Who do you listen to?

Who do you listen to?

The Temptation of Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11

The Testing of Jesus

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’ ”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’ ”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Let us pray. Lord, in the midst of the noise, the temptations and the false promises, remind us who we are. And Lord, in my words may your people hear your powerful word. Amen.

Edwin is one of the pastors at Riverside Presbyterian. We worked together for 15 years in outreach to the immigrant community. He is an earnest, deeply devoted person with a faith that sometimes intimidated me. I assumed, wrongly, that he never struggled nor complained nor sullied himself with goofiness which might be my native tongue.

One day, he telling me what was going on in his family, sharing about the ups and downs of church life, the funerals, the painting project underway. He felt good. He confessed that he also felt really tired.

I sighed in the humanity of it and said, “I really appreciate hearing the real deal.” And he looked me in the eye and said, “My Dad always taught me… Son, the most important thing in life is authenticity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

It took me a second. Then, we both erupted in laughter.

Authenticity. It’s one of the cardinal virtues of generations coming of age now who wonder if perhaps their parents were not all that happy doing what others expected of them. 

Authenticity is precious in a world where someone can find just about anything on the internet and copy it.

Authenticity can feel like freedom for some. For others, it can feel like self-indulgence. It can feel like an adventure for some, and for others, it sounds lonely, this quest for uniqueness and novelty.

For this sermon, I want to define authenticity as the quality of having a certain undisputed origin. It means to know who you are, and more importantly, who you listen to when the chips are down. That’s what I want to talk about today, when Christians the world over begin the season of Lent.

The word Lent comes the German word Lencten, meaning Spring. In Spanish, it’s called quaresma. Which means the great 40 days. That is the length of time Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry being tempted by Satan. It is also the time Moses spent on the mountaintop receiving the 10 commandments while the people below created the golden calf. It is also the amount of time Noah spent in the arc. 40 days. In that span of time, humanity chooses whether to listen to God or fall for some easy source of comfort. It is identity time.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber wrote, “Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: consumerism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school – they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”

The best definition I’ve heard to describe Lent is that it is the Christian defense against identify theft.

In today’s story in Matthew, Jesus is practically dripping from his baptism, when the voice of God called him beloved. And then, just a few words later, the spirit led him into temptation. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray lead us not into temptation. We pray that because wilderness and the temptation it brings are extremely hard for us.

When we think of the wilderness, Star Wars fans might picture the sand planet of Tattoine. Outdoorsy types might imagine Yosemite. But the wilderness is much more common than that. Wilderness in the Bible means the people of God are clearly not at home. Wilderness in the Bible and everywhere else always has three things: uncertainty, real risk, and temptation. Whether it’s the wilderness of grief or illness or divorce, or the wilderness of retirement or high school or becoming a parent or no longer having little kids at home or that strange restlessness in your soul that says something has got to change, we all face the wilderness.

The wilderness forces us to face who we are and who we listen to. Harry Potter fans might connect the wilderness with the Mirror of Erised, the mirror that shows not someone’s face but their heart’s desire. And like that mirror, wilderness seasons of life can break people. What I have seen in ministry is that people break in the wilderness not because it is particularly deadly. It’s not. What breaks us in the wilderness (Matthew makes this crystal clear) is the tempting shortcuts we take to get through it. What breaks us in the wilderness is listening to lies that are both convenient and crushing.

There are three main temptations in every wilderness. You can test this out. A fun, if dark, game is to look at every commercial and see which one they are employing.

The first is the temptation to avoid discomfort. “Turn this stone to bread,” Satan says to Jesus. Get rid of that hunger as fast as you can. For us, it might sound like, “Buy that lamp at Target rather than think about how bad that meeting went.” It might sound like, “Eat all the things” even though we are hungry for love, for belonging, or for forgiveness for something we did wrong. It might sound like, “Hey! Look at what those people are doing on Facebook or Reddit or in my neighborhood” so we don’t have to admit that our heart is starving for purpose and direction and joy of its very own.

The second is the temptation to worship at the altar of popularity. “I will give you glory and authority!” Satan says. Ah, recognition and praise. Don’t we crave it? “Make sure people like you. Dress the right way. Get your body into the right shape. Get the right attention. Be mad about the same things your tribe is mad about. Manage up.” In Hamilton, it’s what Aaron Burr sang about, “Talk less. Smile more. Never let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.

The third temptation is to control. Satan says to Jesus, “If you’re really that great, you should be able to control things. Toss yourself off this Temple and fly. Let’s see if your power is really impressive.” We human beings do not like uncertainty, do not like the chance that we might be wrong, do not like to admit that we could put our best foot forward and things could still go off the rails, so we prefer to lock it down. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “If I just knew the plan, I would be ok.” That fear of powerlessness can make us do crazy things, all kinds of self-sabotaging moves, just so we can say, “See, I told you this wouldn’t work.” The fear of powerlessness even tempts us to label the misfortunes of others as somehow avoidable, somehow their fault, so we never have to think about that happening to us. And when the unimaginable does occur to us, our brains go on the fritz for a while. We go into shock. Nothing makes sense to us.

Avoiding pain, seeking out praise, and holding on to control….Because we are not Jesus, we probably do at least one of those things every single day. They give us a quick satisfaction. But over time, if that’s the voice we listen to, it will steal our identity. Each person has the stamp of divine love sealed upon our lives. That stamp says we are loved in the midst of our pain, we are loved in spite of other people’s opinions, and we are loved even in the clouds of uncertainty that surround us. When we let someone or something else determine who we are, that is what really takes us down in the wilderness.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a pastor in New Jersey who had been at it a long time. I was asking him what to do about this man at church who wouldn’t shake my hand. I told the pastor, “I am really convinced he doesn’t like me.” My pastor/bubble burster said, “Maybe not. The good news is that 9 times out of 10 people are not thinking about you at all. And never forget this: What other people think of you is none of your business.”

 Not to listen to what other people think it not easy but it is liberating. It makes you say, “What does God think about this? Do my thoughts and actions look like Jesus, or something else? Am I full of the Holy Spirit, or I am full of something else?”

Sometimes, when I pray I don’t clasp my hands. Instead, I touch my forehead. The place of baptismal waters. The place of Ashes. It’s like a mute button for any other voice that would lead me astray or claim my identity.

The truth about you is written on your forehead. It’s not up for debate, and if you get no further than that this Lent, you are doing very well. That truth, written in the waters of baptism is that you are loved. You have a name. You have a purpose. Your heart finds authentic joy when it praises God and it finds true peace when it trust God with tomorrow.

This God gave Noah dry land for his wobbly feet. This God gave freedom and a home to Moses and the people. This God brought Jesus Christ through rejection, suffering and death into eternal life. This God is with you and for you and abides in you.

When you want to know who you are, don’t listen to your past, don’t listen to your friend, don’t listen to your house or your business card or your family or the internet, start with your own forehead. Start where Lent does. Where the voice of God calls us beloved and leads us through every wilderness.