John Smith was the only Protestant in a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill.
Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday of Lent. On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John; he was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore.
They decided to try and convert John to be a Catholic. They went over and talked to him and were so happy that he decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic. They took him to church, and the priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic.”
The men were so relieved, now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved.
The next year’s Lenten season rolled around. The first Friday of Lent came, and just at supper time, when the neighborhood men were sitting down to their cold tuna fish dinners, there came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill.
The men could not believe their noses! What was going on? They called each other up and decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent.
The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”
We are now in the season of Lent and although we are not Roman Catholic, we like them honor this time and set it aside to work at growing closer to God through spiritual self-disciplines. This season is patterned after the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. And so it is appropriate that on the first Sunday of Lent we consider the temptations of Christ.
In our gospel lesson we read that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness so that Jesus can be tested. Most of us are very familiar with the story. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and the evil one tells him to turn a stone into a piece of bread; and then invites him to jump off a high ledge and finally tells Jesus to worship Satan in order to gain the whole world. And we are not terribly surprised to read that Jesus passes all the tests. After all Jesus is the God-man.
Now if I or probably you had been fasting for 40 days and nights first we would have probably been dead. But then if we were still alive and had the power to turn stones into bread-well, hello! We would have probably put a Panera Bread shop to shame. So can we relate at all to this event in the life of Jesus?
There are times in the New Testament that in order to really comprehend what is happening one needs to understand what happened in the Old Testament. And this is one of those situations. The testing of Jesus mirrors the testing of the children of Israel in the wilderness. In fact, the three scriptures about which Jesus says ‘it is written’ are from Deuteronomy chapters 6-8 and they are in the section where Moses is reviewing the past 40 years with the people of Israel, what God did for them and what they had gotten wrong and what they need to make sure they do in the future.
The first temptation of Jesus was to turn the stones into bread. When the Israelites faced this temptation they were hungry too. You see, they recently fled from the Egyptians; they had crossed the Red Sea and were now in moving into the heart of the desert country. Each family had some food when they left Egypt but now, their supply is running low. Now the meals are getting sparse. They are getting hungry; their children are getting hungry. They are beginning to feel desperate. What are they going to do? They turn to Moses and tell him, “If we were going to die God should have killed us when we lived in Egypt. At least we would have died with full stomachs.” To be honest, they were reacting much like you and I weren’t they? When we are in physical distress, hungry, hurting, scared, what do we do? Just like the ancient Jews, we begin to panic. What was going on? Had God simply forgotten that humans need food? No, of course not, But if we look back in Deuteronomy we read that God was testing the Israelites. Would they turn to God when they were afraid and hungry? The answer shown by history was, “no.” The Israelites needed to learn to trust him. So God did provide food. He gave them manna for every day. In fact we are told that not only did he feed them but their clothes didn’t wear out for those 40 years and they didn’t even get sore or swollen feet!
The next test for the Israelites came in the form of being thirsty. God had Moses lead them into an area of the desert where there was no water. The people began to get thirsty. And not the people but their animals—they were in a desert! So what did they do? You might think that this time they would turn to God and cry out for help and guidance. But, what happens to you and me when we go through a hardship? Even if we have gotten through one hardship in life does that make going through the second hardship any easier? If didn’t for them either. Once again they panicked. They began blaming Moses and telling Moses things like either God is with or He isn’t. If He is, then get Him on the stick and get us some water. (That’s kind of a paraphrase.) But for us, when we are going through our hard times, how do we react? Do we trust God? Do we remain faithful?
And this is point. God wanted the Israelites to continue to trust Him even when things look desperate. And God wants us to do the same thing. He doesn’t want us to try to push Him into action. He will act when it is time. God is God. He is not a vending machine. He is not a short-order cook. We do not tell Him what to do. When we are in trouble, let us come to Him in a humble and trusting way.
You see, it is times when it is not just about us, our personal pain, but it can be our wife, or husband, or children, or parents, or our friends that are hurting and we wonder where God is. It is during those times we need to trust and have faith. And not only that, we need to remember, that this world, this life is not all that is. This is the first chapter of our lives. God sees us, our situations, and our lives in light of eternity. This life is where we are to learn to trust and obey Him. And it IS hard. It is hard like a 40 day fast is hard.
The final test for Jesus was about worshiping Satan. This seems like a no-brainer to us. He told Satan to get lost. For the Jews it was not quite so clear and they did not do as well. When Moses was on the mountain receiving the commandments he was gone for a long time. The Jews thought perhaps he had died. They knew they needed spiritual direction, they knew they needed a god so they made one. For us, we also realize we need God in our lives too. But sometimes He seems far away. Sometimes we cannot feel His presence anymore. So then we try to make up for it by filling our lives other pursuits. We try to find fulfillment in things, or money, or pleasures or some other thing. And so although we don’t make a golden calf, per se, we pretty much do the same thing. We turn from God to something else we hope will satisfy us.
As we begin our Lenten journey this year, let us follow our Lord’s example and learn from the experiences of the ancient Israelites. Let us trust God more even when and perhaps especially in desperate times; let us learn to make our requests known to God in a humble and trusting way, and finally in those times when we don’t feel God’s presence close to us let us not try to find fulfillment in someone or something else. Let us pursue God and continue to desire His presence in our lives. Amen