Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – March 6, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s a show I’ve watched a few times with my boys. Maybe you’ve seen it too. It is called “American Ninja Warrior.” It consists of people attempting to make it through the most intense obstacle course you’ve ever seen. They jump from platform to platform, swing from bar to bar, traverse slippery, unstable balance beams, contort themselves past all kinds of barriers, fling themselves from swinging ropes, and then run-climb up a wall to the finish line. Usually only a few of the contestants make it to the end. Most end up slipping or falling or losing their grip or getting knocked down into the pool of water below.
God’s people, Israel, spent forty years in the wilderness, and their time there looked a little like an episode of American Ninja Warrior. There were all kinds of challenges to face, all kinds of obstacles to overcome. And over and over again, they slipped. They fell. They failed.
God told them that he would be their God. God told them he would provide for them and protect them. God told them that he would lead them to a good land, a land overflowing with milk and honey. “Just trust me,” God said to them. “Just trust my word.”
Well, the first challenge came when they got hungry. They had been in the wilderness for two months at that point, and they weren’t happy with the quality or the portion size of their meals. They started to grumble against Moses, saying “At least back in Egypt we had meat and bread!” They started to grumble against God, saying, “The Lord should have just killed us back in Egypt rather than leading us out here into the wilderness to die of hunger!” Like hangry toddlers on a road trip, they whined and complained and insulted God. They didn’t trust God to provide for them. They doubted God’s promise that they were on their way to a land flowing with milk and honey and that they just needed to be patient. They didn’t trust God’s word. Splash! They fell, they failed.
Another challenge came when they reached Mount Sinai. The Lord God said to them, “Now remember what I did for you back in Egypt, how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Well, now I am going to give you my law. I am going to give you my commandments. I am going to make you my special people. I am going to come in a cloud and deliver them to Moses, and he will bring them to you. Remember, trust me! Trust my word!”
And by the time Moses made it back down the mountain, the Israelites had already stopped trusting God. They literally made their own god! They melted down their jewelry and fashioned a golden calf and worshipped it. This god conveniently allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do. Splash! They fell again, they failed.
These challenges continued, and God’s people continued to fail. Bonk, splash, slip – down they went. The Israelites continued to put the Lord God to the test, and Moses kept bailing them out with his pleas on their behalf. The only way they finally made it to the promised land was when God dragged a remnant across the finish line after forty years of failure in the wilderness
I’m bringing up this story of Israel in the wilderness because it provides the necessary background for understanding the significance of our gospel reading for today. Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness is meant to parallel Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. And as Jesus went into the wilderness, he faced the same kind of obstacle course. He faced the same set of challenges. But where God’s people failed again and again, Jesus succeeded!
Like Israel, Jesus suffered from hunger. Like them, he faced the deeper temptation to not trust God’s word. But where Israel grumbled and whined until God stuck a quail and manna pacifier in their mouths, Jesus endured! He trusted God’s Word! “It is written,” Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus made it past the obstacle!
Like Israel, Jesus was given a chance to worship something other than God. He was tempted to worship a god that would let him call the shots. “Worship me,” the devil said, “and all this will be yours.” But where Israel turned to the golden calf and started to live as they saw fit, Jesus endured. He trusted God’s Word! “It is written,” he said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus made it past the obstacle!
Like Israel, Jesus was tempted by the devil to put the Lord God to the test, to make God prove his promises by jumping off the roof of the temple. And once again, Jesus endured. He met the challenge. He trusted God’s Word. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he said.
Where God’s people fell short, where they slipped and fell, where they failed, Jesus, God’s Son, prevailed. He endured. Jesus made it through the obstacle course of the wilderness. In this series of challenges, Jesus did what God’s people never could – he won!
What does any of this have to do with you or me? Well, we have begun our own forty-day journey through the season of Lent. We are called to struggle and strive against sin, against the devil and his temptations. We are making our way through a spiritual obstacle course where we are constantly facing challenges that threaten to knock us down. Sometimes it is outside forces trying to topple us. Other times it is our own lack of faith that makes us slip or fail. These forty days of Lent are merely a microcosm of the spiritual obstacle course that is our entire lives. We live so many of our days in the wilderness, wandering and stumbling and grumbling and doubting and despairing. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is helpful in part because he shows us how to get through the challenges we face, in Lent and in life. Jesus has walked ahead of us through this course. We can see his footprints on the obstacle course and are called to follow them. Jesus shows us the moves we need to learn. He shows us the way through, which is by trusting God, by holding fast to God’s Word.
But it goes even deeper than that. Because you see, we are always going to slip on something. We will never make it to the promised land by our own efforts, our own cleverness, our own strength. Jesus is more than our life coach, showing us where to step or how to make it past a challenge. He is that too, but he is so much more than that.
Jesus is our savior. As our savior, he has come to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. His victory over the devil in the wilderness was just a training session before the bigger victory he would win for us by his death and resurrection.
We will continue to be knocked down by sin and death. We will continue to slip and fall. But Jesus has accomplished for us what we could never do for ourselves. He made it through the wilderness of crucifixion and death and into the victory of new life.
As we continue to fail and fall, as we continue to stumble and grumble, Jesus does more than coach us – he carries us! He carries us through every obstacle, every challenge, ultimately giving his victory to us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church