Three Truths to Live By
A sermon preached at the First Baptist Church of Oakland, February 13, 2005
Rev. James Chuck
The text today is about the temptation experience of Jesus. He is led into the wilderness by the Spirit, and there, prior to his public ministry, he struggles with the shape his ministry would take. The tempter presents him with three attractive possibilities, and Jesus rejects each one in turn. He would not make meeting the material needs of people the centerpiece of his ministry. He would not use spectacular demonstrations of God’s power to attract a following. He would not use political power to achieve his goals. We know that the way Jesus ultimately chose was the way of the cross.
Jesus knew the Hebrew scriptures well. His life was shaped and formed by them, even as he went beyond them. To each of the possibilities that the tempter puts before him, Jesus responded with a scripture text. All three are from Deuteronomy:
- One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (8:3).
- Do not put the Lord to the test (6:16)
- Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him (6:13)
Just as Jesus used these particular texts at a crucial juncture of his life, I would like to take these three texts and see how it might serve to guide our lives today.
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The first thing to notice about this text is that human beings do need bread. We live in a body and that body needs to be sustained. We need food. We need water. We need air. We need clothes to keep us warm. We need a place to sleep at night. We need a place to wash up and take care of our bodily functions. So we need to remind ourselves that we live in a country and in a world where meeting the basic needs of the body is a daily struggle for many people.
I wonder if you have read Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich? The subtitle of the book is On Not Getting By in America. The jacket of the book described the contents in this way:
Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them, inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let along prospect, on six or seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart sales persons. She soon discovered that even the “lowliest” occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Ehrenreich, an established writer and a married woman in her 50s with a Ph.D. degree, notes that unlike most people working at low wage jobs, she has a good education, speaks English, and has no child care responsibilities, and for this investigative project, allowed herself to have a car. What do people do who are not educated, speak little or no English, have no transportation, and have child care responsibilities in addition? How can they survive?
No, this text does not say that bread is unimportant. What the text does say is that bread alone is not enough. We need other people. We need hope. We need freedom from fear. We need a purpose for which to live. We need love. We need joy. We need God.
Five nights a week, Dr. Phil is on TV telling people how to deal with their problems. Dr. Phil is a psychologist. He brings psychological insights to help people understand ourselves and our their interactions with people and circumstances. Social workers, counselors, and clergy are all indebted to psychological insights that inform and enrich our work.
If Dr. Phil is a psychologist, then what is Dr. Chuck? Dr. Paul Nagano? Dr. Richard Ice? Rev. Nancy Smith? Rev. Steve Reimer? If Dr. Phil is a psychologist, then I am a theologist, as are all my ministerial colleagues. A theologist will tell you cannot fully come to terms with your own life if you leave God out of the equation. A theologist will ask how you feel God is leading your life. A theologist will pray with you. A theologist will refer you to Jesus. A theologist will say, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In short, a theologist will take seriously the fact that our greatest need is our need for God.
I am interested in observing that all the theological seminaries in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley are located outside the perimeter of the campus of the University of California. Many of the subjects we teach in the seminary can also be taught at the University as subject matter. For example, a professor at the University can teach about the Bible without herself being a Christian. But for us in the seminaries, the Bible is subject matter that matters. Our lives are guided and shaped by it. And the God the Bible discloses matters to us We are, in short, not detached observers; we are committed partisans to the God revealed in Jesus.
Toward the end of last year, a resident at Piedmont Gardens, where my wife and I have been living for over four years now, indicated to me that she would like to be baptized. Thoughts like these are probably not uncommon among those who are growing old. Early this year, I sat down with her to talk about the meaning of baptism. I told her that baptism meant publicly declaring our willingness to give Jesus a large and central place in our life, and was told that was indeed what she wanted to do. I told her that the baptism could take place at the Sunday evening Vesper Service, or at their next family gathering. She opted for the family gathering when they would be celebrating her birthday. Two Saturdays ago, her children, their spouses, and the grandchildren came to Piedmont Gardens where we gathered together for a simple service when she was baptized by sprinkling. For me it was a powerful experience, for it spoke quietly and eloquently about our need for God.
While in the pastorate, I have baptized hundreds of people within the church setting, including my own children, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I have baptized people in the hospital who are sick and dying, either because they requested it themselves, or members of their family requested it. On one occasion, I did something I never do, I took the initiative and told a dying patient that I would like to baptize him. He consented and I did this in the presence of his family. He died the next day. I like to think that what I did was welcomed by both him and his family. So we are dealing with something that is real here.
The second text that Jesus used was Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). These were the words of Moses to the people of Israel. The full text is, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him in Massah.” (Cf. Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 20:2-13). So what happened at Massah? Moses had led the people out of slavery in Egypt. In the wilderness of Zin, there was no water to be had, either for themselves or for their livestock. The people demanded that Moses provide them with water. They questioned the dependability of God. “Is the Lord among us or not?” They put God on trial and found God wanting!
You and I are people who have put our lives in the hands of God, believing that God is a God who is for uş not against us. This does not free us from the responsibility of planning adequately for our life and the life of our families, but our ultimate trust is in God. However, life for most of us never goes in a straight line; hardly ever exactly the way we had hoped or planned. There are disappointments, setbacks, losses to grieve over. During such times, like the Israelites of old, we are also tempted to question the reliability of God.
Remember the story of Job? Here was a man who suffered terribly, losing family, possessions, and ending up with sores all over his body. Despite the urging of his wife --- at this point, what did he have to lose? --- he did not curse God. Why? Because Job knew that if he gave up on God, he would have no other place to go. If he gave up on God, where else could he go? Job struggled mightily with God, but he never gave up on God. For the Christian, it is not Job but Jesus Christ who suffers outrageously, yet Jesus never wavered in his conviction regarding God’s goodness and purpose for his life. If Jesus was not delivered from his suffering, he had the joy of knowing that his heavenly Father was present in his suffering. And so it must be for all of us as well.
The final text Jesus used Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
A great deal of our energy is spent in making a living. That is a necessary concern at a time in our lives. Even more important than that is making a life. The most important question in life is what is life for? The short answer is: life is for God and for other people. That truth is summarized in the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.
As Christians we have given God a large and central place in our lives, because it is only God who deserves to be there. God alone has rightful authority over our lives. This is what we affirm when we gather together to worship Sunday by Sunday.
A friend of mine was talking to me one day about her husband’s religious commitment. She said my husband has this big God, the Creator of the Universe, the Sovereign and Almighty God. And then he has all these little gods --- education, money, success, the abundance of material possessions – and he seems a lot more interested in these little gods than in the big God he comes to worship on Sunday.
When we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” in the Lord’s prayer, we are saying to God, “I want what you want for my life, I want what you want for my children, I want what you want for this congregation, I want what you want for this country and for this planet.” That is a prayer that God is waiting to hear from his people. That is a prayer that will always be answered.
So what do these texts tell us?
We need God
God can be trusted
God alone is to be worshipped