Jesus Meets Us in the Wilderness
The following sermon was preached by Craig A. Satterlee, Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics; Dean, ACTS D.Min. in Preaching Program, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 28, 2007.
Luke 4: 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered the devil, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered the devil, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, the Lord only shall you serve.'"
Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered the devil, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.
The year I graduated from seminary, this was the text of the sermon for what today we call the approval essay. We were told to prepare a sermon for our seminary community. We all talked about the seminary as a wilderness. Everyone who read our sermons was alarmed that my class had such a horrible experience that we called seminary a wilderness. After all, scripturally speaking, the wilderness is the place where demons dwell. Seminary, we were told, is not a wilderness. Seminary is the oasis from which we draw strength and to which we return from what can be the wilderness of the Church.
I can tell you that seminary is an oasis, once you've been away from it for a few years. At the Leadership Conference, I visited with graduates who had nothing but wonderful things to say about LSTC. I recall that, while they were in seminary, they griped and grumbled that LSTC was a wilderness. Whether it's Trinity in 1986 or LSTC today, seminary is a place where our faith is tested, a place where we are tempted by the devil. Oh, we use other, less mythological D-words, words like disbelief and doubt, disillusionment and disappointment, disgust and disdain, despair and defeat. But these D-words, which come to us in the wilderness of seminary, tempt us away from our calling, as surely as the devil tempted Jesus away from his calling, as Jesus prepared for ministry in the Judean wilderness.
So, Jesus the seminarian is in the wilderness. Jesus is filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit and a God-given call. Jesus is trying to be open to God, dependent on God, even helpless before God. Jesus humbles himself. Jesus works hard to "manage his anxiety" and to "trust the process." And after forty days, Jesus is hungry. Perhaps Jesus is empty. God doesn't seem to be meeting Jesus' needs. That's when the devil shows up. "Turn this stone into bread," the devil says. "Remake the wilderness to meet your needs. Turn this stone into bread. Call it self-care or being prophetic or some other value that the seminary holds dear. Remake the wilderness to meet your needs." But Jesus fasts from entertaining his own needs in order to trust God to sustain him. In the language of Scripture, Jesus declares, "For children of God, there's more to life than getting our needs met."
Notice that neither God nor the angels immediately step in to meet Jesus' needs. "So don't do it for yourself," the devil says. "Do it for all those who are hungry and hurting. Do it for everyone else that God has let down. Remake the wilderness of the world. If God won't use God's power for their sake, then you grab some power for God's sake. Yes, following the ways of the world, playing according to those rules, wielding that kind of power, may make you worship God a little less. And, if you are not careful, you may end up worshiping something else altogether. But if it's a good cause, a noble endeavor, a cherished value, something that makes the Church and the world better (family, liturgy, Lutheran identity, disability, consistency, excellence), what's the harm? But Jesus fasts from entertaining ways to grab power. And in the language of Scripture, Jesus responds, "For children of God, life is not about exercising power; life is about becoming a servant. And no matter how good the cause, how noble the endeavor, how much better something will make the Church and the world, only God gets our worship."
Now would be a great time for God to show up and support Jesus. Now would be a great time for God to step in and tell the devil to shut up. But God doesn't. So, it's off to Jerusalem. And in the language of Scripture, and of good Lutheran theology, the devil says, "Nothing you do can make God not love you. Nothing you do can make God not sustain you. So remake the wilderness of salvation your way. Go your own way. Forget the cross. They'll still be trying to figure out the cross in two thousand years. Do something clear. Do something extraordinary. Shock and awe for the sake of the kingdom. Throw yourself off the temple and let God catch you. But Jesus fasts from entertaining his own purpose and way of achieving it. And in the language of Scripture, Jesus responds, "For children of God, God's plan and will are decisive."
Now I could tell you that Jesus's faith in God and reliance on God's word during temptation is the model for Christians who, like Jesus, are filled with the Holy Spirit at baptism. I could say, "Jesus is our example. Be like Jesus. Fast from entertaining your needs, exercising power, and doing it your way." And that would be right, except for one thing. Jesus is more than our example.
Jesus is more than our example. Jesus is our Savior. When Jesus returns to Jerusalem, the Devil's D-words will gather to tempt him, and they will bring friends–Denial, Desertion, Derision, and Death. As Jesus hangs on the cross, they will say. We will say, "If you are the Son of God, meet your needs. Wield some power. Throw yourself down from that cross and we will believe." And Jesus will say, No. In Jerusalem, Jesus remains faithful to God's will and plan. By his cross, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus frees us from all those D-words that so want to define us. We, like Jesus, are children of God. That's who we are. Since Jesus has made us who we are, we can fast from entertaining those D-words. When those D-words tempt us, when it would be good for Jesus to boldly step in and Jesus doesn't, even then Jesus sustains us with God's word. "For you. For you." Rather than remaking the wilderness as we'd like it, Jesus meets us in the wilderness as it is, even and especially the wilderness of seminary. Looking back, we see oasis. Not because everything was wonderful, but because Jesus was there. Because Jesus is here. And the D-words, they're done.