Temptation in the Wilderness

Meditation on Matthew 4:1-11

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

First Sunday in Lent

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 26, 2023

Link to full service with video of message:


Audio clip of Pastor’s Message:

Title: Christ in the Wilderness
Creator: Ivan Kramskoy
Date Created: 1872

I can’t tell you how happy I am to return to my flock to lead worship on The Lord’s Day!

Thank you so much for your prayers for me—and for those who kept texting or calling Jim and me, asking, “Do you need anything?” About 4 days after I tested positive for COVID, Jim tested positive and experienced more severe symptoms.

We are taking care of each other.

I am pretty sure that my terrible cooking will be a great motivation for Jim to heal as quickly as possible. Thank God for peanut butter and crackers, grilled cheese and hot dogs—and ready to bake meals from Fresh Market.

Seriously, it was hard to go from recovering from surgery and then being hit by COVID, just when I was ready to get back to work and a normal routine!

But I am grateful. I am grateful to God that we didn’t have the severe illnesses that many people with COVID have experienced. I am grateful for the Lord, always being there for me, always, always, when I am weak and struggling just to get through the responsibilities of every day.

 I am grateful for all of you! I could feel your prayers! Thank you for all your help.

I read an article this week in Christian Century magazine called, “The Little Engine That Needed Collaborators.” It’s about clergy burnout—and not the usual pat solutions that so-called experts write. You know: get some rest. Don’t do too much. It was by a senior minister of University Church in Chicago, Julian DeShazier. He is also an Emmy-winning hip-hop artist who performs under the name J.Kwest.

First of all, the title caught my eye right away. Doesn’t everyone love that children’s book, The Little Engine That Could? We all remember the part where the Little Engine is saving the day, pulling a big train of toys for girls and boys over the mountain that other trains have simply passed by. “I think I can I think I can I think I can…”

And yes, I may have felt like I was laboring up a steep climb with a very little engine these last few months. “I think I can I think I can I think can.”

A recent Barna Group study says 42 percent of pastors have given “real, serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry,” Julian says. “The number is higher for pastors under 45 years old, and higher for women, regardless of age.

I’m going to pause here for a moment and assure you, “He’s not talking about me! I love my ministry with you!”

He goes on, “pastors burn out for the same reasons engines do: they work too hard. Frontline care providers of all kinds are working too hard these days. One myth is that better engines can sustain the load, that clergy burnout is the result of weak or unfit clergy. But while it is true that some people have no business doing public ministry, the larger truth is that small, relatively weak engines can last hundreds of thousands of miles and perform incredibly well—with the right support.” (CC, March 2023, p. 29.)

The top two reasons pastors say they are considering quitting are stress and loneliness. The question for congregations to ask, Julian says, “is not how to give their pastor a break but rather how to help them overfunction less.” (Overfunction is the new word for doing WAY too much ALL the time.)

The most radical question for the congregation and pastor to ask is, “How can we do this together?????”

“Rock stars, after all, don’t make song by themselves,” Julian says. “The album cover might not tell you that, but liner notes will.” The first album of the hip hop duo Outkast involved 36 collaborators—writers, musicians, and engineers!

 “If we see clergy as rock stars, then we are clearly only looking at the album cover,” he says. “So people treat them as the ones holding everything together….They become symbols of a congregation’s faithfulness—icons of its goodness. …Instead of working in harmony, churches let their clergy sing a cappella solos, hoping that if they’re good enough at it, things will turn out ok.”


This is when Jesus is at his weakest—right before the beginning of his ministry. He’s all alone. Far from home. No family or friends. No followers, yet. He has barely dried off from his baptism when the Spirit LEADS him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This language assures us that this is God’s will—this is his destiny to be tempted by the devil. This wilderness is a rocky desert. It’s windy as all getout! Hot during the day. Cold at night.

He doesn’t eat anything for 40 days—not even the locusts and wild honey that his cousin John the Baptist ate when he was living in the wilderness by the Jordan River.

The “40” days is an important number in Israelite history. Jesus experiences what the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible have experienced, revealing that he is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and foreshadowing the New.

40 connects with Noah’s Ark and the rainbow covenant; the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness; Elijah fleeing to Mount Horeb (or Sinai). The length of his journey? 40 days and 40 nights, as is Moses’ time on Mt. Sinai with God, writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.

The devil in this passage is the Greek word diabolos. Diabolos is equivalent to the Hebrew word, satan. Satan means “accuser.”  The devil knows how to push buttons. Does the devil know how to push your buttons?

He says to Jesus, before each question, “If you are the Son of God….”  In other words, he’s asking Jesus to prove his identity—putting him on the defense before his ministry has begun. He’s just Jesus, right now, to his community. He doesn’t have followers and he hasn’t done any miracles. He is The Nazarene. Son of Joseph the Carpenter.

Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations come from Deuteronomy,.

 “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Deut. 8:3.

 “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Deut. 6:16.

 And the last temptation, Jesus answers, “Away with you, Satan, as it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ “ Deut. 6:13.

Satan leaves. The test is over abruptly. And just as suddenly, angels appear to “wait on him.” They have come to feed him, like the angels did for Elijah when he was weary and broken in the wilderness. Fleeing from evil Queen Jezebel, he had reached the point of human weakness where he was DONE. He didn’t want to fulfill his prophetic calling anymore. But Elijah didn’t quit—he prayed to the Lord to take his life. And the Lord of Life sent angels to care for him so he could carry on.


The night before we celebrated Debbie Canning’s celebration of life on Friday, I had the worst headache and brain fog. I was up past midnight working on the message and the service. But the Lord and my beautiful flock was with me on the day of the funeral.

God is always here with us and for us, ready to use us.

I had so much help!!! People sprang into action to make sure our worship was pleasing to God and the family was cared for!

You know who you are! You know how your help was needed, and how you were able to do that task that was by no means SMALL.

Dear friends, the fact that the temptation began right after Jesus was baptized is significant. For it is right after we say yes to the Lord and are enthusiastic about serving God that we are vulnerable for spiritual attack. The devil doesn’t want any more Christians running around, messing up all his plans. The devil’s job is to accuse—and to make us feel badly about ourselves and stumble in our walk with God.

Not many of us are led by the Spirit to fast and pray 40 days in a real wilderness. But all of us will go through countless wilderness journeys in our lifetime. Some of you might be in a wilderness right now. You are being tried and tested. Your soul is thirsty. You have been walking for miles in a dry and dusty land.  You have, at times, felt alone.

But the blessing of the wilderness is that is where God is!  Cry out to God. Cling to God’s Word. And God will send help!  The Lord will bring you home. First, God will gather and command the angels to come and wait on you, like they did for Jesus and Elijah.

Look around this sanctuary. Everyone in here is your brother and sister. They are your friends in the faith. They might not have wings or be dressed all in white. But they are the angels who will walk with you and help you carry your burden in your time of need.

None of us have to be the Little Engine that could—not when we have each other. When all of us are connected and pulling, we can move a heavy load up a mountain. Step by step. Inch by inch.

We might be moving so slowly at times that we don’t see the progress from day to day. But we hold onto our faith, and we are there for each other. Remember what Julian said—how small engines can last hundreds of thousands of miles and perform incredibly well, with the right support.

One day, we will look back at the steep climb we managed as collaborators, asking the radical question, “How can we do this together?”

And we’ll say, “I thought we could I thought we could I thought we could.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your Word, a lamp to our feet, a light to our path. Your Word and Spirit guide, unite, and strengthen us. Help us to feel your presence in our time of need, when we are weak and vulnerable. Teach us, Lord, to resist the accuser and deliver us from temptation. Lead us to lean on one another and trust in your Son and the promise of eternal life. Help us to serve as collaborators, living out our call as a royal priesthood. Dear Lord, we sense angels in our midst. Use us as your hands and feet to do your loving, healing work as we travel our wilderness journeys. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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