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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE THE REV. SARAH REID BIRD MARCH 24, 2019 The Temptation to Be Full EXODUS 16:2-4a, 13-21 MATTHEW 4:1-4 It is always a privilege to step into the pulpit, to feel the weight of responsibility and opportunity I have to speak a word from God to His people. But today is a special privilege for me, because I get to preach in the exact pulpit my grandfather preached in nearly forty years ago when he served this church as interim pastor. At the risk of reverting to mere sentimentality or nostalgia, I wanted to share that with y’all because for me it is a unique testimony to the faithfulness and creativity of the God we serve. It reminds me that God was active and moving and attentive to His people here at FPC then, He is now, and He will be in this season of transition and the years to follow. So with expectation and confidence, let us pray and ask the Holy Spirit to speak this morning just as the Spirit spoke through Granddaddy decades ago. Let us pray. This morning we are continuing in our Lenten sermon series as we look at the temptations of Jesus. Thus far we have traced the story through the prophecy of John the Baptist in the wilderness and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Today we move to the compelling and often confounding chapter in Matthew’s gospel that describes the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Now as one who has muddled through her fair share of sculpting academic papers, I know that one of the most important elements of a good, seamless essay is transition sentences. Here, Matthew gives us nothing. Look at the text. We move directly from God’s definitive word in the waters of baptism, “This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased,” to “then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Some translations convey a greater sense of urgency with words like “immediately” or “at once.” This same Spirit that had just descended gently as a dove to claim Christ as God’s Beloved is now driving Christ into the wilderness to be tested. Just as Jesus identifies with us in our baptism, so too he identifies with us in our temptation. The wilderness was a place with which Matthew’s readers would have been quite familiar. Their ancestors wandered in the wilderness for forty years before arriving in the Promised Land. The wilderness is a place of longing, an uncomfortable place where you are stripped of those luxuries and distractions that give a sense of security or self-importance. The Israelites knew the wilderness. Perhaps you do too? It looks different for different people – the diagnosis that altered your life forever, the marriage that fell apart, the layoff that you didn’t expect, the loved one lost too soon, the child whose future you cannot predict or protect. The wilderness is a place where we have lost our sense of security and feel acutely our yearning for something more. The wilderness can be a gift if we let it point us to the only One who can truly satisfy our deepest longing. In our Old Testament text this morning we see how reticent the Hebrew people were to give up that sense of safety (even when it was found in slavery) because they did not want to be hungry in the wilderness. “Oh that we had stayed in Egypt where we sat beside the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” They preferred the misery they knew in the past to the mystery of the future. Their focus was on being full and happy, but what if that wasn’t the point? What if God was calling them beyond complacency and into the dynamic and uncomfortable realm of yearning and longing? At first the title of this sermon may be confusing: “The Temptation to Be Full.” That seems odd. Doesn’t God want us to be full? Isn’t that His plan for us? Satisfaction and fulfillment? Contrary to what many teach (including some within the church) the goal is not gratification and contentment. Hunger is not the enemy. Hunger can actually draw us deeper into God’s presence because it reminds us that we are only creatures utterly dependent upon the provision and grace of our Creator. The Israelites learned this quickly as God heard their complaints and responded with manna – a thin, white, flaky substance that settled on the ground like dew each morning. God provided for their hunger and longing, but here’s the catch: God did not just send down storehouses of manna to feed them indefinitely. God did not lavish them with food upon which they could smugly gorge themselves and forget their dependence on Him. No, God gave them enough for each day – no more, no less. The first semester of my first year at seminary was terrifying and energizing all at the same time. There were new things to learn, new people to meet, new places to explore, and every day felt a little bit different. Then, the doldrums of New Jersey winter set in and as I settled into my second semester, it became harder and harder to find that spark and joy. I eventually found myself in the office of the seminary chaplain, Jan. She listened as I unloaded about the hunger I was feeling for something more and the longing for that energy I once had. Then she retold this story from Exodus 16, and she encouraged me to look for the manna in my own life. “It may be something small, but God’s grace can be found in each day,” Jan assured me. In that wilderness period of my own life, I learned how to look for manna and trust that there was enough for each day. It could have been as simple as a good conversation with a friend, a meaningful prayer in chapel worship, or the first crocus popping up from the frozen ground that spring. But it reminded me that God is faithful. We are hungry creatures. We are hungry for love, for acceptance, hungry for companionship and connection, for grace and forgiveness. And God provides, but more often than not, He uses the “manna approach.” When we are in times of wilderness wandering, when the ache in our hearts seems to gnaw relentlessly, God does not leave us. There is manna, enough for each day – no more, no less, so that each day we return to Him and recognize our dependence upon Him. There is a parallel here in our gospel text as the Enemy tempts Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. But Jesus recognizes that bread is not really what he needs at that point; yes, he’s famished, but he is also connected to the Father and he trusts His timing and provision. “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And the words Jesus had just heard spoken not three verses earlier were, “You are my beloved.” He can trust that word and his Father who spoke it. And we can too. It’s one of the reasons we adopt certain Lenten disciplines – giving up that which can draw us away from God. We don’t give up chocolate or alcohol to lose weight. We don’t abstain from social media or gossip to make ourselves better people, but to point us to God. When we forfeit those things that numb us to our inherent longing and hunger for God, we have no choice but to sit with the ache, wrestle with it, and just like Jesus in the wilderness, allow it to pull us back to our Creator. Because we are creatures dependent upon a Creator to feed us daily – every day. Our deepest longing is not meant to be satisfied, but to lead us to God. That is a radical statement so I’m going to repeat it. Our deepest longing is not meant to be satisfied, but to lead us to God. And that is one of the most countercultural ways we as followers of Jesus interact with this world recognizing it can never satisfy us. Every day we are bombarded by messages that promise we will be happy once we have achieved it “all” – the right job, the right house, the right spouse, the right body, the right paycheck. And once all of those pieces are in place, we will find fulfillment. Craig Barnes points to this temptation as he quotes from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the story, the Grand Inquisitor is interrogating Jesus, livid that he refuses to satisfy the appetites of the people. Though Christ promises true freedom, the Grand Inquisitor makes this hauntingly accurate observation, “In the end people will always lay their freedom down and cry out ‘Enslave us, but feed us!’” As long as their appetites are fed, the people prefer slavery. And how often do our lives portray that same conviction? We allow those things that cannot satisfy, bind us. We are so terrified of feeling the pang of hunger that we willingly don the chains of addiction. And it takes so many forms. We are an addicted people are we not? Addicted to the next new thing, the latest gadget. Addicted to praise and prestige, to money and the pursuit of wealth. I would say most of us are addicted to our phones, the scrolling, the news feeds, the constant barrage of information. We are addicted to the illusion of connection. And so we become ensnared in the vicious cycle of longing and momentary satisfaction only to be wanting again. But our hunger is not the enemy. Barnes contends that “our natural hunger is a blessing. It’s an invitation rising from our souls to return home to God. All vain attempts at satisfying this hunger with anything other than God will make us hungrier.” So what if instead of choosing slavery to our addictions and appetites, we trusted God to give us what we truly need? What if rather than taking our cues from the restless Israelites who pined for the slavery of Egypt, we follow Jesus’ example and embrace the hunger that reminds us God’s word is enough? And the word He has spoken over each one of us, over each one of you is Beloved. You are free. So may your longing draw you closer to the Living God who created you and loves you so much He gave his Son to save you. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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