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Don't Bite the Hook! ~ Matthew 4: 1-11

About a month ago my old “mom van”—you know, the type of van that schleps kids and equipment and furniture and all sorts of other stuff — became too dangerous to drive and our mechanic urged us to look for another car without delay.

Thankfully we were able to quickly locate a used car that is quite lovely, although I’m still getting used to all its bells and whistles. It’s got Bluetooth so I can enjoy music and podcasts I’ve downloaded, but lately the Bluetooth seems to have a mind of its own–when I turn the car on random songs and playlists keep popping up in no coherent order.

I probably ought to slow down and study that owner’s manual, but maybe not just yet. You see the other day the “random” Bluetooth offering felt like a word from the Lord. I was in a terrible mood, swept up in irritation and resentment over who even knows what, when I suddenly heard the voice of Pema Chodron, a little Buddhist nun whose wise and humorous lectures on mindfulness have provided me with much food for thought through the years. I had downloaded one of her audio programs entitled “Don’t Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment and Other Destructive Emotions” and there she was, breaking into my self-pity and grumbling with a freakishly appropriate message, “Don’t Bite the Hook!”

I’ve since resurrected that audio program and reacquainted myself with its basic premise that we need to face our shortcomings with strength and compassion. In it Pema Chodron encourages listeners to recognize and deal with destructive emotions before they cause harm. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the ways we get hooked so we don’t suffer and cause suffering by repeatedly acting out our old patterns of fear, resentment, or hopelessness.

I’ve always been fascinated by today’s Gospel reading. In many wisdom traditions teachers and healers go out on vision quests where they come to a clear understanding of their identity and power by dealing with very uncomfortable outward conditions and facing whatever destructive energies may arise from within or without. Jesus’ face-off with the devil is that kind of spiritually defining moment—despite being hungry and harassed in the wilderness, he emerged from those 40 days, grounded in his identity as the Son of God, and ready to preach, teach, heal, and ultimately sacrifice himself for the redemption of the world.

I don’t know about you, but my idea of camping is staying at the Holiday Inn. I’m therefore in awe of Jesus’ willingness to go into the wilderness and contend with temptation and, in the end, not bite the devil’s hook. I hope we haven’t heard this story so much that we take it for granted because it is truly powerful. First, the devil hit Jesus where it hurt– his physical hunger. What a well-played temptation—using physical pain in an attempt to divert Jesus from his spiritual calling.

Next the devil tried to seduce him with offers of worldly kingdoms and glory. Jesus could have gone for that, making the Faustian bargain of selling his soul for unlimited power, but he refused to bow down to anything or anyone but the living God.

Finally, the devil got really slick and quoted Scripture, Psalm 91 to be exact, urging Jesus to test God’s trustworthiness by jumping off the top of the temple. There’s a little extra dig in there too because the devil was basically saying “I’m calling you out, Jesus, on whether you really are the Son of God. Why don’t you prove it with a spectacular show? Go on, Jesus. Take the leap!”

Physical needs and pain, popularity and power, nagging doubts about God’s trustworthiness, and a challenge to one’s identity—wow—those are some pretty devious ways to get inside a person’s head and try to bring them down.

What sorts of spiritual temptations do you face? Where are you vulnerable? Is it in your physical self because of chronic pain or illness, cravings, or a distorted body image? Are you feeling alienated from your own beauty and goodness because your skin color, age, gender, sexual orientation or general appearance have been devalued or demonized in our culture? Do you struggle spiritually because you’ve been hurt personally or because of large scale injustice? Are you driven by a deep seated longing for approval and attention because somewhere someone made you feel like you didn’t quite measure up? And how about that whole issue of identity—do you really believe you are God’s precious, beloved child or do little nagging doubts wear away at your peace of mind? Let’s keep it real and admit that life on this earthly plane leaves all of us feeling vulnerable at times, some of us more painfully than others.

As a human being with my own challenges, I understand our urges to numb uncomfortable feelings with mood-altering substances or experiences. I also get it—that, given the state of the world, our minds can easily gravitate towards anxiety and resentment. And I see how we are often tempted to claim our worth externally—with material objects, power, and achievements—and in doing so lose focus on the only One who can truly bring worth to our lives. And I am therefore all the more in awe of Jesus who did not “bite the hook” in his encounter with the devil. Despite hunger, exhaustion, and powerful attacks he did not give into idolatry, or get distracted from his mission by physical cravings, or try to prove his identity in a dramatic, but self-serving leap from the temple roof. Through it all, he remained steadfast in his devotion to God and God’s call on his life.

I’m still laughing at how it happened that a little Buddhist nun came onto my car’s speaker last week saying, “Don’t bite the hook!” and then began teaching about working with the patterns in our lives that cause so much suffering. What a perfect run-up to the holy season of Lent! After all, Lent is a season for self-examination, for deep study and prayer. It’s a season for learning from Jesus and reflecting on the many things that pull us away from a life-giving relationship with him. It’s a season for facing our own inner darkness as we move in hope towards the light of resurrection.

Where are you likely to bite the hook, to be tempted to forget who and whose you are? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Each one of us will walk this Lenten journey in a unique way based on our life stories. All of us will need to deal with vulnerability and temptations of one kind or another. Some of us will need to come to grips with self-will and the pain it unleashes in our lives. Some of us will need to examine the ways we hurt and condemn others and ourselves. Some of us will need to wake up to our patterns of privilege. Still others will need to get honest about the lies we’ve believed about ourselves that have made us feel hopeless or play small. In the end, no matter what we contend with we will not be not alone. Led by the same Spirit that led Jesus for 40 days, we can boldly walk into the wilderness of our lives and face whatever it is we need to face. The great good news is that God is waiting for us with outstretched arms, right there, right there in the wilderness of our own brokenness and confusion, to bring us home to our truest selves and his never-ending promise of resurrection life.

Thanks be to God.

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