"When the Meaning of Life Shifts"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – March 13, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Matthew 4:1-11

    This morning we are going to consider the moments when Jesus wandered in the wilderness and look at what took place during his sojourn into his aloneness.   Then, we will examine the implications for our lives from the conclusions Jesus reached.

    All of us have experienced moments during our lives when our familiar routines were shattered because of events that placed us in environments where we have never been.  This experience may have been our first job interview, getting married, starting a family, or losing our job, the death of a spouse or facing retirement.  Try to imagine your entire slate being wiped clean by living through an 8.9 earthquake and the resulting tsunami. 

    Most of us launch ourselves into life’s swift currents without a clue of the meaning of life or what purpose we might serve.  Sometimes we do not have the luxury of having choices.   Circumstances can be so demanding that we have no choice.  There is little doubt that Jesus found himself in this latter category.

    What we have in Matthew’s lesson for this morning is Jesus’ attempt to sort out his identity long after his educational programming had been well established.  While there is little history of Jesus’ early childhood, we can sense certain disciplines that must have been part of those years. 

    For example, Jesus was highly educated, not only in the craft of his father, but also academically.  He could read and write which were skills that required formal training.  (Luke 4:16f)   Only one percent of one percent of the people in Jesus’ day had these abilities.  It is quite possible that Joseph had enrolled Jesus in a rabbinic school that provided such training.  This would explain Jesus’ extensive knowledge of the Laws and the Prophets.  In the Gospels, people frequently referred to him as Rabbi.

    Something happened to Joseph, however, that removed him from the life of Mary and their children.  Luke is the last Gospel to mention Joseph by name.  (Luke 4:22)  Early traditions of the second century indicate that Joseph was killed in a derrick accident while working on Herod’s fortress complex at Masada.   

    As the oldest child, Jesus had to let go of the goals he was pursuing and become the sole support for his Mother, brothers and sisters.  He remained a carpenter for years while also assuming the considerable responsibilities required by his becoming the head of a Jewish household. 

    While Jesus was attending to his duties as a carpenter, we might imagine that some acquaintance stopped by the shop to retrieve a yoke Jesus had repaired.  As the two were talking, Jesus’ friend asked:

    Have you been down to the river to listen to your cousin?  He’s drawing quite a crowd with his preaching.  When you have a slow day, take a break. Go listen to what he is saying.  He is quite a curiosity, attracting even the Scribes, Pharisees, and Lawyers.  He’s good at scaring people to death!

    That slow day came and Jesus went to hear John along the banks of the Jordan River and decided to be baptized.  As John raised him from the water, Jesus heard the same words he would hear three years later on the Mt. where he was transfigured -- “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” 

    It was this experience that sent Jesus into a deserted place to ponder his identity.  All the temptations Jesus faced had to do with food, power and wealth.  Would such thoughts have really tempted Jesus?  He already had marketable skills and knowledge.  He was also providing quite well for his family.  His instant response to all of the temptations indicated that such considerations had little or no impact.  If this is so, what else was Jesus pondering for forty days?  What dots was Jesus trying to connect? 

    He may have been pondering the words he heard from his cousin along the banks of the Jordan, particularly John’s repeated references to the coming Kingdom of God.  We know this because when his forty days of fasting and contemplation ended, he left his profession and his carpentry shop and began preaching “Change your thinking, stop missing the mark with your choices, the Kingdom of God is near.”  (Matt. 4:17)

    What had prepared Jesus to realize that it was unwise to anchor his identity exclusively in the material world?  He knew what had happened to a distant relative who pursued food, power and wealth.  That relative was King David’s son, Solomon, who ruled the region for 60 years during the golden age of Israel. 

    King Solomon built fabulous buildings and fortresses, owned gold, copper and iron mines.  He controlled the sea with his navy and the major trade routes with his army.  The king, if you can imagine, had 700 wives and 300 concubines.  Just to feed his family each day required 150 bushes of fine flour, 300 bushels of meal, 10 stall-fed cattle, 20 pasture fed steers, 100 sheep and a large number of deer, gazelles, roebucks and poultry.  (I Kings 4:23) 

    In spite of all his food, power and wealth, Solomon wrote these pessimistic words in one of our lessons this morning:

    Everything leads to weariness, weariness too great for words.  Our eyes can never see enough to be satisfied; our ears can never hear enough.  What has happened before will happen again.  What has been done before will be done again.  There is nothing new in this whole world.

    Solomon was correct.  In fact, historians echo Solomon’s findings and have written about the major themes that are present in every society since the dawn of civilization.  Such writers are more objective and less pessimistic than Solomon but clearly there is nothing new under the sun but our responses to those themes.  Changing people’s thought patterns and responses is what Jesus began to teach them.    

    What Solomon was missing was the intimate knowledge of how to live from a consciousness that could produce inner peace; the inner-world that produced a wealth of spirit that creates patience, compassion and the intuitive sense of God’s presence during every moment.  King Solomon knew how to function well in the material world, but he remained so hungry for insights into the created order that he assembled the largest collection of wisdom literature in the ancient world.

    What can we learn from Jesus’ soul searching in the wilderness?  What message is in our Scripture lessons that we can take with us this week?  Jesus came away from his 40 days of reflection with an entirely different message from the one John was preaching. God was not coming in wrath to condemn sinners.  Jesus redefined the meaning of the Kingdom of God by teaching, “The Son of Man did not come into the world to be served, to be praised or worshiped, but to give his life to teaching others to change the quality of the creativity by which they live.”  (Mark 10:45) 

    Did we hear that?  Think about that for a moment.  Jesus decided in the wilderness to become a servant to others, not the other way around.  Jesus did not want to be the center of our attention!   He wanted his followers to become angels in the flesh right where they found themselves.

    In attempts to turn the spotlight away from himself he taught, “Those who believe what I have taught will do even greater things than I do.”  (John 14:12)  When a wealthy man called Jesus “good teacher” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me ‘good’?  No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)  

    In John’s Gospel, Jesus got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter challenged him, “There is something very wrong about this.  You should not be washing my feet.  You should be sitting here and I should be washing yours.  Jesus said, “No, I am right where I want to be.  If you do not understand what I am doing, you really do not know who I am, nor do you understand who God is.” 

    For the rest of his ministry, Jesus pointed with his words and his deeds to what living in the Kingdom of God looked like.  What we can do is show up in all circumstances and among all people and be caring, compassionate and helpful.  Jesus did this constantly and he invited his listeners to do the same.  (Mark 9:41)   On most occasions, what was inside of Jesus was always flowing toward others.

    There was a youth conference years ago and a fifteen-year-old girl attended.  She was short and a bit overweight.  She was not physically attractive and she would need to use crutches for the rest of her life.  She radiated that in spite of her challenges she felt good about herself. On the closing night, the teenagers had a dance. The girl sat down and leaned her crutches against the wall. She loved the music and thoroughly enjoyed watching the others dance.

    During the evening the band began to play a slow number and a sixteen-year-old boy walked over to her, held out his hand and said, “Please, would you like to dance with me?”  She looked up at him with disbelieving eyes that immediately began to flood with tears.  She reached out with her quivering hand and he helped her get to her feet.  They held on to each other very tightly because she was unable to stand on her own.  When the dance was over, he sat with her and the two talked for the rest of the evening.  Her beauty was inside of her and it showed.

    When the evening had ended, one of the youth counselors went over to the young man to thank him for the beautiful thing he had done.  He said, “I notice that while you were dancing, she whispered something in your ear.  What did she say?”  The young man responded, “What she said surprised me.  She told me that this was the first time anyone had ever asked her to dance in her life.”

    We do not perform miracles by intending to do something wonderful for someone.  Miracles happen because God is alive in everything that we do.  For all we know, God could be using twenty-six year-old Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, to unite the world.  There is no telling how many lives were saved in Japan unprecedented earthquake and tsunami by Mark’s social networking creation.  What inspired Bill and Melinda Gates to establish a foundation with their wealth?  What caused them to want to heal rural populations of their dreaded diseases?  God can use anyone who radiates creative, loving energy.  This is what God is.

    Once a young man had been part of a gang and he had engaged in some criminal activities because he had been befriended and was given an identity by the other gang members.  He had not been brought up with such values.  What he treasured was the sense of belonging. 

    One night he tossed and turned in his bed until the morning.  Something urged him to go to his church.  Upon entering the sanctuary, he felt awkward because he was the only one there.  He sat down for awhile and then he took out a piece of paper and began to write down everything he had done and all the attitudes and activities he was going to correct for God.  After about 40 minutes of writing, he signed his name and carried the piece of paper to the altar and returned to his seat. 

    Suddenly, he felt as if someone had turn on the heat in the church.  He was surrounded by the awareness of a presence that had not been there earlier.  His mind became filled with words that were not his.  “Tim, what you have written is wrong.  Get that piece of paper and tear it up and go back to your seat.”  Tim followed through and then returned to his seat.  Nothing happened immediately.  Then more words came, “Take another piece of paper, sign your name at the bottom and let me fill in the rest.”

    It is not for us to tell God what we are going to do for him or for others.  It is not our responsibility to set the conditions for how God can act through us.  All God needs is our commitment to show up and serve regardless of the conditions.  THIS is what Jesus learned in the wilderness and God has been active among his children ever since.

    As we enter the world this week, remember to show up in all your relationships with a spirit that wants nothing but to support the growth the person in front of you.  Our role is to represent God’s presence in all circumstances, but we must let go of the results we would prefer and allow God to take care of the details.