Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
February 26, 2023

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.  Task for Lent: Be Better.

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, or even the ground I walk on. At noon on Ash Wednesday, I confessed my “self-indulgent ways,” and by 1:15 p.m. was foraging in the refrigerator downstairs to see if cupcakes were left over from Sunday’s hymn sing reception.  I brought enough upstairs that it looked like I was thinking of the staff.

Many of us live with the daily struggles with that devilish voice inside.  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.  Again and again we place our own hunger for comfort ahead of a world that literally starves so that more privileged people can have what they want.  We stumble 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.

The confession prayer at the beginning of the service is right:  We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  The point of praying those words or even saying it out loud isn’t to feel ashamed, or guilty, or simply to grovel in some kind of sinful nature. Our gospel conviction is 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.  I’ve never felt like the temptation story should be called “the fall.”  Better to call it “the opening,” that mythic moment when we can see the truth in all its vulnerability and nakedness, but also in all its potential to grow, become wiser, and walk with God in a more mature kind of way.  Leaving the Garden of Eden wasn’t the punishment, it was the path to real life, in all its pain and glory.

Maybe the main point of Jesus’ temptation story isn’t the part about getting it right, but about discovering who he is, 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 bishop 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, provide us with gifts that can be carried into the world; gifts that turn the world toward love and grace, healing and justice.  I would suggest even that the sudden resignation and departure of Pastor Javen does not take us back, but offers us a way to go forward, to widen our welcome, to deep our commitment to loving one another and to doing justice in the world.  There’s sadness, hurt, anger, and some naked truths.  There’s also a path to wisdom, creativity, and joy.

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, which is right now truly a truth to trust rather than experience. The Lenten wilderness isn’t so much a game show but something from the Discovery Channel, more like that fast action photography that shows the seed curling into leaves, into a flower that bursts and follows the sun.

I suspect in these next forty days, there will be angels that show up, not with trophies, but with stones turned into bread and wine, hearts curling outward to love, and a God’s eye pinnacle view of a creation at peace.  The angels don’t just crown one 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.