(First in the Series)
Feb. 26, 2012
First Sunday in Lent
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As I mentioned last Sunday, during Lent we are going to focus on some of the “core virtues” of the Christian faith in this series I’m calling “Lenten Lessons in Living.” Last week I suggested that one definition of what it means to be a Christian is that…
A Christian is a person who is trying to become more like Jesus Christ.
We will never become 100% like Jesus in this life, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. But we need some standard to use to measure our progress. Our hope should be to be more like Jesus today than yesterday and more tomorrow than today. It’s a continual process that lasts as long as we live.
I have found that a good place to start is the list of the “fruit of the Spirit” that Paul gives in Galatians 5:22-23:
• Generous goodness
Since there are nine “fruit” in that list and not that many weeks in Lent, we will only be able to look at six of them and I’ve added a couple of others that aren’t on that list (obedience and self-sacrifice). But I hope these messages are helpful to all of us as we seek to be more and more like Jesus.
I was amazed when I looked at the lectionary readings for this year at how these virtues tied in so well with at least one of the Scripture lessons for each week. These virtues help define the kind of person each of us as Christians are in the process of becoming.
If you’ve ever wondered what the “end result” of the process of Christian formation is supposed to be, these virtues are a good description. As we are growing in our faith, we will become more loving, more patient, more hopeful, experience more joy and peace, and so forth.
Today, since the traditional Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, which we just read from Mark’s Gospel a moment ago, we’re going to start with the core virtue of…
It’s last in Paul’s Galatians list of the Spirit’s fruit, but we’re going to make it first on our list, because without self-control we can’t overcome the “works of the flesh” and without it the other “fruit of the Spirit” won’t be evident.
When we talk about the core virtues we’re talking about character. Character is different than success, talent, or even reputation.
I heard someone say once that reputation is what other people think about you. Character is what you know to be true about yourself. Thomas Paine is reported to have said this about the difference between reputation and character…
“Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.”
As they say, character is who we are when no one’s looking. On Friday I was on my way to Walmart to pick up some prescriptions. I’m usually very careful when I’m driving on FM 902 to observe the 55 mph speed limit. But I was in a hurry and I wasn’t feeling all that great so I thought it would be okay to go a little faster so I could start taking the medicine all the sooner.
After all, no one would be looking. Who would know if I sped a little (just about 10 mph over). Unfortunately, someone was watching. As I came over a hill I passed a DPS car going the opposite way. I looked in my rear-view mirror and I knew as soon as I saw his brake lights come on that I was in trouble. So, I just pulled over and waited for him.
Fortunately, the trooper showed me a lot of grace. Maybe he felt sorry for me in my illness, but he just gave me a warning. Character means obeying the law, even when no one’s looking. I had a valuable reminder in this experience.
Self-control is a key component of Christian character. It’s important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those of us who desire to be followers of Jesus Christ.
And since my time is limited this morning, let me illustrate how important self-control is to character by using the stories of two biblical characters – one who had self-control and one who didn’t.
Of course, it goes without saying that Jesus is the chief example of Christian character, and he showed model self-control in his encounter with Satan when he was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. Although Mark doesn’t list the three temptations, we know from reading the other Gospels that they involved:
• Turning stones into bread.
• Throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple to let the angels rescue him.
• Bowing down to worship Satan in exchange for lordship over all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus refused each temptation because he knew that they would lead him away from what his true mission on earth as Messiah was to be. Jesus is the best model of self-control we can find.
If we are to deal with temptation in a way other than just to give in, we need to develop self-control. But let’s look at two characters other than Jesus, because we might be able to identify a little better with them. They are both from the Old Testament.
The first character is Samson, whom you can read about in Judges 13-16. He’s the one who had a problem with self-control. Today we might call it “poor impulse control.” Isn’t that a label that’s given to some children nowadays?
There was a famous experiment done in the 1960s at Stanford University by Dr. Walter Mischel an American psychologist. Mischel used a group of 4-year olds and told them they could either have one marshmallow right now or they could wait 20 minutes while the researcher ran an errand, and when he came back they could have two marshmallows.
Some children could wait but most couldn’t (about 70%) – they had to have the marshmallow right away. They would cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so they couldn’t see the marshmallows. They kicked the desk, tugged on their pigtails, and stroked the marshmallows like they were stuffed animals.
Mischel then followed the children into adulthood, and he found that the children who could wait were more successful in life than those who couldn’t. The kids who couldn’t wait had more behavioral problems and lower SAT scores than those who could.
If Samson had been in that experiment when he was four, he would have grabbed the marshmallow right away. Samson, as you might remember, lived during the period of the Judges, before Israel had a king to rule them. It was a time, Scripture says, when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Samson had been dedicated to God for a special purpose by his parents even before he was born. Because of this vow, which included not cutting his hair, Samson grew to have amazing physical strength and was a mighty warrior.
But Samson was the kind of person who, when he saw something he wanted, he had to have it right away – no self-control. One day he saw a beautiful Philistine woman, a foreigner, and told his parents he had to have her for his wife. Never mind that God had forbidden marrying foreigners – Samson wasn’t to be denied and he married the woman.
Another time, he killed a lion with his bare hands. Some time later he came upon the lion’s carcass and found inside it a beehive and lots of honey. He reached in and grabbed a handful of honey and ate it, even though the vow he was under prohibited touching any kind of dead body, even an animal.
And then there was the whole thing with Delilah, another Philistine woman. Samson fell madly in love with her (do you detect a pattern?), even though the Philistines were using her to get the secret of Samson’s strength, which was his long hair. Samson finally told Delilah his secret, and she betrayed him. They cut off his hair, gouged out his eyes, and threw him in prison. His hair eventually grew back and he regained his strength long enough to destroy a house full of Philistines, but he died along with them.
That’s the price we pay for a lack of self-control. Our appetites get the best of us and we get in trouble, each time seemingly worse than the last. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 the Apostle Paul says…
Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (1 Cor. 9:25)
It may have been that way back in Paul’s day, but then again, Paul didn’t know Bode Miller, the U.S. ski racer who had such disappointing results at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Miller had something of a “bad boy” reputation and it may have been his lack of self-control when it came to staying out late and partying in Torino that cost him his expected gold medals at the Games.
He came back four years later at Vancouver with renewed discipline and commitment and redeemed his image when he finally won gold, as well as a silver and a bronze.
Proverbs 5:8-9 says…
Keep to a path far from immorality … lest you give your best strength to others … and at the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent, you will say, "How I hated discipline!"
Those words could have been written on Samson’s tombstone. But compare Samson’s lack of self-control to another character in the Bible…
Joseph. Joseph was the son of Jacob and great-grandson of Father Abraham. He was the one with the “Technicolor Dreamcoat” who was sold into slavery in a foreign country by his jealous brothers.
But God was looking out for Joseph, and he ended up in Egypt, working for Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Potiphar. Joseph was young and handsome, and Potiphar’s wife took a fancy to him. When she tried to put the moves on him one day in her bedroom, Joseph, whose self-control was as much present as Samson’s was absent, ran the other way as fast as he could.
Potiphar’s wife was so enraged that Joseph had refused her that she falsely accused him of rape and Joseph was thrown in jail, even though he was innocent.
However, God was still looking out for Joseph and eventually he not only got out of jail but became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and later was in a position to save his whole family, his father and even the brothers who’d sold him into slavery, in a time of famine.
Do you see what a difference self-control can make in our lives? Samson had little or none, and look how he ended up. Joseph had great self-control, and God used him in a mighty way.
We see the results of lack of self-control all around us in the world: drug and alcohol abuse; violence toward family members and strangers; sexual immorality, divorce, and broken families. I see my own lack of self-control in my waistline when I eat the things I know I shouldn’t and don’t eat the things I should.
You may be thinking, “I’d like to have the self-control of a Joseph, but I just can’t do it. Every time I try to resist temptation, I fail.” But you see, self-control isn’t something you get through effort, through working harder. We may be born with a certain amount of self-control, but …
Self-control is also a gift. It’s one of the “fruit of the Spirit,” remember, along with love, joy, peace, patience and the rest. When you allow Christ to take charge of your life, the Holy Spirit will give you self-control as a gift. It’s a gift you have to practice and use and develop to be sure, but Christ has promised this gift, and Jesus always keeps his promises.
Fasting is one of the traditional spiritual disciplines of Lent that can help us cultivate the fruit of self-control. By voluntarily giving up something we enjoy, we learn, as Jesus said to Satan in his time of temptation: “People do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Maybe we can fast from one meal a week, donate what we would have spent to charity, and spend the time we would have spent eating reading the Bible or praying. That’s just one idea.
Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness and mastered it because of his self-control. As we begin our Lenten journey together, let us draw on the gift of self-control that comes from the Spirit so that we can master the unique temptations we all will face. Amen.