One of the biggest joys for me as a United Methodist pastor is that I have good colleagues. Through our connectional church system and our clergy small groups, we get to know one another quite well. When we meet, honestly, we don’t always spend time praying or meditating on the Bible, but we always eat, and we talk and talk and talk…and talk too much. Yes, because we are preachers, I guess, it’s quite natural for us to talk and share stories. Among those chatty meetings, there was one that was exceptionally chatty meeting I remember. It was filled with stories after stories; we were so into them that we didn’t even recognize how fast the time passed. Can you guess what kind of stories we shared that day? Believe it or not, they were the stories about our funeral experiences.
As you can imagine, these stories were quite heavy. One of the stories I can’t forget came out while we were talking about the smallest funeral we’ve ever officiated. A very seasoned pastor said that he officiated a funeral with only one person. One day, he got a phone call from a funeral home in town urgently asking him to officiate a brief funeral. Fortunately, he was available so went there right away. He didn’t know anything but the name of the deceased. As soon as he entered the room, he was quite surprised that there was nobody but one person sitting in the room. The person was the daughter but she seemed not to care that much about her father’s funeral. Then, the pastor got even more surprised as he looked at the casket. That casket was just a pure plastic box. He said, even the word casket felt too luxurious for such a thing. It really was a shabby box made with thin plastic panels. Composing his mind, he somehow finished that funeral. But he said, that experience was deeply engraved in him. And as he recalled the experience, he again and again asked one question on “how to live and how to die.”
How to live and how to die? This fundamental question about human life is always before us, even though we usually ignore it or we are too busy to reflect on it. But here we are, today, in the Season of Lent. We are in an opportune time to ask this question in all seriousness. How should we live and die? What would be a Christian answer to this question? As our way of looking for an answer, I invite you to see Jesus Christ once again. Especially today I invite you to the all-too-famous story about his temptation in the wilderness once again on this first Sunday in Lent. And it is my hope and prayer that from this short story, we find the way of salvation.
In today’s Gospel story, we see Jesus walk into the wilderness. Following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness where he goes through three temptations. You remember, every time the devil tempts Jesus, he turns it down with such inspiring words. This conversation between the devil and Jesus clearly depicts the contrast between our human way of life and Jesus’ way of salvation. Let me tell you about these temptations and Jesus’ answers one more time. The first temptation is targeted at Jesus’ hunger, his human desire. To Jesus who is so famished, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds obvious, “A typical way of human life is to strive for satisfaction of their hungers and desires. And for this, you use whatever means at your disposal.” But Jesus teaches us, “The way of salvation is to find the lasting joy and fulfillment in God. And for this, we shall empty our hunger and desire to give room for the Holy Spirit.”
The second temptation is targeted at Jesus’ ego, his human will. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises that if Jesus worships him, all the glory and authority will be his. Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds sweet, “A typical way of human life is to worship and seek power, authority, wealth, and fame—something that inflates your ego and inflames your will.” But Jesus leads us, “The way of salvation is to follow and carry out not my will but God’s will. And for this, we shall humble our ego and surrender our will to give ways to God.”
The third temptation is targeted at Jesus’ fear, his human nature for survival. The devil places him on the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, God will commend angels to protect you.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds so enticing, “A typical way of human life is to ensure safety amid fears even by taking extreme measures.” But Jesus guides us, “The way of salvation is to hold on to faith in God’s steadfast presence in our lives, to believe without doubt, we are beloved children of God no matter what.”
These temptations show us the contrast between human life and the way of salvation. Through the devil, the story reveals the nature of human life—hunger-driven, ego-driven, and fear-driven. But here we gathered to find and live the way of salvation as Jesus proclaimed. We want to empty our hunger and desire, surrender our ego and will, and trust God’s steadfast presence more and more so that we can be more like Jesus. How to live and how to die? On this way of salvation, we live our new life as we die to ourselves and live only with Christ who leads us into everlasting life. We struggle to make our small victories over the constant temptations, on our journey through the wilderness of life. Then, someday, we will die. But we will die to be alive evermore in peace of Christ.
In this season of Lent, Jesus calls us to the forty-day journey on the way of salvation. Jesus calls us to a spiritual wilderness, a time of solitude and a space away from our familiar routine to see God and see our life more clearly. He calls us to an intentional time of prayer, listening to God as we search for guidance and direction. He is sending us a wake-up call. We are asked to take the journey leaving where we stand and write our own stories of victory with Jesus. How would you live and how would you die? Are you ready to take a step on his way of salvation today?
Pastor Earl Kim