Sermon: Beloved Is Where We Begin

Deserts are not fun places. The sun is fierce; the wind is harsh and dry – sand is blowing everywhere. The plants are prickly and the animals, predators. But the desert is the place where Jesus – with the words from God that “You are my Beloved,” still ringing in his ears – was led. Not exactly what he might have expected after hearing that he was God’s beloved son, you say?

So here’s another question –  what might he have been expecting after hearing the voice that said “this is my son, my beloved”? Do we have any way of knowing how Jesus might have felt about hearing those words –Confident? Overwhelmed? All the above? Is it possible – do you think – that this whole scene with the devil is about what was going on in Jesus’ heart as he tried to live within those amazing words from the heavens? Might this confrontation have helped him realize his complete identity?

When you listen closely to the dialogue, what the devil said was true. “Tell these stones to become bread,” he said, “if you are the Son of God.” Well yes, the son of God could probably could find bread in the desert. On the one hand, it had happened in the past – God had provided manna during the exodus from Egypt. And, it would happen in the future – in stories to come, Jesus would provide a miraculous abundance of food for thousands of people.

But the time of manna was past and the time for feeding the thousands had not come. This was in between time, the time when Jesus had to decide what it meant to live within the boundaries of God’s will for his life. And so he answered that we need more than just bread in order to live. We need a connection to God.

Then, Jesus – all alone, with no followers and no disciples gathered around him – was offered this one: “Look at all these kingdoms – look at all those people! They can be yours! All yours!”

Finally, a vulnerable Jesus, was offered this one at the start of his ministry: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down to the stones below. Let’s just test God’s commitment. Let’s find out if the scriptures are right about angels coming to protect you.

But the time of heralding and guiding angels was over. And the time of angels rolling away the stone had not come. This was the in-between time, when life needed to be lived and people needed to be fed. And so he answered that he was no more desperate for instant power than he was for instant food.

Still, there was something Jesus did need and did receive in the wilderness. When he came out and turned his face towards Galilee, he took with him an amazing clarity about who he was and what he was going to do. Moments  later, in a synagogue in Nazareth, he would express his new understanding as he read from the scroll of Isaiah: Good news to the poor, he said; release to the captives, sight for the blind, fulfilled in your own hearing.

Clarity like that doesn’t come cheap. It takes a wilderness – a space where we can shed something of the routines and rhythms we have shaped our lives around — or perhaps bent and broken our lives upon. And in that space, we can begin to see and to know who we are, perhaps even who we are meant to be.

To understand a little more of how Jesus came to that clarity, we need to take a closer look at the Old Testament stories behind his conversation with the devil, specifically the stories of the Exodus through the wilderness to the promised land.

One of the major themes in the Exodus story has to do with the people putting God to the test. “Putting God to the test” seems to mean forcing God’s hand and then not recognizing it. In the Book of Numbers, God says that “None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors….”How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

So, clearly Luke is using the imagery of the exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the wilderness. When Jesus said do not put the Lord your God to the test, those are the stories in his mind.

But what might they mean to us? We know the dangers of looking for salvation in material things. We do not live by bread alone. We know about not preferring material things over holy things. We try – imperfectly to be sure – to resist those temptations. But this notion of testing God –  this thing Jesus was so determined to avoid – what might it look like today?

I think we need to look at the difference between the “words of the Bible” and the understanding of Scripture as God’s living word in order to find a useful answer here. Going back to the temptation story, we need to recognize that – though the devil’s words are from scripture – they were not God’s word to Jesus at that moment in his life. For Jesus, it was not just about God’s word; it was also about God’s context – God’s time, God’s hope, and most of all about God’s love.

Although God would, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment was not God’s time for Jesus to use God’s power to provide. Although God would reveal the full extent of Jesus’ authority, this was not the time or the place for that revelation.

And what about us? As individuals, our temptations are not very much different from Jesus’ – to take care of our own needs first; to show off; to force other people to do things our way. In short, to forget that we are God’s beloved too – and to forget that being beloved implies strengths and skills we don’t even know we had, until we spend some time with them.

But what about us as a church? We are a tiny group of people. Many of us ache for the old days when the sanctuary was crowded and the Sunday school was full. Many of us would say that these are wilderness times for the church.

But – even if that is so, we have strong, caring love among us and big hearts to reach out to neighbors who need us. So here’s a big question – is God’s presence here any less now than before? Are we as faithful – to God and to each other – as ever?

But beloved is where we begin. the lesson of the desert is that it is not devil-defined and God-forsaken. It’s the place to hear God’s own voice, within us and beside us and waiting to lead us home.   Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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