Our Refuge, Our Stronghold
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1) That’s how the gospel writer Luke begins the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness…led there by the Spirit. Jesus went into the wilderness…led by the Spirit…and while there he faced temptation by the devil who tried, and tried, and tried, to lead Jesus away from God. When the devil came to Jesus over the 40 days, he tried to wear him down, bit by bit, by trying to get Jesus to pull away from God and to pursue his ministry, without God. Test, after test, after test, he tried to get Jesus to set God aside. He wanted Jesus to forget God and to seek authority, power and protection apart from God. And who better than to call upon, says the devil…that the devil himself. The devil says he will give everything to Jesus that he thinks Jesus needs…all Jesus needs to do is forget about God.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, and once more we are confronted with the story of the temptation of Jesus…and shown once more that Jesus did not give in to the temptations that the devil put in front of him. Even at his most vulnerable – hungry and exhausted – Jesus did not forget about God. Jesus knew that God was with him throughout this time of trial. The God he knew as his refuge and stronghold…was with him…before, now and always.
Let’s take a brief look at the 3 temptations and try to place ourselves in the story – not being tempted – but standing there beside Jesus as he’s being tempted. We have not, nor ever will be, tempted in the same way Jesus was. Jesus was tempted…and did not forget. Jesus was able to remember God, even in the despair of the wilderness.
The first temptation was to use his power to feed himself. Jesus had been without food and as the story states… he was hungry. The devil invited him to tell a stone to turn to bread. The devil knew Jesus could do it…you say you’re the son of God, so do it. Jesus knew he could do it… but he didn’t. Standing there, would you be tempted to tell Jesus to turn the stone to bread? First, so that Jesus could be fed. And then second, so that others who are hungry are fed? But Jesus didn’t. He knew it wasn’t about a loaf of bread…or about feeding the hungry. It’s about how Jesus would carry out his ministry. The devil wanted Jesus to change and move away from God. But Jesus responded that life is about being faithful to God…and that man cannot live on bread alone.
The second temptation was about wealth and power…glory and authority. You can rule the world… if you bow down and worship me, said the devil. I control all that matters in life. Believe me…worship me. Standing there, how do you feel? What voices are whispering to you? Voices trying to lure you into thinking that the devil’s offer isn’t so bad. Think of what you could do with all that money and authority. Well, Jesus didn’t fall for the devil’s luring. He didn’t forget God. His allegiance has been and always will be to God…his refuge and stronghold. And so Jesus answered the devil by saying, “It is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
The third temptation was about testing and trusting God. The devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” The devil then quoted from Psalm 91 and really tried to get Jesus to manipulate God… force God’s hand…and prove God’s protection of Jesus. Standing there, watching this scene unfold, what are you thinking? Are you recalling any demands you made of God? Any times you tried to force God’s hand. If I do this for you God, you’ll do this for me…right? But Jesus will have none of it. The devil’s attempts to separate Jesus from God didn’t work. Jesus would not forget the God who he truly knows as his refuge and stronghold. And Jesus ends the third temptation by stating: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The devil tried 3 times to get Jesus to set God aside. But Jesus did not. He did not forget that God – his refuge and stronghold – was with him throughout his trials. The God he knew as his refuge and stronghold…was with him…before, now and always.
Jesus drew on his understanding of scripture for guidance. He recalled the word of God about situations in the past where God was with his people. During this time of testing he drew upon the words from Deuteronomy and the Psalms. Later in chapter 4 when he put out his mission statement to ‘preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recover of sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ – he used words from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus knew the stories of his people…and while they were in the wilderness…and while he was in the wilderness…the word of God was with them.
The Old Testament story that we read today from the book of Deuteronomy are words of Moses as the Israelites ended their wilderness wandering – their 40 year wilderness wandering – and as they prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan. Jesus knew this story inside and out and he likely recited it when he was in the wilderness. Moses has been giving his people instruction – a lot of instruction – and as they stand at the edge of the Jordan River, almost ready to cross over to the promised land, Moses reminded them again of how they had arrived at this place and time. And then he gave instruction for what they are to do once they are in the promised land. They are to share their story. And as they share their story, they are to offer to God who delivered them, a portion of their harvest and share it with those who find themselves in situations like they once were. The sharing was an expression of faith as they told the story of God’s blessings to them. A story of gratitude for God’s faithfulness. A story of thanksgiving for the saving actions of God. A story that compels them to share with the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the Levites. Those who have no land, no means of support. The first fruits – the bounty of the land – the gifts from the land – were to be shared. No one was to go without. And why? Because they too at one time were aliens, or strangers in a different land. They were once oppressed and enslaved. They cried to God and God heard them. So Moses tells them, do not forget from where you came…and that God who was with you then is with you today and will be with you tomorrow. God provided for you in the wilderness, and with that same spirit of generosity…and according to God’s command…share what you have with another. Share how God, your refuge and stronghold, is with you today…through the offering of these gifts and in the sharing of them.
Turning again to the Psalm for today – Psalm 91 – the same Psalm that the devil tried to use against Jesus – we see in the descriptive words that the writer of the Psalm is professing faith in the same powerful God that the people worshipped during the days of Moses. The same God who sustained his people through all sorts of trial, and delivered them from slavery in Egypt and from enemies in Canaan.
Psalm 91is a psalm of trust in God. A Psalm of confidence that God is with his people. God is my refuge and my stronghold. Jesus knew the Psalm and its assurance of God’s protection. Nicholas Thomas Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrew’s, writes about this Psalm that both Jesus and the devil knew. He writes: “Perhaps Jesus had memorized it ahead of time and was already using it as a prayer, day by day, to help him through the tough test he was facing. And the devil, seeing he isn’t going to succeed by a direct assault on Jesus’ senses or appetites, tries a different tack: “If you really believed this Psalm, then wouldn’t you trust God so much that you could throw yourself off the Temple? Doesn’t it say he’ll send his angels to protect you? Perhaps you don’t believe it after all. Perhaps you’re just pretending…” But as we know Jesus wasn’t fooled by the devil’s attempt to twist the word of God to suit his purposes.
Wright also points out that Psalm 91 reminds us that our God is a God who is with us no matter what may come…but that things come. He says notice what this psalm does not say. It doesn’t say you won’t be in dangerous places. It doesn’t say you won’t find yourself in serious trouble. But it does say that God will protect you…that you don’t need to be afraid…and that God will be with you. God notices and cares about his people. Through the challenges of life, we are not alone. Yes, suffering happens…but God will not ultimately let suffering or even death separate us from God’s love and care.
Psalm 91 has been and continues to be a comforting Psalm for many people. I found the following story about the psalm in connection to the actor Jimmy Stewart. (article by Jim Erwin, November 16, 2016 Patheos). When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Corps and prepared to go overseas. Stewart’s father, Alex, choked up when he tried to bid him farewell, so he wrote a note for his son to read en route. After being shipped out, Jimmy read the words his father had been unable to say aloud:
My dear Jim boy. Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. Jim, I’m banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience. I can say no more. I only continue to pray. Goodbye, my dear. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.
Jimmy Stewart returned home a decorated war hero, unharmed even though his record included 20 combat missions. During the height of battle, Stewart said he learned to lean on the words of his tattered copy of Psalm 91, especially verses 1 and 2, which speak of God as a refuge and stronghold.
Upon returning home, he told his father: “What a promise for an airman. I placed in his hands the squadron I would be leading. And, as the psalmist promised, I felt myself borne up.”
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. The journey to the cross will take us several weeks to complete. But while we travel, we are not alone. The God whom Jesus never forgot – his refuge and his stronghold – is with us as well. Always and at all times God is at our side. We don’t know what we will face on our journey…but we know that God’s care and love is assured. So, as we draw ever closer to the cross… the cross of Jesus…never forget just how much God loves you. God gave us his son Jesus, who took our sin and suffering and bore them on the cross. And God raised Jesus from the dead to show us that God’s love is more powerful than death. God’s love goes with us beyond the empty tomb and gives us an abundant life full of grace. So may we all…not forget God. May we all spend time in prayer. May we all study and get to know God’s word which speaks in all circumstances of life. May we all know the story…and may we all share His message with all whom we meet. And may we live each day knowing that God, our refuge and our stronghold, goes with us in all we do. Thanks be to God. Amen.