By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
March 7, 2021, Exodus 17: 1-7, Matthew 4: 1-11
On election day St. Stephen always serves as a polling place, and this has been true even in the pandemic. So on November 4, I ambled down to the Parish hall to say hello to our poll workers, especially grateful to them for coming out during Covid-19. At the desk was an older lady who was not wearing a mask and offered me her hand to shake. I smiled and offered my elbow. She said to me, “I’m a preacher too. I’m an ordained Assemblies of God pastor.” She was our polling judge.
“Aren’t poll workers required to wear masks?” I asked.
She laughed and said, “I’m a firm believer in Psalm 91,” she said. “It says, ‘You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.’ So I’m not afraid of this pestilence Covid-19.”
I said, “You realize Psalm 91 is exactly the psalm Satan quoted to Jesus to tempt him to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple; it says that God will send angels protect you so that your foot won’t even touch the stones. And Jesus told Satan, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “That Satan—he’s so tricky. Even trying to use the Bible against us!”
I said, “But you see the point—Jesus said this kind of behavior is tempting God. And we require mask wearing at St. Stephen so please, wear your mask.”
But she couldn’t see it. I was incensed. So I called the Tarrant polling office and asked if their judges and volunteers were supposed to wear masks. The woman who answered said, “Of course. I’ll call them right now.” When we checked back, everyone was wearing their masks correctly.
I was reminded of this again on Tuesday when Gov. Abbott abruptly and for no good reason I could see lifted all coronavirus restrictions and told businesses they could operate at full capacity. It is shocking to announce this when the vaccine is being distributed and we’re so close to the light at the end of the tunnel. Someone said this is like spiking the football at the ten-yard line. We must all pray that Texans show good sense and love for their neighbors by continuing voluntarily to wear masks and practice social distancing, and that by God’s grace our hospital numbers continue to go down until we have everyone vaccinated.
As for St. Stephen, when we start having live in-sanctuary worship again next week, we will continue to follow the protocols that we announced in our video this past week. We are committed to implementing as best we can the guidance we receive from the Centers for Disease Control and will not operate at full capacity until the CDC okays it.
Both Matthew and Luke agree that when Jesus was in the desert for forty days and nights, Satan tempted him with three temptations, and they agree on what the temptations were. But in the Book of Luke the story of Satan tempting Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple is the last and greatest of the temptations, whereas in our scripture from Matthew it’s the second temptation. The reason Luke considers this the last and greatest temptation is because it is exactly the Temptation that Jesus will have to face and overcome when the time comes for him to be crucified. Have you ever wondered, really, if Jesus is the Son of God, why did he have to be arrested? Why did he have to be tried and tortured and nailed to a cross and why did he have to die? Couldn’t he have escaped all those awful events?
And the answer is, he could have. He struggles with exactly that temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe there was some way he could get out of dealing with all this suffering! Surely God could take this cup of suffering away from him, he prays in the Garden.
See, Jesus has thought this through. He knows what’s coming. He knows what he has to do. But that doesn’t mean he is happy about it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prays that God might change things. The Gospel of Luke says “in his anguish Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22: 44). Today, near Jerusalem on Mt. Olivet there is a teardrop shaped chapel located at the supposed place Jesus prayed to commemorate those great drops of sweat like blood. Jesus was terrified.
Just like you and I would be. And even, implied in his prayers, is that question we humans have asked God from time eternal when suffering and hardship come to us or those we love: “Why? Why? There’s got to be another way!” And sometimes, maybe there is. But not this time.
And it’s like that for us too. Sometimes when we pray that God take this cup away from us, it turns out there’s another way. But sometimes—there’s not.
But Jesus’ prayers and his deep relationship with God help him to come to terms with his destiny. In Matthew, when Judas and the authorities come to arrest Jesus, one of his disciples uses his sword to cut off an attacker’s ear. But Jesus is furious. “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think I can’t appeal to my Father, and he will at once send more than twelve legions of angels?” Angels: This is almost a direct reference to Satan’s use of Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus, where it says, “God will command the angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus was tempted to do exactly this, to fall into the Psalm 91 trap. But he didn’t.
God is not a short-cut God. We all look for shortcuts. We all are tempted to think our faith in God is a promise of an easy life, a promise of prosperity, a promise of success around every corner. But God doesn’t deal in short-cuts. In fact, we’re warned, short cuts can be dangerous, because we are ‘tempting the Lord your God.” We’re imagining that somehow we’re special—somehow we’re privileged—God’s going to bear us up so we won’t dash our feet against a stone.
Unfortunately we are seeing way too much of exactly that now. We see leaders who apparently think that because they claim faith in God that they can make irresponsible and thoughtless decisions and escape responsibility and consequences. But as scripture warns us, those who reap the wind inherit the whirlwind.
I often think of my dear friend and fellow pastor Jeff Krehbiel, who died a few years ago of a misdiagnosed cancer. One of his daughters said to him, “I don’t understand why this is happening to you. You’re such a good man and such a faithful Christian and pastor!” and Jeff got impatient, the way he did, and he said, “That’s ridiculous. Bad things happen in life. This is just one of them.” His point: Being a good person or a good Christian doesn’t give you a “Get out of jail free” card. God is not a short-cut God. Sometimes the only way out is through.
But I do look at Jeff, and at so many other faithful believers I’ve known as friends or parishioners over the years, and I see how our faith and confidence in God really does sustain us and direct us in times of suffering and crisis. In his time of need, Jeff leaned on prayer. If for some reason the prayer wasn’t in him at that moment, he asked his friends to pray with him.
My dear parishioner Alice at my old church in Bethesda, MD, at first fell into a deep depression when she was diagnosed with cancer. Part of her challenge was that she was a “doer”—she’d always defined herself by what she did. But both the treatment and her ultimate decline made it impossible for her to “do.” So what she and I worked on together was how to be: how to be a child of God—how to understand that it’s really true that we are saved by faith and not by works. She came to understand that God loved her for who she was, not for what she did. Even as she was dying, her faith increased and shone through. On her deathbed she and her daughter, a typically cynical and hard-edged Washington lawyer, were joyfully laughing and singing “the old hymns” together.
Our old friend from Room in the Inn, Lou Friese, was a Coast Guard veteran, had a good job as a manager and thought himself a good Christian; but then he got lost because of the troubles of life and substance abuse. He became homeless. But he turned to his faith in Jesus in that dark time, and leaned on people of faith, and with the help of the DRC and the Night Shelter he was able to recover and start a new life. He got a job at First Street Ministries as a janitor, despite the fact that he had been a manager in his previous life, and loved it because he could continue to interact with the people who supported him and with others who’d been homeless and he was able to tell them, “I’ve been there—there’s a way out.” He served with me on the board of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition as our client representative. He told his story everywhere. He died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. But I have no doubt that he is looking down on us now and there are stars on his crown in heaven.
Life doesn’t give us shortcuts. Every once in awhile, maybe. But sometimes the only way out is through. We have to go through the dark valley, or accept the consequences of our actions, or suffer from some unexpected and unpredictable calamity. It’d be nice if God just made those things go away—if God would just send the angels to bear us up so that our feet don’t even touch the stones.
But God doesn’t give us shortcuts, either, anymore than God gave them to Jesus. We don’t have answers for why there are difficulties and challenges in the world, but we do know we all experience them. God doesn’t help us escape difficulties but instead shows God’s love for us by giving us the tools to traverse those difficulties and grow in spiritual strength and in empathy and compassion and wisdom.
Have you ever noticed that the people whose faith and character we most admire are often people who’ve been through great difficulty and not only survived it but gained spiritual and personal strength because of it? In times of trouble what God gives us is the ability, if we are willing, to find God in new ways—to be strengthened in our own faith—to discover a new way to live, or to love, or to serve—to grow in empathy, wisdom and insight—to be a witness to the world that love of God is real and sustains us in our time of need—that God accompanies us in the dark valley as a friend who strengthens us for the road ahead and gives us the spiritual sustenance we need to face the challenges before us.
We wish for something different sometimes, but here’s the human reality: we all will face the dark valley. So when we do, it’s good to know that even there, our savior Jesus has been there first and God sustained him through the crisis to the other side. We have the same assurance he had, that no matter how dark and rocky the road, God is with us and God loves us and God does not let us go.