Matthew 4:1-11 • March 1, 2020 • 1st Sunday in Lent
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I want to be very clear right at the start of this sermon, maybe a bit of a confession. I am not designed by God for the wilderness. My idea of enjoying the outdoors is a careful selection of which golf course I play next. And camping for me involves deciding if I’m going to stay at a Marriott or Hilton that night.
However, just like you, I’ve experienced many times of wilderness in my life. And probably even far more times of temptation. And so, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are invited to spend time reflecting about both – our times of wilderness and times of temptation. And we get to do this reflection knowing that we are Easter people. People of the resurrection.
Yes, we are in the season of Lent, but note that I said today is the first Sunday in Lent. I didn’t say that this is the first Sunday of Lent. The Sundays that happen during the season of Lent are not considered part of Lent. They are not included in the 40-days that make up Lent each year.
Many historians believe the practice of Lent began in the early fourth century. And since the very earliest days of the Christian church, Sundays have always been set apart during Lent. Because Sundays are always meant to be celebrations of the resurrection. After all, we are people of the resurrection. Easter people, living out our faith on this side of the resurrection.
As Easter people living out our faith journey through this holy place known as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we believe that God calls us “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.” This is what we call our mission or purpose statement. It is the center of everything we do together. It is the answer to our question about why God bothered creating our congregation in the first place.
In many ways, I see our gospel reading today as a story of Jesus discovering his mission. Today’s gospel is a story of Jesus learning more deeply what his purpose in God’s creation is all about. Today’s gospel is a story of Jesus uncovering the why he was sent as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Throughout each Sunday in Lent, you and I are going to be invited to dig a bit deeper into God’s purpose for our congregation. And hopefully, by the time we get to Easter, we’ll have a better understanding of why God wants Good Shepherd to exist and continue to thrive as part of God’s kingdom. We are calling this worship series “The Building Blocks of Good Shepherd’s mission.”
One of those building blocks for us is “forming faith.” As stated in our core value about what we believe this to mean, we hear…“Called by our Savior Jesus the Christ, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that is founded in adult and youth ministry education; we build on that foundation by working to facilitate the faith formation of parishioners and community members across generations and support one another in our faith journeys.”
At this point, you might be asking, ‘what does Jesus’ time in the wilderness with the devil and Good Shepherd’s core value of forming faith have to do with one another? One of these things doesn’t look like the other.” To which I will respond and say that I think they do. Let me show you how.
First, a definition of faith might be helpful. According to the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, faith has to do with “trust in, or reliance on, God who is himself trustworthy.”
According to theologian Rolf Jacobson, faith is “part trust, part knowledge, part following – faith can’t be reduced to a few steps; it is a way of life, the walk of a lifetime, one day at a time.” [Crazy Talk, pg. 66]
Or as was so beautifully stated 500 years ago by Martin Luther – “Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.” [https://www.christianforums.com/threads/martin-luthers-definition-of-faith.1171971]
A dear colleague and friend of mine, Luther Seminary professor Terri Elton just released a new book a few weeks ago called “Journeying in the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century.”
It was a book that I thought was going to sit on my shelf for a while before I’d have a chance to open it up. Evidently, the Holy Spirit had a different plan as this week’s sermon unfolded. And I’m glad it did. Elton’s book is sure to be a blessing to the church for years to come. And some of her thoughts speak perfectly to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as it relates to Good Shepherd’s core value of forming faith.
Elton writes, “Wilderness journeys disrupt and stretch; they also open and refine. Times in the wilderness change us. Sometimes we are led by God into unknown territory to prepare us for God-sized missions; sometimes, life circumstances place us there. Either way, God promises to be present, and formation will occur. Embracing our relationship with God while in the wilderness makes such times fruitful for our becoming journey.” [pg. 56]
“What can Jesus’s experience teach us?” Elton asks.
“First, wilderness environments are unruly. They are remote and uncivilized. Alongside their natural beauty looms danger and uncertainty. A life of faith will include time in the wilderness.
Second, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Wilderness periods can be of our own making or the result of brokenness in society, but this text notes God led Jesus into the wilderness. Reframing wilderness experiences as initiated by God widens our imagination about God’s activity during such times. God uses time in the wilderness for God’s purposes.
Third, wilderness periods are formative. God used the wilderness to prepare…Jesus for the mission ahead. For Jesus, formation centered on deepening his identity as the Son of God. Tending our relationship with God and developing practices of daily living are critical to formation.
Jesus learned to be patient and wait for God’s timing. Testing and prayer made it possible for Jesus to know who and whose he was. Jesus’s identity was strengthened and internalized in the wilderness, reminding us formation includes identity work.
Finally,” Elton believes, “wilderness times create opportunities to look backward and forward. Jesus’s wilderness experience connected to the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness; our wilderness experiences may not feel connected to God’s people in the past, but reflecting on how God has been present throughout history can help us understand God’s presence today. This story connects with the past and points to what is to come. Wilderness experiences can help us see God’s actions in the past and foreshadow the future.”
I believe that the two most valuable things the Holy Spirit wants us to take away today are this –
first, always focus your attention on what God is doing through you, not on the temptations the world wants you to focus on and do. Often times we are too distracted by other things and completely miss God’s presence in our life.
And, second, forming faith, brothers and sisters, is a life-long journey. Faith formation is not something we graduate from once we finish confirmation. I believe the truth that we no longer believe faith formation is a life-long journey is one of the greatest sins of the Christian movement today.
Give or take, there are about 3,000 Christian adults who call Good Shepherd Lutheran Church their faith home. I can only begin to imagine what our congregation, our community, our synod, our world would look like if every one of us intentionally engaged in at least one faith formation practice during Lent this year.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we never stop growing along our faith journey.
I know for certain that the intentional time you spend growing as a follower of Jesus will be a blessing to you. And I also believe it will be a blessing to God’s kingdom. And, just like they did at the end of our gospel story today after Jesus defeated the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, I can’t help but think that angels rejoice whenever we make growing in our faith the most important part of our journey in this world.
Where might the Spirit be leading you next in this good work? Don’t be afraid to go there. It’s the Spirit leading you. And God promises to be with you every step of the way. Amen.