Sermon: The Word in the Wilderness

[This sermon was given as part of a series of ecumenical, community Lenten services.]

Good evening. I am Pastor Stephen from the Reformed Church of Stout. Way back at our first Lenten evening service this year, Pastor Robby remarked that Colfax Center is often listen as being in rural Holland. Well, we live in urban Stout. If the stories are true, Stout Reformed was not originally part of this group for the Lenten services because we weren’t rural enough. We are simply too ‘big city’ in Stout.

But we are immensely privileged to join you here in Colfax to worship the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Every year when we get together, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 133:

How good and pleasant it is

when God’s people live together in unity!

It is good and pleasant and the blessing of God that we can worship together in unity tonight. Our time together has been guided by the image of walking in the wilderness. Pastor Robby reminded us how God often withdraws in the wilderness to teach us to hunger and thirst for Christ. Ken LeHew showed us how our true dependence upon God is revealed in the wilderness. And Pastor Olga spoke of God’s provision and comfort for Elijah in his wilderness journey.

This evening I want us to spend a few minutes listening to how Jesus himself walked in the wilderness – what did he bring with him for the journey. So if you are able, I invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 4, beginning in verse 1. Matthew 4, beginning in verse 1. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 4, beginning in verse 1. Before we hear God’s Word this evening, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command his angels concerning you,

and the will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also 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. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

What did Jesus bring with him into the wilderness? How had he prepared himself throughout his life so that when entered the harsh land, when his stomach grumbled and his mouth was dry, when he was at his weakest, he could stand the test?

Scripture tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After a prolonged period in the wilderness, forty days, Satan comes and tempts Jesus. Hungry and tired, Jesus endures three temptations from the devil. And three times Jesus responds the same way. What does he say?

It is written

Jesus responds to temptation by quoting the book. He responds by placing his trust in his heavenly Father, in the God revealed in the Holy Scriptures. When Satan tempts Jesus to fulfill his physical needs, to give in to his hunger, Jesus responds with it is written, “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus not only rebukes the devil with these words, but he lives out these words himself. He lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God. When Satan twists scripture and tries to convince Jesus to test his relationship with God, Jesus responds, it is written “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And when Satan calls Jesus to turn and worship him, Jesus says, It is written “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

Three times he is tempted in the desert and three times Jesus responds with the Word of God. Three times he quotes the book of Deuteronomy. When Jesus came into the wilderness, he leaned on the word of God. By trusting God’s Word, Jesus was able to face the trials of the wilderness.

But how did Jesus know what to say? Do you think he brought all the Old Testament scrolls with him? So when the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread, he said, ‘Hold up a minute Satan, I know it is in here somewhere…nope, not it. nope, not it. Oh here it is, “It is written…” Do you think that’s how it went?

Or do you think that when Satan tempted him to throw himself from the top of the temple, Jesus stopped and pulled out his smartphone? Did he click on his bible app and search, ‘Testing God’ and wait for it to pull up the relevant bible passages? Did he whip out his windows tablet like Pastor Rick? Well, Jesus was perfect, so I doubt he would use a Windows tablet, but I might be wrong. Do you think that was how it went?

If Jesus didn’t bring out a whole bunch of scrolls and didn’t google the bible passages, how did he know? Where did he have the scriptures?

In his heart. Jesus had placed the words of God upon his heart. And with the Word of God upon his heart, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and Jesus stood the test.

Jesus memorized the scriptures. He knew them so well that when the wilderness came, when temptation washed over him, when he was hungry and tired and at his weakest, he knew the promises of God and could place his trust in his heavenly Father.

Those of you from Stout know that I am a huge supporter of memorizing scripture. I believe it shapes you. It is the way Jesus would have learned it, the way the early church would have learned it. I believe it molds you as a disciple. But here in Jesus’ temptations we see that memorizing God’s word helps us prepare for the wilderness.

Before he ever entered the wilderness, by placing God’s word upon his heart, Jesus was preparing for that day. Living by every word that comes from the mouth of God is not only something he did in the wilderness, but something he did every day so that when the wilderness comes, the Word was on his lips and in his heart.

Memorization isn’t trying to have just the magic words for the right occasion. It is entering the trial and when you are at a loss for words, borrowed words come to you, I say to the LORD, “You are my lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.” (Psalm 16) or feeling the loss, but The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. It is not about getting everything right or trying to impress God. It is about clinging to the promises of God revealed in his words and having them so deep in your heart that when you enter the crucible, you are prepared to trust in the Lord.

Hiding God’s word in your heart is also not about how good your memory is. Pastor Olga reminded me this week of how often and how quickly I forget passages I have memorized. I enjoy memorization as a spiritual discipline and as part of my preaching. Our congregation knows this and experiences it. But what you may not know is that I could not recite last Sunday’s passage for you. I would get stuck at some point. Two weeks ago is even fuzzier. I forget – all the time. Sometimes it still stresses me out, but I trust that when I need it, God will bring it to my mind.

The great German Reformer Martin Luther was a advocate of translating the bible into the language of the people. He wanted everyday people to be able to read, understand, and cherish the word of God. As Luther explained his reasoning, he drew from Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. He said that every day Christian enter the world and do battle with Satan. He throws temptation after temptation, hoping to crush us in sin, doubt, and despair. Christians need the bible in their own language, they need to read it in order to stand in that battle. In order to stand in the wilderness clothed in the Word of God so that they can say, “No, it is written. No, I am a child of God. No, Christ has paid the penalty for me, I am free.” Luther counseled that Christians should know and rest in the Word of God not only because we daily face temptation, but because we will one day stand before the throne of God. Luther believed that the devil will bring out all our sins and all our mistakes, but the Christian will be able to stand and say, “It is written – his blood was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

What do we bring into the wilderness? Maybe you are in an incredible dry season in your life and you are not sure how you will take another step – what do you bring? Maybe life is good right now, but what will you bring into the wilderness?  

I encourage you to bring the Word of God. Let the Scriptures saturate your soul so that when you face the dark times you face it in the strength the promises of God revealed in his Word – all those promises which find their yes in Christ.

Let me take you back to this past Thursday morning. I stood outside under an open tent in the wet and the cold, the wind whipping my face and drowning out my voice. A large group was huddled around while six chairs sat in a line. Next to me was the casket. I stood at the graveside of Rhonda Allen, a member of our congregation. What words do you say as we place her in the ground? What do we bring into that wilderness:

I spoke Psalm 121.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip –

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

At the graveside, we brought the word of God. We knew that our words were not enough, however sincere and heartfelt they were. We knew we needed something surer and more solid. We needed to know the promises of God in the wilderness.

where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. We needed to know then as we do in every wilderness journey that our help comes from the Lord. We cannot sustain ourselves in the wilderness, we are not strong enough. As Pastor Olga reminded us last week, the journey is too much for us, so we must lift our eyes above ourselves to the only true help and hope in the wilderness. where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the make of heaven and earth.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

God is the refuge of our soul. He watches over us – not passively seeing, but actively attending to us. He protects us, all the time – day and night. He watches over our life as we enter the world and as we exit.

What do we bring into the wilderness. Three times, Jesus responded by saying, It is written. When we hide God’s word in our heart, we bring it with us into the wildernesses of life.

Come back with me to Thursday, this time in the evening. I had run and lead the Elder’s meeting, so Pastor Olga went upstairs with our oldest son, Elijah. After changing him into his pajamas and reading him a story, they said their prayers:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip –

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

What do you bring with you into the wilderness? Psalm 121, for us, is both a graveside promise and a bedside prayer. They are the words we trust as I lay Rhonda down for her final rest and as we lay my son down for his rest tonight. They confirm our trust in the living God who is our help when, like Rhonda we have finished the long journey through the wilderness of cancer. They confirm our trust in the living God when we pray them quietly in my son’s room, a child who will have many wilderness periods ahead of him.

I do not know what lies ahead for us or for my children. But I hope that what we do now in placing God’s word upon his little heart and our own will bear fruit in the years to come. My hope for us is that when we walk through the wilderness, we will walk in the strength of God’s Word.

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