Becoming More Like Jesus

Lent is a season that can be emotionally difficult, because we focus on the last days of Jesus and what He went through so we could be saved. I find imagining the humiliation, torture, and death of Jesus to be painful and sad.
It's also a time to admit and confess our sins, reminding ourselves of what God expects from us, which is often different from what we’ve chosen to do in the past. It’s a time not to sit around feeling guilty, but to repent of our mistakes and bad choices, to work on changing how we think and act to become more like Jesus.
God’s desire to help us was so profound, His love was so deep, that God sent Jesus to give us a perfect example and free us from sin and death, and then gave us the Holy Spirit to help us do the right things, say the right things, and become God’s obedient children.
 God wants us to rejoice! Lent is a time to celebrate not only the gift of salvation, but also God’s willingness to live in our hearts as the Holy Spirit, giving us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s an especially appropriate time to study God’s word to see the amazing teachings of Jesus and ask God to help us be more like Him, to guide us and give us the courage and strength to love and help others. We can open our hearts to God’s promises to love us, be with us, and to send help when we need it.
Psalm 32 is about being grateful for God’s forgiveness. It’is a profound and honest song written by King David. Let’s look at how it was used in worship. In the first two verses, the priest talks about the benefits of knowing you’re forgiven. In verses 3-7, another person recounts what he or she went through, groaning day and night until they confessed and received forgiveness, a living example of this truth. Selah means, “Pause and think about that.” Then God speaks in verses 8 and 9, promising to teach us how to live, telling us not to be stubborn, and gently surrounding us with mercy. The priest finishes it off in verse 11, repeating the joys of God’s redemption. God wants us to rejoice.
In modern times, these eternal truths still hold. Here’s an example of a man who was stubborn like a mule. Theologian Scott Hoezee told the story of Albert Speer, one of Adolf Hitler’s henchmen in the atrocities of World War II, and his treatment after the war was over. Even though most of his friends had been hanged, he managed to receive only a 20-year sentence at the Spandau Prison in Berlin. “Not long after arriving, Speer met with the prison chaplain. To the chaplain’s shock, Speer said, ‘I want to use my time in prison well. So what I want to ask you is: Would you help me become a different man?’
“The chaplain was savvy enough to know that for Speer to have even a chance of becoming different, he would have to provide full disclosure of his past evils. Whether or not Speer succeeded in doing that is a matter of considerable debate among those who have studied Speer’s writings. Speer’s memoir Inside the Third Reich was praised for its candor when it was first published. But over time people began to see that in actuality Speer may have held back, failing to confess the full scope of his Nazi activities. In fact, Speer probably made use of that age-old trick whereby you acknowledge some truths as a way to distract people from noticing other things you’d rather not talk about.
“He talked to avoid speaking.
“He laid just enough on the table to keep people from noticing what he was hiding under the table. Alas, it is possible Speer himself was not aware he was doing this. At the very least, however, Speer and his spiritual counselors knew that the key ingredient in becoming a different person is forthright confession.”
Psalm 32 confirms this.
God doesn’t promise us a life free from problems or temptations. Our world includes natural disasters, wars, accidents, disease, bad people, and violence. These are times of testing. You don’t have to be as evil as a Nazi or Vladimir Putin to need God’s help. We must all take responsibility for what we do that leads to either destruction or redemption, individually and as part of the larger community. And we have to keep confessing our latest sins, just like taking out the garbage. It’s a job that will only end when we reach heaven.
Our Matthew passage comes just after Jesus was affirmed as God’s Son during his baptism, when the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and before his transfiguration on the mountain top that we celebrated last Sunday. Sometimes the Lectionary is a bit out of order. The Spirit led him into the desert in a forty-day period reminiscent of Israel’s forty years of wandering and eating manna, a time that unhooked Israel from the shackles of slavery and bound them to God instead. The Spirit stayed with Jesus and strengthened him. It was a preparation for his ministry, a time of testing of his resolve and an opportunity for him to learn to depend on God alone. For Jesus to fully enter into the human experience so He could understand and save us, He would have to face our enemy, the Father of Lies.
The devil was, and is, smart, subtle, and ruthless. He tried to get Jesus to doubt his calling and work for him rather than for God. He tried to trick Jesus by quoting scripture to him. The devil can convince us more easily when the results appear to be for good and in line with God’s will. “Turn this stone into bread” could have tempted Jesus not only to use His power to satisfy his own hunger, but also to use it to feed everyone else who was hungry. The call to rule the world could have tempted him to be a just and fair King of the entire planet for the price of worshiping the devil. “Put yourself in the driver’s seat and change things for the better,” Satan urged. “Prove who you are.”
There are two equally damning lies Satan uses:
1) Just once won't hurt.
2) Now that you have ruined your life, you are beyond God's use, and might as
well enjoy sinning.
But Jesus knew that God is in charge and that God approved of Him. He knew that worshiping Satan distorts one’s thinking to the point that goodness and wisdom are lost. He also knew exactly what Bible verses to use to prove Satan wrong.
Being well-versed in the Scriptures enables us to give the devil a sound answer like Jesus did. I talked with a man during the peak of COVID who said he refused to be vaccinated because God was going to protect him. I quoted him Jesus’ reply to the devil in this passage, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” but he wasn’t convinced. People sometimes choose what they want to believe no matter what the Bible says.
Lori Brant Hale, a Biblical scholar, tells the story of talking to her young son after his Sunday school class discussed this passage. “Hey, Mom,” he said, “What do you know about the devil?” As a teacher, she thought about some very sophisticated responses, then reminded herself that he was only three. “What do you know about the devil?” she asked.
“The devil talked to Jesus. He was mean.” Then the boy told her, “If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in another aisle and I was by the candy, the devil would say, ‘You should take some.’” She thought about telling him how Jesus’ reply was about obeying God, even though it would be difficult. But she wondered if her son had already gotten it. So she asked, “What would you say back to the devil?” He grinned and said, “Oh! I would say thank you!”
Times of testing teach us in ways that prosperity and peace do not. It’s easy to feel self-sufficient and blessed when life is easy. It’s not as easy to trust God when times are difficult. We have to work at it. We have to become more like Jesus.
This is a picture of how Christ's triumph works for us now: Imagine a city under siege. The enemy that surrounds the city will not let anyone in or out. Supplies are running low, and the citizens are fearful. But in the dark of the night, a messenger sneaks through the enemy lines. He has come to tell the people that in a place outside the town, the main enemy force has been defeated; the leaders have already surrendered. The people don’t need to be afraid. It’s only a matter of time until the besieging troops receive the news and lay down their weapons. Similarly, we may seem to be surrounded by the forces of evil now. But Jesus defeated our enemy at Calvary. Things are not as they appear. When Jesus returns, it’ll be clear to everyone that the battle is indeed over. We can stand fast because we know the end of the story.
The Bible begins with Adam and Eve being tempted and failing, forfeiting the garden of Eden. Near the end, Jesus was tempted and succeeded in resisting because He reminded himself that God is love, and that what He was about to do would make our salvation possible. His courage came from holding on to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. When Satan tempted him, he replied by quoting Scripture right back at him.
Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we ready to lean on the Holy Spirit and to quote scripture when temptations come as a reminder of what really matters? Are we persisting in studying God’s word? Are we ready to follow God’s will, even if it means some sacrifices? Sin is only tempting because it seems like a good idea at the time.
What settings are you in when you fall? Avoid them. Find something different and better to do. What excuses do you have that support your sin? Be ruthless with yourself and eliminate them.  What people are you usually with when you mess up?  Leave them behind.
We need to be so grateful for the love of God and the redemption Jesus provided for us that we’re ready to do whatever it takes to follow Him, leaning on the Holy Spirit in order to be strong in the tough times, even when it’s unpleasant, even when it takes longer than we’d like. We need to work at becoming more like Jesus. In the end, we’ll be in heaven with Him, where God’s angels will bear us up and protect us from all danger, and there will be unending joy. Won’t that be glorious? And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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