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Wilderness, Temptation, & Life…

February 12, 2016

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After what has seemed like an eternity, Denise and I were finally able to go for a hike in our beloved Rocky Mountain National Park. Between my being sick and a workload that has kept us both hopping, we have missed Rocky. So today (and hopefully tomorrow) we hiked for a few hours. Initially we were planning on snowshoeing, but when we got to the car park at the end of the road, the snow wasn’t enough to put on the snowshoes. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t run into some snow across the road (we were hiking the Old Fall River Road, one of the original roads through the park built in the 1920’s) or snow up to our knees at our destination (Chasm Falls).

We weren’t exactly in the wilderness parts of Rocky but the above picture I snapped on the way back from the falls made me think of a wilderness of another sort. On the cover of our worship bulletin for the First Sunday of Lent at Presbyterian Community Church of the Rockies was another rocky location that reminded me of the wilderness. It is pictured below.

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The Burren is a region in County Clare in the Southwest of Ireland. Denise and I visited this spot on our honeymoon in Ireland. Like the picture from our hike, this picture of the Burren immediately reflects desolation and isolation. Especially in the Burren, it is hard to imagine how anything could grow in the karst — a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone, cliffs and caves, fossils, and rock formations. Yet, upon closer inspection, we found that there was indeed plant life thriving in such a harsh environment.

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It is incredible how something so tiny can bloom and grow in such a harsh environment. And thus we turn to the Scripture readings for this coming Sunday. The reading from Deuteronomy 26 is a sacred ritual and reminder to the people of Israel that when they were in the middle of the wilderness, God never abandoned them. Even when they abandoned God and worshiped an idol of gold, God didn’t destroy them as God could well have done. After the 40 years in the wilderness, God did indeed keep the promise God made to the people when they were led into a land flowing with milk and honey.  As a thank-offering, the people were called to give a portion of the first fruits of the land. The people had made it through the literal and spiritual desolation of the wilderness and God, ever faithful, had kept the promise made to that wandering Aramean named Abraham long ago.

The wilderness motif is one of those classic metaphors that has been used throughout the ages to describe a particular time of desolation. Just as the people of Israel, recently freed from bondage, spent 40 years in the wilderness trying to find their way back to God and to the promised land, so Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. The outcome of Jesus’ time in the wilderness was markedly different from those who had gone before him.

 Here in Estes Park, there is  a site that was of particular significance to the First Nation. The sacred spot is called Old Man Mountain. If you look closely at it, you can see the outline of the face of an old man. It was to the top of Old Man Mountain that young boys who were to become men would go on their vision quest. Who knows how long the braves stayed up on the mountain, but when they came down, they had received a vision from the Great Spirit that was specifically for them. Every time I drive by Old Man Mountain (the last time was to conduct a graveside service in extreme windy and cold conditions) I marvel at what the young braves must have gone through in their vision quest.

In that wilderness described in Luke 4, was Jesus going on some sort of a vision quest himself? I believe that some of my Native American friends might say that Jesus was on a vision quest. For 40 days he fasted, meditated, and prayed in the wilderness. I can only imagine how harsh that wilderness was where Jesus prayed. I know how desolate the wilderness of Afghanistan and even the Nevada desert was during my time spent there. Imagining what Jesus faced, like those young braves of long ago, gives me pause to wonder.

At the end of his 40 days, Jesus was faced with something even greater than the wilderness. He was faced with Satan, the great deceiver and trickster. Talk about facing the adversary when your defenses are low to non-existent! Satan figured that Jesus would be at his weakest and thus easy to persuade, like the people of the Exodus had been during that whole Golden Calf episode.

I have read this story more times than I can count (or remember) during my 29 years of ministry and many more years as a student of scripture. Yet when I began to reflect on the passage for this Sunday, something different jumped out at me (isn’t that how the Holy Spirit works?). All I have to do is listen to a certain few candidates/blowhards who are vying for their party’s nomination and I hear the voice of Satan speaking to Jesus. Tempting them with power, prestige, and a winner-take-all ending. Frankly, that is the temptation which Jesus faced and yet the outcome was far different than what I am seeing today.

Hey Jesus, you hungry after your 40 day fast? You know that you deserve the very best. No second hand sustenance for you. Just turn those stones into bread and knock yourself out.  All that matters is you after all. Nobody else but you. You’re Number One! What, Jesus? Man doesn’t live by bread alone? You mean you live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God?

Okay, Jesus, you win that round. But hey, why don’t you join me up on this tall mountain for a moment. You want all of this? You want to be king of the world? All you have to do is worship me! No problem, Jesus, worship me and you will feed from the finest banquet tables and have all the power I have to give you! What, Jesus? Worship only God? Serve only God? Come on, Jesus, look at all the power I can give you!

FINE, JESUS, just FINE! Wait a minute, how about this? Jump from the highest pinnacle of the temple. Yes, you heard me, jump! Since you are the Son of God, God has promised to save you! God won’t allow you to be splattered. Just think how the press will respond to this! You will have them and the people eating out of your hands. What, Jesus? Don’t put God to the test? Aw come on, Jesus, what a wimp you are! You wouldn’t know what to do with the power I can give to you anyway. Poof! The Devil disappears and the angels of the Lord come to minister to Jesus.

Satan’s tactic all along was focused on what was perceived as the desire of humankind to “be number one”. Today it comes in the form of the temptation of money, power, and prestige. It comes in the buying and selling of loyalties and votes.

I’ll be honest, dear reader, what is going on today scares the hell out of me! I hear shades of Hitler and the Nazi propaganda being spewed along with hate, fear, and in a warped sort of way, sick offers of power and prestige. Sadly, many christians (you know me, the lower case is sadly intentional) are buying this load of manure hook, line, and sinker.  We’re number one! Nuke the others until they glow because they deserve it! I can only imagine how Jesus must weep as he looks upon those who say they are following him. Can you hear him say: “Didn’t you hear my response to the Devil’s temptations? I’m number one? Not so! Let them fall down and worship me? Seriously? How many times do I have to say it? Love God, Love Neighbor! Every neighbor!”

If we can learn one thing from Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, I pray it is this: If we are number one, we need to open our eyes. If we think it is all about us, look again. Despite all of the temptations, Jesus remained true to God’s call. Serve God alone. Do what God calls us to do. And what does the Lord require of us? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s not about being number one… it is about serving and loving others before myself. It is about humbling ourselves as we seek to serve the Lord and see the face of Christ in the widows, orphans, and outcasts.

Lord Jesus, help us to stand against the tide of fear, bigotry, hatred, and pure evil. Help us to stand with you. Help us to look beyond ourselves and serve and love God with all that we are.

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