Lonesome Valleys

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

Sermon

Good morning. I have a question for you. By a show of hands, how many of you decided to give something up for Lent? Next question: How many of you read the church newsletter every month. Okay, so, for those of you who didn’t read my article this month, I discussed some of the pros and cons of fasting during Lent, and whether or not God wants us to give up chocolate for Lent.


The short answer is: NO! I don’t believe God cares if we give up chocolate for Lent. While fasting can be a good spiritual discipline, there must be a deeper, more thoughtful rationale for the fast—something beyond, well, I’m supposed to give something up for Lent, right?

When I was in seminary, my dear friend Charissa decided to give up caffeine for Lent. She thought that fast would improve her physical health, and in the process, improve her spiritual health.


She experienced the physical symptoms of withdrawal right away; she had headaches and abdominal pain. When she felt these symptoms she thought, “this is awful! It must be working!” No pain, no gain, right?


Within three days, Charissa’s husband and kids begged her to have a cup of coffee. Her physical pain led to spiritual pain for Tim and the kids. So, Charissa did the only sensible thing—she brewed a pot of coffee! Her spiritual gain was, perhaps, a greater sense of self-awareness.


Why do we persist in these shallow practices? It may be rooted in a shallow interpretation of Scripture.


Our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We’ve been skipping around the Gospel of Luke for the last few weeks, so it’s worth pausing and considering the context of this story, where it fits in the overall narrative.


In Chapter 3, we meet John the Baptist, who announces the coming of the Messiah, and then he baptizes Jesus. After the baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and then we hear God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then we get a long genealogy that stretches all the way back, through King David, to Jesse, and eventually back to Adam. It’s like a big, flashing sign that announces: “Jesus is the Messiah! The Son of God! Messiah! Son of God!” Just in case you were still wondering.


And then the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, to be tempted by Satan. This is no ordinary test. These are no ordinary temptations. Jesus isn’t tempted by chocolate. He’s tempted by the ability to feed every person who’s hungry, simply by turning rocks into loaves of bread. He can protect himself from bodily harm. Satan even offers Jesus the glory and authority to rule every nation in the world. It seems that with these powers, Jesus could accomplish his earthly mission, and without enduring a painful and humiliating death on a cross.


Toward the end of our Ash Wednesday service, we sang the hymn, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.” It’s an old spiritual and it’s a lovely tune, and it’s perfect for Lent. The lyrics are:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley,

He had to walk it by himself.

O, nobody else could walk it for Him,

He had to walk it by himself.

We must walk this lonesome valley,

We have to walk it by ourselves.

O, nobody else can walk it for us,

We have to walk it by ourselves.

You must go and stand your trial,

You have to stand it by yourself.

O, nobody else can stand it for you,

You have to stand it by yourself.


This hymn implies that we will all be tested like Jesus was. That we will all face trials in our lives of faith. And to a certain extent, I think most of us can agree with that idea. I should add that this hymn appears in the old blue hymnal, but it doesn’t appear in the new Glory to God hymnal.


I suspect that the lyrics of the second and third verses are why the editors didn’t include “Lonesome Valley” in Glory to God. I think it’s very dangerous to compare ourselves and our trials of faith to Jesus’ trials in the wilderness. Yet the hymn sees to invite that comparison.


I get it. On some levels we want to be like Jesus; we want to see ourselves as righteous. We want to please God and earn our place in Heaven. But we can’t do that. It’s not in our power. We’re not Jesus and we can’t earn God’s grace! That’s the problem with a shallow reading that reduces this story to Jesus being able to overcome earthly temptations.


We need to remember that these temptations are unique to Jesus. We also need to remember that these temptations occur after Jesus’ baptism—the context is crucial. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, everyone knows who Jesus is! We know. Satan knows. And Jesus knows. The temptations aren’t about whether or not Jesus is really the Messiah; the temptations are about how Jesus will accomplish the work of the Messiah.

Does Jesus snap his fingers and end hunger? No.

Does Jesus make himself bulletproof? No.

Does Jesus take earthly power over every nation? Again, no.


After the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus goes into Galilee to begin his ministry. He goes into Nazareth and preaches that the scriptures of the Old Testament have been fulfilled. It doesn’t go over well. The crowd is so challenged by what Jesus teaches that they try to throw him off a cliff!


Jesus understands that the work of the Messiah cannot be accomplished overnight. Jesus also understands that the work won’t be completed in his lifetime. That’s why he has disciples—the work has to be handed off to other people. So Jesus goes about teaching us. He doesn’t teach us how to be the Messiah, he teaches us how to do those parts of the work that we can do.


Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors and feed the hungry. Jesus teaches us to care for the sick and visit the prisoners. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and forgive those who have sinned against us. And Jesus tells us to go out and make disciples among the people of all nations. This is how we participate in the ongoing work of the Messiah.


We do this as the Church, the body of Christ in the world. And that may be another reason why “Lonesome Valley” didn’t make the cut for the new hymnal. If we are truly Christ’s Church, then we are not alone! We are never alone! In this community of faith, we are surrounded by people who will help to bear our burdens and stand together with us, during our trials. Walking through the lonesome valleys of life and of faith, walking through these valleys together is the how of being the church. Thanks be to God. Amen!


Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to follow Jesus and participate in the ongoing work of the Messiah. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!


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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

fpcsecretary2@gmail.com

118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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