Stumbling Blocks

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner 

Matthew 4:1-11

Something seems to happen when kids turn about two years old, it’s like a switch turns on inside of them telling them their job is to test every physical, emotional, and relational boundary they encounter. When my son Will was that age, he was always challenging the laws of nature, and a good part of the time, our patience too. One time we were at a Super Bowl party, and he was standing next to a glass coffee table in our friends’ house when all of us sudden he started bobbing his head, until WHAM! He hit it right on the table. He looked up at us stunned, but fortunately no worse the wear. He just needed to test his will against the will of the table. We’ll call that bout a draw, and a lesson learned, because he’s never done it again.

It can be frustrating and sometime downright horrifying to be part of these tests with kids though. If you’ve ever cared for a preschooler, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The test for the adult is whether or not they (or we) will make it through the button-pushing, boundary-bending, authority-defying exercises as the adults we are called to be in these situations. Will we be calm, rational, patient, and apply the right amount of authority without losing our blessed minds? The truth is, probably, sometimes, maybe – right?

The tests of children can sound downright devilish. “If you are the adult in this relationship, turn this food into something that I will actually want to eat.” “If you are who you think you are, save me from hitting my head on the floor after I throw myself off this bed…right about…NOW!”

As much as these tests might make us adults crazy, they are a natural and important way for kids to learn their own limits and the ways they engage the world around them. The boundaries we set and the ways we respond teach them whether they can trust the people in their lives and the environments they live in.

In some ways that switch never turns off. Testing what obstacles we can successfully navigate, whether physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual is just part of the whole life experience. But there are times when those tests make a more significant impression than others and help define our futures and our faith.

In ancient times, and in many cultures still today, tests of maturity, integrity, and endurance are administered by the community during rites of passage. In native cultures, young men were tested by being sent into the wilderness alone to survive by hunting particular animals, and finding particular plants, and passing particular tests. These tests were meant to strengthen the resolve of the person being tested, teach them something of themselves, and build confidence to take on a greater role within their community. In successfully completing the right of passage and passing the test, they were welcomed back into their community with a new name, position, and authority within their people. I sometimes wonder if a contemporary version of some kind of quest as part of confirmation would change the trajectory of the faith for our young people.

When the devil encounters Jesus in the wilderness, he challenges Jesus’ identity. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” We might be quick to think of the devil as an evil presence, diametrically opposed to God, trying to prove that the evil side is greater than God’s side.

But the Greek word for devil in this passage is “diabolos” which is not a specific character who opposes God, but rather it is best translated “one who throws stumbling blocks in the path of another person.” That has a way of changing the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the devil. Perhaps, the devil’s intent is not to draw Jesus to “the dark side”, but rather challenge, and even strengthen Jesus on his path to being the Messiah, like a challenger on a vision quest. Just read the first line of this passage, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

If the Spirit was leading Jesus into this situation, then I wonder if the devil is not the evil adversary we often make him out to be, but more of a worthy debate or sparring partner, who is set in Jesus’ path to test his maturity, fidelity, and commitment to being what he has come to be. Proverbs 27 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”

This is a vision quest, a rite of passage that is intended to prove to the devil and the world that Jesus is indeed worthy of the titles, Messiah, Emmanuel, “Beloved, Son of God”. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from this place for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” That’s some stumbling block the devil is throwing his way.

But, Jesus doesn’t trip. Instead he teaches us something about Scripture. Not every verse can be applied equally in every situation. The Bible is a living Word that calls us into conversation with it and within the books and verses of Scripture themselves. Once Jesus starts his public ministry, he will say to those he teaches, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” This is Jesus offering a fresh perspective on an old Word. He shows us that to be faithful to Scripture is look at the whole picture, to understand how Scripture describes the character of God and God’s relationship to God’s people out here (wider gesture), before we consider what a Word may be saying to us right here (narrow, close gesture). That doesn’t mean that we get to make the Bible say anything we want. On the contrary, it assures that we take seriously the sovereignty of God, and God’s agency to love, and bring justice, redeem, heal, abide and be mysterious too. In this test, the devil tried to make the test about the power Jesus had to be the Son of God, but Jesus turned it around and gives primary authority to God.

Jesus points us to a God who can be trusted time and time again. He tells the devil, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” His response is a quote from Deuteronomy, which provides commentary on Israel wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus.  Jesus reminds us that God doesn’t bend to our will just because we want to prove that God has power, but that God is faithful in delivering us from times of trial, even when we mess things up or we trip over the stumbling blocks in life. That’s how God was faithful to the Israelites who were no saints in the wilderness. It’s the faithfulness that Jesus would cling to in the wilderness through his time of testing, and it’s how we can trust in God to be faithful to us when we are tested too.

So, is every test we face in life some kind of test of faith ordained by God? Absolutely not. Some things are just hard and downright crappy, like cancer or dementia, or trauma or grief. Some things are evil – diametrically opposed to the will and character of God – like greed and abuse and exploitation of any kind. Some experiences dent our souls and rattle our faith. But whether the stumbling blocks that fall in our path are of God or not, we are claimed by the one who completed the test and shows us the way through the wilderness. We are not alone in trials, tests, or temptations, because this One who has gone before us is God with us. Jesus does not go through the wilderness to fail, but goes to show us that though there is hunger and thirst and sacrifice on the way, that the nature of God is to call us forth through sacrifice and struggle, and into abundant life. Along the way, these stumbling blocks become mile markers along our journey of faith. These markers allow us to look back to see where God has attended to us, where iron has sharpened iron through the people in our lives, where we have stumbled and others have picked us back up, and where we can see most clearly the path that Christ has set before us so that we may know the way when stumbling blocks fall again. Amen.

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