Following Jesus in the Wilderness


A Sermon by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock , Ar.

Luke 4:1-13

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where 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. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him 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, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time

The forty-day season of Lent is modeled on Jesus' forty-days in the wilderness.  Christians believe that Jesus is the best example of what it means to live for God.  So what can we learn about living for God from the Luke's account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, and how does it relate to the season of Lent? 

Living for God requires preparation.  Jesus underwent the forty-day fast in order to spiritually, mentally, and physically prepare for ministry for God because living for God isn't a haphazard matter.   There are choices we must confront.  Living for God will present challenges and temptations.  Are we prepared to deal with them?

Lent is a time of spiritual contemplation, preparation, and renewal when we voluntarily wrestle with the dynamics of living for God.  Just as people voluntarily prepare academically before beginning the world of work, Lent is a time for preparing oneself for the work of discipleship.   Remember, we always prepare for anything we do that we consider important!

One must prepare before beginning a fast.  One must make choices about what to take in and along during this temporary retreat from the usual pattern of living.  Those of us with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or respiratory disorders should prepare for a fast by consulting a medical professional. 

Are we following Jesus by wilderness-like living during this Lenten season?  Are we doing anything that resembles stepping away from the rat race so we better understand our own hearts?  Are you and I doing anything during this season that will help us hear God's voice?  How will we prepare to confront and wrestle with the forces that will try to distract us from living for God, including our own passions, motives, fears, and hopes? 

One approach might be to read a devotional book.  Select a book of meditations and set aside time each day to prayerfully read and reflect.  Allow that reading and reflecting time for be your Lenten fasting and praying.  Remember that this hour of daily reading and prayer is part of your wilderness journey as a follower of Jesus. 

Expect distractions, intruders, and temptations!  Jesus was tempted during his wilderness experience so you and I can expect to be subjected to distractions and temptations.  While distractions and temptations are part of the routine of life, they seem to be especially vexing when we are actively focused on getting closer to God and preparing ourselves for new levels of discipleship.  Expect intrusions, intruders, temptations, and distractions as you follow Jesus in the wilderness.  In other words, don't expect a free pass from distractions, intrusions, and temptations during the Lenten season.

Why shouldn't you expect a free pass?  In the first place, there's really no such thing as a "distraction-free" life.  Life always involves the dynamics of temptation, trials, and challenges to our devotion to God. 

But there's another reason we shouldn't be surprised when we encounter distractions, intrusions, and temptations during this time of reflection, repentance, and recommitment.  We have decided to live for God.  We have decided to trust God, obey God, and be agents of God's grace, truth, hope, peace, and joy in the world.  The enemy of that grace, truth, hope, peace, and joy will use anything and everything to discourage, distract, and deter us. 

When the distractions, temptations, and disruptions happen during Lenten season, view them as evidence that we pose a threat to the enemy of God's grace, truth, hope, peace, and joy.  Nobody tries to guard a basketball player who doesn't present a scoring threat.  We are God's forces of love and faith in the world.  We're going to draw enemy fire! 

The tempter first tried to get Jesus to view himself as too good to be hungry.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The urge to think that we're too good to suffer is a powerful temptation.  We're tempted to think that if we really are God's people, we won't be poor, sick, or rejected. 

But hunger, risk of sickness, rejection, and the struggle to make ends meet are all part of what it means to be human.  If we are to be true representatives for God, we must not live as if we are too good to experience these realities.   "Prosperity religion" tries to portray living for God as an exercise in being comfortable, but that isn't what we learn from the wilderness experience of Jesus or the rest of Scripture. 

Living for God means trusting God even in hunger.  Living for God means trusting God even when we're sick.  Living for God means trusting God even when the money runs out, the bills are mounting up, and we can't see how or when things will change. And those are lessons we only learn when we are hungry, tired, struggling to make ends meet, sick, or engaged in some other struggle. 

So expect the distractions and temptations.  Don’t be surprised by them or worship them.  The distractions and temptations are not God!  They happen to challenge our trust in God!

Don't take the easy exits.  The Tempter also tried to entice Jesus with fame, power, and wealth.  Then the devil led him 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.”

There are always exit signs out of the wilderness.  There are always challenges and invitations to get off the desert road during Lent and in life.  But Jesus wasn't fooled.  “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

One of the great moral flaws of "prosperity religion" is it substitutes prosperity for perseverance in living for God.  The Tempter offered Jesus prosperity and power without living for God!  We are often enticed to leave the desert road of perseverance and take an easy exit to prosperity and power. 

Several days ago Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas announced plans for a billion dollar steel mill to be located in Mississippi County that will hire up to 500 people.  Think of it—500 or more high-paying jobs!  The news media and chamber of commerce people have been abuzz with interest.  Big River Steel Mill will require $125 million in state loans, grants, and other inducements.  The state teacher retirement system appears ready to invest tens of millions of dollars to support the effort.  People are excited about the prospect of a mill that will pay high salaries.  Mississippi County is struggling economically.  This mill can be "a game changer."

But wait!  The Arkansas Times news magazine has discovered that the biggest investor in Big River LLC, the entity behind this project, is Koch Industries. 

  • Koch Industries is considered the second largest private company in the United States.
  • Koch Industries is a multi-national conglomerate of companies active in trading, petroleum, chemical, energy, asphalt, and other resources.
  • According to Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog group, Charles and David Koch have quietly funneled more than $61 million to front groups working to delay and oppose regulations aimed at stopping global warming.
  • The Koch Brothers have been perhaps the biggest financial backer of the Tea Party, the political group that opposed enactment of the Affordable Health Care Act.  Their father, Fred Koch, was a founder of the John Birch Society.
  • The Koch Brothers supported efforts in Wisconsin and other states aimed at denying the rights of teachers to engage in collective bargaining. 
  • What are the prospects that workers at the Big River Steel Mill be allowed to unionize and collectively bargain about wages and benefits after government leaders have forged a deal with the anti-union Koch Brothers?
  •  What will the environmental impact be of the Big River Steel Mill?  The Koch Brothers have financed groups that have denied climate change and have invested in businesses that contribute to global warming.  Will the Big River Steel Mill be another threat to our planet?  Will by-products harm the air, water, and soil? 

The Koch Brothers are actively and openly working to take over government, undermine the ability of workers to unionize, and make public policy merely an extension of corporate interest.  Their businesses are profitable, to be sure.  But their business practices carry the pernicious effect of robbing people and communities of clean air, soil, and water.

Let no one forget that slavery was profitable, yet unjust!  Child labor was profitable, but unjust!  Sweatshop labor is profitable, but unjust!  Refusing to pay women equal pay for their work is profitable, but unjust!  Pollution is profitable, but unjust! 

Unless we have learned the lesson that Jesus exemplified in the wilderness, we will take easy exits to prosperity and power that come from worshipping something other than God.  There is nothing wrong or evil about economic development. 

  • But people who've learned from the wilderness Jesus understand that any plan for economic development that requires workers to give up their freedom to collectively bargain with their employer concerning wages and work conditions is not right and cannot be fair. 
  • People who've learned from the wilderness Jesus know that any plan for economic development that requires people to mortgage the quality of the air they breathe, water they drink, and the soil from which their food is taken, is not right and can't be fair. 
  • People who're following the wilderness Jesus realize that any plan that calls for teachers to put up retirement funds alongside investors who actively work to deny teachers their collective bargaining rights concerning wages, working conditions, and benefits deserves to be closely questioned. 
  • People who know the wilderness Jesus have enough discernment to see that any plan for economic development in an area with high black unemployment which will not guarantee employment for black workers has a disturbing familiarity.  Then the devil led him 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.”

We learn in the wilderness that temptation always hits hardest where we are most vulnerable.  Our most vulnerable moments are when we must be especially discerning and remember that we live for God's peace, love, justice, and glory.  Any invitation to power, wealth, glory, or something else that calls us to deviate from God's love, justice, peace, and truth is an exit ramp away from God.  Don't take it!  Stay in the wilderness with God! 

Years after his wilderness experience when Jesus rejected the Tempter's invitation to grab power, fame, and glory by turning his back on God, Jesus found himself dying a criminal's death at Calvary.  As he died, a fellow sufferer and gathered onlookers dared him to claim divine prerogatives and get off the cross.  Jesus did not take the easy exit at Calvary because of the spiritual discernment and strength he gained during the wilderness challenge. 

We learn in the wilderness how to suffer. We learn in the wilderness how to wait for God even when all seems dismal around us.  We learn in the wilderness that the pathway to truth, justice, and authentic joy involves perseverance, faith, hope, and grace.

We are God's people in this time and place.  Let this Lenten season be a time of searching and self-examination.  Let us go into the wilderness with God.  Let us set ourselves apart to listen to God's voice and confront our fears, anxieties, doubts, and temptations.  God is preparing us for the kind of difference that people who have been through the wilderness can make.  Jesus has shown the way.  Let's follow it.  Amen.

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Tags: Lent, Preparation, Sermons, Wendell Griffen, Wilderness


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