during the time we call the Second Temple period in Judaism - that time between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. During this time, there was a growing belief that a Messiah would come to overthrow Israel’s foreign occupation and install a period of peace. The Essenes held this belief. They lived an ascetic lifestyle in a remote wilderness area. They believed the apocalypse was imminent and that, when it came, it would begin a new time. A new Messianic age. This age was to be characterized by repentance for Israel. A call to turn back. To turn back to God so that this new time might be ushered in. 

John the Baptizer, it is believed, was an Essene. As he preached this repentance - this call for Israel to turn back to God - as he preached this on the margins of the centers of power - on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he picked up a large following, many of them coming from Jerusalem and surrounding regions. That the Pharisees and Sadducees show up in the story, in this liminal space near the Jordan where John is preaching, says something. And, from their perspective, it is not something good. But from the perspective of John the Baptizer - his place at the margins sets the stage for Jesus to enter into this same liminal space. 

You may wonder why we today have juxtaposed this story of Jesus’ baptism with that of his wilderness temptation. Too often in our reading of scripture and, especially in our lectionary texts, we treat each story as unique and set apart. But, the truth is that they are all connected. As John is baptizing Jesus the heavens open. This same word is used in Isaiah and Ezekiel to suggest that the heavens open to reveal God’s purpose. That purpose is to be found in Jesus. God’s Son. The Beloved One. The visible manifestation of God in the world. In human flesh and blood. 

But, then. And “then” is exactly the word that is used to begin our second story from Matthew. But, then, that same Spirit that descended and gently rested on Jesus - that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus, like John, moves into that liminal space. For 40 days. Like Israel wandering for 40 years. For a purpose. To inaugurate - or birth - a new age of God. 

It is there, in the wilderness, where Jesus meets Satan. 

In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not really an evil figure, more like a prosecutor on the heavenly council. But, once again in the Second Temple period, the concept of Satan - like that of Messiah - develops further. Satan became a more powerful figure. An adversarial one. The personification of evil. The leader of demons acting in direct opposition to the kingdom of God. Yet, even in this dichotomy of good and evil, God was still seen as being fully in charge of history. 

We see this in the story of Jesus’ temptation. Satan is a wily character, using scripture in a way to deceive. Offering Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world - as if Satan actually has ownership and control over all the kingdoms of the world. 

But, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for one reason. One primary reason. It is to show that One and One only has dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. That One is God, visibly manifested in Jesus. This is who Jesus is - the kind of ruler Jesus is. 
But, Matthew also wants us to know what kind of ruler Jesus isn’t. When given the “opportunity” to prove his special status, Jesus demonstrates restraint. He doesn’t use his power to satisfy his own appetite or to prove his invincibility. Neither does he seize on the opportunity to acquire all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor by worshiping Satan. Why? Because Jesus is faithful to God. And because this ruler - this Messianic One who will fulfill Israel’s hopes, perhaps not in the way they anticipate - does not rule with unbridled appetites, arrogance, or tyranny.

You and I. We, like Jesus, are also called to be the visible manifestation of God in this place and time, called and baptized as Jesus was. God looks at us through him and says, “You. You are my beloved.” And when we turn away, when we stray, when we get lost, God calls us into repentance, that turning back to God. Where once again, we are reminded of whose we are and how we are to live.

And then. Because even as God’s called people, we are not immune from times in the wilderness. Then, when we find ourselves in the midst of the wilderness, tempted by pride. Desiring power over others. Wishing for more and more - for all the possessions of the world. It is there, in those wilderness times, that we are faced with our own questions of identity. Who are we? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God? And how will we live into this identity? When life is hard, it is when our baptismal identity is the most challenged. How will we respond when we are stressed, overtired, anxious, angry, despondent, hurt? Or when our communities face threats - whether internal, or external? Who will we be? Really?

We look to Jesus for that example of how we are to be the visible manifestations of God in the world. Jesus shows us that it is when our lives are most difficult that we choose who we will be. Like Jesus, we will be hungry. We will have times when we are tempted to doubt God’s faithfulness. We will be tempted to reach for power, rather than to live the life of a servant. It is in the wilderness where we will be tested. And transformed.

To live into our baptismal identity - to live as a child of God in the world - we must serve God, even when things are hard. This is when we choose just what it means to be a child of God.

If you are the Son of God,” Satan challenges Jesus. And us. 

If you are a child of God, who will you be?  

Preached Sunday, January 15, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 3:1-17, Matthew 4:1-17

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