Monday, February 22, 2010

Jesus' faithfulness (Lent I)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
 to protect you”, 
 “On their hands they will bear you up,
 so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

A couple of years ago, 20/20 aired a special on temptation. In an experiment with kids, child after child was led in a room and given four M&M’s. They were then told to wait – that in ten minutes someone would be back – and that if all four M&M’s were still there then the child would get four more. Basically, these kids had a choice – 4 M&M’s now or 8 M&M’s later. Well, when the adult left each one of them got restless, unable to just sit there in their hunger. The vast majority ate the four M&M’s, which left them scared and depressed and guilty because they knew they had failed the test.

If you haven’t read the Torah – spoiler alert – the people of Israel are like those kids. After 400 years of Egyptian slavery, they’re given a vision of a better future – but to get to the Promised Land they had to travel through the wilderness. And immediately following the Exodus that’s exactly where God led them – into the wilderness to test their faithfulness. But in the wilderness were certain “M&M’s” which, if eaten, would seriously jeopardize their future – the future God desired them to have. But if the people couldn’t resist temptation, if they could not remain faithful to God, the exodus-experiment would end and the Promised Land would be forfeited.

Well, Israel ate the M&M’s in front of them. When confronted with the wilderness they didn’t trust in God’s provision. You see immediately following their exodus from Egypt the Israelites started to get restless. They were in the wilderness and there wasn’t any food. And so one minute, the Israelites are rejoicing and thanking God for parting the Red Sea and the next minute, they’re complaining because they’re hungry. According to the book of Exodus, this is a paraphrase of Israel’s conversation with God.

The whole community began to grumble against God saying, “We’d be better off dead in Egypt, where, by the way, there was plenty of food, but you God have brought us into the wilderness to starve us to death.” Then the Lord responded, “I tell you what. I’m going to send bread from heaven BUT there’s a catch. I’m going to test you. I only want you to gather enough bread for one day at a time. Wake up, gather your daily bread and then when tomorrow comes I’ll send more. (Exodus 16: 2-5)

I’m sure you know what happens next. God sends the Israelites bread but instead of gathering a one-day supply they hoard as much as they can. Why? Because they don’t believe that God will send more. Imagine a kid eating dinner with his parents and stuffing dinner rolls in his jacket because he’s scared they’ll never feed him again. Pretty messed up. But that’s exactly what the Israelites do. God saves them from Egypt. Israel thinks God is trying to kill them. God sends bread from heaven and tells them “the supply will never end.” The Israelites anxiously grab as much as they can like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. They try and provide for themselves. The moment they feel hunger – literally and symbolically speaking- they start to stuff themselves. They couldn’t just sit there in their hunger. They don’t trust in God’s provision. They all failed the test.

Last week we talked about Jesus’ mission to lead God’s new exodus – that through his death in Jerusalem Jesus accomplished what the Old Covenant was powerless to do – the defeat of sin. We talked about how the Red Sea of death was split with a cross. We said that in the “new exodus” Jesus leads his people to the Kingdom of God – the ultimate Promised Land. For Jesus to lead this new exodus he has to succeed where the Israelites failed. He has to prove himself faithful. After all, when the M&M’s get eaten then the experiment is over. When Israel failed to trust God in the wilderness, in a very real sense the whole exodus experiment was ruined. Did Israel make it to the geographic “Promised Land”? Sure. But did they fully attain God’s vision for their future? Did God use them to bless and redeem the nations – to make His name known and cherished throughout the world? No – not even close.

In tonight’s Gospel the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, just like the Israelites before him. For Jesus to lead God’s new exodus he must prove faithful where Israel didn’t. He cannot fail any test, He must fully trust in God’s provision. And in tonight’s Gospel that is exactly what happens. Israel was tempted and sinned. Jesus was tempted and did not sin. Israel, when confronted with hunger, looked back to Egypt. Jesus, when confronted with hunger, looked forward to the cross. Jesus fully trusted in God’s provision.

Now perhaps you’re wondering why any of this matters. In tonight’s reading from Romans we heard that “if you confess with your lips and believe in your heart you will be saved.” In other words, we’re saved by faith in Christ, which of course is true. But when the Bible says that we’re save through faith in Christ we’re only hearing half the story. Because another translation of the Greek tells us that “faith in” could also be written, “faithfulness of.” We are saved by our “faith in” Christ on one hand, but on the other hand, we’re saved by the “faithfulness of” Christ. We’re saved by faith in Christ. We’re saved by the faithfulness of Christ. Once again, the Bible can be translated either way and both translations are true. But in my humble opinion, the second translation is where our focus should be as we enter into Lent. It takes the emphasis off of us and places it onto Jesus. In other words, we’re not saved because we are faithful. We’re saved because Jesus is faithful.

You see I’m not so sure we should place too great an emphasis on our faith at all. In fact, I’m not sure we should place any emphasis on ourselves at all. The emphasis should be on Christ – on his faithfulness and not our own – because at the end of the day we’re just like the Israelites. We’re just like the kids with four M&M’s on our plates. The moment we feel hunger – I’m talking about physical hunger, spiritual hunger, emotional hunger or mental hunger – we stuff our faces and minds and hearts with junk food – the types of food that God doesn’t want us to have and certainly not the food that He alone can provide. Our M&M’s are different – food, shopping, school, work, TV, gossip, a need to take care of people, a need to correct people – but we all use something to take our minds off the hunger that only God can fill.

The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus did not. He sat in his hunger. He waited in his hunger. He prayed in his hunger. He obeyed in his hunger. Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet did not sin. And because of Jesus’ faithfulness – and not our own – God’s new exodus moves forward.

And so here’s your homework for the week. On this first Sunday of Lent join Jesus in the wilderness and remember that what we’re celebrating – his faithfulness and not our own. Lent is about Jesus’ sinlessness. His obedience. His perfect submission to His Father’s will. And so when hungry for food, turn to the One that refused to turn stones into bread. When hungry for power, turn to the One that refused the kingdoms of the world. When hungry for recognition, turn to the One that refused to win fame by flying off the temple.

You see at the end of the day we’re not really hungry for any of these things – for food or power or recognition or any other spiritual junk food. No, I think we’re restless for something else. Our world hungers for a greater reality. Love. Our world is starving for love. What Lent reminds us is that love is known through the faithfulness of Christ – through his sacrifice for our sins on the hard wood of the cross. Lent isn’t a test. It’s not about exercising our own moral muscle and then getting scared and depressed and guilty when we see we’ve failed the test. No, Jesus has already passed every test on our behalf and so Lent isn’t a test. It’s an invitation – an invitation to join Jesus in the wilderness. An invitation to look forward to the cross. An invitation to trust in the provision of God and to follow Jesus to the Promised Land.

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