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Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 4: 1-13


The story begins with Jesus high on life. Full of the Spirit, the gospel says.

Filled up with the Holy Spirit, still dripping wet from the waters of the Jordan River.

Just before the story we just heard Jesus has been baptized by John. And as John lowered him beneath the murky waves, then lifted him back, the heavens opened and a voice from heaven proclaimed: “You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased”

The Spirit even descended like a dove.

And so Jesus. The carpenters Son from Nazareth has been anointed by river water to bring the good news of God’s love to the world.

And Jesus, whose very spirit hums with divine presence, has just heard the voice of God blessing him, naming him, and sending him on his way.

It must have been amazing.

And so, the story goes, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness.

Luke’s version is nice. In the Gospel of Mark, it goes a little faster. Here is how this story sounds in that Gospel:

“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.”

Suddenly he is not led, but driven. And he doesn’t even have a chance to go home first and change into dry clothes.

It is one of the biggest smash-cuts in the Bible. One minute, he is in the river being proclaimed God’s beloved. The next, he is in the wilderness with the Devil.

It seems strangely abrupt. That is unless you’ve lived enough to know how much life is like that…

I was a firefighter for 4 years before I became a pastor. And when I was just starting out as a rookie, going through my first few classes, a sage fire chief sat down our little group of 18-year-old recruits to lay some knowledge on us.

“Every day.” He said. “Every day, you are going to meet someone who is having the worst day of their life.”

I think the class was called “hose streams and water appliances,” But I don’t remember much of that. I don’t remember the correct pressure for a 2.5 in. fog nozzle, or how to tie the knot that holds a ground-monitor in place…
I remember two things. I remember getting knocked over backwards the first time I tried to hold the hose by myself.

And I remember that one line he said, “Every day, you are going to meet someone who is having the worst day of their life.”

Thankfully it wasn’t every day.

But the thing I remember most from those four years of work, the things that I know I will remember long after I have forgotten the rest, are the faces of people who had just seen their world fall apart. A sudden loss. Or a life’s worth of things up in smoke.

Life can be abrupt like that.

And chances are, you don’t need me to tell you.

Chances are your life has had some smash-cuts too. Things are going along beautifully according to plan, and then just like that, they are not.

Suddenly Christ is famished. Out in the wilderness. Alone. Weary. Hungry. Maybe even delirious.

Suddenly, the glory of that amazing moment in the Jordan River seems so distant he can barely grasp it. The presence of God which felt so profound. The joy that wrapped around him like a blanket. Suddenly is impossible to feel.

And so these temptations are not generic. They are concocted out of thin air. They are challenges to the very identity that God has proclaimed for him.

“Perhaps, you are just meant to survive.” The tempter whispers. “Not truly live.” “Here, these stones could make good bread.”

“Perhaps, you are meant to take control.” The tempter whispers. “Be self reliant and stop getting buffeted about by the Spirit’s whims.”

And that might all sound strange, unless of course those same demons have kept you up at night. Whispering that you are not worth as much as you thought. Or that you have no more reason for hope. Or that you need to buckle down and take control, and that you totally can, if you just try.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that just one drink, just this once, won’t do anyone any harm.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that it would be easier to just give up.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that you should just endure abuse.

Perhaps, your tempter whispers that it is all your fault.

The truth is that this story from the Bible can sound a little bit like a folk-tale from a bygone time. It might seem like some old medieval painting with cloven-hooved devils wandering around with pitchforks poking farmers and enticing unwitting folk toward sins.

It might all seem a bit old fashioned and out of date. Or at least in need of some revision.

That is unless your life has ever come crashing down, and these bad ideas start creeping into your head.

So the question for us is, how to we survive these moments, with our souls intact? How to we endure the big and little lies and temptations that claw at us? How do we come out the other side.
Here is what Jesus did. He stood in the truth of his identity, when the temper started to whisper to him.

He remembered what God had said about him the the Jordan River. He remembered what he believed deep down his mission in the world was. He remembered who he was and whose he was.

He stood in the truth of his identity, so that when temptation whispered “You could have unlimited power…” He said: “I could, but that is not who I am. That is not what I was made to do.”

He stood in the truth of his identity. He remembered who  he was. So that when temptation whispered, “why not be reckless, take a leap, just to see…” He said: “I could, but I have much to live for.”

These 40 days that Jesus spent out in the wilderness, alone with his temptations, is where Christians got the idea for the 40 day stretch we call Lent.

Lent is the season leading up to Easter, and it is a stretch of time where we are called to heightened spiritual devotion, to prayer. It is a time to take stock of our lives, our whole lives, the good and the bad. And to seek God’s help with all the broken parts of who we are.

Lent is a time for turning away from the habits that distract us from God, and from the call of our faith journey.

That is what temptation is. It is some enticing habit that takes us away from the truth of who we are and whose we are.

We are God’s people made in God’s image. Wholy good. Undeniably beloved.

And whatever whispers something else to you a tempter. Whatever distracts you from that beautiful truth is temptation.

Now Lent is a popular time to give up chocolate, or to try to cut back on TV, or get to the gym a bit more. Sort a a New Years Resolution, round 2.

And that is great, if that is what your temptations are. But if you are anything like me, there are bigger things you need to turn away from.

So what if this Lent, you gave up indifference. And avoided the temptation to shield yourself from the pain of the world.

Or what if you gave up self-loathing, and vowed to look in the mirror and notice beauty.

Or what if you gave up self-deprication, and started believing that what you have to say matters.

What if you gave up prejudice, and committed to really knowing people for who they are, before you make up your mind about them for some superficial reason.

Its a little harder than hiding the cookie jar. But it is much more likely to send the devil away with his tail tucked between his legs.

And so how might we do something so dramatic. Even just for a few weeks?

Remember who you are. You are a creature made of dust, the same stuff as the soil and the stars. You were formed by a God who loves you madly, cares for you ceaseless, and cherishes you dearly.

Remember whose you are. All our lives belong to God. We live to make God’s love come alive.

Imagine yourself, if it helps, still dripping with the waters of baptism. Claimed and named by God who made you who you are.

That is who you are. That is whose you are.

The temptations are lies. Very crafty. Very seductive. Brilliantly scathing lies. That cut to the core of our deepest insecurities. That prey on our worst fears.

But they are not true.

You are beautiful. You are beloved. Every life is sacred. There is always hope. Death will not speak last. God’s love will never end.

That is what is true. Remember it.

If someone tries to tell you something else, you can just answer like Jesus did: “I am beloved. I am God’s.”

I Told Myself (A Sermon on Testimony)

“Always be ready to give reasons for your faith” – 1 Peter 3:15

A friend of mine has a four year old nephew who I am going to call Matthew. Matthew has leukemia and spends most of his time in a hospital. And when he is not undergoing treatment, or sleeping, Matthew is painting and drawing and sculpting with clay. There isn’t a medium that he has not taken to with enthusiasm.

And so the walls of Matthew’s hospital room are covered with his creations. With watercolors and scribbles with crayons, with coloring book pages colored outside the lines, and blank sheets filled with the images and hues of his imagination.

On the table next to the bed are a few things he made out of clay, and every once and a while, he takes what he has made and smush-es it back into a balls so he can start again and create something new. It gave the room this sort of magical feel, despite everything else.

So when my friend went to visit him a few months ago and commented on the creations that adorn his room, he said, matter-of-factly: “I am an artist.”

She must have looked puzzled, because he repeated himself. “I am an artist, and do you know how I know?” he asked.

“How?” She asked.

“I know because my art teacher told me, and because I told myself.”

I am an artist, because someone told me, because I told myself, and because now I am telling you. From the mouth of a little boy who knows better than many of us just how scary the world can be, how out of control life can feel.

Do you know / how I know / that I am / who I am?

I told myself, and now I am telling you.

What I admire so much about that young boy, is that in the midst of long hospitalization, and scary treatments, is that he did not lose the ability to tell the truth about himself. Even in the most shadowy valley, he could bear witness to something simple, and something beautiful about himself. I am an artist.

We get this glimpse into the early church in the letter I just read. No one is quite sure who wrote it, probably a later follower of Peter… Its kind of an internal memo of the early church, and here is what they were saying to each other.

“Always be ready to give reasons for the hope that is in you” In other words:

“Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know.”

Be ready to tell the truth about who you are so that you can stand firmly in a world that will otherwise spin you around.

In church we call that testimony.

At the last congregation I served, I offered a class on the Christian practice of testimony. And I was really excited about it. I planned to have us practice writing and sharing testimony with one another. I outlined a course over a few months where we would read the testimonies of others, and then set about crafting and sharing our own.

I wanted the members of my church to get a chance to do what the scripture text for this morning recommends. Always be ready to give reasons for your faith. Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know. Learn how to claim your identity boldly and publicly, otherwise you might just conform to the culture, and make yourself into what everyone else expects.

I was excited. But it was a tough sell.

Testify is one of those words that has had its meaning perverted. And I learned that quickly talking with my congregation. People suggested changing the name of the class to “telling our stories” or “sharing our faith” anything but the name I had chosen: “Testify.”

There were quite a few people who avoided me while I was walking around at coffee hour because they did not want to get roped into this ‘testimony’ business.

I think that when we imagine testimony, we imagine something manipulative. Maybe even something a little bombastic. Often we associate testimony with someone’s attempt to convert people; to change “non-believers” into Christians. And there are few things that send Congregationalists running quite as quickly as that sort of fervent evangelical zeal.

But here is what the author of 1 Peter says about testimony.

“be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience”

I think that is a great image. Speak with respect, but don’t apologize for your truth. Be humble enough to speak only for yourself. Love one another enough to listen to each other’s stories.

That is the kind of testimony I love. And, in our class,  that is exactly what we got.

Some people told hard stories about difficult childhoods and the scars that linger even still.

Some people shared the joy that they felt when they first found a home at church.

Some people told us about experiences with God that took our breath away.

And at the end we were all transformed. Not because the testimony was aimed at converting anyone, or changing anything about any of us.

We were transformed because receiving such raw and true stories, and having a space to share them, deepened our trust in one another and it widened our experience of God. That is the beauty of true testimony. It does not shift our gaze so much as it widens our field of view. It does not make us feel bad about who we are, but gives us the courage to share our story too.

Charles Wright is the Poet Laureate of the United States. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard him say one day on the radio “I do not really think of myself as a poet.”

Wright said “it’s kind of a sacred trade, I don’t think I have passed all the barriers yet to call myself that.”

Compare that to Matthew. The 4-year-old hospital patient who said: I am an artist. I think Matthew knows what testimony is.

He knows intuitively that he does not need credentials to call himself an artist. And he knows that calling himself an artist does not mean he has perfected his craft. Its who he is, he knows it, and he is telling us.

But I think most of us live more like Charles Wright than like Matthew. We expect that some day we might have the credibility or the authority necessary for what we say to matter. The danger though is that one day he woke up as the poet laureate of the United States, and still did not feel like a poet.

Do you have a truth that you have a hard time claiming with Matthew’s boldness?

What part of your story has been left untold?

What is your testimony?

In your very core, what is true to you?

What is the foundation of your faith?

Won’t you tell us?

At coffee hour, in the parking lot, after the PTA meetings, on the sideline of the soccer fields,

Scriptures word to the church is my word to you: “be ready to tell someone the truth, about who you are.” Be ready to account for the faith and the hope that lives in your heart. Testify!

Here’s my testimony:

Often I have a hard time saying that I am a Christian. Or at least, I have a hard time saying it without the next word being ‘but…’

I am a Christian, but my church celebrates the love between same gender couples.

I am a Christian, but I do not assume that people of other religions need to be converted.

I am a Christian, but I still have questions and doubts

I am a Christian, but we can still be friends, I can talk about other things too…

Then I realize that I am missing the chance to proclaim the reasons for my faith, filling that space instead with my apologies and corrections…

So let me try it a new way, here, with you:

I am a Christian because In the life of Jesus I see the way I strive to live.

I am a Christian because I have witnessed God’s spirit work in people’s hearts

I am a Christian because I will never stop needing forgiveness and love.

So I am learning how to say these words. It is easier to say them here, harder out there.

Still, I am learning that I can state my truth without having it all figured out. I have doubts. I wrestle with the big questions about God. I walk around with an unsettled heart in uncertain times.

I just know I’m a Christian because deep down something about that word names me.

So I told myself

and now I’m telling you.