From Bondage to Freedom

Sermon for Sunday, February 17th, 2012
Lent 1, Year C
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Luke 4: 1-13

From spiritual high to spiritual low:  No sooner has Jesus been baptized than he faces temptation. No sooner has he heard the loving voice of God cooing, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” than he wanders in the wilderness to confront that which is opposed to God.

If we notice nothing else about the gospel this morning, let’s notice this.

Because it’s a truism of the spiritual life that the more we grow in our commitment to the ways of God, the more persistently, and subtly, we will be tempted to break that commitment. And during this season of Lent, when so many of us are reaffirming and renewing our relationship to God, and setting our hearts afresh to living as God calls us to live, it’s especially wise to be wary of such pitfalls.

Whether we attribute it to the human psyche, the demonic, or the metaphorical, anthropomorphized one we call the devil, there are forces in this world that oppose God—and the more faithfully individuals or institutions work to conform to God’s will and God’s dream for creation, the more these opposing forces will try to corrupt and derail them. It’s part and parcel of the spiritual journey.

So today’s gospel is like a primer in Spirituality 101. We get to learn three great spiritual lessons firsthand from Jesus–three great spiritual truths. And we learn them by looking not so much at the temptations Jesus faces but at his responses to those temptations as he enters a time of great spiritual trial—responses that come directly from the Hebrew scripture, and specifically from the story of Israel’s journey from bondage to freedom in the exodus.

“Since you’re the Son of God,” the devil pokes at Jesus, “why don’t you change this stone to bread before you starve to death?”

Luke tells us Jesus is hungry, very hungry. He hasn’t eaten in 40 days. But Jesus remembers the 40 years the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness so he has the strength and wisdom he needs to get through his own 40 days of wilderness faithfully.  He remembers the words of Moses the retelling of his peoples’ story, the story of their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, from bondage to freedom. And as his stomach growls, Jesus remembers the words:

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger,  then by feeding you with manna…in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

The temptation is to be held in bondage by his hunger and the fear of scarcity it engenders—to turn inward and rely on himself for an answer, a solution, a quick fix.   But instead of acting out of self-centered fear Jesus remembers. And Jesus acts out of God-focused trust.

“Ya’ know what?” he says, “I’m really hungry. And I could turn that stone into bread with the blink of an eye.  But there’s so much more! So much more to life! Every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…my relationship with my Creator…This is what feeds me.  This is what counts!”

Spiritual lesson #1: There’s much more to life than the physical reality we observe with our senses: there’s the much greater reality of God and God’s word. This story wants us to remember:  remember that God’s reality is the only reality we can depend on to really meet our needs and satisfy our hunger. And by quoting this piece of scripture, Jesus is teaching us that if our primary focus is on our physical and material need, we’ll always live in fear of not having or getting enough. But if we focus on God’s reality, we will move from scarcity to abundance, from a land of wilderness to a land of milk and honey, from a place of bondage to a place of freedom.

Next the devil teases Jesus with fame and fortune, power and prestige.  “See all these earthly kingdoms, powers, and governments that I’ve got in my back pocket?  You can have ‘em all, JC.  Just put me first.”

Again, Jesus turns to scripture and remembers. He remembers Israel’s journey from bondage to freedom, remembers God’s word spoken during the exodus: “…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him…when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord… Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God.”

This time the temptation is to trade faithfulness to God for worldly power, prestige, and control. But that would be to betray the God of Israel and to be held in bondage to the false gods of ego, pride, and self. “No thanks,” Jesus tells the tempter, “I think I’ll pass.  With all that earthly glory and authority I might forget God, and think I’m the one in control here. I think I’ll rely on God’s power instead of my own; and serve God instead of my ego.”

Spiritual lesson #2:  We’re meant to serve God, not our egos or our selves. If we were meant to be all-powerful and in control of everything, God would’ve made us that way.  God’s God and we’re not. And by quoting this particular piece of scripture, Jesus is warning us not to forget God, or to put the false gods of power and prestige ahead of God on our journey from bondage to freedom.

Finally, the devil dares Jesus to test God’s steadfast love. “Go ahead,” he says, “you’re the Son of God.  So hurl yourself off this pinnacle and let’s see God’s angels save you!”

And for the third and final time in this morning’s gospel Jesus turns to scripture, and remembers. Remembers Israel’s journey from bondage to freedom, and hears God’s word: Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah (where the people whined for water saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”) …Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you…”

This final temptation is to question God’s love in times of wilderness, to test whether or not God will prove His love on demand. But Jesus knows better. “I don’t need to prove to you or anyone else how much God loves me,” Jesus tells the devil.  “I may be in the wilderness, I may not see or feel God’s presence here, but God is with me. And I’m not going to demand proof. I’ll just keep what I know is right and good in God’s sight, as the scripture says to do.”

Spiritual lesson #3:  God is faithful even in the wilderness. There will always be times of wilderness in our spiritual journeys, there’s no avoiding it.  Times when we whine like the people of Israel, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Times when we wonder, “If you’re there God, why don’t you do something?”  Times when we’re tempted, like Jesus was, to test God’s steadfast love.  But by quoting this particular piece of scripture, Jesus is reminding us that God is always here, always faithful, always loving us and moving us and guiding us along, from a place of bondage to a place of freedom.  A place of spiritual freedom.

During these 40 days of Lent, we’re invited to reaffirm our relationship with God.  We’re invited to renew our commitment as followers of Christ. We’re invited to go deeper, get closer, risk everything.

And we can expect to encounter resistance, distraction, and temptation when we do.  We shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the wilderness.   But we shouldn’t be unprepared either. Because we know what to do now — we know to remember.

Remember to pray with scripture. Remember to turn to God’s word for our  strength and our sustenance.  Remember to meditate on the spiritual truths to which God’s word points:  That there’s more, so much more, to this life than meets the eye; that God’s in charge of all of it– and of us; and that God is with us always, even in the wilderness, mercifully and persistently loving us into freedom–freedom to be the people, and the church, he is calling us to be.  Amen.

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