Continuing our Proclaim series, we heard an inspirational sermon from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS) student, Todd Jones. He preached on what it feels like during the transition of beginnings and endings and what he learned in the “wilderness” along the way. Especially right after Easter, we felt like this is something the 787 Collective and the young adults we work with can all relate to. Enjoy!
Senior Sermon: I don’t know…by Todd Jones
Preached on: February 25, 2019 at APTS
Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I want to begin with a small confession that I imagine most of you will understand all too well. I will next be preaching on March 10th at First United Methodist Church in Harlingen, TX. This will serve as something of an introductory sermon, as I will start as their Youth Pastor in June. That day in March happens to be the first Sunday of Lent, and when I checked the lectionary, I saw that the Gospel reading for that day was the passage that I just read out of Luke 4. Since these sermons were fairly close together, I chose to save myself some work and did some double dipping by using the same text for both. So, for those of you who attend churches that use the lectionary, you’ll probably hear this scripture again in a couple weeks and you’ll be able to decide which sermon you like more.
But even though that is how this passage came to be read in this time and place, as I prepared for this, I found that it is an incredibly appropriate text for this occasion of a senior sermon. I also find it rather poetic that this same text is at the heart of both an ending, goodbye type of sermon like this one and a beginning, hello type of sermon like the one I will give in Harlingen in a couple weeks. Now, I know that this is not really goodbye and that will not really be hello, for a number of reasons, including the fact that there are three months left in the semester, but still, I enjoy the balance and duality of these two things. A beginning and an end.
I especially enjoy it because this passage is also something of a beginning, hello moment as well as an ending, goodbye moment for Jesus. This passage is one of several that make up the beginning of Christ’s life of ministry. Prior to this story, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John, and the Holy Spirit descended on him and led him out into the wilderness. And directly after this comes Christ’s sermon in Nazareth, his hometown, where he declares that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and so on. When he finishes speaking, he is thrown out of town, and he goes on his way to start casting out evil spirts, healing the sick, and calling disciples to follow him. This is all the beginning of a journey that will eventually lead Jesus to the cross. It is the beginning of something incredible and historic. But, it is also an ending. It’s an ending to the life Jesus knew before. It’s an ending to being known as Joseph’s son, or perhaps Mary’s boy. It’s an ending to a private, quiet life as a carpenter or stonemason or whatever it was that Jesus was doing for work. The life he is about to begin will look nothing like that life. That life is over. It is a huge pivot moment for Jesus.
And for that reason, it was impossible for me not to put myself in the place of Jesus in this story. To make myself the main character who is experiencing such a significant ending and beginning. It just fit too well with where I am right now. So, as I reflected on this text, Jesus became me and the wilderness became Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Those 40 days became my four years. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are so many ways that this place is nothing like the wilderness that Jesus experienced in this text. But, let’s not pick apart the metaphor just yet. Save that for later, when we are around the lunch tables.
Anyway, as I put myself in the story and made it fit my experience in this place, I began to ask myself, “What ‘temptations’ or ‘tests’ did I experience here?” Now, one way to look at this is academically, with the tests being specific classes or assignments that were particularly difficult to complete. One might be Jen Lord’s massive annotated worship service paper at the end of Intro to Worship. Another might be writing an exegesis paper at the end of a long semester when you just don’t have anything left and you’re grasping at straws trying to say something, anything. Or perhaps one is sitting in Bill Greenway’s class just trying to understand half of the concepts he’s talking about. These were most certainly times of trial that I experienced in this wilderness.
Another way to look at it is through a community lens, with the tests being different times when it was particularly difficult to live into beloved community. Times when is seemed impossible to achieve the goal of being a winsome and exemplary community of God’s people. These, too, represent metaphorical temptations and tests in this wilderness. A third type of test might be personal, as all of us experience various hardships in our lives during our time in seminary. We experience losses and enter into grief. We question our identity as people of faith. Our families take on extra burdens because of the demands of our theological education. The tests and temptations in this place are certainly abundant, just as they were for Jesus in the wilderness.
But why? Why does Jesus enter the wilderness? Why does he fast for 40 days? Why is he tempted and tested by the devil? And why are we tested and tempted in this place? And who is doing the testing? One could argue that it is an essential part of preparation for ministry. A time of pruning and purifying that must precede one’s life of ministry. One could also argue that it’s a way of weeding out the ill equipped. Only those able to pass the tests in the wilderness are qualified to preach the good news. Another argument could be that these temptations force us to lean more fully on God and less on our own strength. Or perhaps there is no reason or meaning to any of it. Perhaps none of it really matters. All that matters is getting through it so you can move on to the next step.
But I’m not going to make any of those arguments. In fact, I’m not going to make any argument at all. I don’t know why Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. And I don’t know why seminary students experience trials and tribulations. There could be reasons for all of it, some of it, or none of it. I don’t know. And I think that is what seminary has taught me more than anything else. That I don’t (and can’t) know everything. Or even many things. I don’t know everything about God. I don’t know everything about humanity. I don’t even know everything about myself. And I won’t.
But I do know some things. I know that I was created in the image of God and have a need for God in my life. I know that I am loved by God and have been called by God to minister to the poor, the captive, and the blind. I know that God speaks to me through creation and through scripture and leads me by way of the Holy Spirit. And I know all of those things are true about all of you.
And I also know Jesus knew these things. And knowing them is what got him through his temptation in the wilderness. Knowing these simple truths was all he needed to withstand the temptations and pass the tests. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Now, I imagine most of you have not had the experience of crafting a senior sermon, as this is just the second one of the semester. So let me tell you, it’s a very strange thing to do. On the one hand, there is a desire or pull to use this to show off some of the things you’ve learned during seminary. You want to prove that you know how to use good seminary words like kenosis and eschatological. You want to demonstrate your exegetical and preaching skills. Additionally, there is a pull to offer some wisdom to your classmates. To share about your seminary experience in a way that enlightens and edifies. And at the same time, there is another pull to simply focus on the text and speak truth about God in a way that is meaningful to you and the people who will hear you.
I don’t know if I’ve manage to accomplish any of those things in this sermon. I didn’t write a focus or function statement either so I can’t use them as tools for evaluation. But to be honest with you, I’m pretty tired of evaluation right now, so I think I’m ok with that. If nothing else, this sermon gave me an wonderful opportunity to reflect on this pivotal moment in my life (and in many of our lives). It allowed me to reflect on where I was when I entered seminary, where I am now, and where I hope to be in the future. It provided a space to recognize the temptations and tests that I have encountered along the way and see how I succeeded (and failed) in meeting them. And it has left me even more convinced of the simple truths of God’s love, God’s calling on my life, and God’s leadership through the Holy Spirit. But why should I be the only one who benefits.
I’m going to shut up now. You will have the next few minutes for silent reflection. Feel free to use it however you wish, but I do want to invite you, whether you’re a senior or not, to consider this moment in your life. To reflect on your own wilderness experiences (whether they are related to this place or not). And to ask yourself “What do I know?” “What are the simple truths I can hold on to?” and “How do those truths sustain me in the midst of tests and temptations?”
For more information about how our Proclaim series started, click here.