Let Your Struggles Make You Stronger

February 13, 2005

The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor

Montgomery United Methodist Church

 

Matthew 4:1-11

The Temptation of Jesus

1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

   4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

   5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
      and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

   7Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

   8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

   10Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

   11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

 

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning!

 

Friends, we have entered together into the beautiful season called Lent. Someone asked me this week where the idea of Lent came from. How did it get started? We find the answer in today’s scripture, in this moment when Jesus went off by Himself into the wilderness to pray and to fast and to struggle with the ideas of God. We commemorate that time in the forty days before Easter that is called Lent.

 

The church is decorated simply. The color purple reminds us to pray; it is the color of penitence and remembrance. The decorations are simple. All the accessories are taken away. I do not wear the stole. It is to remind us to get back to basics, to get back to immutable fundamentals of what we believe, what we stake our faith on, that which is solid, the foundation which is secure. That’s what it all reminds us of. It is a beautiful season. I love the season of Lent, don’t you? No one can say, “I used to like Lent, but not anymore – it’s too commercial.” It is a contemplative and beautiful time.

 

I’d like to begin our Lenten meditations with this idea: Let your struggles make you stronger. As we dig for the roots and get in touch with the foundations of our faith, I want to talk with folks who have had a struggle with their faith. Perhaps you’ve struggled with a particular doctrine that you were taught when you were growing up and it seems to be shaken a little bit. Or maybe you’ve been through a hard time and your very faith in God is shaken. Or perhaps you have been confronted by a university professor who was not a believer, but you believed in him and all of a sudden your faith is shaking. Have you doubted or struggled with your faith?

 

Oh, my friend, if it is so, then believe me, there is good news for you today, and it comes right from our holy gospel. Let your struggles make you stronger.

 

If you’ve been struggling, the first thing I want you to do is to remember this: you are not alone in your struggle with issues of faith. You’re in the company of somebody named Jesus. The gospel that is before us this morning is a beauty. One of the reasons I love it so much is that there are only two ways that it could have gotten into the Bible. One way is if the Holy Spirit directly dictated into the mind of the gospel writer this story from the life of Jesus. It’s possible. That’s one way.

 

But the other way is if it came from the lips of Jesus Himself. How else could it have gotten in there? You see, I believe it came to pass in this sort of way:

 

One day, Jesus was walking with His disciples, maybe around the Sea of Galilee. The grass was so green. The wildflowers, the lilies of the field were growing. And these disciples, who loved Jesus so much, were following Him as he was walking and thinking. He went up a hill, and there were trees there blowing gently in the breeze. Under the shade of the tree, Jesus said, “Come, let’s sit and rest a while.” And they sat down around Him.

 

They said, “Master, where have You been? We’ve missed you.”

 

He said, “I will tell you. I’ve been through a lot. Do you remember my baptism by John, at the Jordan?”

 

“Oh yes, Lord, we do.”

 

“Do you remember what happened?”

 

“How could we forget? Lord, you went into the water and John didn’t want to baptize You. But you said, ‘Let it be so, for now.’ So, timidly, John took a shell, reached down and filled it with water, and he poured it over Your head and said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, I baptize You.’ And then, I will never forget. The heavens opened, and we heard a voice saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’ It was amazing. And there was a sort of light, it almost looked like a dove, that came down upon You and surrounded You. We were awestruck.’”

 

And Jesus said, “Yes, so was I. It was so powerful, I had to go away. I had to think about what that meant. You know what I’ve been going through. You know about the healings and all the things that have been going on. I had to think it through.

 

“So I went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. The strangest thing happened to me. After a long time of fasting and praying, I was so hungry I was edgy. I was nervous. The sands seemed to glisten like water where there was no water. And the rocks began to remind me of loaves of bread, I was so hungry.

 

“And then a strange thing happened. It was as though I heard a voice inside of me, a low-level voice of a tempter. The voice inside of me said, ‘You know what you can do. Change the rocks into loaves. Go ahead. It’s easy. Why not? You’re hungry. You like the idea of feeding people. Why don’t you just do it?’ And I struggled! The higher voice in me said ‘No! Real living is not about going from loaf of bread to loaf of bread. People need more than this. People need the Word of God. I am not going to dilute my ministry.’

 

“And then another strange thing happened. That low-level voice inside of me took me up to the top of the temple and said, ‘You want to be popular. Throw yourself down. Angels will catch you. You know they will. People will be amazed. Just do it. What have you got to lose? Ask God to help you out; you know He will.’ And the higher voice inside of me said, ‘No, I will not. I will not put God to the test.’

 

“But that wasn’t all. It was as if I could see all the kingdoms of the world. The low-level voice said, ‘You know, everybody wants you to be a political hero. You know, you’ll be very popular. You’ll be giving them what they really want, to be free of Rome. You’ll be the leader. Why don’t you do it?’ And then the higher voice inside of me said, “No. I am about worshipping God and God alone. Go from me, tempting voice.’

 

“And you know what, friends?” He said. “It listened to me. I talked to the low-level voice, and it obeyed me, and I felt so much better. It was as though angels came and soothed me and helped me.”

 

I believe that is how we got that story. And the point is this: if you struggle with your faith, the first thing to remember is that you are in good company. Jesus did, too. In the lonely and shaky moments when you are struggling, remember that, won’t you? You are in the company of Jesus Christ.

 

The second thing to remember, if you’re struggling inside, is to see it through. When folks go through a struggling time in their faith, one of two things can happen. They can walk away from God, or they can walk closer to God. Do you know people who have walked away from God? I’m sure you do. I do. God has never walked away from them.

 

But see it through. Maybe you’re familiar with the story called “Footprints in the Sand.” Why is that story so popular? It’s so popular because people have struggles with their faith. See it through. Know that on the other side of your struggle is strength. The reason for having the struggle is because something within you wants to be born. And when you come through the struggle, you will be stronger. Consider the bark of a tree. The bark of a tree is not necessarily smooth, but gnarled from old rings of growth, and stronger because of it. See your struggle through.

 

In the Old Testament there is the wonderful story of Jacob and the angel. Jacob is traveling, and he encounters an angel, which represents God. He struggles and struggles through the night, and then daybreak comes and the angel says, “Let me go.” And Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Something good comes of this. The angel blessed him and changed his name. He says, “Your name will be Israel, Is ra el, the one who strives with God and prevails.”  See your struggle through. There is strength on the other side.

 

One writer put it this way: “I feel like I’ve been to the lowest depths, and that I’ve hit the bottom. But I found out that the bottom was solid, and I started to bounce up again.” See your struggle through.

 

Oh, and my dear friend, when you do this, remember that if you are struggling, don’t say, “Ah, I may be defeated.” Say, “Aha! An opportunity to get stronger.”

 

May I just tell you about one of the struggles that I’ve been through? It was in seminary. I graduated from Westminster Choir College and looked forward to going to seminary as a place where I would meet the most faith-filled people in the world. I would meet people who were really mature in their faith and encouraging of others. They knew a lot about God and would encourage my faith, too. I thought that’s what seminary would be like.

 

That’s a description of the local church, believe me. It is not a description of seminary. I wish I could say otherwise.  Seminary provides a variety of experiences, some good, some not so good. I was sitting in a New Testament class, and the professor was brilliant. He was lecturing about the New Testament in remarkable ways. I went up to him after class and said, “How wonderful these insights are! They will really help us ministers in encouraging people’s faith.” And he said, “Oh, I have no faith. I am an atheist.”

 

What? In seminary? It’s like a doctor in a medical school saying, “I don’t believe in life.” It’s nuts! But that’s what the man said. I was rattled to the core. I was physically shaking. I went to another friend, a professor of preaching, and said, “Dr. Brock, will you sit with me for a few minutes? I’m having a real crisis.” He did. He said, “Let’s go have a cup of tea.”

 

We went to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but his words were so soothing. I sat there shaking and I spilled tea on my lap and my leg and burned myself. The scar is gone now, but it was a symbol. Dr. Brock lent me his firm faith and restored mine. I can only say that the New Testament professor was teaching what he did because he needed to get closer to the Lord. From that experience I came to appreciate what some of our college students go through. And I came out stronger because of it.

 

So, my dear friend, as you go through the struggles of your faith, know that you don’t go alone. You go with the Lord Jesus Christ. See your struggle through, and when you are confronted by a doubt, say “Aha! An opportunity to get stronger in the Lord.”

 

I’d like to close, please, with a remarkable piece from a book called, Answered Prayers: Love Letters from the Divine, by Julia Cameron. (She wrote The Artist’s Way. You may be familiar with it.) It is, as it were, God speaking back to us:

 

“You do not think you can believe in me. Do you consider your faith to be childish? You strive to be an adult. By adult you mean lonely and disillusioned. Come to me. If you have not lost your capacity for awe, I can heal you. Consider the natural world. A tiny disturbance creates the pearl in the oyster. Allow the disturbances of this world to create for you the pearl of faith. Great beauty can be born of chaos. Tragedy can call forward heroism in human hearts. Dare to see the good born of evil. Be disillusioned by your disillusionment.

 

“To be adult is to see further than the immediate. Lift up your eyes from catastrophe. What good is being born? I am limitless good,” says the Lord. “I pour into everything at all times and in all places. I am the sustainer of life. I am the original source, the cause of all you behold. If you have difficulties with my creation, bring those difficulties to me. Allow me to place in you sufficient understanding that your soul matures.

 

“It is childish to hold a grudge against me, childish to refuse to speak your mind. Join me in dialog. Let me hear your tortured heart. You are not alone in finding me flawed. I see your discontent, and I am ready to meet with you. Let us be adults. Talk to me,” says the Lord.

 

Dear friends, if you struggle, know that something is ready to be born, because God loves you. I do, too. Have a blessed week. Amen.

 

© 2005 Anthony J. Godlefski