We’ve been trying something new this year. Since September, I’ve been using the Narrative Lectionary to decide which scripture readings will be the focus of Sunday worship services. The goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to give us a chance to follow the story of scripture. We began in September with the Genesis story of Creation and spent the fall hearing the foundational tales of our faith, walking with Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the Israelites, and other ancestors of faith. During Advent, we heard prophecies of a coming Messiah which, for us Christians, led to the Christmas stories and Jesus’ birth.
Now, we delve into the gospel – the good news lived out in Jesus’ ministry. Each of the next four years will focus on a different gospel; this year, we look at Matthew. Since Christmas we’ve heard about the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and magi coming to visit, and the family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath. Then the story jumps about thirty years. Last week as we met John baptizing in the River Jordan, Jesus re-emerges as an adult. His baptism reflects the nativity stories and again reminds us that something is special about him. The Holy Spirit alights on him as a dove and a voice calls out from heaven “This is my beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
Which brings us to today’s reading. In past years, the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness has started out our Lenten journey. Since we’re following the Narrative Lectionary this time around, we experience the story chronologically. The way Matthew tells it, Jesus heads to the desert right after being baptized. His baptism heralds a call to something special, seems to indicate that Jesus has to go out and do something with his life but, apparently, he’s not really sure what that is. So he heads into the wilderness to be alone with his thoughts, to be alone with God, and to try and figure out what he is called to do.
When you have an important decision to make, what do you do? Do you have a ritual or routine? A way to gather your thoughts, consider all possible outcomes, decide what to do next? Do you leave room for God in your choices?
Matthew says that Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Now, I’ll admit that this is one of the parts of scripture that I don’t take literally. I don’t believe that Jesus met a red suited, pointy-tailed demon in the wilderness. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t tempted to make incorrect decisions. I think that the devil Jesus met was his own. He faced his own inner demons of doubt and indecision and trying to find the easy way out. Demons that I often face in similar situations.
When I was trying to decide what to preach about today, it seemed easy to distill the point of my meditation down to one simple imperative: “choose God.” I could easily repeat that catchy phrase, tell you that when life is hard, choose God; when there are difficult choices to make, choose God; when you don’t know what to decide, choose God. But what does that mean? How do we know how to choose God?
I could simply say “look at the Bible. Do whatever the Bible says and you can choose God.” But this story shows how even the Bible can lead us astray. Even the Devil can use scripture to make excuses for bad choices or pick and choose what he wants scripture to say. We can manipulate the Bible however we want, find the answers that we think we’re meant to find. How do we get around that?
Jesus shows us what to do, as he so often does. Jesus has entered the wilderness and prepared his body and mind to be clear so that he can carefully consider each of the points that come up. He uses his tradition of scriptural interpretation and his life experience to make the decision to choose God.
The three temptations that he faces are all about his own comfort, power, and safety. Through the lens of his faith, Jesus is able to hear God’s call to serve others instead of worrying about himself.
After days without eating, Jesus could easily turn stone to bread and have more than enough to eat. Jesus could occupy his time worrying that he doesn’t have enough, he could spend each day foraging in the desert or transforming rocks to food and he could store and hoard everything he finds and creates so that he would never have to worry again. Instead of focusing on his fear of scarcity, he recognizes the abundance of what he already has. Through his desert fast, Jesus understands that we can let our fear carry us away if we let it. Instead of storing up our resources for a rainy day that may never come, we can focus on just having enough, realizing what a blessing it is to be prepared for today and sharing that blessing with others who have less.
Jesus has come to the wilderness to try and figure out where his life is headed. As he discerns his call to speak the truth to power; to take on the corrupt, oppressive Roman Empire; and to challenge the religious authorities, I imagine he was at least a bit afraid. As he faces the temptation to worry about putting himself in danger, Jesus instead decides to turn towards something greater, recognizing that God has called him and sees in him the gifts that are needed. Jesus’ fears of failure and of risk are instead transformed into confidence in his call.
Now remember, this story directly follows Jesus’ baptism – with the dove and the voice from heaven and the prophet shouting about how great Jesus is. I don’t know about you, but if I were Jesus I think my head would be filled with some delusions of grandeur. It makes sense that Jesus was struggling with some temptations about power and prestige. He has visions of being in charge of all the kingdoms of the world, of being worshipped by millions.
But instead, Jesus chooses God. He points his attention towards the Eternal One and he vows to hold God at the center of all that he does. Jesus recognizes that he must turn away from the way of empires and pricipaities in order to answer his call to God’s Kingdom.
How do we follow Jesus’ example when we have tough decisions to make? How do we choose God?
Instead of choosing the way of the world, we can choose the way of Jesus.
When the world says we should chase after security for ourselves, Jesus shows us that we can share equally with others to create a Kingdom where no one is in need.
When the world tells us to be afraid and seek shelter, Jesus shows us that it’s right to risk ourselves for others to create a God’s realm of peace and safety for all.
When the world tells us to quest for power, Jesus reminds us that in the Kingdom of God the least is the greatest and we are called to serve and love our neighbors. In all we do we are called to selflessness over selfishness.
What choices do you have to make? How is God calling you to help create the Kingdom of peace?
As we continue our journey through the Narrative lectionary and through Matthew’s gospel, remember that the scripture we read is only the beginning of the story. It’s led up to you and this moment in time. Where will God story – where will your story – take you next?
Head to your wilderness, spend time with God in prayer. Face your temptations. When the Devil of uncertainty challenges you – choose the good news of hope and the confidence that God is with you and has chosen you. Use the tools of scripture and your experience of the Divine in your life. Listen carefully for how the Holy Spirit is leading you to choose God.