“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You . . .” Luke 4:1-13
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, February 17, 2013
It is all over the airwaves and the commercials. It has come from the mouth of Marines, guys at the gym, physical therapists, and Kelly Clarkson. It is the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Kelly Clarkson has made it a popular expression in our culture these days, with a new twist she puts on it in her lyrics: You think you got the best of me Think you’ve had the last laugh Bet you think that everything good is gone/Think you left me broken down Think that I’d come running back Baby you don’t know me, cause you’re dead wrong/What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger Stand a little taller Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone/What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter Footsteps even lighter Doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone. The song was a hit, but Clarkson didn’t come up with it’s popular phrase. It actually originated with Frederich Nietzsche[i], as a result of his observations of how people who suffer in life end up becoming stronger and more resilient than they were previously. Other philosophers have debated whether or not his observation is true.
Jesus is presented by Luke in our Scripture today as someone who met tremendous challenges and difficulties throughout his life. Instead of becoming weaker, he grows in strength during the forty days he spent fasting in the wilderness. Not that his life had been easy up to this point, but it is here that the pressure really comes on for him, as the devil uses this as a strategic opportunity to lure Jesus away from his true identity and purpose. You can just imagine the self-confidence Jesus derived from what just happened before he stepped into the wilderness after baptism and having been affirmed by God as his “beloved” son. As Luke noted in verses 1-2, Jesus has stepped from the heights of glory into the depths of need. He is on a 40 day fast from food, hungry and completely vulnerable to the temptations set before him. As his stomach growls with hunger, the devil turns the screws of temptation intensity. He is so hungry that he begins to see the rocks around him as loafs of bread. He is feeling so powerless in the draining sun of the wilderness that he is tempted to get out of it quickly on a fast track shortcut to power over all kingdoms. He becomes so weary in his walk for God that he is even presented with the temptation to test God by jumping off the temple to see if God thought he was beloved enough to keep from falling. The devil’s schemes of temptation, however, did not work on Jesus. Jesus was able to see that it wasn’t the hunger, the fatigue, or the loneliness that would kill him. What would kill him was living on his own bread, taking his own path to power, and giving up his absolute trust in God.
People who travel into the wilderness have a need for knowing what’s in store for them as they enter. I remember traveling to Nairobi, Kenya on a mission trip a few years ago. I was leading a retreat for Baptist missionaries serving in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and even one from Somalia. As I talked with them throughout the week and heard about their ministry, I was amazed at how they lived out their calling in such dangerous conditions. One missionary I met had survived Malaria at least three times, one family traveling home from a ministry had been shot at by bandits and robbed at gunpoint. Another lived in a hut and had to put a rope around it to keep the Black Mamba snakes from entering. These missionaries had an awareness of the dangers in the land they had entered and yet remained faithful to their God, even while being tempted to give it all up and go back to what they were doing before God called.
What we must know today as followers of Jesus is what can kill us as we step into what God has called us to do. The road is seldom easy, ever winding, and fraught with the alluring advertisements for shortcuts and easier highways to take. What we often fail to see in the midst of such temptations is that the steps through the wilderness aren’t what can kill us. What makes kills us is our tendency to live in the Jordan River of our past, staying attached to spiritual highs of yesterday. We are also weakened by our attempts to find satisfaction and to meet our needs outside of God’s provision; when we attempt to fill our square pegs of need with our round holes of self-sufficiency. I like how Barbara Brown Taylor describes this tendency: I am convinced that 99 percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming or taking care of other people. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.[ii] The devil was tempting Jesus to do just that. And we are tempted to do that as we follow Jesus in the wilderness as well.
While there are things that can kill you as you walk with Jesus, you must also know what makes you stronger. Jesus knew that giving into temptations would slowly drain him of the life that was within him. With each rebuffing response of Scripture he gave to the devil, he gained more and more strength. With each step he took toward God in the desert, he developed strength in obstacle-defying perseverance. With each time he said no to the devil he said yes to the Spirit; the same Spirit that fell upon him in the Jordan and that led him into the wilderness. These things–Scripture, perseverance, and the Spirit–are what made him stronger. They empowered him in his times of vulnerability.
Like Jesus, we need to know what makes us stronger. As we face challenges and times of testing in the Christian life, we have tools of empowerment that will infuse our fatigue. In your wilderness, are you remembering what it is that makes you stronger? As we move farther into this season of Lent, we hear a lot of Scripture, words from God we are to receive and plant deep within us to provide nourishment and strength when the glaring heat and swelling pressure of our circumstances fall upon us. As you will see on the posters put up this week around the building, make a commitment to read Sunday’s Gospel text each day of the next week. Allow yourself to become saturated with the words you can feed on in days ahead. As for perseverance, realize that it develops one step at a time. As you step away from the distractions and toward the plan of God, you will experience the momentum of perseverance, just like Jesus. All along the way, the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus in the Jordan River will also strengthen you. You are never alone in your wilderness, for the Spirit abides within. These are the things that will make you stronger, if you let them.
I read a story this past week, a reflection from Bass Mitchell on the story of James Joyce’s classic, Ulysses.
He is on his ship, trying to make his way home. He knows he will pass by the Isle of the Sirens, where voices sing out across the sea in such enticing tones that many sailors are led to their deaths on the jagged, rocky shores, never to see home or their destination. Ulysses commanded that his men put wax in their ears so they could not hear those voices and so be led to their destruction. But for himself, he was tied to the mast so that he could hear their singing. He commanded that none of his orders while hearing them were to be obeyed. The voices almost drive him mad until finally the ship passes by, the voices are stilled, and once more his ears are filled with the voices of his wife and son, with home, with his true destination. So many voices crying out to us on our journey.[iii]
You have probably heard those voices calling to you as you make your way to your true destination. My prayer for each of us in Lent is that we learn to quiet those voices that can kill us and listen only to the One who makes us stronger.