Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 13, 2011

2011.03.13 “Questions in the Wilderness” – Matthew 4: 1 – 11


“Questions in the Wilderness”

Matthew 4: 1 – 11

The 1st Sunday in Lent

March 13th, 2011

“Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.” – Matthew 4: 1 – 11, The Message

     On April 26, 2003, 27-year-old Aron Ralston from Aspen, Colorado, set out on a solo 30-mile mountain biking and hiking excursion in Canyonlands National Park, deep in the wilderness of Utah.

      Traveling with a bare minimum of clothing and supplies, he left a one-word itinerary for his family and friends he was later to regret: “Utah.”

      Seven miles into his hike, Ralston scrambled over a boulder wedged between the close walls of Blue John Canyon. His weight shifted the boulder and dislodged it, sending it rolling toward him.  When it settled to a stop, his right hand was pinned at the wrist between the boulder and the canyon wall. He was eight miles from his truck and 40 miles from the nearest paved road.

      Experienced in wilderness emergencies, Ralston did not panic, but surveyed his options for survival. Knowing that his chances for discovery and rescue were remote, he tried using his climbing equipment to budge the boulder, and also tried chiseling away at the rock to free his arm. Neither worked. Another possibility occurred to him, which he quickly discounted: cutting off his arm.

      Over the next five days, as dehydration, hunger, hypothermia and hallucinations set in, Ralston felt more and more doomed. Once a day, he yelled for help.  He prayed.  Despairing, under his name he had scratched into the rock, he etched “APR 03. RIP”. He thought about friends and family and his life of risks, which he did not regret.  He even videotaped – on the video camera he had with him – a farewell to his parents and sister and a final will and testament.

      On the fifth day, he poked his trapped hand with the blade of his Leatherman tool to see if it had any feeling. He discovered that not only was there no sensation, it was already decomposing.  Suddenly, Ralston had the overpowering drive to do what had been unthinkable days before: he would amputate his lower arm.

      Unbelievable as it sounds, he methodically broke both forearm bones – radius and ulna – and then sawed through skin, muscle and tendons until his arm was free. With the stump bandaged in a makeshift tourniquet, he hiked toward his truck until he met a family of hikers, who arranged his rescue by helicopter.  

      Aaron Ralston’s story has been made into a movie, 127 hours, starring James Franco as Aaron Ralston, now showing in theaters, and coming out in DVD at the end of this month.

      On this first Sunday in Lent, we Christians head out into the wilderness with Jesus, in order to be tested. Who knows what awaits us there? (Better to go with Jesus than Aron Ralston!)  At least we hope to come back with all our limbs, if not answers to all our questions.

      It’s the first sermon in this year’s Lenten series, “Fearless: The Courage to Question.” What better place to begin to confront our questions than in the wilderness, away from all creature comforts and distractions.

      In the Bible, the wilderness is not a place of recreation and renewal, as it often is for us, but a place of struggle and testing, as, in fact, it proved to be for Aron Ralston.

      At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, we hardly know who Jesus is.  We have only known the adult Jesus for five verses, having first met him at his baptism by John in the River Jordan, where a voice from heaven pronounced, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” The next verse says, “Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. (Matthew 5:1)

      Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which he concluded that, for every hero on their journey, testing is the first step. And so into the wilderness Jesus goes.

      There are lots of questions the text raises. Who is this Jesus, and what is he made of?  Who is the devil, whose name literally means “The Accuser.” Is he to be taken literally, or as the personification of evil? Is it a real possibility that Jesus could have failed the test? If he could not have actually failed, wouldn’t the whole thing only be a charade? 

      At this point in his life, Jesus still has some big questions to answer. Perhaps – being human – he was still sorting out what his baptism meant. Maybe he was asking the same kinds of questions we ask, like “Who am I?” “What is my destiny, my purpose in life?”’ and “How am I going to achieve it?”

      For Jesus, that’s what the testing in the wilderness was about. It wasn’t what might tempt us, free food or drink or sex or alcohol or drugs or big piles of money; it was about how he was going to achieve his end of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth.  He is wrestling with the will of God for his life and ministry and is presented with three excellent offers, all of which have immense possibilities for good.

      Turn stones to bread. In a world of unbelievable hunger, why not?  Leap from the pinnacle of the temple.  In a world callous to sermon and lesson, why not use spectacle and celebrity? Enter the political arena? In a world of slavery, war, oppression and disregard for life and human rights, why not?  For Jesus, none of those are the way the final solution will be won. The only way is through suffering and sacrificial love, and for that reason, a cross looms in the distance. Take any other route, and the cross goes away: a route we are still tempted by today.

        For us, the wilderness where temptation occurs does not have to be a literal place. Quite often, we find the dialogue between God and the devil occurring in our own mind, between the two sides of our own personality. Often it occurs in those transitory zones in life where we may be H.A.L.T (hungry, angry, lonely, or tired), as Jesus was, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe something in our life has changed, and we don’t know what to do next. Perhaps we’re moving into adolescence, or into old age. Perhaps it’s the failure of our physical or emotional health.  Perhaps it’s a move from one place to another, or the loss of a job, or the breakup of a relationship or a divorce. Perhaps it’s the iron grip of addiction, or the bleakness of depression or boredom in life.  Perhaps it’s even facing death. I have had some very honest deathbed conversations in my life, and what better time?  Talk about wilderness.

        When our feet are to the fire in the heat of temptation, what kinds of questions do we ask? To be sure, there are big questions we might ask, like the nature of evil and free will and right and wrong, but in the heat of temptation, those are not the questions that occur. In the heat of temptation the questions and maybe even the answers are the same: “What do I need to do right now to do the right thing, to choose the life God desires for me, and thus say no to all temptations to do otherwise, no matter how appealing they appear?” Let’s face it, no matter how sophisticated we may think we are, we’re still kids looking at that cupcake.

      As for our temptations?  Much more routine. Most of us cannot imagine a four-day fast, much less forty. We don’t worry about being dangled over the edge of the Sears tower. We will never know the temptation of being offered all the power in the world, we barely have any as it is. But all of us understand the temptations of pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy.

      I like how Maryetta Anschutz put it in her commentary on this text in Feasting on the Word:

      “Temptation comes in moments when we look at others and feel insecure for not having enough. Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are.  Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 48)

      As for overcoming temptation, we have three choices.  One is to avoid it, staying away from people and places and things that we know, from past experience, will tempt us. A second is to say “No” and turn away, as far as that lies in our power.  In honesty, many of us have found we agree with the late Oscar Wilde, “I can resist everything except temptation.” The third choice is, if we cannot resist on our own, we better find a group of people and a higher power who can get us through, and give us the strength to do what needs to be done. God comes highly recommended.  To help such people (like ourselves), maybe it’s time our church hosts more Twelve Step groups.

      In the end, the real impact of this story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is that it still speaks powerfully to people who find that it is in the wilderness experiences of life, whether literal or metaphorical, that either faithfulness is forged or forgiveness is offered.  Because it is in the wilderness experiences of our lives that we engage the dark places and ask the dark questions, in order to face them, name them, and find answers, as far as that is possible. It is not about guilt, it is about finding freedom from the fears and insecurities that haunt us.  From this, new life, new beginnings, and new possibilities can result. 

      On the last page of his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, describing his ordeal in the wilderness and his recovery from it, Aron Ralston amazingly concludes:

      For all that has happened and the opportunities still developing in my life, I feel blessed. I was part of a miracle that has touched a great number of people in the world and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, not even to have my hand back.  My accident in and rescue from Blue John Canyon were the most beautifully spiritual experiences of my life, and knowing that, were I to travel back in time, I would still . . . take off into that lower slot by myself. While I’ve learned much, I have no regrets about that choice. Indeed, it has affirmed my belief that our purpose as spiritual beings is to follow our bliss, seek our passions, and live our lives as inspirations to each other. Everything else flows from that.   When we find inspiration, we need to take action for ourselves and for our communities.  Even if it means making a hard choice, or cutting out something and leaving it in your past.  Saying farewell is also a bold and powerful beginning. (Between A Rock and A Hard Place, Aron Ralston, p. 342.)


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