A Way Through the Wilderness

March 23, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

I have a hard time dealing with money. (There, I admitted it.) I don’t mean that I have trouble balancing my cheque book or keeping track of what I spend – I’m actually very good at that. I have a little notebook and I write almost everything down in it, so I know within a few dollars where my money’s going every month. No, my problem with money is bigger than that. My problem is about knowing how much is enough, and how much is too much. My problem is not in over-spending, but in setting priorities for spending. My problem is knowing when a little luxury is needless self-indulgence or a well-deserved treat. My problem is knowing that I have way more than most people in the world, but sometimes wishing I had more both for me and more to give away. My problem is that I want to be generous and not miserly, but I don’t always know how to judge whether I’m just being dutiful or whether I’m actually giving with a thankful heart. My problem is that our society tells me that I should be saving more and giving less, but my conscience and my faith tell me I should be giving more and saving or spending less. My problem is that Jesus’ comments about money are pretty absolute, and it’s almost impossible to live them out literally…unless you live as part of a monastic community, and even then, the community holds property and resources in trust on behalf of the whole.

So when the devotional study we’re using for Lent asked the question “What tempts you, and why?”, “Money” was my first answer. But when I think deeper about that, it’s not so much the money, it’s what the money represents. Money in our culture represents the freedom to choose from a variety of options in most areas of life, rather than having to choose based on limited means. Money means opportunities to travel and to see the world. Money can purchase enjoyable activities and pay for the learning of new skills. Money can buy education. Money could eventually allow me to volunteer more and work less. So it’s not really the money that tempts me. It’s what it represents – how it pulls at my values and challenges my faith. Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about it so much – because he knew the deep truth, stated in the Gospels, that “where your treasure is, there your heart lies.” Open up your wallet some time, or read your credit card statement or your cheque book, and you’ll see what your money says you care about.

Money is a temptation for me – but more than that, freedom and self-determination and new opportunities and security are temptations for me. In many ways, these are the temptations of the privileged. For Jesus, on his 40 day fast in the desert, his temptations began in a much more basic place. He was starving, and sick, and shaking with dehydration, and something or someone tempted him to relieve his suffering by the misuse of God-given ability. He was alone, and his faith was being tested, and that voice suggested he turn around and test God in return – to prove God was looking out for him. He was facing the life of a wandering preacher with no home, dependent on the generousity of others, and he was tempted to take power over others and live a life of privilege and luxury. He was tempted to hide from hardship, to take the path of ease and fame and praise. He was tempted to take his unique calling and twist it into a self-serving caricature of itself.

If we believe Jesus was truly human, then we have to believe that he faced temptation. We have to believe there were times when he struggled with right and wrong and the grey areas in between. We have to believe he was tempted sometimes to chuck it all and go back to being a small-town carpenter leading a conventional 1st century life, as he almost did in the controversial book and movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”.

To be human is to be tempted – and it isn’t always bad things that tempt us. It can be good things as well. In the story of Adam and Eve, it is moral knowledge that tempts them. In the story of Jesus, it is food and safety that tempt him, before power and corruption. In my case, freedom and security and opportunities are temptations. Or, take the example of the pastor who breaks a promise to read her son a bedtime story because she had some inspiring thoughts for Sunday’s sermon and wants to get them down before she forgets. Or the young businessman and father who’s offered a fabulous job opportunity that will mean being away from his family even more than the four or five nights a week his job already demands of him. Those are real temptations – and it’s not always easy to know how to respond to them. We can, however, take some cues from Jesus.

Jesus turned to what he had learned about the will of God. He quotes from Scripture to reply to the temptations of the devil. Now, anyone can quote from Scripture – heck, in this story the tempter does it, too! But finding your feet, finding your way, in the teachings your community has collected over centuries is a really good place to start. The Bible is our source book. It’s not a manual – it doesn’t answer every moral question that might arise over all time; but in seeing how other people of faith made their choices, and in particular by looking at the life and teachings of Jesus, we can find inspiration for the moral choices we have to make in our own lives. Abraham’s choice might not be our choice; the disciples’ choices may not be our choice; even Jesus’ choice may not always be the right choice for us. But all of them made their choices based on faith and on obedience to God’s will as they understood it. They trusted that in obeying God, they would find God faithful and their path would be blessed. That certainly didn’t mean no hardship, no struggles, no pain, no loss. It did mean that they walked with God, and found strength through everything they faced.

Two thousand years ago a man from Galilee said, “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his soul?” Perhaps when he made that statement he was not only addressing it to those who heard him, but also was looking back to a time of decision in his own life. ….While he is the answer to all our struggles, we see him struggling with the things he faced. And, as he finds the way for himself he finds the way for us as well… (Brett Blair, www.sermons.com) He finds a way through trust in God; he finds a way by staying rooted in the tradition of faith passed on by his parents and his community; he finds a way by remembering who he is – the beloved child of a just and righteous God.

In the story of Adam and Eve, they forgot that they were children of a loving God. They couldn’t understand that if a loving parent refuses them something, there’s a good reason for it. They forgot – or perhaps had not yet learned – that choices have consequences, not just for us, but for people around us and those who follow after us. Jesus was the opposite. Though he struggled through his time in the wilderness, he managed to hang on to who he was; he continued throughout his life – even in the face of great suffering – to pray for God’s will to be done; he never forgot that trusting in God is the path of blessedness. In the face of temptation, he was able to stand firm, and stay on the path on which God had set his feet. In him we find our model, our inspiration, and our hope – because in him we know that though we may sometimes make the wrong choices, God’s love and forgiveness are unconditional. We know this, for Jesus cried out, even from the cross, for forgiveness for those who had sentenced him to such a terrible death. Sometimes we make the wrong choice not knowing what we’re really doing – and there is enough grace and mercy in the heart of God to cover all those wrong turnings, wrong choices, wrong actions. For this, we are thankful indeed.

We are human. We are tempted. Like Adam and Eve, we may not be able to tell right from wrong, or may find ourselves on a confusimg path through the grey areas of life. The apostle Paul, when looking at their story, saw this as the place and time when sin entered the world; and in Jesus, he saw the person and time in which the world was redeemed – when this one man, of divine and human origin, stayed faithful through trials and temptations, and physical pain, and mental and spiritual anguish. Through him, Paul says, we find ourselves on a new path – a path of grace, of mercy, of love, of faith. May this become more and more real to us, as we continue to walk the pathways of Lent with Jesus. Amen.

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