A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark. on Feb.21, 2010.
The term “shakedown cruise” is used by sailors and ship owners to describe a performance test of a ship and its crew. The ship has been designed and built. The crew has been recruited, selected, and trained. The “shakedown cruise” is when the ship’s systems and crew are evaluated under at sea.
In a sense, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness at the start of his public ministry for what resembles a shakedown cruise. Jesus had been publicly affirmed by John the Baptist and by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Jesus was sure of his call from God. The wilderness experience presented him with the forces that meet and challenge every person.
Fasting confronted Jesus with the pain that we experience when our physical desires are not satisfied. What will we do when our desires compete with our devotion to God? Will we elevate our desires over devotion? Will we resent the demands of devotion that require us to avoid satisfying ourselves? In the wilderness, Jesus fasted because of his devotion to God. He became hungry because of that self-denial and devotion. The temptation was to satisfy his hunger by using his divine powers to transform ordinary stones into bread.
Jesus teaches us that faith in God will sometime lead us into situations where our desires compete with our devotion. Those are not extraordinary situations. Actually, we routinely deal with situations where our desires and our devotion appear to be competing for our loyalty. This is not only an issue for people who are religiously devout, or for members of the ordained clergy, or for people we view as “prayer warriors.”
We should remember that Jesus represents humanity and represents God for us. As the representative of humanity, Jesus shows us that desire is a force we must meet and negotiate in our relationship to God, others, and to ourselves. Hunger is a natural desire for food. The more one is hungry, the stronger becomes the desire for food. Hunger is good, as it reminds us that we must eat.
But Jesus had chosen to fast (which necessarily involved experiencing hunger) out of obedience to another desire—to trust God. So the temptation to turn stones into bread was a test about trust. Yes, we must have bread to live. But life is more than eating. When God calls us to trust Him in hunger, choosing to eat is to distrust God’s call and God’s providence. Jesus responded to the “turn stones to bread” temptation by reminding himself and his tempter that he was determined to trust God’s grace during the fast. If we will not trust God during our times of hunger, we will not trust God during our times of plenty.
Kimberly Van Driel, pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Naugatuck, Connecticut, has written that while the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism answered the question of whether Jesus is the Son of God, the question presented by the temptation to turn stones into bread is what kind of Son Jesus will be. Will Jesus be a Son like Adam, who used his freedom and status with God to distrust and disobey God? What kind of child of God will you and I be? Will we be like Adam or like Jesus?
One of the challenges that people who are accustomed to physical comforts must face is the challenge of doing without in order to attain something more important than comfort. If we value comfort above everything else, we will rationalize ways to be comfortable in God’s name. Jesus shows us that this temptation is both real and unavoidable. If we trust God, we will inevitably come to the point when we must decide whether to trust God in our discomfort. We must decide whether to trust God to be trustworthy. We must decide whether to follow God in discomfort, and even in hunger. Are you hungry for God’s sake? Are you willing to do without something you want in order to fulfill what God wants?
This certainly challenges anyone who follows the “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel movement. In essence, the Tempter said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, name it and claim it.” Jesus was tempted to be a full Son of God, not hungry. In the same way, the prosperity gospel movement calls people to be materially full.
We not only hunger physically. We also hunger for power, so Jesus confronted the hunger for power that lives in each person. What will we do to gain power? To whom will we give allegiance in order to gain power? The Tempter offered Jesus power beyond imagination when he showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority.” So the issue for Jesus, and for us, is the moral content of power.
People strive for and hold power because they hope to serve some purposes. Power is held and exercised to accomplish purposes. Commercial power, political power, social power, religious power, and any other power known by humans is sought and held to achieve purposes. If our purposes are not governed by God, we will covet and exercise power as if God does not matter, or God’s purposes do not matter. We will covet and hold power as if God’s justice does not matter, God’s righteousness does not matter, God’s peace does not matter, and God’s love does not matter. And that means we will not deny ourselves power, or the freedom to exercise power, out of respect for God. The power temptations of our living always show who and what we worship! Jesus shows us that the way to resist power temptations is to remember that God is the only being we should worship.
Finally, Jesus faced the temptation to be a fool in the guise of faith. How many times have we heard people being told to “step out on faith” concerning something that is foolish. Jumping off a roof demonstrates foolishness, not faith. God has no obligation to suspend the laws of gravity for anyone. Yet, the Tempter urged Jesus to throw himself from the highest point of the Jerusalem temple “if you are the Son of God” and quoted Psalm 91:11-12 (For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone).
Faith in God is not a license to be a fool. If your bills are due, it is foolish to give your paycheck to a stranger. If your children need a computer, it is foolish to throw money away on lottery tickets. If you know that you have high blood pressure, refusing to take your medication and insisting on eating food that is high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium are not acts of faith, but acts of folly. They are playing “I dare you” with God. People who engage in this kind of risk-taking are not trusting God to take care of them. They are trusting God to be a chump.
It is tempting to wince when people say “the Lord will take care of me,” as if faith in God is a magic charm. God is not our servant. We are servants of God. God does not exist to serve our purposes. We exist to serve God’s purposes. Jesus refused to treat God like a chump because he knew that God protects us to fulfill God’s purposes, not to license us to be fools. Any notion of faith that subverts the purposes of God to whatever we want to do, however foolish and ungodly it may be, and then calls on God to protect and bless what is done in that spirit is a faith that disrespects God’s wisdom, God’s love, and God’s holiness.
So what does all this have to do with followers of Jesus Christ today? Good question. Like Jesus, we have been claimed by the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit leads us into places where our devotion to God will be tested. What kind of children of God will we be? Will we be children of God like Jesus, or like Adam? Will we use our divine authority to obtain personal comfort or advantage? Will we voluntarily choose to suffer hunger, will we do without, and will we give up what we can have out of devotion to the larger and higher purposes of God? What kind of children of God are we?
How are we dealing with the desire for power? Who will we trust to get it? How will we use it? What kind of relationships are we choosing to enter so that we can gain power, fame, or glory?
As children of God, are we treating God’s love as if God is a chump? Are we respecting the ways of God, the laws of God, and the holiness of God? These are not merely questions to ponder on the first Sunday in Lent. They confront us every day and in every situation. Jesus did not avoid them, and neither will we. The issue is whether we will follow Jesus in the way we address them.
In the final analysis, the forces that we confront as we live out our faith highlight what it means to be consecrated. If we respect who God is, who we are as children of God, what God’s purposes are in the world, and the laws of nature and life that God has ordained, then we will follow the example of Jesus. Because of Jesus, we cannot claim that we do not know that these forces will confront our faith. Because of Jesus, we know how to deal with these forces. Because of Jesus, let us do so as consecrated children of God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.