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The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
Sermon: "Face It!"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Not everyone believes that there is a Devil. For many, he is just a mythical construct used to help explain evil in the world. For others though, there is no doubt to his reality. Though I personally have no problem either way, I will say that there is such a thing as believing in him too much. Newsweek reported on just such an excessive belief sometime back. You may remember it. It happened in Vinton, Louisiana. Police there stopped a car with twenty passengers packed in it; none of whom were clothed. No, this was not a college hazing prank. According to the report, Sammy Rodriguez, a Pentecostal preacher from Floydada, Texas, told police that he and his family had fled Texas in their four cars because the Devil was after them. Along the way they decided their clothes were "possessed" and discarded them along with three cars that had run out of gas. Squeezing five people in the trunk, they ventured on. When police tried to pull over the curious car, Sammy sped into the woods and struck a tree. At the time of the Newsweek report, Sammy was up on charges, while his family, having fled from a nearby shelter, was at large in the Louisiana woods.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is that forty-day period that leads us to Palm Sunday, then to the cross, and finally the empty tomb and the Risen Lord. The journey begins in the wilderness. As our Gospel lesson from Mark reports this morning, that is where the Spirit has driven Jesus as preparation for the beginning of his ministry. Jesus is entering a time of self-examination. No doubt he wants time to reflect on the ministry that he is about to begin. Perhaps he knows that this will be the last opportunity he’ll get to be truly alone. As we discover, however, someone is waiting for Jesus there. It is in the wilderness that Jesus confronts evil face-to-face. This confrontation brings up some interesting considerations for you and me as we journey into Lent together.
The first consideration is this: there comes a time when all of us must face-down temptation. None of us ever escapes temptation in some form. Most of us will never face as severe a testing as our Lord, of course, but some of us do face greater temptations than others. Different temptations are relative in their power over different people. We are to be aware that there are people who are tempted daily with situations that you and I cannot even imagine.
Out in the wilderness, for forty days, Jesus confronted temptation head on. He was truly tempted. What he faced could have derailed him. But look at what he did. As we learn from other Gospel accounts, Jesus faced each temptation as it came. He acknowledged each temptation for what it was. He named each of them, and then rejected each of them with the help of God’s strength through Scripture. We all face temptations large and small. They hold great allure for us, because we don’t want to acknowledge their power over us. When we are tempted, we can learn from Jesus. Jesus faced-down his temptations, and so can we. When we follow his example, exposing them honestly for what they are, they lose their Svengali-like power over us. That’s the first consideration. There comes a time to face-down temptation.
Here's the second consideration this morning: we actually become stronger when we resist temptation. This is something to understand about the power of temptation: the more we give in, the weaker we become. The more we resist, the stronger we become.
In C. S. Lewis' book, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, the wicked queen entices the boy, Edmund, with a box of enchanted Turkish Delight. Each piece is sweet and delicious, and Edmund has never tasted anything better. There is only one problem. The more he eats of this enchanted Turkish Delight, the more he wants. He doesn't know that this is the wicked queen's plan. The more he eats, the more he will want, and thus he will eat and eat until it kills him. It would never satisfy his hunger; it would never fill him up...it would simply kill him.
Lewis is giving us a metaphor for sin. This is how sin is. It never satisfies, it only enslaves. Just as junk food and lack of exercise can ruin an athlete's condition, those things that are obscene, crude and cruel can breed an inner darkness in us. Dag Hammarskjold, the first Secretary General of the United Nations, and a devout Christian, once said, "You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn't reserve a plot for weeds."
It's sort of like something that happened when the Queen Mary was being renovated. This gracious old vessel was the largest ship to cross the oceans when it was launched in 1936. Through four decades and a World War this ocean liner served its owners and the nations of Britain and the United States well. Then it was retired to Long Beach California. From the hill above our house across the harbor we saw it almost every day. It is anchored as a floating hotel and museum now.
During its conversion to its present status, its three massive smoke-stacks were taken off to be scraped down and repainted. But on the dock these massive pieces of steel crumbled. Actually that is not quite true. There was nothing left to crumble. Nothing was left of the 3/4 inch steel plate from which the stacks had been formed. All that remained was more than thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years. The steel had rusted away. Is that not an analogy of what can happen to our character? We can give into temptation time and time again, until our inner moral fiber is eaten away and all that is left is outer appearances.
Fortunately, the converse is also true. The more times we resist the temptation the weaker it becomes. Anyone who has ever begun an exercise program or gone on a diet knows that the hardest part is getting started. But once started, the longer we continue, the stronger is the pull to keep at it, and the weaker is the pull to quit. Any of you who have ever been in a Twelve-step program know this too. The longer you stay clear in recovery, the easier it becomes to keep going, and the stronger becomes your ability to resist. We actually become stronger when we resist temptation. That’s the second consideration to observe.
Here's the final consideration for this morning: Jesus did not face temptation in his own strength alone, and neither do you or I. It is interesting that, according to Matthew's version of this story, Jesus resisted each temptation with words from taken from Scripture. Jesus was putting each temptation on notice that it would be confronted not simply by human power, but the very power of God. That same power is available to you and me.
Several years back an earthquake almost flattened Armenia. This deadly tremor killed over 30,000 people in less than four minutes. In that same short interval countless other lives were forever changed. In the midst of all the confusion, a father rushed to his son's school. When he arrived there he discovered the building was as flat as a pancake.
Standing there looking at what was left of the school the father remembered the promise he had made to his son, "No matter what,” he had said, “I'll always be there for you!" Tears began to fill his eyes. It looked like a hopeless situation.
Yet, the father started digging through the rubble where he remembered that his son’s classroom had been. As he was digging other grieving parents arrived, clutching their hearts, saying: "My son!", or, "My daughter!" Some well meaning parents tried to pull him off of what was left of the school saying: "It's too late!" "They're dead!" "You can't help!" "Go home!" Even a police officer and a fire-fighter told him he should go home. But he would not stop digging.
This man dug for eight hours and then twelve and then twenty-four and then thirty-six. Finally in the thirty-eighth hour as he pulled back a large rock he heard his son's voice. He shouted his son's name, "ARMAND!" And a voice answered him, "Dad?" It's me, Dad!" Then the boy added these priceless words, "I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you'd save me and when you saved me, they'd be saved too. You did it, Dad!"
The father worked even more intently now clearing the way for his son. "Come on out, son!" the father called. "Dad,” the son called out, “let the other kids out first, because, no matter what, I know you'll get me!” That's a very special relationship between a parent and child. But, do you realize that you and I have that same relationship with God? When we come face to face with temptation, we need not fear because God is with us. We have a God who loves us unconditionally. We have a God who never gives up on us. If we ask for His strength, He will give it. We will not have to face temptation alone. And that is our final consideration.
Oh, we will be tempted. Very little in this world is surer than that. Yet we can respond as Jesus responded. We can face it, growing stronger as we resist, and all the way through we will have this promise: God will face it with us. Face your temptations. The Lord will help you overcome.