The Tale of Two Powers

A sermon preached on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11 on March 9th, 2014.

Sermon audio

What are you giving up for Lent?

It’s not as if these days, we walk down the street and we get asked that question. But around church circles, I hear that question asked all the time during this season of the year. It’s almost assumed that if we do anything at all in observance of Lent, this is it: we give something up.

Say we give up chocolate for Lent. That sounds fine. Why not? Unless chocolate prevents you from biting someone’s head off, I can’t see how abstaining from it would do anyone any harm. But the question I would ask is, “Is your giving up chocolate for Lent doing anything to draw you closer to God?” Perhaps so. But perhaps not.

Sometimes we will choose to give up something more significant in our lives than chocolate.

Say we go deeper and we undertake giving up one of our addictions for Lent—smoking or alcohol perhaps—or something else given up not for the good of our waistline merely, but for the good of our very existence. See, now we’re talking! Because such things as nicotine and alcohol can be for many a dependence, and if we’re bold enough to make an effort to rid ourselves of our addictions for Lent, then aren’t we asking God to be our strength when we have no strength for such things on our own.

It could be, though, that the old “give up something for Lent” thing does not take on any real spiritual meaning at all. And that’s why, lately, people have looked into doing something completely different in observance of Lent.

The Lutheran pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber shared with her congregation a way to observe Lent and to draw closer to God by engaging in small, daily practices. For each day of Lent she suggests that we undertake one small, spiritual practice that she hopes with bring new life to those who commit themselves to them.

Here are some of her suggestions: Day 1: Pray for your enemies. Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing. We’re already on day 5, so you wouldn’t have to do either of those things. Day 13: Read Psalm 139. Day 21—I love this one—Ask for help. Day 32: Donate art supplies to a local elementary school.

You could say that by doing these things, we’re merely adding to our daily workload when we’re already too busy. I get that. Certainly the message of Lent shouldn’t be to add more stuff to our lives. Our lives are too much full of stuff as it is. But I would have to imagine that as Nadia Boltz-Weber made this list for Lent, she wasn’t thinking about how to shove more stuff into our days, but how in adding these small gifts into our lives, we might find what our lives are missing. If I take a moment to carry out these daily suggestions for the next 35 days then maybe I’ll learn that practicing sacrifice isn’t all about giving something up but could also be about lending more of my life to others and to God. Now, there’s a Lenten practice worthy of an entire 40 days!

Part of the Lenten message and challenge is about de-centering ourselves and re-centering on God. Lent is about loosening our grip on the steering wheel of our own life and turning the controls over to God knowing that God will give us better directions anyway. I think Carrie Underwood wrote a song about that.

Lent is an opportunity for us to say, “I’m done being the one in control. Jesus, take the wheel. I’ve steered long enough.”

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Jesus is in wilderness—fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, with no food and no water. He is famished. Certainly Jesus needed something to drink. Something to fill his stomach. Jesus was just as human as we are—even if he was just as divine as God is. He too needed nourishment just as any other human being does. In fact, most of the time we see Jesus feasting with others! Wherever Jesus was, there was enough food and drink within reach to feed many. Jesus knew that eating was a great way to celebrate God’s abundant gifts. But here in this wilderness, Jesus has not a drop to drink or a morsel to eat, even when the devil comes to him with his suggestion to turn these stones into bread.

“Since you’re the Son of God, surely you’re capable of doing this for yourself, Jesus!”, the devil says, Jesus refuses him.

“You could have all the food and drink you wanted, since you’re the Son of God!”

“Since, you are the Son of God, why don’t you prove yourself and throw yourself down and the angels will come and catch you before you hit the ground,” the devil says.

“All of these kingdoms I’ll give to you if you would simply fall down and worship me,” these are the three things the devil says to Jesus. And all three times Jesus shoots him down.

Do you see a theme in these three temptations?

Webster’s Dictionary defines temptation as the enticing, alluring desire to do something unwise.

This is nothing new. There was temptation from the very earliest of stories we have from the bible. It was the snake who made an offer to Eve, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden? You won’t die if you eat from this tree! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Now that’s enticing! Who doesn’t want to see clearly, and what’s the harm in knowing anything?! And so Adam and Eve eat. Temptation is the oldest story there is!

The devil makes three offers to Jesus, but I see the same temptation in all three. It’s the same temptation given to Eve by the snake: the temptation to reject our dependence on God,  

“Why not push God aside and do this on your own, Jesus?” Can you hear that one question in all three temptations the devil brings to Jesus?

It’s the temptation to forget about our reliance on God—to take things on all by ourselves and all for ourselves. To use our own power and to forget what God thinks. It’s the temptation of believing that what we have inside of us is enough, and that we can accomplish things all on our own power. From the very beginning with Adam and Eve up to today, we should recognize in ourselves our desire to construct our world using only our own blueprints—to put the plans of God in 2nd place in our lives and to go forward with our own plans—to build ourselves up using only the materials we make for ourselves, rather than letting God be the sure foundation that we build on and Jesus the one and only cornerstone of our lives.

Whose power will we rely upon? God’s? Or our own?

Jesus had the power to do all that the devil asked of him. In fact the devil seems to know that already. The devil enticed Jesus to use power that he knew Jesus had in himself.

“Why not use it, Jesus?”, the devil is asking. But Jesus seemed to know that doing what the devil tempted him with, even if it meant he could fill his stomach or even rule over kingdoms, would amount to exploiting his own power rather than relying on the power of God.

Here in this passage the devil seeks to lure Jesus away from the right use of power.

The question for Jesus is, “Who’s power will I rely upon here? My own, or will I wait for God’s?” Will I choose the sort of power that draws attention to me or will I be faithful and only rely upon the power of God? As hungry and desperate as Jesus may have been after 40 days without any sustenance at all, there was only one thing that Jesus knew was right. It was right for him to keep his trust in the power of God to deliver him from this wilderness.

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Lent is a time for us to observe that Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and underwent these temptations. It is in part because of this passage that Lent is labeled as a time of self-denial. We fast from food just as Jesus did. We walk away from some of the vices in our lives and we leave them behind for a season hoping to draw closer to God and rely on the power of God and not on our own power. But I think this passage should tell us something more about how we should use these 40 days.

In this passage, Jesus doesn’t so much say No to what the devil offers him as much as he says Yes to the promises and power of God. Lent is a time for us to restructure ourselves—to stop relying on our own power to make it day by day but to ask for God’s help to make our way through.

During Lent, we too are called to wrap ourselves around the ways and desires of God. Lent is our opportunity to relearn our dependence on God. Rather than seeing this story as Jesus saying No three times to the power of the devil, perhaps it’s better for us to see it as the time where Jesus says Yes three times to the power of God.

Lent is a time for us to say Yes to the power of God.

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So how will you live out Lent this year? I wonder if rather than saying No to something easy, we, just like Jesus, would said Yes to God.

What would happen if this Lent was full of days when we chose not to rely upon on our own power to see things through, but we instead relied upon the power of God? In this season, how will we say Yes to God?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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