March 1, 2020 – “Prone to Wander: Blame God” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

Sermon begins at the 3:07 mark after the music

Lay Reader = Romans 5:12-19

  12Therefore, just as sin came into the  world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread  to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam  to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of  Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the  trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more  surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one  man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16And the free gift is not like the effect  of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought  condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings  justification. 17If, because of the one man’s trespass,  death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those  who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness  exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18Therefore just as one man’s trespass led  to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to  justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s  disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience  the many will be made righteous.

Introduction

This is the first Sunday in Lent, which is when we prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter. Before Christmas we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of the King – that’s Advent. It’s a pretty happy time.

Lent is a bit different. We’re preparing our hearts, not for the birth of the King, but for the crucifixion of the King. We know his resurrection is right around the corner, and that makes Easter another pretty happy time, but this season is very different from Advent. If Advent is a party, then Lent is a gut-check. It’s a time to hold up the mirror to our souls.

Lent is patterned off of Jesus’ experience in our text today. To set the mood, just listen to these first two verses. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” Doesn’t that just sound happy?

To understand this text and our whole Lenten journey, we must understand what the wilderness is. In Colorado, what comes to mind when you hear the word “wilderness?” Maybe a forest? Or maybe skiing out of bounds? Our wilderness in Colorado is not the same kind of wilderness that Israel has.

The wilderness in Israel is more like the arid parts of New Mexico or West Texas. It’s dry, but not as inhospitable as wandering the sands of the Sahara Desert. You can survive in the wilderness, but it’s not pleasant, and it’s not easy, and it’s not an entirely safe place, either.

So that’s the geography of wilderness – it’s a difficult place, but you can survive there with a lot of effort and a bit of luck. What about the theology of wilderness?

In the Bible, the wilderness is where people go to be transformed or tested by God. You enter the wilderness one way, but you never come out of the wilderness the same way. When God made the Israelites wander for forty years before allowing them to enter the Promised Land, where did they wander? The wilderness. In fact, the three ways that the devil tempts Jesus in our text today are three major ways the Israelites failed during their wandering through the wilderness for forty years.

The wilderness is the kind of place, the kind of season of life, where you can only focus on what truly matters. Every nonessential must be left behind, because you can’t afford the time, the energy, the effort of maintaining those other things. That’s why the wilderness is a spiritual place. That’s why Lent is an important season for us.

It gives us a reason to pause and reflect on what’s most important in our lives and in our faith. I’ve heard it said that when we have wilderness times in our lives, our faith never stays the same. We might draw closer to God, and we might wander further away from God, but that’s largely our choice. When you’re barely surviving, will you turn to God as the most essential thing in your pack? Or will you discard God like a dead weight?

Our sermon series this Lenten season will focus on the ways we are prone to wander away from God, and how Jesus points us back to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Matthew 4:1-11

4Then 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.

Blaming God

Well Bart and Lisa Simpson were once so mad at each other that it had come to a fistfight. But their mother, Marge, was fed up with all their fighting. She threatened them that there would be serious consequences for whomever started the next fight.

Shortly thereafter, Bart and Lisa were furious with each other once again. But, shockingly, they remembered their mother’s words. So Bart yelled at Lisa, “I’m going to start swinging my arms around like this, and if you get hit it’s your own fault!” And Lisa yelled back, “Well I’m going to start kicking the air like this! And if you happen to feel that air, it’s your own fault!” Then they closed their eyes, starting swinging and kicking and walking toward each other so they couldn’t be blamed for starting the fight.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Marge had in mind, right? As long as I can’t be blamed for it, we can still fight!

We as humans tend to be rather focused on the question of blame. The author Robert Bloch once said, “The man who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone else he can blame it on.”

But another author said, “One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.” Ouch!

Since we all tend to be rather motivated to find someone or something to blame when things go wrong, I believe God is one of the easiest targets of our wrath. After all, we can’t see God. Much easier to lob verbal hand grenades at a faceless distant entity who usually doesn’t send any verbal barbs back our way.

One of the ways we are prone to wander is by blaming God for everything that is difficult or wrong in our lives. Have you ever found yourself looking to blame God?

Now if anyone had a case to blame God, surely it’s Jesus. Listen again to our first verse today: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil! May that sentence never be uttered about any of us, right?

Tempting Jesus: Bread

So it was God’s fault that Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted. But to me there’s a more interesting question in this text. What could possibly tempt Jesus? What would tempt the all-knowing, all-powerful Son of God?

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. I don’t think the Adversary was trying to tempt Jesus by getting him to feed himself. I believe the Adversary was tempting Jesus to use his power to meet all of our physical needs. Feed yourself, and feed everyone. Don’t let anyone suffer, Jesus! That might tempt Jesus.

Jesus’ response is from Deuteronomy, but I think the full context is interesting. So I’m going to read you the full text from which Jesus drew his response to that temptation. Deuteronomy 8:3 – “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God allowed them to hunger and then fed them with supernatural manna that they couldn’t hoard and couldn’t cultivate themselves. God did this to help them realize their ultimate dependence on God.

When we have everything we need and want, we are prone to wander away from God and worship ourselves. It’s tempting for Jesus to turn stones into bread and feed us all, but from God’s perspective that wouldn’t help our souls.

Think on your life. When have you felt closest to God? And when have you most felt how much you need God? Usually we realize how much we need God when something in our lives is broken.

I know that’s true for me. I am much more likely to remember how much I need to pray, how much I need to journal, how much I need to reflect on Scripture when I need God’s help or guidance. If I’ve been drifting in those spiritual practices, I am reminded of how much I need to prioritize them when life goes off the rails. How about you? What reminds you of how much you need God? What reminds you how much you need Jesus?

When life is going off the rails, when we are hungry or thirsty or suffering, we are prone to blame God and wander away. But Jesus shows us that those are the times we can draw even more closely to God.

Tempting Jesus: Prove Yourself

The second way the Adversary tries to tempt Jesus is to have him jump from the Temple and have angels catch him. The Adversary even quotes Scripture for this temptation – out of context, of course. So why would this tempt Jesus? Was he a skydiving daredevil looking for a cheap thrill? Of course not!

Jesus was tempted to prove to everyone that he was the Son of God. He was tempted to leave no doubt. He was tempted to prove himself rather than requiring faith.

The context here is another scene from Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. So first, let’s remember what it was like for the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness. This people had seen the Lord appear as a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. They had seen the Lord split the Red Sea so they could cross it. They had seen the Lord send ten plagues upon Egypt. The Lord provided miraculous manna to feed them along the way.

But they were thirsty. So they did what was only natural for a people who had seen the Lord’s faithfulness and tangible presence so often: they wondered if God was still with them and threatened to stone Moses if he didn’t give them water. God tells Moses to strike a rock and water gushes forth, but God is very mad with them for putting him to the test and wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So Jesus is tempted to prove himself, to not require faith, to pass the test that people would want him to pass, to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Be the superhero people want you to be, Jesus!

Don’t you wish Jesus would appear before your very eyes, resplendent in his glory, leaving no doubt? That would be nice, right? But, I’m going out on a limb here, I’m willing to wager that there aren’t many of us who have had that kind of experience. But it tempted Jesus to do just that.

We finished the My Gospel class a few weeks ago, but we got to hear people’s stories over the last two weeks of class. Some people have seen God answer prayers miraculously. Some people have received guidance they couldn’t have thought up on their own. Some people have had a profound sense of peace wash over them during trying times. Some people had their lives turned around thanks to God sending the right person at the right time.

We don’t usually get an angel with a flaming sword proclaiming the existence of God. But if we look at our lives we can all find moments – big and small – where God was very present and impactful. When has Jesus shown up in your life? Where can you see God’s fingerprints?

When we start doubting the existence of God or start doubting whether Jesus is God, we are prone to blame God for being too distant and wander away. But Jesus shows us to look for the small moments throughout our lives to draw us back to God.

Take Control and Skip the Cross

For the last temptation of Jesus, I want you travel with me in your mind to Peru. Maybe you’ve heard of Machu Picchu? The famous Incan ruins? It’s on my bucket list. Very high on my bucket list, in fact. There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu. One way takes you up about a hundred flights of stone stairs. It usually takes 3-4 days to hike. But that’s only one way up to Machu Picchu. There are other much simpler, much faster, much smoother paths. Which one would you want to take?

Well that depends on your purpose. Those other trails were built to enable commerce for the city. They were llama trails. The multi-day, stair-infested route was not intended for commerce. It was intended as a religious pilgrimage.

Let’s come back a little closer to home. Anyone here been to Red Rocks? There are two basic ways to get there. You can drive up to the top, or you can hike up to the top. If you just want a quick trip to see the amphitheater, you might want to drive. If you want a beautiful hike that ends in a quick trip to the amphitheater, I recommend hiking all the way up. Your purpose determines which way you choose to go.

For the last temptation of Jesus, the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world and says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Why would this tempt Jesus? What’s going on here?

Well how does the story end? When the final Amen rings out at the end of the book of Revelation, what happens? The whole world has been recreated and redeemed, and God is in charge directly, right? Well wouldn’t it be tempting to Jesus to skip the unpleasantness in between? Wouldn’t it be tempting to Jesus to skip his death on a cross, and just jump right to being in charge? All he has to do is switch out who’s on the throne! All he has to do is choose to take charge earlier than planned!

But being in charge of the governments of the world wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. He had his sights set on something bigger. Something more important in his mind. He didn’t want the shortest path. He didn’t want to drive to the top. He took the stairs. He took the hike. Because his greater purpose was the redemption of our souls. And for that to happen, he had to take the hard way. The way to the cross.

Jesus looked at your heart, your soul, and decided it was worth more than all the kingdoms of the world. We might look at the dysfunction in our world, and we might be prone to blame God for letting things get out of hand.

We have a partnership with the Presbyterian churches in Zimbabwe. Their government has essentially imploded the country’s economy. They can barely find food to eat. Wouldn’t it tempt Jesus to throw out that kind of government and take the crown himself? But Jesus looks at you and me and our partners in Zimbabwe and says, “That person’s heart and soul are worth more to me. They’re worth dying for.”

Summary

Sisters and brothers, we might be prone to blame God for the parts of our lives and parts of our world that just seem bonkers. It was tempting for Jesus to take care of our every need. It was tempting for Jesus to prove to us who he is instead of requiring faith. It was tempting for Jesus to skip the cross and just take over the world directly.

But he had his sights set on a bigger prize: our hearts and souls. Jesus did not come for our comfort. Jesus did not come to meet our expectations of God. Jesus did not come to take the easy way out and take charge of things directly. Jesus came for our hearts and souls. He judged our souls to be more valuable than anything else. When we are prone to wander away from God during difficult times, Jesus shows us how God had his sights set on a different prize. Our very souls. Amen.