“Who Is In Charge”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 1, 2020: Lent 1
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew4:1-11
Both of our readings today struggle with the question of who is going to be in charge in our world and, more importantly, who is going to be in charge of our lives. In our reading from Genesis, Adam and Eve pump the brakes on God’s power in the world so that they can move up and be in charge. They thought that by eating the forbidden fruit they would see as God sees. They thought they could make God obsolete, unneeded, so that they themselves could fill the role of God in the world. Adam and Eve wanted to cut out the middleman on their way to becoming divine, and that middle man was God. Interestingly, that is exactly what the devil is trying to do to Jesus in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Matthew’s gospel. By tempting our Lord with power and fame, and a hot meal, the devil was trying to remove God from the eternal equation. With God gone, the devil could have his or her way and have control of Jesus at the same time.
As we’ve come to expect from our Lord, Jesus shows far greater wisdom and faith. He did not reach for the quick answer to the hungers of life by turning stones into bread. He did not go for the spotlight of instant fame by defying the laws of gravity and jumping from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus also did not reach for the reins of power. Instead, Jesus stated his trust in God and in God’s Word over and over again. He was determined to serve God and God alone. He choose for himself the answer to the question of who was in charge, and he was doing it just moments before his ministry on earth would begin. Christ’s ministry was to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, a commitment that would lead him to the cross. But there was no fear of the journey ahead because he knew that God was calling the shots.
So what about you? Who is in charge of your life? Who is in charge of the world that we live in?
Of course, we want to answer God, but we know that the answer is not nearly that simple. The truth is that while we might laugh at how quickly Adam and Eve fell in the beginning, we’re not entirely different from them. We make choices based on convenience instead of what needs to be done. We base our decisions on what makes us happy or brings us gratification instead of making the world a better place in which to live. We sometimes appear foolish when the practice of our faith is more about my needs and my wants instead of the needs of the people Christ puts right in front of us. A common place this happens in the church is right in the sanctuary. I hear of people leaving this church or that one because, in their words, “I’m not getting fed there.” Jesus call us to feed, not be fed. The devil doesn’t have much work to do when we are so good at making everything all about me, right?
Something as simple even as prayer can go terribly off the rails if we forget who is really in charge. If we are not careful, prayer can be very self-centered instead of God-centered. Prayer is not our way of ordering from God what we want in this life—as much as we might like that, God’s grace in our lives in not a menu from which we can chose our favorite dishes. Prayer is our way of seeking from God what God wants from us and for us. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest Christian thinkers in the last 50 years, once wrote, “Just when you think you have reached the level of self-giving love, you have probably just gotten to the level of enlightened self-interest.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “If you think you’ve made it, you’ve only made it as far as your ego will allow and that ain’t very far.” The temptation here if for us to shape God in our way of thinking instead of being shaped by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Another temptation we face almost daily when we unsure or unconvinced of who is in charge in this world is the temptation of making gods out of things. Blaise Pascal, another monumental thinker but this time from the 17th century, wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any thing, but only be God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” It is like those shape puzzles we give to little children. Each one of us has a space within us that is perfectly shaped for the being and presence of God. Our behaviors, attitudes, addictions, traumas, and even cultural influences talk us into forcing things into that God-shaped space that either won’t fit or fit poorly. The improper fit of whatever it may be—drugs, violence, gambling, aggression, hate—rubs and rubs and rubs until we eventually tear it out and try to put something else in its place. And this cycle continues over and over, for some, until they take their very last breath.
Pascal’s thinking about the God shaped space in all of us really illuminates the way in which Jesus was able to take a different path from Adam and Eve. The devil offers Jesus three very attractive things: food, fame, and power. There isn’t a person here today, myself included, who isn’t at least a little interested in one or two of those things. In a world where churches are moving into former sports arenas, I have to say that the devil’s offer of fame peeks my interest. The offer of power, the pursuit of power, seems to be something that drives everything around us these days. Jesus resists all three because he knows that not a single one of those things will outlive or outlast the gifts that come from Almighty God. Food perishes and we toss it away; hunger is not something that can be satisfied once and for all. Fame perishes, too, as people forget and move on to the next new and shiny thing. Power doesn’t perish, but it corrupts—it corrupts those who have it and it corrupts the lives of those who are subject to it. None of these can fill the space in Jesus where God belongs, and when the devil see that he is not getting anywhere with Jesus, he goes on full retreat.
The victory that Christ won over evil in the wilderness came from his commitment to the simple and powerful truth that God was in charge. But that did not shut out future temptations. Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Peter tries to entice Jesus to turn back from Jerusalem so that he won’t have to face such a terrible death. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan”—that must have been rough for Peter to hear. For a split second, or maybe longer, Peter forgot who was in charge. That is how quickly it can happen and though Jesus had already been tempted once, he faced temptation again that day from Peter. But just as Jesus answered the devil three times in the wilderness, Jesus answered Peter by reasserting that it is God who is in charge and not the easy, the simple, what feels and looks good, or what makes best economic sense.
The victory of Jesus over temptation begins and ends in the heart and that is where you and I take our place in these ancient stories. Some theologians have wondered what would have happened if Adam and Eve had taken just a moment to step back from the tree in the garden to consider what they were doing. If they had thought about the tree and the fruit and the serpent and God’s words, would they have made another choice? What if Adam and Eve had exercised a little restraint and been a bit more patient…would the story have ended differently? Of course we don’t know, but what would happen if we exercised a little restraint in our lives and became just a little more patient with ourselves and with God and with our neighbors? Would our stories be different?
I know mine would be. Patience is not my strong suit. I like to act decisively—I like to act quickly and with purpose. But 8 times out of 10, acting in this way puts me at odds with God and at odds with my neighbors. Maybe its the same for you. Instead of jumping to a decision quickly, or making a choice because that’s the choice you’ve always made or that’s what you know is absolutely right, what if we all took a moment to ask, “What does God want here?” Back in the mid-1990’s there were these bracelets that were really popular in Christian circles that had the initials “WWJD” woven into them—that stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” That is a profoundly important question we should asking right now of ourselves, of the structures and institutions around us, and the choices that we make on a day to day, even moment by moment, basis. What would Jesus do in this tense situation with my neighbor? What would Jesus do when I’m being asked to deliver bad news? What would Jesus do if, like me, he was faced with this need or this broken person or this terrible situation or this complex decision?
Well, we can answer that question today with the Scriptures that are right in front of us. In all things, Jesus would draw patiently from the deep, deep well of his faith in the God and heaven and earth. What would Jesus do if he was offered something cheap and perishable that would not even satisfy his hunger? He would turn to the Word of God that is rich and satisfying and eternal. What would Jesus do if he was offered fame through some Las Vegas-style stunt? He would remind himself and the crowds that his value and worth is tied up in how he is created in the image of God and not in some parlor tricks. What would Jesus do if he had a chance to rule the world? He would lay down his life for his friends and die so that all people might live.
And it all goes back to who is in charge, who rules over everything, who will occupy that space in us that is reserved for God. It is God who is in charge, it is God who rules over everything, and it God who wants to make a home in and through and with us. We are tempted and we stumble, but God’s grace puts us back on our feet. And we are tempted again and we stumble again, but grace doesn’t have a shelf life. So be challenged and called today my friends, to put away those things you try to put in the place of God. Put away any despair or hopelessness that you feel as you survey the wide and deep problems that we face in this life. Put away your need to be right all the time, your need to be on top, your need to have the upper hand. Put away your need to judge. Let God be in charge. Let God speak into your life words that will never fade away. Let God help you to remember that you are created in God’s image and that you are so valuable and loved. Let God show you the depth of that love on a cross and in an empty tomb. And let God move your feet and hands in service of the Gospel as everything we know and see and even the unseen is transformed forever. Amen.