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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

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Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Who Is in Charge?

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

1st Sunday in Lent - Year A

March 09, 2014

Both of the readings from the Bible that you have just heard struggle with the question of who is going to be in charge in our world and, more importantly, in each of our lives.

In our reading from Genesis, Adam and Eve wanted to reign God in so they could move on up and be in charge.  They thought by eating the forbidden fruit they would see as God sees.  They thought they would make God obsolete, God would no longer be needed, and they themselves would fill the role of God.  You might say Adam and Eve wanted to cut out what they mistakenly saw as the eternal middleman.

On the other hand, in our reading from Matthew, Jesus shows far greater wisdom and faith.  He did not reach for the quick answer to the hungers of life by turning stones into bread, nor did he go for the spotlight of instant fame by defying the laws of gravity and jumping from the pinnacle of the temple, nor did he reach for the reins of power; rather he stated his trust in God over and over again.  He was determined to serve God on God's terms.  He was settling for himself the answer to the question of who was in charge as he set out to begin his ministry, a ministry that was to proclaim good news to the poor and release for the captives, a commitment that would lead him through the journey ahead, a journey that would lead to Calvary.

How would you answer the question of who is in charge of your life, of our world?   Of course, you think, I would say God; after all, I just listened to two scripture lessons that reflect that belief, and I am listening to a radio program that is sponsored by churches.  How else could one answer?

We might laugh at Adam and Eve falling for the spiel of a talking snake to determine their eternal destiny, but are we much different when we make choices based on convenience instead of what needs to be done?  Or we base our decisions on what make us happy or brings us gratification instead of making the world a better place in which to live.   We can appear so foolish when one's faith is all about one's self and one's needs.  

In our worship life and our service for God and His church, we are constantly tempted to serve our needs and desires rather than seek what our God desires so we might serve Him.   People leaving the membership of the church sometimes say, "I'm not getting fed there," instead of asking, "How can I feed others?"   Another question to ask in the face of this spiritual hunger is, "What am I doing to be fed, is my prayer life strong and daily, am I faithful in my attendance, do I spend time in the Word, and am I open to new ways to understand?"

Sometimes people leave when they fail to find worship to be entertaining.  Why do we worship?  Is it not to enter into the presence of God, to seek His guidance, to praise his name?   One way to measure worship is to ask, "Am I growing in my faith through worship?   Am I a better person for attending?" instead of asking, "Did I have a good time?"   Sometimes the challenge of God can be uncomfortable to one attending. 

Something as simple as prayer can be aimed in the wrong direction.  If we are not careful, prayer can be very self-centered instead of God-centered.  Prayer is not to demand what we want from God, but to seek what God wants from us and for us.  After all, who is in charge?  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "Just when you think you have reached the level of self giving love, you have probably just gotten to the level of enlightened self-interest."   The temptation is for us to shape our God in our way of thinking instead of being shaped by the true God according to His will.

The other is in the very barren wilderness where instead of plenty there was scarcity.  The first set in the Garden of Eden was dealt with on a full stomach and the other with a stomach that was empty. 

Maybe we learn that risk when we are so blessed compared to most of the world.  We must seem to others to live in a Garden of Eden.  We have an abundance of most of whatever we will need.  But if we are honest, like Adam and Eve, many times, we want more; we want to be in charge.  We are tempted by the forbidden fruit much as spoiled children would be.

Our Gospel from Matthew made it very clear that Jesus was probably at the point of being desperate in those forty days and nights, which is the Bible's way of saying a long time.  He had fasted, and we can imagine he was famished.  The offer of all those stones becoming bread had to be very tempting.  And believe me, if you have been to the Holy Land, you know there seems to be stones everywhere.  Unlike Adam and Eve, who had plenty of other fruit to choose, the temptation to Jesus must have been much greater.  It would be similar to when you have to fast before a medical test and you see a commercial on TV for food; you can just taste the food they are advertising.  But Jesus dealt with the temptation by finding his direction in the principle that one does not live by bread alone, but something much more basic, building our life on the idea that God is in charge.

One of the difficult answers that Adam and Eve found was when they saw themselves as God saw them, they saw themselves as very inadequate alone and there was the need to cover up.  You know those moments we call "TMI moments," too much information, that happen very quickly when we try to be in charge, when in fact God is in charge.

James Turner in his book Without God, Without Creed, the Origins of Unbelief in America writes that we have a god who promises too much, too easily, and we don't hear any demand or challenge, we are moving to atheism.  In tying their religious beliefs to their convenience, we have slowly removed the one true God from their lives.  The truth is we cannot truly have God in our lives except as our Lord and Father.

In our first reading, a part of the very familiar story of Adam and Eve, there is both good news and bad news.  The good news is that there is great potential for all of us as we are created in God's image.  That gives us hope.  But the bad news is that it is so easy to push that image aside, to try to push God out of the picture and take charge for ourselves.  We try to make God fit our design instead of us fitting God's design.

Let's talk for a moment about the temptation of taking charge and putting God in a place that we can control.  Are we willing to be faithful as Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness, or are we going to reach as Adam and Eve for the forbidden?

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship we read, "Are you worried because you find it difficult to believe?  No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, you will find in some part of your life where you consciously resist or disobey the commandments of Jesus.  Is there some part of your life in which you are refusing to surrender at his behest; some sinful passion, or some animosity, perhaps your own ambition or reason?  If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult, or that your request of faith goes unanswered.  Go rather and be reconciled with your brother, renounce the sin that holds you fast and then you will recover your faith!  If you dismiss the word of God's command, you will not receive the word of God's grace.  The man who disobeys cannot believe, for only the one who obeys can believe."  Notice the key is not that we are not willing to believe, but that we are not willing to obey.  Remember the old Gospel hymn Trust and Obey:  there is no other way to be happy with Jesus than to trust and obey.

For when we don't obey, we try to be in charge and not allow God to be in charges of our lives.  And for this, we pay a price.  In his book No Place of Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? David Wills shows how in adapting to the standards of the culture, the churches have paid a high price.  He reminds that culture is never harmless or neutral.  The danger, he writes, is when presenting Christ as beneficial in getting what the culture wants, we transform Christ.  I might add that instead of Christ transforming us or our culture, we try to be in charge.  The One who created all must be the one in charge.      

The key is for us to allow God to be in charge instead of like Adam and Even trying to control.  Turning to Bonheoffer again, this time from Letters and Papers from Prison, he writes of the stations on the road to freedom, one of which is discipline.  He writes, "If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your words and senses, for fear your passions and longings will lead you away from the path that you should follow.  Only through discipline can we learn of freedom."

Jesus in the wilderness found victory was not necessarily getting what he wanted, but committing to the way that God would have him go.  He chooses not the way of power or fame or instant solutions to difficult issues, but he chose to let God be in charge.  Perhaps this is what he meant when he said to Pilot, "My kingship is not of the world."  This victory came with a price, for what was decided in the wilderness would lead to the Cross.

This victory was in committing to the simple, but powerful, truth that God was in charge.  But that did not shut out future temptations.  In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, the chapter before tells of Jesus being tempted by Peter to step back from the way that would lead to the Cross.  Jesus had to say to Peter, "Get behind me Satan."  I don't think it is abusing Scripture in that scene or the one in the wilderness to imagine Jesus adding, "It didn't work in the Garden of Eden, and it will not work for me."  Perhaps that is the reason we start every Lent with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness; we have to answer again and again, who is in charge.  Jesus answered it again in the garden just before his arrest when he said to God not my will but your will be done, and he answered it on the cross.  Victory begins and ends in the heart when we let God be in charge and we stay in our place.

Victory is when we don't want to race ahead and we trust in God.  Richard Petty of NASCAR fame put it well when he said, "One of the first things my father said when I started racing was, 'Win the race as slow as you can.'"  Maybe if Adam and Eve had taken the time to consider what they were doing, the world would be very different.  Jesus patiently drew from the well of his faith and answered each temptation.  Declaring after all, "I am not in charge; neither are you Satan, for God is in charge."

Let us have the faith not only to recognize God's authority, but also to live under it.

Let us pray.  O God, put us in the place that we need to be to trust thee and to obey thee.  Let us not go in our own foolishness but follow in your grace.  Amen.

 


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