Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Lent.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
It began with a form, because we were Presbyterians.
I was thirteen, sitting in my first confirmation class. The pastor handed out forms to all of us. We were to write down three people from the congregation we might want to have as a mentor during the process—not relatives, he cautioned, or parents of anyone else in the group.
That pretty much cut out all the adults at church I knew.
So I took the form home to my mom, and she helped me brainstorm some of the women she knew through her women’s group. She tried to tell me who they were, but if they sat behind us—and nearly everybody did, my family were those rare front-row Presbyterians—I probably hadn’t noticed them. I wasn’t even really thinking long-term at the time, that whoever I asked for as a mentor would be in my life for the next three months—I just knew I had to fill out the form by Sunday.
So I did, and handed it in to the pastor the same way I would hand in math homework to one of my teachers.
My pastor spent the next week carefully matching confirmands and mentors, trying to fit together personalities and hobbies and schedules. At thirteen, I did not begin to appreciate what a deft touch it must have taken.
All I knew was that I ended up matched with Katie, and mom had assured me she was really nice, so I figured all was well.
If I had been listening, I probably could have heard the Spirit giggling like mad as her plan came to fruition.
Some people come into your lives and turn them upside down. Katie was that person for me. She showed me what it meant to live out a mature faith—a full-color faith, unlike the black-and-white cartoons of Jesus on the children’s bulletins. She showed me that God wasn’t just someone to bring your best behavior to but someone to share your deepest struggles with. She showed me that loving God and loving neighbor wasn’t a catchy slogan but the hardest and highest calling our lives can possibly take.
I was blessed with wonderful, faithful parents and Sunday School teachers and a phenomenal pastor. They had all laid much of the groundwork for my deepening faith; I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But it was Katie who helped me see how real God was, just by being so real herself. It was Katie who showed me that faith wasn’t about getting the answers right during Sunday School but about getting to know the God whose name was Love.
Five years later, Katie was the third person I told that I was being called into ministry, right after my parents.
And seven years after that, she gave me my charge to ministry at my ordination service.
I fully believe that the Spirit led me to Katie, even if there were forms involved. Just like I believe that the Spirit led me to seminary, and eventually, here to Crescent Springs.
And this is where my story intersects with Matthew’s. Our scripture from this morning is familiar, and the sermons that get preached on it are just as familiar: be like Jesus, say no to temptation. But the line that always startles me is right there at the start: “the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him.”
Now, before you draw too many parallels, I am not equating myself to Jesus, nor Katie to the devil. But I do know that the Spirit leads us to people who help us to grow in faith—sometimes because they draw us closer to God, like Katie did for me, and sometimes because they push us closer to God, as the devil does for Jesus.
That may sound like an odd statement. We’re used to thinking of the devil as pure evil personified, a guy with red horns and a tail, ready to wreak mayhem and destruction. But in scripture the devil is more of an adversary than an enemy; I have always envisioned Jesus’ temptations as a chess match between two top-notch competitors. The devil’s propositions have very little malice behind them, but each lures Jesus away from trusting God; and so in refusing the devil’s suggestions, Jesus deepens his trust in God instead. A good opponent makes a stronger athlete.
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and right to the devil. But the Spirit also connected Jesus back to God, and gave him the courage, power, and faith to resist the easy way out. It was a lesson Jesus would draw on again and again in his ministry, and even in his death.
We do not often say “the spirit led me here” when we find ourselves in the wilderness. We do not say “the spirit led me here” when we find our faith in God tested. We like to think that the Spirit only leads us by still waters and green meadows. But sometimes the Spirit does lead us into wildernesses; and sometimes we do find our faith in God put to the test. And if trust the Spirit, if we trust that God believes in us whole-heartedly, and will not abandon us even if we fail—then we can have the courage and confidence to face any temptation, and instead speak our own truth: God’s love is all we need. Nothing else can compare.
In this season of Lent, we will explore what look at first glance to be chance meetings between Jesus and a whole cast of characters: an insomniac Pharisee, an inquisitive woman, a blind beggar, a bereaved sister, and a crowd of fickle fans. But somehow I doubt that any of these people met Jesus by chance; I rather expect that the Spirit led each one into his path.
This Lent, I pray that we will be open to following the Spirit, wherever she may lead. Sometimes the Spirit will take us to someone like Katie, someone who becomes a lifelong cheerleader in the race of faith. And sometimes the Spirit will take us faith to faith with an adversary, someone whose presence in our lives forces us to fall back on God’s mercy and care.
And if we keep our eyes open, and our hearts open, we might just find that the Spirit leads us to meet Jesus himself.
For the leading of the Spirit, I give thanks and praise.