a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Where Will You Go?”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 1, 2020
Matthew 4: 1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Life tests everyone. Sooner or later we will face something that will test us – our values, our morals, our physical or mental or spiritual strength, our abilities at work or as a parent. Sometimes life will test some, or all of those at once! Most of the time those tests will come because of choices we have made. The test itself may not be something we chose, but it will usually happen because of choices we have made. The challenge for us as Christians is to decide which choices we will make knowing that the right choice very often means we will still face tough tests of our faith, our values, and our direction in life – in short, our response to the situations in life.
Jesus chose to go out into the wilderness, most likely knowing that choice would bring tests – difficult, life- changing, life-forming tests. And it did. The story of Jesus’ testing is a story meant to tell us about Jesus’ choices, values, and direction for life, and to invite us to reflect on our choices, values, and direction in life as people who believe we are following in the way of Christ. When we are tested in the wilderness we will have to decide where we will go.
For the season of Lent, for these 6 weeks, these 40 days plus Sundays, I want to ask you to consider with me the question, “Where will you go?” And that of course begs the question, where will I go when? So this morning I want to ask you to consider with me the question I am asking myself, “Where will I go when tested?” What kind of test, you may ask? Are we talking medical tests – we would go to the doctor or the Quest testing site or wherever, right? Are we talking Driver’s License? You would go to the Tax Collector’s office, right? Well, what if it was a more significant test? What if it were a test of your character, a test of your values, a test of your faith? That might render a different answer, right?
Most of us have heard a few sermons on this passage. We have thought about ways we are tempted. Maybe it is the temptation to cheat on our diet or our Lenten discipline of giving up something like sweets. Maybe it is the temptation to cheat on a spouse. That’s certainly a more significant temptation or test. Maybe it is the temptation to give up on a life goal, or even a career direction. Some temptations are life-altering. Some are simply not worth putting in the same category with Jesus’ temptations in the time he spent in the wilderness.
Of course the Bible gives us much to think about with this story. What would it be like to spend forty days fasting? What would it be like spending forty days in the wilderness? I guess we could go watch that TV show, what is it called, something like “Naked and Afraid?” Isn’t that about being in a wilderness place for a stretch of time? Of course Survivor took the concept to its highest extreme – games of endurance and skill while living in some tropical wilderness, all to win a million dollars. Of course, there was no million dollar prize at the end for Jesus, but… there was much more really. He was offered all the kingdoms of the world. He was offered the adoration of all the people. He was offered everything the Tester could think of to challenge his values, his character, and his life direction.
Neal Alexander, an Episcopal priest describes [ “Choose Life,” day1.org, March 13, 2011 ], these tests in these larger terms of character, values and direction. But he points beyond Jesus’ personal experience and thus making it about more than our personal experiences, to our experience of living in a world where the “powers that be” often seem to render us powerless. He says,
“Jesus is engaging the powers of this world… in the figure of the devil. The powers of this world are the great … forces, largely uncontrollable, that hold people hostage, captive to the institutions and systems.”
These institutions and systems “carry us along, the forces that drive the spirit of the age promising life but leading to death.” These powers “seek to render us powerless, before the immensity of the world’s problems.
These are the powers that say, ‘No one really wants war, but the bodies keep piling up.’ And often we dehumanize those innocent victims, calling them “collateral damage.” These powers say, ‘No one really wants homelessness, but these people spend their money on the wrong things and don’t pay their rent or mortgage,’ never mentioning that the “wrong” things are medicine or food or the power bill.
These forces say, “Oh, black people must be more violent because there are more shootings in black neighborhoods,” never observing the economic powerlessness that drives them to the despair of trafficking in drugs and violence, and ignoring that it is, as one black pastor reminded me, because “if the white boys from the beach who have the money weren’t driving over here to buy the drugs the black boys wouldn’t be selling it.” Maybe a slight oversimplification but with a quality of truth that can’t be ignored or denied.
Rev. Alexander points out that these powers want us to believe that we don’t have the power to change these things so we just ought to ignore them. The message is that this is not our test, so we don’t have to do anything. But Jesus goes into the those places where people are homeless, where drug deals are the coin of the realm and into places where people die because they happened to live near terrorists targeted by a drone strike, but, oops, they get slaughtered by the missile too.
And Rev. Alexander puts it bluntly saying, “The powers of this world are characterized by domination and violence, relentlessly seeking to have their own way regardless of the costs, even to the point of death. These are the powers that Jesus resists in the wilderness temptations, and they are the powers that will eventually crucify him.” Think about that for a minute. Jesus chose to die at the hands of the powerful forces threatened by the power of God that would defy them. He went to the cross because those forces and powers had to try to kill his power. And at the same time he went there to defend and release us from those powers.
Will we choose powerlessness or will we choose empowered resistance to the systems and “powers that be” that want us to give up and give in and go along? Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me.”
He was surely tempted to make bread and eat it, but instead he remained hungry. And then in the moments before his crucifixion he took bread and broke it and said, “take, eat, this is my body broken for you.” The powers that be, in this case Caesar, represented by Governor Pilate, took Jesus’ body, and broke it and nailed it to a cross to say to if you threaten the political powers you will be unceremoniously destroyed as painfully as possible. Yet, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life, anyone who eats of this bread will never be hungry.” It took a cross to break that bread to make it available to everyone and anyone. And we will celebrate that in a few moments in our sacrament. His body broken, his blood poured out for us.
Jesus was tested by the Tester and invited to be spectacular in order to attract followers. “Throw yourself from the top of the Temple, let the angels save you so that others will get excited and come watch.” Jesus reminded the Tester that God didn’t need to be put to the test to get spectators. God doesn’t want or need spectators. That’s not worship. That’s observing from a distance. When we are tested God wants us to worship by going deeper into the suffering of others, so that we can understand their suffering and our own. When we willingly enter into the suffering of others, that’s when we take up our cross. I would almost say that the only time we can say we have taken up our cross is when we have taken up someone else’s, for that is what Jesus did.
The systems and powers that be in the world want us to believe that if we just worship their splendor and power and wealth they will share it with the rest of us. The Tester said to Jesus, “if you will just worship me I will give you all the power and glory and splendor of all the kingdoms of the world.” But he never says much about the price of worshiping the Tester. But Jesus knows the Tester never will have all the power and glory. That belongs to God and God alone and that is who we need to go to when we are being tested by the “powers-that-be,” the “systems of the world,” and those who would tell us what is has to be.
Jesus died to show us there is a power greater than what is. There is a power greater than the status quo. That power is God Almighty. And God Almighty will not stop using that power to change the status quo to what God intends reality to be. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It is more than a place. It is the way God intends things to work here in the world, now not later, in this life, not after this life.
Jesus understood where to go when he was tested. He went to his relationship with God, from whom all glory and power come. He took up his cross. He chose to suffer it to show that God had the power to break the cross and its death by the power of life. Where will we choose to go on life’s tests? God is waiting to meet us in this sacrament, in every moment, in every choice. Where will we choose to go? AMEN.