Jesus begins his ministry in the wilderness. It is a space where everything is stripped away and we find our true identity, and our true belonging. This sermon explores how we must experience the wilderness in order to love our neighbor as ourself.
See Page 3 of A Cartoonist’s Guide to Matthew.
We are Finding Our Way through this period of transition as a church. Pastor Lamont is helping us sort out who we are and the kind of lead pastor we want to call.
We are using the Gospel of Matthew as a frame to help us find our way as we watch Jesus find his way through his ministrry and introduce us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is a wild and wonderful journey.
Last week we ended with Jesus’ baptism. It was a glorious scene. Jesus comes up out of the water and the sky opens up. A voice booms out, “This my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Then the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove.
That’s pretty amazing.
We think, “Yes! This is the guy. This is the Messiah. I can follow a guy like that. Now it’s time to storm the castle and make things right in the world.”
We don’t expect chapter 4.
Look at verse 1. It says Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
Why would the Spirit do this? Why would Jesus go from one of the most glorious scenes I can imagine into one of the most horrible scenes I can imagine?
In our passage today, Matthew 4:1-17, I’ve learned two things about this journey that I want to share with you.
The first thing is that The Wilderness is Essential.
I hate this truth, but it’s true.
If you want to follow Jesus and find your way in the Kingdom of God, then you must experience the wilderness, repeatedly.
The wilderness is that place where everything that distracts you in life is stripped away and you find out who you really are.
I want to show you the kind of world that Jesus was about to enter. This is the political landscape. See if any of this sounds familiar to our world.
First, the Roman Empire had conquered Israel and they were a constant, looming, oppressive force that cast a shadow over everything.
The people of Israel were divided into five factions as to how to deal with the Romans.
The first group said, “Join the Romans, become like them, or be crushed by them.” This was how King Herod played the game and his followers were the Herodians.
The second group said, “Kill the Roman Swine.” The Zealots wanted to stir up a violent uprising and go to war against them.
The third group hid behind their money and power, they buried their head in the sand and tried to maintain status quo. These were the Sadducees.
The fourth group believed that if the nation could clean up its moral act, avoid all sin and all sinners by obeying God’s Law perfectly, then God would return and deliver them. These were the Pharisees.
The fifth group headed for the hills and become monks. They had given up on the people and awaited God’s judgment on everyone. These were the Essenes.
Here’s why I bring these factions up. The country was divided. Each group looked at everyone else with animosity. Each group rallied around their ideology and tended to dehumanize the others.
Does that sound familiar?
Jesus was about to step out into this political landscape, and each faction would judge him based on their own set of lenses.
Jesus did something radically different. When he saw a Roman soldier who asked him to heal his servant, he didn’t see “The Enemy.” He saw a human being in need, and praised him for his faith.
When he saw Matthew, he didn’t see a Tax Collector, he saw a human being who Jesus called to follow him.
When he saw a Prostitute, or a leper, or a fisherman, or Pharisee, or a wild man in the desert, he didn’t see their labels. He saw beautifully broken people who needed the love of God. And he touched them.
The only way Jesus was able to do this was because he went through the wilderness.
It is important to realize that the Gospel of Matthew is using this story to remember the story of Israel way back in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy when they wandered through the wilderness for forty years.
Listen to the words that Moses spoke to the people about these years in Deuteronomy 8:2–6
2 Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, 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. 4 The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you. 6 Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.
The people of Israel did not pass the tests of the wilderness. They complained against God. They forgot how God had provided for them, and they chased after the gods of the kingdoms of Canaan, and it nearly destroyed them.
Jesus now faces each of these temptations.
He is hungry, and the devil says, “Turn these stones into bread.” This is the temptation to satisfy our immediate needs at the cost of betraying God.
Jesus responds with Moses’ words. “A person does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The devil puts Jesus on a high tower and tempts him to flaunt his power, to rely on his own strength to deliver himself.
Jesus responds with Moses’ words, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, “worship me, and you can have all of these.”
Jesus responded with Moses’ words, again, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
How was Jesus able to be strong during this temptation?
Because he knew who he was. The voice echoed through his ears, “You are my Son, by beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
I read a book this week called Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. It is an excellent book. Brene’s message in this book is that the only way we can navigate the divisive climate of our world today is when we get grounded in who we are and don’t buy into the rhetoric of all the factions around us.
As a follower of Jesus, you are a beloved child of God and, because of that, you are free to love everyone, no matter who they are or what side of a heated debate they may stand. When you love like this, you will feel all alone, it will be a wilderness, but you will be free and never alone, because the Spirit of God is with you.
I told you there were two things I learned about this journey. The first is that the wilderness is essential.
The second is that Your Center Matters.
Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested. Things just got real.
It was time to step out into this chaotic place and do his work.
Notice where he goes. He moves from his hometown of Nazareth to a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
This fulfilled yet another prophecy.
Matthew 4:15–16 (NRSV)
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Notice where Capernaum sits on the map.
If someone were intended to reach the people of Judea, you would set up shop in Jerusalem, because this is the center of power.
Capernaum is on the edge of the Jewish territory. It sits right across the lake from the Gentile people.
Jesus didn’t come to rescue one type of people. Jesus came to remind us that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone and it is at hand.
So, what does any of this have to do with us.
We live in turbulent times. Our airwaves are filled with hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric. It is easy to get caught up in fear and to bunker down inside of a safe and familiar camp and surround yourself with ideas that make you feel comfortable, and either block out the rest of the world or hate the rest of the world.
Jesus invites us to step into the wilderness. To let all that fall away. To hear the voice of God that says, “You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” And then, to be free to love all people, no matter what anyone may say.
This is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.