Preaching Mission for the First Sunday in Lent
Mission Begins with Looking Within
Bishop Chris Giesler
Here at the Board of World Mission, we regularly sponsor mission teams that go around the world to do short-term mission trips. They build new structures or renovate damaged or aging buildings, help with agricultural projects, serve as doctors, nurses, and teachers, and help with church programs and camps. When we work with these teams, we require training before the team goes to ensure they have prepared for their trip in practical ways, such as securing housing, arranging for food, and that they have all of their supplies. We also want to ensure that these groups are spiritually prepared and sensitive to cross-cultural issues. Part of this process entails filling out a skills assessment inventory that leaders can use to know what skills are present in their group and who can lead particular projects. Doing this preparation is essential to the success of the effort.
While I don’t want to make a direct connection here, this is something of what is happening in our Gospel lesson for this week, as it is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and his temptation experiences. This story comes early in Jesus’ ministry, as a matter of fact, right at the beginning. Jesus has just had his Baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist, and the text tells us that he was “led” by the Spirit to this encounter in the desert. The desert was a place of extreme heat, lack of water, and no food. The passage tells us that Jesus fasted for 40 days. We don’t know if this meant a literal 40 days, as this reference often meant “a significant period of time” in Biblical reference. Nonetheless, all of this would have left Jesus quite vulnerable to temptation, and the passage tells us the Devil was ready to take full advantage.
I believe that this “retreat” was essential for Jesus as he began his public ministry. He had to dig within himself to discover the answers to questions like:
- How would he use the gifts that he had or was now developing?
- Would he use these gifts for personal gain, glory, wealth, self-gratification, and power?
- Or would they be used to bring all of humanity into a new relationship with the Father?
While in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted three times – first to satisfy his hunger for food; next to test his faith in God’s love by jumping from the top of the Temple; and finally, he is tempted to use his gifts for a selfish grab for worldly domination and the earthly wealth that would no doubt come with it. The decisions that Jesus makes regarding these temptations show how different he is from us mortals, who will jump at the first chance when something that looks better comes down the pike.
Jesus withstands these temptations through his close relationship with the Father and his knowledge of the sacred texts. In each case, Jesus returns to his recollection of Biblical texts that help him chart the course toward God’s will and not his own.
It is here that we see Jesus beginning the process of defining who he is and how he will deal with the temptations that are yet to come for him. In that process, we too, can learn from his struggle.
We lose the impact of this text if we focus too closely on the Devil being a physical being that matched the human characteristics of Jesus himself. That is, the devil appeared to Jesus as a human being or something approaching that. If we allow ourselves to think of the Devil as somebody who would appear to us in temptation with horns on his head, a red face, and a pitchfork in his hand, we leave ourselves open to deception. While we can be tempted into evil by external forces such as a family member or friend, a webpage, TV show, more often than not, the temptation comes from deep within ourselves. We need to be aware that as valuable as self-care is, it can easily be confused with self-indulgence.
As Jesus is about to set forth on his mission to preach, teach, heal, and comfort those in need, this encounter in the wilderness is primarily an encounter with himself. As it turns out, this encounter ultimately sets him on a course to the cross. Along the way, there will be more temptations. For instance, in Matthew 16:21 and following, when Jesus announces that he will be heading to Jerusalem for his arrest, persecution, and death, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him not to go. Jesus’ response is, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Lent is the perfect time for us as Christians to spend some time in the wilderness of self-reflection. It is our chance to take an honest look at ourselves and see if we are using God’s gifts for our own purposes or if we are using them to bring about justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and shelter for those in need. Are we using our gifts to share the good news of God’s grace?
Before we embark on whatever our mission in life is, it is essential to pause and ponder our inner motivations and hoped-for outcomes. Are we in this only for me, myself, and I, or are we walking with Jesus to share God’s abundant grace?