Lenten Series: A Season of Decision, A Season of Victory,
The Valley of Decision
February 26, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
Welcome to the Season of Lent! Today is the first Sunday in this season. Lent officially begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes at Holy Week. I love Lent. It is a beautiful time. It is a quiet time. It is a season when we, as Christians, take time to reflect and ask God to help us grow spiritually. Symbolically or literally we can go on a retreat, perhaps for a little while each day.
Later on in this sermon, I'm going to suggest a Lenten practice we can each do during this spiritual season. For now, let's explore what's happening in today's Gospel.
Today, we see that Jesus is confronted with a struggle and a mystery. Is it the kind of struggle and mystery that you and I confront too? Let's find out together.
First, we have the story of the glorious Baptism of Jesus. Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John was amazed and very hesitant to do this, but Jesus said, "Let it be so for now. I want to be in all ways like the people I love." He went into the water and something remarkable happened. Jesus could hear the very voice of God saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." When Jesus heard this, He must have been overflowing with spiritual happiness.
However, let's look together at what happened right after this wonderful mountaintop experience. The Gospel Mark 1:12-13 reads:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
What does this mean?
Why did the same Spirit who announced that Jesus was the beloved Son of God then send Him out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan? Let’s find out what's going on.
The wilderness was a very barren and desolate place. The howl of the winds was lonely and fearful. It was a place where Jesus would be completely alone with His thoughts and prayers. But there entered into this setting another character named Satan and Jesus was tempted.
We need to do a bit of decoding to understand what happened.
In the belief of the people of the time, Satan was known as "the accuser." That which accused a person, justly or unjustly and constantly challenged them. Satan does not have the implications that it does today. Satan could be a person or an idea.
So Jesus was wrestling with adversarial ideas in the wilderness.
He took them seriously. They were real temptations for Him.
We also need to decode the word, temptations. Why would God lead Jesus to a place of temptation? So what is going on?
I think it is important that we translate the word temptation to mean the valley of decision.
The Spirit led Jesus into the valley of decision.
Satan was trying to get Him to make the wrong decisions - the wrong side of temptation.
The kind we ask God to help us avoid.
In the Lord’s Prayer don’t we say, And lead us not into temptation?
Those wrong decisions are the one we're asking for help to avoid.
Aren't we confronted with this kind of decision making every day?
In the valley of decision, Jesus had to decide what kind of Messiah He was going to be. He had to wrestle with this idea. If you remember, one of the most famous temptations was when the Satan took Him to a high place where He could see all of the kingdoms of the world. The Satan promised Jesus that all these kingdoms would be His, if He only would fall down and worship Satan. If He would fall down and worship low level or faulty thinking. Jesus refused. That was not the kind of Messiah that He wanted to be. He was not going to be a Messiah of political power. He was going to be a Messiah of the God of love. That was His decision. This decision strengthened Him and His ministry.
My friends, if we feel led into the valley of decision or if we feel temptation,
it is not there to destroy us. It is not as if God is playing some kind of cosmic game with us.
No! Our walk through the valley of decision can strengthen us.
Think of the good big decisions that we make in life as decisions that can strengthen us.
The "tall thinking" you did when you decided against this or for that, when you acted decisively simply because it was the right thing to do, hasn’t it made you a better person? Walking through the valley of decision can bring us out to a higher place.
We are tempted in order to strengthen us and to clarify our vision.
That is why Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
He walked through the valley of decision.
And so do we.
An Interesting Phrase
There is another phrase in this scripture passage I would like to point out. Please underline the words, "He was with the wild beasts." What is that about? Why is that in there? Some say it is there to add to the picture of loneliness and fearfulness in the wilderness. But there is another way to look at this. In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 11 starting at verse 6; it says the will of God is that the earth be a place of peaceful coexistence where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion together… and they shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; thus saith our God." It is often pictured as the peaceable kingdom where the lion and lamb lay down together. (This is pictured in our stained glass windows)
Perhaps Jesus found the wild beasts to be a comfort, and not a picture of fearfulness but one of friendship.
What can this mean for us today? Perhaps something that you considered to be a beast of inconvenience or a beast of annoyance may turn out to be your friend. Be open to the possibility. Perhaps, if we allow God to work in our lives maybe that which was a beast to us, could be a friend.
Temptation Makes Us Stronger
Let us go back to the idea of temptation. We hear the word temptation and we think is this some kind of trick or some kind of test? This reminds me of a comic strip I like called Hagar the Horrible.
Hagar went to Dr. Zook, his physician and asked, “What should I do?”
The Doctor replied, “Start doing everything you don’t want to do.
Stop doing everything that you want to do.
Stop eating everything you like to eat.
Start eating everything you
don’t like to eat.”
Hagar says, “Then I am supposed to be happy, right?”
Dr. Zook says, “Right.”
Hagar just sighs.
But we don't have to look at life that way. The true point is that temptation can make us stronger.
Practical Examples: Blow One's Top or Keep One's Cool?
Let’s look at some examples of how being in the valley of decision can make you stronger.
What decisions are you going to have to make this week?
One decision might be, how will I deal with temptations to lose my temper?
Am I going to blow my top or keep my cool?
Sometimes we have to make that decision on an instantaneous basis!
For example, when a person in the car next to us does something inappropriate, we are tempted to vent our rage. It happens in an instant, doesn't it?
I had a situation last week where I had to deal with a financial institution.
First I tried dealing with their website which was very confusing to me and very frustrating.
Next I tried weaving my way through their telephone tree and when I finally reached a human being I had to make a decision.
Do I complain and express my frustration and anger or do I keep my cool?
Well, I need you to be proud of me, I kept my cool. (Congregation laughs)
Jeannie answered the phone.
I said to her, “I am so glad to be talking to a living person, how are you today?”
She laughed and said, “Good, sir. How can I help you?
“Jeannie, I am so frustrated I don’t know what to do. I was not able to navigate your website. Can you please help me?”
She said she was glad to help. We went along this way for a while and she was wonderful. She helped me iron everything out. I asked her to please tell her superior for me that she did a great job.
The temptation to take a more aggressive approach was strong; but the best decision was for calmness.
We face such temptations every day, don't we?
The Temptation of Fear
We may face the temptation to be afraid - or to be brave.
Ten years ago, I was so afraid of doctors.
If I needed a blood test (yipes!), I felt like I needed a general anesthetic to get through it!
I was so scared of anything medical.
Through a series of events and a series of decisions, I am happy to tell you that I no longer fear doctors. I now have a team of fantastic doctors whom I trust, and who help me wonderfully. And should I ever encounter a doctor for myself or a loved one who scares me or makes me feel uncomfortable, I am completely unhesitant to decide to dismiss that one with unflinching immediacy.
I stand here before you in wonderful health because of it.
Sometimes we have to decide to be brave and to know that God is blessing us and helping us to make the right decision.
The Temptation to Dwell Upon the Negative
We might be tempted to give away real estate in our head to something that is not worth it. There might be a situation which is like static in your mind, occupying waking moment after waking moment. Sometimes we have to make a decision to say no to the expending of time and energy on frustrations we cannot change. There are more important things that my consciousness needs to do than spin my wheels with those thoughts. Make a decision for the better path.
The Temptation to Forgetfulness
Finally there is one more decision that we may need to make.
We may be tempted to forget to be thankful.
Every day in every day we are blessed by God, right?
But some days, we may be tempted to say, "Well, God, why didn’t you help me out with this! Or why didn’t You do that?"
Friend, we are blessed by God every day all the time.
Let's cherish the Scripture which tells us,
"Bless the Lord oh my soul and forget not all His benefits." (Ps. 103:2)
Lenten Assignment #1
I invite you during this first week of Lent to think in your prayer time of ten things that you are grateful for. Let that be our Lenten practice together for this first week in Lent. Count them on your fingers; write them down, or just remember them. List them, think of them and be thankful for them. Let's decide - to be thankful.
Always Remember: You're Not Alone
One more thing before we go, Friend. Please underline the closing words, "And the angels waited on Him." Spiritual energies helped Jesus when He walked through the valley of decision. Jesus didn’t do it alone, and we don’t need to either. Angels will help you, too.
God loves you Friend. I do, too. I wish you a Blessed week. Amen.
© 2012 Anthony J. Godlefski