“Walking Through The Wilderness” – 02-17-13 – Lent 1 – Cycle C

Listen to the sermon here: 

Scriptures – Deuteronomy 26:1-11     Psalm 91:1-2,9-16   Romans 10:8b-13   Luke 4:1-13

Benny is walking through the wilderness.  Who is Benny?  Benny is you and me.  In which wilderness is Benny?  The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness.  Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.  Benny is spending today in a wilderness.  Is Benny – are you and I – longing for food and drink, for protection from the elements?  Are we being tested, as was Jesus, by things to own, by opportunities for power, by thinking we are protected from evil?

Benny is living in an age of great wilderness.  Benny happens to have water to drink.  Benny happens to have food to eat, even gluttony.  Benny happens to have a roof over his head.  I say “happen” because anyone of us may find ourselves in the “open” as did the Israelites.  Bad things happen to good people and who is to say who “good people” are?

Righteousness does come into this picture.  Righteousness is following God’s laws, God’s decrees, God’s commandments as closely as possible.  Deuteronomy 26:16 says, “The Lord your God commands you this day to follow these decrees and laws; carefully observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.  You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in his ways, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws, and that you will obey him.  And the Lord has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised, and that you are to keep all his commands.”

Benny knows this.  Benny is careful to follow the laws as best he can.  His heart is involved.  Benny knows that part that says, “… carefully observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.”  Benny banks his obedience on the promise – that promise that we are God’s people, his treasured possession.

On what did Jesus bank his obedience?  Thoughtful question that is.  I think that Jesus knew that he was destined to remain one of the persons of God.  But at the same time Jesus was human while on earth.  His testing was real.  Jesus knew with all his being that the fulfillment of his life was much greater than any of this small stuff like having food whenever he was hungry, having earthly power, possessing what can be seen and felt and used.  Jesus also knew obedience.

Psalm 91 is the basis for the wilderness days of Jesus.  Here again we have this strong thread from the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures – to the life, the fulfillment of this Jesus.  I read from Psalm 91 (CEV).

Live under the protection of God Most High and stay in the shadow of God All-Powerful. Then you will say to the Lord, “You are my fortress, my place of safety; you are my God, and I trust you.”

God will command his angels to protect you wherever you go.  They will carry you in their arms, and you won’t hurt your feet on the stones.

The Lord says, “If you love me and truly know who I am, I will rescue you and keep you safe.  When you are in trouble, call out to me.  I will answer and be there to protect and honor you.”

When Jesus was in his 40-day wilderness, these words from Psalm 91 were fulfilled.  Jesus said to Satan, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” And he said to Satan, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” Then Satan used this scripture:  “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’   But Jesus did not succumb.  Instead Jesus said, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” In the Gospel written by Matthew, this account ends with “Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him (CEV).

For the Israelites, the end of their 40-year wilderness trek was expressed this way in Deuteronomy 26:1-11.  We read, “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Benny knows that this idyllic state did not last forever for these people of God.  They moved into other wilderness times as God moved through history with plans.  By no stretch of the imagination did Jesus live in a land of milk and honey during his earthly existence.  We also know that Benny will not constantly, consistently, feel the passion of a mountain-top holy experience.  If we did not have periods of wilderness in our lives, we would not know the blessedness of the times of strong nearness to God.

How does this nearness happen?  When did the Israelites feel near to God or feel God near to them?  When did the earthly Jesus seem to be especially “as one” with God?

When Moses was giving his farewell speech to the people who were about to enter the promised land, he reminded this nation of people saying, “No other nation has laws that are as fair as the ones the Lord my God told me to give you.  If you faithfully obey them when you enter the land, you will show other nations how wise you are.  In fact, everyone that hears about your laws will say, ‘That great nation certainly is wise!’  And what makes us greater than other nations? We have a God who is close to us and answers our prayers.”

Paul in his writing to the Romans in Chapter 10:8 and 9 reminds these people, and therefore Benny and ourselves, that the word is near us, on our lips and in our heart.  We must believe in our hearts and confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord.  But, what brings the word close to us?  Is it our own endeavor or how long we spend on our knees in prayer?  Well we do need to cooperate but we are powerless on our own even if we are relatively righteous by obeying the commandments.

It is the Holy Spirit person of God who is able to provide this closeness, this being near to God. Our responsibility is to invite this Holy Spirit to flourish within us.  Some of us accept what we call sacraments in our religious lives which we find bring us closer to God.  Partaking of the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion fills us with the Holy Spirit (as some of us believe).  The sacrament of baptism, with water and the word of God being brought together, is believed by some of us to bring us closer to God with a stronger bond as children of God.

But for Benny and all of us who seek this closeness, this nearness, we can make a wedge in our busy days or in our state of depression, even in our seeming contentment, to come before God in prayer.  Prayer is not one-sided.  It is fine to bring our requests to God, then adding “Your will be done.”  However, if we stop there, we are cheating ourselves of the nearness we are seeking.  Being still before God, being peaceful, drawing an imaginary curtain to eliminate the world temporarily, brings us into a spiritual realm where God can enter our hearts.

We have this chorus:

Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today, come in to stay,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

And we have this song:

Near To The Heart Of God by Cleland B. McAfee

There is a place of quiet rest, Near to the heart of God;
A place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.

There is a place of comfort sweet, Near to the heart of God;
A place where we our Savior meet, Near to the heart of God.

There is a place of full release, Near to the heart of God;
A place where all is joy and peace, Near to the heart of God.

O Jesus, blest Redeemer, Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee, Near to the heart of God.

James, the brother of Jesus, says in the book of James in 4:8, “God opposes everyone who is proud, but he is kind to everyone who is humble.  Surrender to God!  Resist the devil, and he will run from you.  Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”

When we experience this closeness however short or long, do we return to regular life unchanged?  We do not!  Something happens to our whole being.  We are new creations.  Our thinking changes.  We want to live as Jesus lived.  We gradually become serious about suffering so that other people will know this closeness, so that our world will be transformed from evil ways, so that our world will be in tune with Jesus and our new lives instead of our being in tune with the world – the world that Satan controls.
Lest we think that this closeness and nearness will be a safe zone of contentment and awe, be aware that God will lead us where he has planned, where he needs us to serve him.  This is not a secluded, private experience.  This is an out-in-the-open calling.  Our focus will be on Jesus and how he handled his three years in this world.  Remember how he overturned the tables of the cheaters in the temple.  But also remember how he welcomed and held little children.

As we stand before the cross in our minds, we are called to carry our own cross.  Where will this lead?  We want a comfortable relationship with God.  Drawing near to God will bring us comfort and strength but not necessarily in a pretty situation.  Drawing near to God will bring peace to our hearts and very likely strife around our heads.  But, we will be led to do the “right” thing.  Right by God’s standards just as Jesus allowed for himself.  Jesus prayed in deep passion, “Take this cup from me” coupled with “But Thy will be done.”

Jesus is our model; Jesus is our Savior; Jesus is our all in all.  Jesus is risen.  We are a resurrection people in our nearness to the empty cross and the empty tomb.

He is Lord, he is Lord. He is risen from the dead and he is Lord.
Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess That Jesus Christ is Lord.

We do this in thankfulness and praise.  Just as the Israelites expressed their thankfulness and praise by obeying the Lord when they were instructed through Moses to bring a tenth of their first crops in the new land, this promised land, we come before the Lord in praise through song and through our actions.  Bowing and confessing is the beginning, the foundation of our praise. Acting accordingly in our lives is the essence of our faith.  We shall be praying, deciding, doing in obedience to our God, as response to this gift of closeness.  Amen