Sermons That Work

Where the Angels Are, Lent 1 (A) – 1999

February 21, 1999


This Gospel story says something important about what happens between Baptism and ministry to Jesus and all the rest of us who follow him. For ministry to be real and effective, a wilderness is required. Whether we are called to a geographic place is open to debate. But we are certainly called to squarely face our expectations of God and God’s of us before we are of much use. We are called to see ourselves, our gifts, our God exactly as they are, without extraneous details and usually without the distraction of companions to hide behind or lean on.

The wilderness is whatever experience we are led to of alone, of utter uniqueness. Wilderness is also the silence, the utter silence of having to respond to God. We come to realize that since we are each created in God’s image, God is also vulnerable to our “no”. There will never be another one like us, no other “yes” will quite fill the place of ours if ours is missing. If we don’t go to the wilderness, if we don’t wait in the wilderness, if we cannot face the truth of things, then some loving hope of God’s for us will be dashed.

You’d think, since God has so much riding on these wilderness experiences, God would send the angels in sooner. First and foremost in the wilderness, there was Jesus, but prior to him, Moses and Elijah; and now, there is us in the company of our Lord. Yet, the last line of the story of Jesus’ wilderness experience reads, “Suddenly, angels came and waited on him.” Angels close the chapter, they don’t open it. They don’t come to help in the middle. Like Jim Riggleman, managing the Chicago Cubs baseball team in the ’98 season, God seems somehow reluctant to go to the bullpen.

This is not how we would prefer it. We want angels to come in the middle and smooth things over when the road is really rocky instead of having to negotiate them more or less under our own steam. God, on the other hand, seems to think that rocky roads have some purpose. Angels arrive just in time to consolidate the lesson, after an untidy new perspective has begun to settle in.

There’s no question of who will win this quarrel since God designed angels in the first place, and God made us. Angels cannot be what they are not. Even if they wanted to smooth over the rough spots for us, it is not in their power to do so. In contrast, the trouble with us, ever since the garden of Eden, is that not everything we perceive as outside our power and capability really is.

Temptations and wildernesses help adjust our perceptions of reality. We often want to believe that the source of those uncomfortable places and encounters is the Evil One, but they actually come from God. The Scripture says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

Furthermore, though temptations seem to be numerous, they all boil down to some basic categories. The ones Jesus faced are pretty familiar if you make a careful comparison to our own lives. Just like Jesus, temptations take our measure and force us to choose between what we say our priorities are and the rough roads we are really willing to travel on and pay the tolls for.

None of us has the power to make bread from stones. But we all share with Jesus that temptation to muscle the rest of the world into answering our immediate needs and wants. This temptation springs right from the illusion that we should never, never be uncomfortable. If we are, it is bad, and furthermore, it is someone or something else’s fault.

The wilderness calls us to let go of the illusion and face reality on its own terms. When we don’t, we yell at our families, criticize co-workers, and complain to our friends about the way things could be, should be or ought to be, according to us. We overeat or use drugs and alcohol to kill the pain of an inconvenient world. Some people really do “shop ’til they drop” so that they will not have to face the rocks in their lives which refuse to become bread.

If Jesus had gone down that road, his comments would not be hard to imagine.

· “Darn it, I never asked to be the Messiah! I’m sick of rocks.”
· “If Adam had snacked less and gardened more, maybe this place wouldn’t be so
barren . . .”
· Or, “It isn’t my fault that the world is the way it is, why should I have to be the one to go hungry?”

How about Jesus at the pinnacle of the temple? How many times do we wish that something difficult in life could be easier, or that it could be over faster? Have you ever wished that life was like a good book and you could skip to the end to make sure everything turns out all right? One thing about jumping off the Temple, it would have been a lot quicker than crucifixion. If the whole point was Jesus’ death, one step into thin air would have been simpler than hours of suffering.

What about that fantasy that rattles around in the back of our heads about God protecting those who are good from all harm? We know from our own observation that it isn’t true, but sometimes we wish it were. If Jesus is really human like us, as we say, he might wonder if God would rescue him by sending angels to play catch.

Angels rarely come in those circumstances. God does not seem to be in the habit of suspending the laws of the universe so that we do not have to live with the consequences of our choices. It was the same for Jesus. Therein lies the beauty of that phrase Jesus hid in the middle of the prayer he taught us: thy will be done. It makes real prayer out of lots of fond wishes.

So, finally, all the kingdoms of the world line up before Jesus for his inspection. All he has to do is worship what ought not be worshipped, mangle a few priorities. It seems pretty close to what he wants and yet, not quite. The truth is his faithfulness didn’t get him what the devil promised. It may be that the devil could not have delivered it either, but that question, too, is for another day.

The final temptation is most important for us. Succinctly, this temptation challenges us to keep our focus on God and the faithfulness God invites us to. No matter how real what we term the real world is, no matter how pressing our most pressing concerns, we must look for God standing in them and behind them. No matter how convincing evil sounds, it does not have the last word. The devil cannot set the agenda unless we set God’s aside.

God’s one agenda is: LOVE. Not, finally, our satisfaction, our convenience, or our safety. Not even the satisfaction, convenience, or safety of God’s beloved Son. Just LOVE.

What we are finally to do is what we have been commanded by every messenger the Holy One has ever sent. Jesus said it best, “Love God with all that your are, and your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Pray for those who abuse you.”

Temptations will come because God sends them for our good. They will always show us the barren wildernesses in our lives where love is thin or perhaps non-existent.

The wilderness will always ask us to face reality and make our response. Often, the process will feel evil to us. It will seem that way because the choice between our own preferences and the possibility of grace is so plain. The good news is that the angels are waiting for us to get on with it so that they can come to us suddenly, just as they came to Jesus.

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Christopher Sikkema

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