A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“You’re So Vain…” Sermon on Matthew 4: 1-11 Lent 1A March 2, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 1, 2020.  The texts were:

Psalm 32
Romans 5: 12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11


Children’s sermon We heard a story today that makes us ask a lot of questions. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the desert where the devil tempts him to do things that Jesus knows aren’t a good plan. Even though Jesus was tired and hungry, Jesus doesn’t do them. And then at the end, it says that angels came and cared for him. Now, it’s easy to focus on the devil and doing things that we shouldn’t, particularly in Lent, when you might have heard some adults talking about giving things up that are bad habits. But I think we miss in this story the last line of the angels coming and caring for Jesus. In the Bible, another name for angels are messengers, and really, it’s a better way to describe angels. What does a messenger do?  What do you think a messenger for God says? Yes, messengers for God will tell you how much God loves you! Do you think that there are messengers from God around you at school? At the playground? At soccer or wherever you might be? YES! God’s messengers are everywhere! Can YOU be a messenger for God? YES! You can! In your SS class you painted these rocks and now I want you to write words or messages about God’s love for people. You can place these rocks in your neighborhood for people to find and know that God loves them. The adults will do this in a couple of weeks as part of our Lenten worship, so I thought you all could show them how that works.  When we remember these messages of God’s love in our lives, it helps us to live together in love, serving and caring for each other which is what God wants. Let’s pray:

This text had me humming Carly Simon’s song “you’re so vain” all week. “You’re so vain…you probably think this Lent is about you.” It’s so easy to take a story like the one today in Matthew and immediately see myself in it. Oh that tempter, always trying to get me to do things that I don’t want to do or shouldn’t do. I just need to be strong like Jesus! And I need to know bible verses to quote to have the perfect comeback to the devil to prove how pious I am and how much I love Jesus. I need to resist all my bad habits like chips and salsa, or buying books (I might have a theology book problem), or not making my bed. I can take this text and make it all about me in about 3.2 seconds flat. I can make this about how disciplined I can be, how I can follow all the rules and then I will be a better person and never tempted like Jesus. And that can make ME feel pretty good…until I succumb to whatever temptation I have been trying to resist or I fall for the ego trip. When I make this text all about ME, how I can resist the tempter even when I’m at my lowest, how I can deny my human tendencies, it can leave me feeling inadequate, deflated and hopeless. I can’t pass up chips and salsa, even when I’m not hungry.

The good news is that this text isn’t about me, and yet it is most definitely for me, and it is for you and us all. This scene takes place immediately after Jesus is baptized, Jesus is claimed by God as God’s own son and beloved. Jesus is then led to the desert by the Holy Spirit, a place where there is no where to hide, no resources, there is sheer silence and no one around. Until the devil comes. We don’t talk much about the devil, much like hell, and there is much about the evil one that has been conjured up over time. Mostly, that the devil, Satan, the tempter, the accuser, the liar, is sinister or terrifying, is trying to harm us or worse, and is lurking in shadowy places. But here, the devil is in broad daylight. And no where does it say that the devil is frightening to look at or speaks with an other-worldly voice. Jesus doesn’t seem afraid at all. Mostly annoyed. The tempter doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything for him or her (we don’t know) per se, but the devil asks Jesus to do things for himself. There are no weird rituals, or pentagrams or sacrifices, just the devil trying to get Jesus to worry only about Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t fall for it, not for any of it. The devil even quotes scripture to Jesus, trying to twist the faith to justify the view that God is ok with Jesus being self-focused. It’s biblical, right?! Jesus also quotes scripture, not to get into an argument or a tit for tat conversation, but to point to God’s promise and presence not only for himself but for others. Jesus takes all of these temptations or tests, that happen to parallel the experiences of the ancient Israelites in the desert, and lays them bare, by revealing that all comes from God, all is God’s and all belong to God. Jesus’ encounter with the devil is not about how we should resist temptations, it’s not about resisting chocolate, or watching too much tv, or not exercising enough, or not shopping, or whatever. Jesus’ encounter with the devil shows us that the devil is a reality in life, the devil isn’t easily recognizable, the tempter won’t look or sound scary or like a bad horror movie. The devil will look and sound like our egos, our will, our voices in our heads that justify worrying only about ourselves and caring for ourselves first. Jesus’ encounter with the devil, reveals all the ways that we forget that God is God and we are not. Jesus trusts in the promises of his baptism, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and knows that God can’t be manipulated, God isn’t a cosmic slot machine where you can put in your requests and get out the answer you want. There are real consequences for our actions, particularly when are actions aren’t Spirit led. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the desert, to the real world, not to force rocks to be bread, or to jump off a building, or to worship another, but to encounter the real promises of God. The Spirit only leads to actions, God’s actions, that are life-giving and are life-giving for the care, provision and sustenance of all people and creation, not just for some or one. The Spirit led Jesus to the desert to be tempted, not because Jesus had to pass some sort of test, but because reality is that as baptized people the Holy Spirit will lead us out into the real world, we don’t stay holed up in a bubble. And out in the real world, the devil exists but so do God’s promises.

That is where it is good news that this story isn’t about me or us but is all about Jesus for us. Jesus doesn’t use God’s power for himself and for his own wants, Jesus only uses God’s power for others: to heal, feed, care, and love those whom no one else does. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the real world where it is hard and then angels, God’s messengers, cared for him. The good news is that this is true for us as well. The Holy Spirit leads us, is always out ahead of us pulling us to places that we might not want to go and encountering experiences that will be difficult for us to keep our focus on what matters. But God will also send messengers, angels, to encourage us, bolster us and reorient us to God’s vision and mission when we need it.

This story may not be about you, but God is all about you. God sends Jesus to reveal who God is, how much God loves us and wants to be with us and how God places us community, with one another for these promises of love, grace and mercy to abound. You are led this Lent by the calling of the Holy Spirit, to see Jesus’ love and power for you and to hear the messages of God’s promises for you again and again. Amen.


Slot machines, Cars, and the Promises of God February 16, 2016


Donald Miller is an author who writes about Christian spirituality in our post-modern, post-Christendom, polarized culture. His breakout book, “Blue Like Jazz,” is a look at his own faith journey in the less than Christian culture of Portland, OR and his time at the less than Christian, perhaps even hedonistic, Reed College. Reed College is known for an anything goes culture and an official policy that allows drugs and alcohol openly on campus. Donald Miller tells of “coming out of the closet” as a Christian there and how people pushed him all the time about believing in a God that allowed bad things to happen to good people, didn’t seem to always answer prayer, allowed poverty, violence, hunger, disease, war, and any other horror that humanity could invent. He was pushed on how the Church just bilked good, hard working people out of their money and forced guilt for not following rules and going to Church on Sundays. When faced with those accusations, Donald admits that he struggled with those views on God and how God doesn’t seem to do what we think God should do. After all, wanting those things to end is not a bad thing.

But he realized something else in talking to people, Christian and non-Christian alike: we all seem to have an agenda with God. We all seem to have this idea who God is and what God should do and it shapes our relationship with God and with other people. Don says that his first image of God as a young person was that of God as a cosmic slot machine. We put our prayers, demands, wishes into God and want to pull the lever to get our answers and our reward. A transactional God if you will. We do A then God will do B. Very simple, neat clean, and predictable. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is more than prevalent and saturates our culture. One of my favorite artists, Janice Joplin, highlights this with her iconic song Mercedes Benz: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, with no help from my friends. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (This will be sung.)

She then asks for a color tv and then simply a night on the town. She lowers her expectations with each verse but she hits on the crux of the human condition: we want what we want when we want it and we aren’t even to ashamed to ask God for these things with the presumption that God will fulfill our every whim. After all we’re good people, we pray, we give to our church, we teach Sunday School. Shouldn’t God give us something back in return or to use the verbiage from what is known as the prosperity gospel, if you do the right thing, believe correctly, and of course give enough money to their ministries God will bless you with whatever you ask. You will get a reward.

Only that doesn’t hold up for very long. Eventually that image of God will let you down. That image of God has more to do with ourselves and what we think we want and need than about what God is actually doing in the world. That image of God isn’t about unending grace, unconditional love and eternal life. That image of God is one that the world can control, manipulate and ultimately dismantle. But the good news is that this is not who God is:  we don’t have a transactional God, we have a relational God. We have a God who doesn’t confuse relationship and love with rewards.

I think that this is point of this story that shows up in Luke 4 as well as in Matthew and Mark. I wonder if this passage is not about Jesus setting an example of resisting temptation, or about how we should be like Jesus, or that we will be tested like Jesus was tested. We can discuss all of those concepts and that would be fine. However, when we ask ourselves why was this story is included in the three synoptic gospels, I think the answer is relationship. The world operates on transactions and quid pro quo, and we often, even in our closest relationships operate on that premise as well. If the other person does something (or doesn’t do something) then we will react in kind. We think that if we do a good job, or ask nicely, we should get our Mercedes Benz.

Jesus refuses to even entertain that way of being and play that game, if you will. At every turn with the devil, Jesus points back to God and what God desires for us: deep and abiding relationship. We don’t live by bread alone, Jesus says; we are wired for connectivity. We worship and serve God, Jesus says; which means gathering as a community for worship and serving our neighbors. Don’t test God, Jesus says, don’t confuse God with an ATM, or a Magic 8 ball or think that God is about answers and rewards for good behavior. God is about relationship; being on the journey with us whether we are in the wilderness or in the lap of luxury, whether we behave or not; whether we deserve it or not. God knows that what we really need and God simply gives as pure gift: grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Jesus who reveals the promise of life, freedom and grace from God that only God can give us. Jesus who heals, feeds, weeps and loves all people so that God’s love can be known in the world. Possessions, power and yes, even food, are fleeting and temporary. They lead to a cavern so deep that we spend a lifetime trying to fill it with more and more, never satisfied. But Jesus, as God’s perfect gift, fills us with living water, fills us with God’s word and fills us with himself through bread and wine, gathering us as one people of God for the sake of the world so that the world is filled with love. This is what it is to be blessed. To be loved and to belong to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

Just as Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and led by the Spirit into the wilderness, God’s promise is that the Holy Spirit fills us and always stays with us everywhere we journey.  We celebrated that Jesus is God’s promise of relationship and love forever with pouring water over Will Patrick this morning. Reality is that believing in God won’t make all of our problems go away or that we will get a reward; there will be cancer, depression, not enough money, not enough time, not enough power. The promise is that God fills us with the Holy Spirit to be with us no matter what, especially in our wilderness wandering. Reality is that we will experience earthly death. The promise is that God will transform our tears into abundant joy, our sorrow into extraordinary hope and our death into life forever with God. The promise is that we belong to God and with God, forever, no matter what. Amen.