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Be Careful What You Promise

A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on March 13, 2011.
Matthew 4:1-11

He was one of the best basketball players in the country and played on one of the finest teams. By the end of February, he and Jimmer Fredette had led Brigham Young University to a 27-2 record and a number three ranking in the national polls. He and his teammates were almost assured a coveted number one seed in the NCAA tournament and a shot at the championship, but all that changed a couple of weeks ago.

Brandon Davies, the 6’ 9”, 235 pound center and rebound leader was removed from the team. He was not dismissed because he committed a crime, abused drugs or had a bad attitude. He violated the BYU Honor Code, which all students must sign. Brandon crossed the line of intimacy with his girlfriend and for that violation was no longer permitted to play basketball. Brandon’s experience reinforces a lesson in today’s text: every promise we make will be tested. Jesus certainly discovered this soon after he was baptized.

On this first Sunday in Lent, our attention is drawn to the temptation of Jesus in the desert, which came on the heels of his baptism. What a contrast this must have been for him. One minute he was surrounded by people affirming him with hugs and handshakes and soon after he was alone in the wilderness grappling with what it means to love God and live for Him among people chasing after comfort, wealth, power and fame.

What message was Matthew sending his readers by relaying this story, which was so significant to Jesus that he must have shared it with his disciples? Could it have been that every promise made among friends will be tested in a hostile environment? I think this is a real possibility.

Jesus’ baptism symbolized not only a change of direction as he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, but also commitments he was making to God as His representative in a broken world. What were those commitments?

Based upon what he taught and how he lived, I think he made the commitment to love God with all his heart, seek His will when facing decisions and live for Him to the best of his ability.

I think he promised to reflect the true nature of God by the way he arranged his values and priorities, related to others, treated his enemies and handled life’s challenges.

I think he promised to take advantage of every opportunity to make the world a better place to live for all people, using his abilities and influence to pursue justice and seek peace. You recall that he voiced this commitment in his inaugural message in his hometown synagogue when he took his cue from Isaiah and said he would preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, open the eyes of the blind, release the oppressed and tell everyone about God’s transforming grace.

I think he promised to follow Micah’s advice by doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

I think he promised God that he would not be lured into the old self-serving ways of the religious establishment and become addicted to pleasures, comfort, wealth, acclaim and power as they had. Instead, he would serve rather than be served, give rather than take, build bridges of goodwill and understanding rather than walls of intolerance and indifference, and heal wounds rather than inflict them.

I think he promised never to offer quick, easy solutions to serious problems or feed his ego rather than people’s hungry hearts.

I believe he promised to help people achieve their potential and liberate them from anything that prevented it.

I think he promised to make hope visible and trusted in God’s tender providence to help him.

You don’t make serious commitments like Jesus did without being tested, which Matthew’s readers were discovering. I am confident they, too, made genuine commitments to God, just as Jesus did. I am also certain their faith was being tested in ways they never imagined, just like Jesus’ was. Perhaps Matthew was trying to help them understand this was normal. Every decision made among friends will be tested in a hostile environment, and the tests will come sooner than you think.

Haven’t you experienced this? What promise have you made that was not tested? Isn’t this the reason we make commitments? We assume, and rightly so, that testing will come.

When I meet with couples preparing for their wedding, I talk to them about the vows they will repeat. I help them to understand that what is implied in these vows is the fact that life will not always be easy and their relationship will not be without its share of struggles. Come what may, though, they are promising to remain faithful to each other and work out their differences rather than throwing in the towel.

Testing and promises naturally go together, which leads me to ask, what promises have you made to God and others? Who is depending upon you to keep your word? Let me encourage you during Lent to answer these questions. Give them a voice and let them speak to you.

What temptations threaten to undermine the promises you have made? What isSatan whispering in your ear and trying to convince you to do?

As I pondered the dialogue between Jesus and Satan in our text, it appeared to me Satan was telling Jesus that life was about him and he did not need to consider others, everything he could see was for him and he did not need to share it and each decision was up to him and he did not need to consult with any one. Thank goodness Jesus did not succumb to this foolish and selfish way of thinking and refused to abandon his commitments in pursuit of physical comforts, pleasures, wealth, acclaim and power.

How about you? Is your commitment to be like Jesus wavering? Do you need to identify the temptations that threaten to undermine the promises you have made to God and others. Let me encourage you to go into your personal desert, that place deep within yourself where you come face to face with God and your own humanness. Give your temptations a voice and quit living in denial. Name those things that, if not dealt with, will hurt you and everyone around you.

It is clear from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptations that the earliest Christian community embraced the thought that personal satisfaction, the pursuit of wealth, the need for recognition and the appeal of power were dangerous challenges to the kind of life and mission that Jesus came to live and invites us to join. Is there any doubt that these same temptations threaten to undermine our mission and influence?

Whose help do you need to keep the promises you have made? Whose help did Jesus need? There is no question he needed God’s help and looked to Him. Look how the other account of this story reads, the one in Luke’s gospel.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” Luke 4:1-2a. Luke highlights the close relationship that existed between Jesus and his heavenly Father, a theme that runs throughout his gospel. Jesus was led by the Spirit and comforted by Him during his time of testing. If Jesus relied upon the Spirit, how much more should we? “Deliver us from evil,” needs to be on our lips, too.

Jesus also relied upon those close by to help him remain faithful. After this wilderness experience, what did Jesus do? He called his disciples. This faith journey would require traveling companions that would listen to him, offer advice, encourage and pray for him.

Again, if Jesus needed a support group, how much more do we? All of us need friends that will hold us up and hold us accountable. We need companions that will ask tough questions. “Do you really want to do this? What will the consequences be? Who will be hurt or helped by this decision? Do you need to think about this more before moving forward?”

How can we keep our promises without God’s help and others who love us? I cannot and don’t see how anyone can. No one is wise or strong enough to withstand temptation alone. Over-confidence is deadly.

Whose help do you need in order to keep your commitments? Seek their help because too much is at stake for you to do otherwise.

While you are at it, identify those people near and dear to you who need your help. Who needs to hear your wise counsel and encouraging words?

What if you have broken some promises you made? Must you live forever with guilt and shame? No, forgiveness is real and the gospel is transformative. Hope springs out of being loved and forgiven. Allow this church to be one place you find this kind of hope and you meet angels ready to help you rebuild your life.