ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 4, 2013
Acts 19: 21 – 41; Matthew 4: 1 – 11
In last week’s sermon we discovered that “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8: 14). As Christians we find great comfort in knowing that we belong to our Abba, our Daddy. In our best moments we seek to be led by the Spirit of God and we are happy to follow. We spend time in prayer, we read our scriptures, we confer with other Christians who seem wise to us, and we do our best to live godly lives so that we can know what God’s Spirit is calling us to do. We think that because we are God’s children and since we are following the Spirit, no harm will come to us.
A week ago yesterday a group of teenage Christians in Indiana were returning from a camp where they had gone to study the Bible, pray and have some wholesome fun. We can probably assume that the youth group leader, Chad Phelps, felt led by the Spirit to become a youth group leader. Chad was the son of the lead Pastor, Charles Phelps, who likely has spent a good portion of his life following the Spirit of Christ. When Phelps felt led by the Spirit to take this large group of eager young people away for this purpose, the governing body of the congregation discerned by the Spirit that a camp retreat would be great for the kids. On their way back, about a mile from the church, where parents were waiting to pick up their children, the bus flipped over. Phelps and his pregnant wife, Courtney, as well as a chaperone and mother of five, Tonya Weindorf were killed. Many others were wounded. Mechanical failure in the bus was the reason for the accident. We all know that accidents happen, but when it happens to Christians who look for the Spirit’s guidance and are doing something in the service of Christ, its hard not to wonder why it ended as it did.
This isn’t an isolated example – experiences like this abound. Think of the Coptic Christians gathered to worship, whose church was blown up in a terrorist attack and the Christians in China who have been arrested for gathering to study the Bible. Think of the many ministers who felt called to a congregation only to be eaten alive. Think of the many congregations who discerned the Spirit’s leading and called a minister who ate them alive! How is it that we can follow the Holy Spirit and have things turn out so badly? And it isn’t just us today. The same thing happened to Jesus and the believers in the early church.
The Gospel writers record what we call “Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness”. We read of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days. Although he was in the outback camping without food or tent, it was hardly an episode of “Survivor”. Going into the wilderness for religious purposes was not something new – the entire nation of Israel spent not 40 days but 40 years wandering the badlands around Israel. After Jesus men and women, known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers made their home there. Spiritually speaking the desert is the place where the human body and mind are pushed to their limits and the human spirit is stretched and defined. The strange thing about these stories is the reason these people including Jesus went into the desert. Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River by John the baptizer; he had heard God declare these most amazing words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). We hear in this not only God’s tremendous love for Jesus, but also the Spirit’s call to Jesus to take up his mission. Being called as the Messiah is a lofty vocation; was Jesus’ human nature flooded with questions and doubts? Was he feeling proud or secure in the love of his Abba? We don’t know. But after this wonderful moment of blessing, we next thing we read is that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1) Mark states it even more strongly he says “the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness…” where he was “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12)
So the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, for the purpose of allowing him to be tested by Satan or at least putting him in harm’s way. Although the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, notice that the Spirit did not do the tempting. In the book of James we read, “ .” (James 1:15) Yet Jesus had followed the Spirit. Why then did the devil show up? Satan knows a good opportunity when he sees one. He excels at helping us relish our temptations; he makes them seem enticing, beneficial, good, even appropriate. He’s a specialist in helping us see all the advantages of behaving in wrong ways that pull us from loving God and each other, but The Bible makes it clear we are free moral agents. Recall God’s words to Cain before he killed his brother, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7). Still the Devil is marvelously clever. He tempted Jesus to bring about good ends through human means and exult himself in the process; a win-win for all. Jesus’ mission was to usher in the Kingdom of God. The temptations he faced appeared to help him do that; He was tempted to “turn rocks into bread” (Mt 4:3) – give the people what they need and they’ll all follow you. He was tempted to “throw yourself off of the highest peak of the Temple” so the angels could rescue him (vs. 5 & 6) – pull off a flashy miracle and WOW the world; Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle…and they’ll make you a star! He was tempted to worship Satan, in exchange he would get to rule the world. (vs. 9) “Cut a deal with the devil” and you can overthrow Caesar, share Napoleon’s fame, maybe even outdo Hitler. With power like that who could doubt you were the Messiah? These temptations were very real for Jesus. They played on his human fantasies, doubts and fears. After all, he could be a hero, a star and/or a despot or he could do it God’s way and go to the cross. Jesus resisted the temptations and sent Satan running. In the process he came to a solid sense of who he was, of his own morality, of the mission to which he was called. His character was clarified. Most of all, he made a decision to put his trust in the Dad who loved him.
Paul is another example of someone who followed the leading of the Holy Spirit only to see things go south. In fact this was pretty much Paul’s life from his conversion to faith in Jesus onward. In today’s scripture we read that, “Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia and then to Jerusalem” (Acts 19: 21). I doubt Paul took discernment lightly. Everywhere he had gone he had met with opposition. He had been beaten and jailed by both unruly mobs and local authorities. So he was certain of the Spirit’s leading when he followed his route. It took him through the city of Ephesus. There he followed his normal practice of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, first to the Jews in the synagogue and then to the gentiles in the marketplace. As people came to believe, lives changed; people turned away from their old gods to the God of Israel revealed in his son, Jesus. This had an impact on the local economy, angering those who earned a living creating silver idols. It also deeply offended the belief system of those who put their stock in the Greek pantheon of gods, particularly Artemis, the goddess of Ephesus. People got so riled up that a huge mob formed. For two hours they shouted, “Art-em-is, Ar-tem-is, Ar-tem- is”. Paul’s entourage held him back fearing for his life. Finally, the town clerk showed up – perhaps with some strong men in tow – and managed to dismiss the crowd suggesting that legal action was better than rioting. The crowd dispersed and Paul was fortunate to be sent on his way, alive and well.
Paul is an amazing Christian person because he confronted so many trials without losing his faith. He continually faced his fears and put his life in God’s hands. He found the courage and stamina to press on with his mission of telling the world about God’s grace in Jesus’ Christ, even when half dead. In fact, the more trials he tackled the more fearless and determined he became. And even though his reception was frequently unfriendly, hostile and life-threatening, he continued to seek and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, focusing on the souls who came to walk in “The Way”.
Following the Spirit doesn’t guarantee safety or success. In fact it’s dangerous business; it gets people and Satan riled up. It can place us in situations where both our lives and our souls are threatened. We find ourselves with shaken faith, rattled spirits and confused minds. But through it we also discover who we are and whether we have the integrity to stay the course and finish the race. We reach the depths of our faith.
In those times when the Spirit leads you and you find yourself deep in trials and bombarded by temptations, how do you respond? Do you humbly place your trust in God who “sees the sparrow fall”? Do you seek out security in the things of this world or do you believe in God’s purpose for you? Do you love the God who promises to make “all things work together for good”? Do you put God to the test demanding miracles? Or bargain with God to manipulate the outcome? Do you try to control God with “the power of prayer”? Or do you live mindfully with a mature, steady faith that accepts what is unseen, hurtful or hard to bear? Do you curse God or glorify him? Or maybe you make a deal with the devil? Give away your allegiance for ease? Exchange a desperate situation for displaced devotion? We are what we worship. Do you worship God above all else, come what may? Do you run away or like Paul, stay the course? Do you cave in to your fears or do they make you stronger? Do you remain a servant of Christ?
Being led by the Spirit does not assure a safe, pleasant or fruitful outcome. After all, Jesus went to the cross, despised and mocked. It does assure is that in all things, the Spirit is with us, increasing our faith and assisting us to press on and overcome, just as Jesus overcame the last and greatest enemy – death. In whatever life brings, as children of God, we live by mercy and power of the Holy Spirit and “if we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).