Sunday, March 5, 2017



A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 5, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 4: 1-11

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I’ve always liked the season of Lent, the preparation for Easter. I like how there is a time and a season that is geared toward looking inwards, about repentance, about introspection, about fasting and sacrifice, about going into the desert with Jesus, the very desert for 40 days and nights that Jesus does in his fast. It is how Jesus begins his ministry afterall. . . he gets baptized by John the Baptist then heads directly into the desert to prepare and be tested. . . it made me think about what it takes to prepare. . . you know for anything. . . in my life I have prepared for many things, and as a teacher and coach I have been in charge of preparing students and players, for tests in school, for sporting events, I’ve even directed actors and singers in drama performances. . . one thing that I have learned is that you can practice skills, you can hone and refine your abilities. . . if you are a singer you can work on your range, you can learn the music, you can sing through a song again and again. . . if you are an athlete you can do drills, you can run and stretch, and work on your body, you teach yourself to run faster, to grow stronger, to jump higher. . . as a teacher I teach my students the skills of writing, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, the framing of ideas, the parts of an essay. . . you can do all of those things, but nothing can replace the experience gained from the real doing of something, the real competition, the audience actually being there, the lights on, the stage set, the actual moment. . . because in the moment everything changes. Adrenaline kicks in, emotions soar, nerves become a part of the equation. . . I don’t know how many times I’ve been with students who fell apart on tests, when the pressure was on, known players who were great in practice, but fell apart in the first series of the game, who hit like crazy in batting practice, but lost it all when the game was on and the other team’s pitcher was throwing. When I used to play my guitar live, I always had my music with me, because if I got up there before people it didn’t matter how memorized those songs and chords were, how many times I could play through them, I’d get in front of people and would forget words, forget chords, forget songs that I know entirely, what was I going to play, it’s like when it is time everything sometime just goes blank. That is because Pressure changes everything, the pressure of the real changes everything. . . the biggest thing for me now, and I know you’ve all seen me fighting these battles front and center in front of you, is welling up with emotions. I never know when it will happen, and without exception, it never happens in rehearsal. If it did you could practice working through it, settle the moment, practice it away, but there is no way to artificially create the moment, the pressure, the reality of the stage, or the crowd. . . you can get used to it, you can get better at it, it does form you, but only from being in the game, being on stage, taking the tests, putting it all on the line. . . there was a saying that practice makes perfect, and I remember being a Cal Ripken fan, that he had tweaked the saying that, practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. . . I will say that only that real experience can ever make perfect.

And now let’s look at Jesus and the Devil here in the dessert, the famous temptation scene. . . and how many times have you on days when this is preached, heard the old Cookie in the Cookie Jar illustration, I have at least ten times. . . the pastor gets the kids together for Children’s time and talks to them about sometimes, we want the cookie, but we know we can’t have it, and Jesus was able to resist that temptation, that temptation for us feels like that that cookie in the cookie jar, we want it, it looks so good, it tastes so good, but mommy said we can’t have it,  and put it up on top of the fridge, so we’d have to climb up to the top. . . silently take the cookie, and take a bite. . . or even the more intense message might come next, when the kid is caught, and questioned, and the new temptation is to lie about it. . .yes we’ve all heard it. . . but this is not at all what is going on in this passage. We aren’t talking about a luxury item like a cookie, that an authority figure, for our own good, but out of our understanding made some rule about only having one cookie. . . nothing of the sort. . . we are talking about a man who has been in the desert for 40 days, fasting, no food, you can imagine that in the desert there would not be much water either. . . I don’t even know if that kind of hunger and thirst is even possible for a human being, I can’t empathize as I’ve never been close to that kind of hungry, and to be honest I can’t even imagine it, can’t even imagine what would be happening to a body in that condition, drying up, turning inside on itself, dried out, imploding. . . organ shutting down. . . in his fast. . . and it is here, not at the beginning of the 40 days and nights, but after the 40 days and nights, coming, saying, hey look at all these rocks, why don’t you turn them into bread, solve your troubles, and eat. . . man does not live by bread alone... . but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. . . those words like, “Let there be light, and it was. . .” Miracles right. . . so then Satan says, ok, prove it, prove that you have been miracled through these 40 days and nights,, stand up on this temple, and take a leap. . . God sustained you in the desert by something other than bread alone. . . take a jump, surely God would sustain  you again. . . do not put the Lord your God to the test. . . ok. . . but wouldn’t it be easier for you just to be God, then you could make the rules, make the tests, no more 40 days of fasting, no more suffering, no more cross, no more mission, you can be in charge, you can rule it all, you can make it better, you should make it better, it needs to be better, improved, this world needs to progress, you can do it, I will give it to you. . . away with you Satan, it is written that you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him. . .

Now that is ratcheting up the pressure, after 40 days of hunger to be offered food, after 40 days miraculous to want to push a little farther, after 40 days of sacrifice to be offered the world. . . that is serious pressure, and certainly the real. . . I’m not sure what is worse 40 days in the desert or crucifixion. . . I would imagine that both of them should have ended in death. . . perhaps one was good preparation for the other. . . I remember about 6 years ago or so I tried to do a Lenten Discipline that was offered by the Greek Orthodox Church, I don’t remember how I came across it, I think it was through facebook, and the bag piper at our wedding was Orthodox and had shared it, I checked it out and tried it. . . It was called “Into the Desert” and it was about seeking to recreate the fast, the introspection, and the preparation. . . it was a challenge, but like the drills at practice, or rehearsing a song in the solitary comfort of my office, it was articifial. . . it did not force me to face the realities of life. . . the darkness, doubts, fears, worries. . . it did not put me into the pit. . . so how was I going to prepare for the pits of life, the carrying of the cross, the understanding of what Discipleship and following Christ is about. . . much like the practice makes perfect line doesn’t quite get it. . . so too does another cliché about character. . . and the problem is related. . .that cliché says that character is who you are and what you do when no one is looking. . . I get it, but that is kinda like perfect practice and doing some drills. There needs to be more to it, because I think character is not who  you are when no one’s looking, but instead I think it is who you are when you are in the pit, when all is against you, when your life is crumbling, when you have every reason to  give up, give in, escape, quit, or blame others, seek control, tighten the leash, hate, cheat, lie, fudge a little bit, bend the rules. . . all of those things. You can give up all the soda and chocolate you want for lent, you can forgo that cookie in the cookie jar, but it doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t put on the edge. . . well I’ll take that back, it’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that it means like practice, like shooting 100 free throws in the gym every night, it does make it easier perhaps, to go mechanical when the pressure is on, when there is .2 seconds on the clock and you are at the line shooting 2 down. . . elimination on the line, and you aren’t even shooting to win, but just to stay in the game. . . . yes that type of practice has value, but is not the full test. . . It’s like Job right, Satan can always come up and say, sure he’s faithful, everything is great, the sun is shining, he has his health, happiness, wealth, start taking those away one by one and he will curse you to your face.

One of greatest examples of this dilemma is from the Renaissance, a work by Boccaccio about the Plague that hit Florence, Italy in 1348. .. where somewhere between 25% and 50% of the population of the city died. . . now Florence is a paragon medieval Catholicism. It is the city of Dante, and many of the other greats. . . but when the plague hits, this great City at the Center of Christendom does not have people loving their neighbor, but rather neighbor’s stealing from neighbors, neighbors ignoring each other’s pain, looting, rioting, people walking down the street with flowers to their knows and their eyes raised so as to not smell nor see the plight of their neighbors, and if that is not bad enough, even parents abandoning children to the street. . . in the pit, when times were at their worst, people cursed God and cursed eachother. . . it was easy when things were easy, but when things got unbelievably difficult, faith, piety, and love all but disappeared. . . We need to be more than that. . . but how do we practice? How do we allow ourselves to face that edge.

This Lent I am going to challenge us in to parallel ways. . . one is I going to preach about this kind of facing the darkness. I’m going to look at the Bible stories where the characters were facing the storm, facing the pit, facing the darkness, and find those messages, find those places where we can grow stronger in facing that kind of real. . . and also at the same time as I talked about a few weeks ago, I want us to also be trying to let our lights shine. . . . for this covers the breadth of discipleship, facing the darkness, and loving anyway. . . to enter into the darkest places and still be able to shine our lights for the world. I am looking forward to the journey and don’t mind taking it because the light of Easter is always waiting at the end. . . come April 16 we will get to celebrate the wonder of our world, that we need not fear the darkness because Christ’s light shines in this world and beyond everywhere, even in the depths of Hell, for Christ’s shining light is even brighter than the bitter cold darkness of death. . . and we follow in his heavenly footsteps. . . all the way. Amen.