Lent 1a, March 5, 2017

March 6, 2017

The Most Highly Effective Habit

Matthew 4:1-11

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; 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.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”


This is one of my favorite passages of scripture. I can’t identify with the extraordinary discipline and faithfulness of Jesus, but it’s an interesting story to me. The way Jesus responded to those temptations is not how I can imagine myself dealing with those same situations, but this story does portray Jesus in a way that reminds me of his humanity. You might say this story shows how Jesus dealt with a dilemma, and who among us has not had to do that. Jesus always seems to have known what to do, and that’s not my experience, but it’s somehow comforting for me to know that he didn’t go through life without having to make hard decisions. This passage very clearly portrays Jesus as being in the position of having to respond to some difficult options.


This is a story I like to think about, and while I it’s clear that Jesus was in a very needy situation when he was approached by the devil to provide himself with some immediate relief, I primarily see this story as the portrayal of the way he came to understand who he was and what he intended to do. This story describes the way in which Jesus came to recognize the extent of his power, and it shows how he decided he was going to use it. The devil didn’t approach Jesus because he was weak. The devil came to Jesus in the wilderness because he had come to understand how powerful he was. The devil approached Jesus because he was someone who was poised to do great damage to the power of death.


While I was in seminary out in North Carolina I volunteered in an urban ministry program that put me in touch with some interesting characters. One of the men I became acquainted with had spent ten years in prison for bank robbery. His name was William Solomon, and he was a man with some keen insight. He told me he had gone on some extended fasts while he was in prison, and they were powerful experiences for him. He described them as experiences that helped him see himself. He said on more than one occasion he actually had to be coerced into eating again because he liked the state of mind it put him in. He said the fasting was hard for the first week or ten days, but after that he said he entered in to a whole new mindset. William Solomon didn’t function so well after he left the imposed discipline of prison. He soon got himself back in to trouble. But the man I knew who emerged from prison was a very wise man. There were ways in which he helped me see myself in a clearer way.


I had an interesting wilderness experience the summer after I graduated from high school. I went to an Outward Bound course, which you might say is a self-discovery program that takes place in a wilderness setting. I spent 3 weeks with a group of people I had never met before backpacking in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. The true challenge of the experience was getting along and cooperating with about 8 other people under some extreme circumstances. But the most difficult part of the experience was what they called the solo, which was when we were placed in a spot for three days and nights alone and without any food. I had access to plenty of water, but we weren’t to build a fire or to wander far from where we were placed.


I basically spent my time thinking about and documenting what I wanted to eat. It was to be a time of self-reflection, and I did learn something about myself. I came to see how foolish I can be. I got pretty cold that first night, and as I lay there in the cold I thought about how I could build a bit of a shelter with sticks and leaves and the pancho I had been given. But when the morning came and the sun came out I warmed up and decided it probably wouldn’t be so chilly that night, so I didn’t do anything other than create a better pile of leaf debris to lay on. The second night I got just as cold, but when the sun came up the next day I decided that since I only had one more night I would just deal with it. I had plenty of time on my hands, but for whatever reason I opted for misery over ingenuity.


I like to think I would use my time a little differently now than I did when I was 18, but who knows. I didn’t fast long enough to get to that sweet spot of having additional clarity about myself and ultimate reality, but I believe that it happens to people who are able to exercise such discipline. Fasting has long been recognized as a powerful spiritual discipline.


Jesus had needs after forty days, but as I say, the tempter didn’t come to him because he was weak. Jesus was tempted because he had come to understand his power. We’re told that Jesus was presented with three temptations, but the truth is they were just three variations of the same question, which is: How would he choose to use his power?


That was particularly important for Jesus to understand, but I believe this is something that’s critical for us all to understand about ourselves. Often we are more focused on how little power we have than how much power we do have, but we are all endowed with an element of power, and it’s important for us to decide how we are going to use what God has given us.


How we use our own power is something we all have to address on some level. As a pastor, I’ve been exposed to quite a few different forms of leadership development – which you might say is a form of power management. I’ve never been sent in to the wilderness for forty days, which, as I think about it would probably have been an effective way to get me focused on my task, but I’ve never actually attended that kind of workshop. I’ve spent a few afternoons in meetings that seemed to have gone on for an eternity, but I can testify that you can become a minister in the United Methodist Church without ever missing a meal.


I’ve been exposed to a good amount of good advice on how to best function as a church leader. I had a little training in the Stephen Covey time management system. He’s the person who wrote the popular book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’m not saying I ever adhered closely to his system, but it made sense to me. You might say he was a Methodist in regard to the way he proposed being methodical in the way you respond to the various circumstances that present themselves in life. He was an advocate of being proactive in the way you use your time instead of being constantly reactive to whatever comes your way.


His seven habits make sense, but he wrote an additional book that was called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. Like the first 7 seven habits, of which I only have a rudimentary understanding, I don’t have a deep understanding of what he identified as the 8th habit, but the thing I understand him to be promoting with the 8th habit is the idea of finding your voice and helping others find theirs. He uses this word voice, to describe what it is that truly has meaning for us, and while Stephen Covey doesn’t define what everyone’s principles should be, he recognizes that simply being efficient doesn’t lead to satisfaction.


The thing he had come to recognize is that it’s not enough to simply be effective. He identifies the fact that in order to be satisfied we have to be more than effective – we have to be focused on the thing that gives us meaning.


And that’s a good thought. Being highly effective at a terrible undertaking is a recipe for disaster. You might say that the Nazis were highly effective, but that wasn’t an undertaking that provided satisfaction for anyone. What we see in the life of Jesus and in the way he responded to the options that were offered to him is a person who was totally focused on that most highly effective habit – which is to live in relationship with God. When offered all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus made it very clear that his primary desire was to serve God and God alone.


What Jesus did was to reveal to us what it looks like when a person combines effectiveness along with the thing that is the most meaningful. He reveals what it actually looks like to be focused on the most highly effective habit, and this is the challenge for each of us, but it’s not an easy thing for any of us to embody. Serving God and God alone is not necessarily a strategy for being a successful executive in a large organization, and I wouldn’t exempt the church from being one of those large organizations. I’m not saying that you can’t be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and also be the Pope or a bishop or even the pastor of a relatively small United Methodist Church, but I think this is the challenge we all face.


Our challenge is to continue to grow in our understanding of ourselves and in our relationship with God. And anyone who doesn’t think they can learn anything else about themselves probably can’t learn anything else about God. I believe our lives are totally intertwined with God. I believe we discover things about God when we learn things about ourselves, and I believe we grow in knowledge of ourselves when we come to understand more about God. I also believe it’s the work of the devil to try to separate us from God. It’s the devil’s work to make us think that we can find happiness apart from God.


We all know how impossible it is to fully define God, but we do have this one word that gets pretty close to defining who God is and that word is: love.


Jesus ended his encounter with the devil by saying we are to serve God and God alone. He didn’t say this at the time, but what he went on to do with his life and in his teaching was to show that when we practice love we are serving God.


We can be highly effective at many different things and create some remarkable organizations and structures. People figure out how to harness the power to do some amazing things, but there’s really only one thing we need to figure out how to do more effectively and perpetually that is: to love. To love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the one most highly effective habit we are to practice, and we have to keep practicing it our entire lives.


This story of Jesus being driven in to the wilderness has a great lesson for all of us. We all need to step in to some unfamiliar territory every now and then – that’s where we learn more about ourselves and our relationship with God. Of course stepping in to uncomfortable places isn’t something we easily make ourselves do, but fortunately there are those things that send us to places we would never have chosen to go. I don’t know if Jesus was hesitant to go in to the wilderness, but we’re told that it was the spirit that drove him there, and it was a good place for him to go.


It may not always be the spirit that drives us to places we don’t want to be, but you can trust that the Holy Spirit is with us wherever we are, and wherever we are there’s an opportunity to grow in our knowledge of ourselves and our God. And we will grow if we will always remember to exercise love – the one most highly effective habit.


Thanks be to God.



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