Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
March 1, 2020

First Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 4:1-11

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has a game show quality to it.  It’s so neatly divided into three scenes.  Jesus seems so cool and collected, almost like he’s just waiting to hit the buzzer with the best Scriptural challenge to the devil’s temptation. Change those stones into bread?  Ding.  I’ll take Deuteronomy Chapter 3, Alex, for 500.  “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.”  Jesus wins round one.  Behind door number two is the pinnacle of the temple.  “Come on, Jesus, trust that God is going to catch you.” He probably starting humming “On Eagles’ Wings” even before the gong declares him winner of the second round.  After the last big spin of the wheel, the whole world is spread out so that Jesus can announce once and for all that he will worship God alone. It’s a knock-out. The angels come, raise up his arm, he gets the trophy, and the devil slinks away to do more bible study for next time.

Maybe you’ve heard this interpretation of these temptations:  Jesus is tempted by all the same things that we are, only he doesn’t give in.  He conquers.  He proves that he’s really of God.  Moral of the story:  be more like Jesus.

The problem for most of us is that our wins against temptation don’t seem so once and for all.  We may prevail on Monday, only to be devasted by Wednesday.  We feel that on the dumb things like giving up sugar or caffeine for Lent, only to find ourselves at the coffee shop with a cookie the same afternoon we wrote down that intention on a scrap of paper at a church retreat.  (This is a totally made up example, of course.)  And we do it on the bigger things, like placing our own hunger for comfort ahead of a world that literally starves so that more privileged people can have what they want.  We stumble irresponsibly off cliffs that require someone else to fix us or the problems that we’ve created.  And, on any given day, we fall down and worship the golden calf of wealth and beauty, success and security.

I’m not sure it’s my experience that the devil ever slinks away–or whatever it is that whispers in the back of my mind to do the things that hurt myself, the ones I love, even the ground I walk on.  Many of us live with the daily struggles to say the right thing; or, at least, not repeat the terrible things that were said to us.  We promise that this will be the day that we say kind words to our spouse, or sit down on the floor with our kids, or be less critical or less convinced the world needs to spin around us; less entitled.

I’ll never forget Professor Walter Bouman saying in one theology class, “If you own a car, you’re a sinner.”  He proceeded to use the example of the global economy to tell us how we’re caught in a system that extracts minerals from poor countries and requires people to work in horrible conditions so that Americans can drive truck-sized cars to pick up three items four blocks away.  Of course, someone raised their hand and said, “But I have to have a car if I’m going to do ministry in my context.”  We all shifted in our seats.  “Yeah, Dr. Bouman.  Take that.” Of course, his whole point was that we’re stuck. The old confession prayer is right:  We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. His point, however, wasn’t designed to make us feel bad or to shame us.  His gospel conviction was that the reign of God will emerge, not through denial or simplistic theological cliché’, but through our redeemed freedom to open our eyes; to speak the truth–as hard as it is sometimes–to stay engaged; to hold ourselves and our church accountable. Not so that we get a free card for heaven or prove we’re better than anyone else, but so that we begin painstakingly to embody a new way of being within the complications, constraints, and death-dealing ways of real human life.

Maybe the main point of Jesus’ temptation story isn’t the part about getting it right, but about knowing who he is, just enough to face the real, devasting challenges that whisper and tempt their way through human life.  Jesus, as God’s anointed, places himself into the wilderness of human life to join us, and to show us that it’s possible to be tempted and to be with God at the same time.  We’re not left alone to win or lose.  The crucifixion and resurrection that we’re preparing to celebrate after these forty days in our Lenten wilderness has already won the game.  Ding.  Ding.  Ding.  God saved the cosmos; life is redeemed; the alienation that has plagued the human experience since Eden is met by the love of God who stands in the desert when we’re starving, on the pinnacle when we’re sure we need to jump, or when we’re falling down to trust something that can’t give us what we really need.

Brenda Bos, a pastor in California, writing on this story says, “The wilderness changes us, y’all.”[1] Forty days is a long time, enough for anyone to hear demons. She suggests that Jesus discovers his own hunger in new ways and becomes determined to feed the starving. He must have felt alienated and lost.  Perhaps this is exactly what helped him recognize a lost soul when he found one; or created the kind of compassion that allowed him to meet people who had their own demons.  Jesus received his gifts for ministry in the wilderness, even though facing the devil must have left its scars.  From those painful battles, he came away knowing how better to pray and to trust, even to suffer and die.

The wilderness, the struggles that we face, the temptations that we look into every day, are even now providing us with gifts that can be carried into the world; gifts that turn the world toward love and grace, healing and justice.  Henri Nouwan speaks powerfully of the “the wounded healer.” Martin Luther called this the “theology of the cross.”  God’s presence is most beautifully and liberatingly present in suffering and struggle. Perhaps Lent is something more than just a bare-knuckled assault on our sin but is a time to see the gifts of grace emerging, just as life is promising to emerge in the spring thaw.

The Lenten wilderness isn’t so much a game show but something from the Discovery Channel, some fast action photography that shows the seed curling into leaves, into a flower that bursts and follows the sun.

And maybe on another channel the angels do show up, not with trophies, but with stones turned into bread and wine, hearts turned from stone to love, and a view of all creation at peace.  The angels don’t just crown the singular winner but they roll away the stones that keep all of us entombed, and we rise into the spring, into the sun, into life.

[1] Queering the Text, an essay for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, Pastor Brenda Bos.