Sunday, February 15, 2015

Clash of Kingdoms: Returning to the Wilderness

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up in a Christian family. As a young man, he was quickly singled out as a top student who was marked by key political leaders. He moved to the big city, where the intellectual elites trained him and gave him responsibility. He moved up in the ranks, and the powerful people of his day considered him a rising star. Then he fell headlong in love. But there was a problem: The woman he fell in love with was married; married to another political power player. The tension intensified. The woman was desperate, and the man was having nightmares about what would happen if their cover were blown. His career, his credibility, his political alliances hung in the balance. One restless night he had a nightmare. He dreamed his affair had been discovered. He pictured the horror of his betrayed and bewildered colleagues. He saw the hysteria of the woman. He saw the fury of her accusing husband and he saw the political fallout. He woke up in a cold sweat. The next day, he fled town. He travelled to a city far away to seek counsel with a couple renowned for their wisdom and discernment. He became physically sick there, his body broken down by stress and fear and grief and guilt. Those who tended him knew that his sickness was deeper than his physical symptoms. When they confronted him, it took all he had finally to confess the whole mess.


The man in this story is not a twenty-first century political leader in Washington, D.C. But he could be, couldn't he? That was actually the story of a man named Evagrius of Pontus. He was a church leader in the fourth century A.D. By age thirty-five, he was near the apex of success in the halls of power in the thriving city of Constantinople. But then temptation struck. When he headed south to Jerusalem, seeking the counsel of Melania and Rufus, they eventually sent him to a monastery where he could get his spiritual life in order. In hearing this ancient story, we learn something about sin and about us. No matter what century you live in, no matter how much education you may have, no matter how much religion you may have, the story is always the same! Left on our own, we are powerless to defeat sin. When temptation strikes, we fail again and again! But this morning, we are going to hear a story about a man who finally succeeded where we have failed.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
   they will lift you up in their hands,
   that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:1–11)
The Old Testament is filled with stories that all point to this reality; no matter how hard humans may try to be good (righteous), we just can’t do it. God gave Adam and Eve one simple rule. Don’t eat from the tree in the middle of the garden! They couldn’t help themselves. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” but he wasn’t perfect. This icon of faithfulness lied, committed adultery, and had someone killed in just a few weeks’ time! He was just like every other person who has loved God... Abraham, Moses, Tamar, Rachel, Peter and Paul. This book is filled with stories of imperfect, fallen people and God’s plan, through Jesus, was to pick us back up again.

So, Jesus came to this place to do for us what we could not do on our own. Remember, Jesus was more than God (as strange as that sounds!) Jesus was also man! And, as a man, He was our “representative.” He stood in our place, not only in His death, but also in His life. In this passage, Matthew 4, Jesus returns with Israel to the wilderness, to succeed where they failed. Matthew frames this story so that we would not miss the comparison. There are strong allusions in this passage to the days of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, after Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea; they began their time of wandering in the wilderness. After Jesus passed through the waters of baptism he began His journey in the wilderness. Israel wandered around for 40 years in the wilderness—Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel about their time in the wilderness. Listen to what he calls Israel.
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2–5)
Israel is described as God’s “son,” being tested in the wilderness. Here in Matthew, the title used over and over for Jesus is “God’s Son.” In this temptation narrative, Jesus returned to the wilderness with Israel and he was given every test Israel was given—in the same order they were given to Israel. But, where Israel failed, Jesus passed with flying colors.

Look at the three “tests” given to Jesus in Matthew 4. First, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” We read about one of the first tests given to Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The people have been wandering for some time, and they are hungry. Instead of having faith that God would provide for them, they complain to Moses and beg for food. Jesus is also hungry in the wilderness. Satan knows this, and so the test is handed to Jesus.

“Don’t trust that God will provide for you…”
“Make these stones become bread.”
“God has forgotten about you, so take care of it yourself.”

Instead of demanding food, or turning stones into bread, Jesus waits for God, just as Israel should have waited patiently for the LORD to provide. Jesus is totally and faithfully dependent upon God for life.

The second test: Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down off the temple—surely, God will save you.” Once again, returning to the Israelites in the wilderness, in Exodus 17, we read about the way in which Israel put the LORD to the test in Massah. They were thirsty for water in the wilderness. And they had the audacity to test God! Exodus 17:33 says:
And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
In a moment of “reverse psychology,” the Israelites made the statement: “God must not be here…” hoping that God would rise up and defend Himself by sending water. Testing to see if God would do anything about their thirst instead of waiting on God to provide. But not Jesus. The reason Jesus does not jump off the temple has nothing to do with his lack of faith in God’s power to save Him. He didn’t jump because humans have no right to “test” God. We are called instead to have faith that God will act when God is ready to act.

The final test: Satan says, “All of this is yours if you’ll just bow down and worship me.” In Exodus 32, we find Israel at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses has been with God for over a month and they think he might be dead. In their fear, they make a golden calf and begin to worship. They are looking for security. They think this idol will bring them safety and security… because God had, in their minds, abandoned them. In Matthew 4, Jesus also has been away from God in this wilderness for over a month. He could have asked, like Israel, “Where is God?” He could have sought security in other things—power, prestige, even the safety blanket promised by Satan. But instead, Jesus confesses His conviction that only God is all-powerful. Only God is worthy of worship. The reason Jesus met Satan in the wilderness is to do for Israel what they could not do for themselves. He passed the tests they failed. He stood up where they had fallen. And because He was our representative, because He stood in our place, he helped us stand up again as well!

Matthew 4 is really a text about God’s grace. When we face temptation, many times we fail. But God faces those temptations for us and triumphs over them. God wins the victory for us! It’s tempting (pardon the pun) to read a text like this one and sit back and relish in the grace given to us.

“Well, I’m glad Jesus came…”
“Now I can live however I want…”
“Now I can give in to temptation all the time…”
“I’m sure glad God came and took care of that for me!”

There was a time when “Romans” was a great text for college Freshman, because we needed to learn about God’s grace—maybe James would be better today! Let me remind you again what this gospel is all about. Jesus came to describe for us a new kind of kingdom…a Kingdom that clashes with every other kingdom this world has ever seen and you and I have been given the privilege of sharing a picture of that beautiful kingdom with the world!

In our generation movie theater lobbies are plain. They are places where you deposit your ticket or purchase your popcorn, candy, and beverage. But in the hard days of the Great Depression, the lobbies of show palaces were places of awe-inspiring beauty.

The Paramount Theater, Seattle, Washington, built in 1928
The Los Angeles Theater, built between 1911 and 1931
The typical theater lobby back then was a feast for the eyes. It was designed to offer a transition from the grind of daily life. Theater architects wanted moviegoers to feel a sense of anticipation for what was coming next. Vaulted ceilings, museum-worthy art, lush tapestries, beautiful fixtures, and uniformed ushers. These gave customers a sneak-peak at what they could expect once they entered the theater itself.

We, the church, the Body of Christ, members of God’s Kingdom… we are a lot like those classic theater lobbies. God has called us to give this world a preliminary picture of another world. Not an imaginary film world, but a real world filled with God's glory. We help people get excited about what is to come! Even in our sin and brokenness, we're called to model a way of life that is different from the world around us. My prayer is that our love, our hope, our forgiveness will offer the world the beautiful alternative of life with Christ.

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