Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Not by Bread Alone" A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

After his baptism, Jesus begins his ministry, not with a public call to reformation, but with a retreat into the desert to fast and pray! …Before activism, came contemplation. Matthew tells us that the Spirit who anointed Jesus at his baptism as the heavenly Father confirmed messiah-deliverer, is the same Spirit who now leads Jesus into the desert. But this is more than simply a time of spiritual retreat. This is, in fact, a first showdown between Jesus and the enemy. This is a confrontation between competing kingdoms and their rulers. Here in this barren land will meet two figures who each lay claim to the souls of men and women. By means of this retreat, Jesus now advances the Kingdom of God. We pause right here to underline two vital points given to us in this scene. First, that spiritual preparation for life and ministry is essential. The Gospels record several times when Jesus went away to a lonely place to prayerfully prepare for some significant event about to happen. Prayer and fasting are both ways to focus our attention on God and listen for his direction in our lives. Like Israel being led into the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, so we learn the spiritual principle of retreat as preparation to advancing the Kingdom of God in our lives. Second, this scene with Jesus reminds us that the retreat may include trial. …That contemplation can also involve combat. This scene in Matthew 4 is one of spiritual warfare. Matthew relates that Jesus is led into the desert for the express purpose of being tempted by the devil. The real adversary is present and the Spirit is leading Jesus to an encounter with him. The same Spirit Jesus will learn to trust to direct him throughout every step of his life, is the Spirit leading him toward this confrontation. For Jesus, the desert is not only about communion with God, but also engagement with the enemy. The Spirit who leads him to this place of struggle, will also empower him overcome it. And so for us we are reminded that a genuine adversary exists who opposes the Kingdom of God and intends to draw us off and halt that Kingdom’s advance in our lives and world. Two words appear in this story which we should circle. These are temptation and test. A temptation is an enticement to move us in a direction which is contrary to God’s will in our lives. Usually these are not frontal attacks which come with brute force, but instead are subtle subterfuges which work to sidetrack us from the path of righteousness on which God would lead us. A test is meant to prove our faithfulness to God’s will. The Bible is clear that God never tempts anyone to do evil as James 1:13 says, but God does, as Heb. 11:17 reveals, use circumstances to test our character or resolve in the doing of God’s will. In this scene with Jesus we see well how this works. Satan means to get Jesus to go contrary to God’s will for his life, but in the middle of the circumstances being used, God the Father uses the enemy’s evil intention to a good purpose and so strengthens Jesus for his ministry as the messiah. We pause here then to note that our adversary, the accuser of the saints and the enemy of our souls, as intelligent, powerful and subtle as he may be, is never free to act independently of God. Instead, the devil is on a short leash. Satan may try to get Job to curse God and be disobedient to his will, but when Job later turns to God, the Lord strengths him by the very trial through which he has passed. The enemy might seek to use the intentions of Joseph’s brothers to subvert God’s plan for Israel through slavery in Egypt, but God used those same circumstances to preserve his people and move his plan forward to bless the world through them. And of course Satan worked behind the scenes at the crucifixion, thinking to slay the heir and take over the vineyard, only to find that the true Owner used it to bring salvation to all who seek him. A temptation in the hands of the devil becomes a test in the hands of God. In the wilderness scene of Matt. 4 the failure of Adam is reversed by Jesus. Where Adam was tempted and failed in the best of conditions, Jesus succeeds in the worst of them. Death was the result of Adam’s sin, but with Jesus’ suffering and temptation, he is able to make atonement for sin and bring life to all who trust in him. In this scene, the disobedience of Israel is also addressed. In his forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert Jesus replays the forty year wildness testing of Israel. And this time, by being fully obedient to the Spirit’s leading, Jesus is victorious where Israel was not. We see at every turn, that as the darkness of sin and chaos hover over all humanity, Jesus is called into the desert to overcome that darkness. There and throughout his life, Jesus will confront the enemy which seeks to foil God’s plan for humanity’s redemption by disqualifying Jesus as the sinless Savior and obedient Son of God. As with us, the devil tries to tempt us away from our adoption as children of God and ruin us in the barren land of our own willful desires. In Matt. 4:3-4, Satan does not doubt who Jesus is as the Son of God. As the Gospels show, demons in general seem to have had no trouble identifying Jesus as God’s Son. Satan is also not trying to get Jesus himself to doubt who he is. Instead, he is trying to get Jesus to misuse his identity and his prerogatives as God’s Son. This is true for us as well… If you are the Son of God, the devil says to Jesus, Why should you go hungry? You can turn these stones into bread, why not use your power to end your suffering? Come on…for goodness sake man, take care of yourself! We know Jesus indeed has this power. Later he will feed four and five thousand people at a time by miraculously multiplying a few loaves and fishes to do so! …No power shortage with Jesus. But God sent Jesus into the world to live a truly human life. This is the meaning of his incarnation. The divine Son of God would become fully human in order to save humans from their sin. Part of being human meant that Jesus would acquire his daily bread through normal human means…just like everyone else. Had Jesus turned cold stones into freshly baked bread in this case, he would have acted outside of God’s will for his Son’s incarnational experience. Because of Jesus’ obedience the Apostle Paul would later quote an early Christian hymn as he wrote to the Christians in Philippi about their relationship issues. Paul says, In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! In Deut. 8 Moses reminds the people of Israel that God led them those forty years in the desert to test their loyalty to God. One of the tests was their hunger and God’s provision. The purpose of that test was to teach that that God’s people do not simply live by their appetites or even their daily bread. There are deeper dimensions to life in relationship with God. Life also comes from the nourishing words of God which feed our souls. As with Jesus, so also with us, the enemy endeavors to get at the core of our personal trust in God’s leading. At our weakest moments, the devil will come to get us to sell our true identity in Christ for a bowl of porridge. Let’s remember from the Matt. 4 story that the immediate outcome of Jesus’ rebuke of the devil and of his obedience to the Spirit’s leading was, “Then the devil left him.” As James 4:7 says, Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. And I Peter 5:9 also reminds us that we are not alone in this battle. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. No matter what the circumstances and whatever temptations we may face, standing firm on the truth of God’s word will send the devil packing every time. Again, the Apostle Paul instructs us saying, No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (I Cor. 10:13) Temptations are real. Do we give in to them? Yes, unfortunately we do. The season of Lent reminds us of our mortality and our mortal limits. From dust we come and to dust we go. We are ever dependent on God for life. The more we stay focused on the promised resources of God’s grace, the more we will grow in our ability to resist temptations and stand in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then bread alone will never be enough. Our hunger will only be satisfied by the bread of life and every word of it which comes from the mouth of God. Amen.

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