The End of Our Wits

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on January 18, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 4:1-17


Please pray with me:

Holy God,
Temptations of all kinds swirl around us.
Give us discerning hearts and minds,
that we might know what is needful for life,
and on whom we rely.


This past Wednesday, 25 of us from Luther Memorial went to see the new movie ‘Selma.’ The group that went was comprised entirely of LMC youth and their parents.

I want you to think about that for a minute.

In a society in which the dominant narrative of our faith communities is that our young people are less and less interested in deepening their relationship with God and so are coming to church less and less frequently; on a Wednesday night, in the middle of January, when the semester has just started an no doubt a thousand other things could take priority, 25 of our Confirmation and Senior High youth set aside time in their weeks to come here, to be fed, and then to go and bear witness to a vitally important, though atrocious, set of memories in our nation’s collective history.

If that doesn’t absolutely demolish the myth of a church that is in decline, I don’t know what does.

Oftentimes, the sheer fullness of our schedules drives us to our wits’ end. It takes a real mindfulness to discern what requires our attention at this very moment. And this group of youth and parents discerned that at this moment, this was what was most important.

I posted on facebook, before we left, asking for my social network to keep us in prayer. Both to pray for our young people as they were confronted with such an intense depiction of history, and to pray that lives would be irrevocably changed.

At the time that I wrote that, I had our youth in mind.

I didn’t know that I was asking for prayers for my own life to be changed also…

I’m by no means an expert on Dr. King, but I’ve studied under two of the foremost African American theologians of our time. Dr. Pete Pero and Dr. Richard Perry, both at the Lutheran School of Theology. And in addition to holding their own places among black liberation theologians, they also both spent time working with Martin Luther King, Jr. Having taken a course on the Theology of MLK from Dr. Pero, and having heard and studied the history and theology of the civil rights movement extensively, I wasn’t not anticipating to be impacted by ‘Selma,’ but I certainly wasn’t expecting it.

The stories depicted in ‘Selma’ were all events that I already knew, but to see them portrayed so vividly and, in my mind, so true to life, was jarring. If you know anything about the inequality protests of the 60’s, you know that protesters were violently opposed by those wishing to keep the status quo. Many were killed for demanding what was legally theirs. It’s unconscionable to us in 2015…

The length and brutal severity of the struggle for civil rights would drive anyone to their limits, and would be more than enough to make anyone want to give up.

When we’re at our wits’ end, when there’s not a shred of energy left in us to continue, the easy answers look most attractive, the quick ways out are the most appealing.

Would we really blame Jesus if he were to give in to his temptations? Consider where Jesus was at during this ordeal. Jesus’ temptation didn’t come at the beginning or middle of his 40-day fast. Jesus wasn’t tempted until after he had already deprived himself of food or drink for 40 days… I can’t even comprehend that…

In the biblical tradition, fasting is a practice for you to discern what is yours and what is not. Fasting helps you to recognize, rather than food, what sustains you? Fasting helps you determine what you rely on for life.

It’s an applicable and timely question for us as well. So many things in our world claim to be life-giving. We are inundated with advertisements, and billboards, and commercials for the new shirt that pulls the whole outfit together, or the new watch you just have to have, or the new beer you must try, or the new restaurant everyone’s talking about. I’m not saying that these things are bad in and of themselves, but I think an appropriate question is, “What is life-giving?” What’s necessary for life? What’s going to sustain you when everything else falls away, and you’re left with just yourself?

For Jesus, it was his worship, his liturgy, the Torah. He had been taught from an early age in the synagogue that the word of God is what is needful for life. It was engrained in him, “written upon his heart” as it says in Deuteronomy 6, which Jesus quotes here. And so when he found himself in the middle of the desert, at the absolute end of his limits, the life-breathing and sustaining word of God was all he had left.

On what will you rely when you’re at your wits’ end?

In Scripture, 40 is a significant amount of time. It’s the amount of time that it takes to find your limits, to arrive at your wits’ end. 40 days and nights on the ark for Noah and his family. 40 years in the wilderness for Moses and the Israelites. 40 days in the desert for Jesus. In addition to finding the end of our wits, we are also changed, transformed, by this amount of time. You don’t endure something for 40 days, much less 40 years, without being transformed by your experience.

We’re fast-approaching Lent, about a month from now…also 40 days long… Will we be open to transformation?

I wasn’t expecting to have my life changed on Wednesday night, and yet…

One of the last lines in ‘Selma’ is still ringing in my ears.

“I’m no different from anyone else. I want to live long be happy. But I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today, the sun is shining and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., like Jesus at this point in his ministry, was unsure about who he was and what he was doing, but he showed up. He was present and open to what God was doing. And lives were transformed. How might we “show up” this year? How can we be present enough to bear witness to what God is doing in this place? In Luther Memorial? In Lincoln Square? In Chicago? In the world?

Will we be so bold as to allow ourselves to participate in this restorative, reconciling, transformative work of resurrection?

The temptation for Jesus here is not as superficial as we sometimes like to think. Jesus isn’t being tempted by the prospect of filling his empty stomach, or being able to fly, or even ruling entire kingdoms. Jesus’ temptation is much, much closer to our own lived experiences. The temptation here is a self-reliance; a denial of our need for God, in favor of that which we so often tell ourselves: I can do it myself…

The recognition for me in this…in all of this: in today’s reading of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, in the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, in the struggle for civil rights, and in the struggle that is just day-to-day life, is that I just can’t do it myself. I need God. I need this community. I need to be nourished by a feast of grace. I need to be reminded of my identity in a pool of mercy.

The temptation we are so often faced with is one of quick answers and easy ways out. It would have been “easy,” so to speak, for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other civil rights protestors to wait for things to change on their own. Although, I’m convinced that if they didn’t fight as hard as they did, we’d still be living in the 1940’s and 50’s in terms of racial equality. Hell, some days I’m not sure we aren’t. But when they were at the edge of their own human limits…when they were at the end of their wits…when they physically couldn’t do any more…they were sustained by God’s promises.

The promises of a God that truly makes all people equal and a God that creates all people in God’s own image.

And they were guided by a dream…a dream of a world in which these things are true.

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