Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
“When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings…”
This is excellent advice from Bing Crosby, and I confess: I don’t take nearly often enough. When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I’m far more likely to count my troubles instead of either sheep or blessings. I know it doesn’t do a darn thing, except make me a little more tired the next day. I firmly tell myself that this sort of circular thinking simply will not be tolerated, and especially at 3AM. But, well, the trouble with arguing with yourself is that you only win half the time, and it’s at the same time that you’re losing.
It takes very, very hard work to break bad habits, like counting your troubles before bedtime, and even once you’ve broken them, it doesn’t mean those habits don’t come creeping back again when you least expect them, looking to be picked up again.
The only way I know of to break bad habits is to replace them with good ones. Like counting your blessings instead of your troubles. And then failing. And then trying again. And then forgetting. And then trying again. Over and over and over again, until eventually, over time, you’re forgetting and failing a little less often, and then a little less, and then one morning, you might wake up and realize that you went the whole night without seeing a single trouble among your flock of blessings as you were nodding off.
That kind of retraining takes determination, and resilience, and most of all, it takes time. Often, a long, long time.
Do you know what Bible-talk is for “a long time”? “Forty.” How many days and nights did it rain while Noah was in the ark? (40!) How many days and nights was Moses on Sinai, receiving the Law? (40!) How many days did the prophet Elijah go without food or water at Mount Horeb? (40!) And how many days was Jesus in the wilderness, being tempted? (40!)
Forty days is a long time. But do you know what a reeeally long time is, biblically speaking? Forty years.
In our scripture readings today, we have two stories of people at the end of their two different forties. In the gospel, we have Jesus, nearing the end of 40 days in the wilderness, being tempted. And in the Old Testament, we hear a piece of Moses’ last speech to the Israelites, with whom he wandered for 40 years.
Now, I remember studying the wandering Israelites in confirmation and thinking, “Either the Sinai desert is really, really big, or these people were really, really bad at directions.” But the Israelites were not wandering in the desert because they were lost.
The Israelites were actually pretty quick to find the promised land. They found it and camped outside it and Moses sent spies in to check what it was like. (Guess how many days the spies were investigating? 40.)
And the spies found a fertile land with big, beautiful crops, the promised land of milk and honey. But they also found that people were already living there. People who had grown big and strong off the fat of the land. And the spies who returned to Moses all came back hopeless, believing that their sad little band of former slaves could never take on such opponents.
God no sooner heard the dismay of the spies and the doubt of the people than God said, “THAT’S IT. We are turning this car around, and we are going to drive in circles in the wilderness until you kids learn to have a little faith in me.”
It took forty years to break the Israelites’ bad habits of doubt and disbelief. Forty years of learning to obey God instead of their own desires.
And this piece of that picture that we get in the Old Testament reading today, that’s Moses reminding the people to keep the good habits. And because they’re going into a new land, they need new good habits to crowd out the bad ones.
They’re going to a place where they no longer have to collect manna to eat. Remember manna? This miraculous food that you could only collect so much of at a time, because it didn’t keep? This heaven-sent meal that you had to trust God for, every day?
Well, the people were going into a land where they were going to grow their own food. And that food still came from God, because God gives the soil and the rain and the sun, but it’s a little harder to remember that just because sheaves of wheat don’t miraculously appear around your house every morning doesn’t mean they aren’t a gift from God.
So God, through Moses, gives the Israelites the gift of a new good habit to replace the one they were losing. Every harvest, they would gather a share of the first fruits and bring it to the Temple, and burn it as a grain offering. And when they did, they would tell aloud the story of how they once a people who wandered, and a people enslaved; a people who cried out, and whom God rescued, and whom God brought to this land; and the gift that was rising up in the smoke before them would remind them of not just who they were, but whose they were.
Flash forward a little more than a thousand years, and there’s Jesus of Nazareth, wandering around in the wilderness near Jordan.
And he’s not alone. Jesus had a visitor: diabolos, the devil. And to be clear, the way the text reads, the devil didn’t just turn up, administer three tests, and then disappear again. The devil has been there all along.
On the last day, the devil asks Jesus to do three things: turn stones to bread; bow down and worship him; and throw himself off the roof of the Jerusalem Temple.
Now, to me, worshipping the devil and throwing yourself off a roof are not particularly tempting. If this is testing, I can’t help but think that Jesus got off a bit easy.
Except that bread and bowing and jumping—that’s only the surface of what the devil is asking. What’s behind each one of those tests, what’s at the heart of them, is this: will Jesus choose to use his power to become self-reliant, or will he rely on God?
It is a really good question. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. He has all the power of God, and here’s his first test: will he use it for himself? Or will he enter fully into this incarnation, and only use his power to point the way to his Father?
We know how the story ends: Jesus, the Son of God, remained weak with hunger, crippled by powerlessness, and without proof of who he was in a doubtful world. He remained dependent as a child, so that his Parent could work more strongly through him.
How many of us, confronted by the same test, would pass? How many of us, deep down, would really prefer not to need God at all? To be so put together that we really don’t need anyone to save us? How many of us desire so much power over our own lives that we stay up at night worrying, because a tiny, exhausted part of us believes that we actually do have the power to fix everything?
How many of us, given the choice between being independent, and being entirely reliant on God, would choose as Jesus did?
The good news is Jesus did pass that test, and then later on, died for us because God knows that we simply are not good at that choice. We never have been. Old habits die hard.
But. Here’s a thing. Lent has just started. And how many days are in Lent?
Something happens during forty-day periods. You go into forty days with something incomplete, and by the time you come out, it is finished.
And despite the fact that we are not very good at the choice to rely on God, God still gives it to us to make, over and over and over again. In what we buy, and how we live, and how we treat others. God gives us gifts, just like God gave the Israelites land and food; just like God gave Jesus power. And God calls us to use those gifts to reflect God’s presence in the world.
So here is a choice to practice making for the next forty days: will you trust in God, even when it means giving up a little power?
Will you choose, like the Israelites, to remember your past?
That you were born into this world helpless and homeless, and God gave you a family, food, and friends?
That you were born into this world a sinner, and God plunged you in the waters of baptism and called you clean?
That you were born into this world without a name, and God called you Beloved?
Because if you practice this choice, and choose to remember the gifts that you have been given, then slowly, over time, the testing voices that clamor about want, and need, and worry, and power, will be drowned out by the blessings of God.
And you will have what Jesus died to give: life, and life abundant.