(Read Matthew 4:1-11)
Jesus said “no” to the devil, and it set him free. The story goes something like this: Jesus has been out fasting in the wilderness for forty days and nights. When he reaches a point of being famished and weak, the tempter or the devil comes to him and asks him three different questions, all as tests that could lead Jesus to abandon his mission and calling. First, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is tempting Jesus to provide for his own needs. “No,” Jesus says. “I don’t live by bread. I live by the word of God.” Second, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let God rescue you.” He is tempting Jesus to challenge God, to test God’s power and faithfulness. “No,” Jesus says. “I’m not putting God up to some test. I know who I am, and I know who God is in relation to me.” Third, the tempter says, “I’ll give you whatever you want in all the world, if only you will worship me instead of God.” He is tempting Jesus to put power and wealth above his relationship to God. “No,” Jesus says. “What I want most in all the world is to worship God and serve only him.”
And because of these three wise responses, the devil must depart from Jesus. He has no hold over him, no control over him. Jesus is free. And suddenly, angels come and wait on him.
Most of the time when we think of freedom, we think of the freedom to be able to do things, the freedom to be able to say “yes.” When you are 16, freedom is getting to take the car and go out with your friends. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.”
At 21, freedom is going out to a bar and having an alcoholic beverage. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.” But anyone whose ever had a hangover knows that sometimes the real freedom is in saying “no.”
I spent Friday night celebrating the 40th birthday of a dear friend, Jeff Scholes. I know Jeff from Seminary, and he’s a fun and interesting person, as are many of the people that I went to Seminary with. One of Jeff’s distinguishing characteristics is that he went gray in his 20’s. So the joke on the eve of his 40th birthday was that he was finally growing into his hair.
Another thing about Jeff is that he is an avid smoker, a pack a day of American Spirits. While we were visiting, I was standing outside with Jeff and his girlfriend while he had a cigarette, and he was telling us how sick of smoking he is. He lamented that no one smokes anymore and about how expensive cigarettes had become. “But,” he said, “what really bothers me is that I’m a slave to these things. I can’t go anywhere without them. They drive me from my bed. They drive me from my office. I have to leave the restaurant in the middle of dinner to smoke. I’m a prisoner.”
My response to Jeff was something that my father had said to me many years ago. “Jeff,” I said, “I think it’s time you learned that there is freedom in saying ‘no.’”
I told my parents I was preaching on the freedom of saying “no” today, and my mother, who is by far the most caring, giving woman I have ever known, jumped right on the idea. She said, “Sometimes in life, people ask too much of you, and you cannot do what they want you to do. You have to say “no” for your own well-being. It can be really hard,” she went on “because sometimes people won’t like you for saying “no.” But I’m at a point in my life [She’s 66, a wife, a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 3] where I have to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re mad at me or not, the answer is “no.” If you always have to do something for someone else, it robs your soul of yourself.”
Pretty powerful words, and I understand exactly what she means. We all want to be liked and do our best for people, but at what cost? Quite often, we end up depleted, resentful and unhappy. Instead, we must be wise, and when we are teetering on the line, it’s most important for us to be genuine and truthful with each other about what we can give in a truly healthy way. Sometimes, that means saying “no.”
The quest for freedom, which leads to happiness and health, can be personal or it can be communal. So far I’ve been talking about personal freedom, but look what’s happening in the Middle East right now.
Five nations are in revolt: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Tunisia was the first, and within two weeks of the people revolting and essentially saying “no” to their government, the leader had stepped down. He listening to his people, and he respected the freedom of saying “no.”
However, Kaddafi, the leader of Libya, refuses to listen to his people and is killing them with bombs. What he is saying is: “You don’t have a right to say “no.” In fact, if you say “no,” you don’t have a right to live.” And anybody in the whole earth can see that what Kadafi is doing is evil.
So I just ask you, as you are walking your road to redemption this Lent, to ponder some things. Consider whether some of the freedom that you seek can be yours by the power of one word, “no.”
I believe my friend, Jeff, will quit smoking because there is no worse pain than being a prisoner. And it’s even more awful because he is imprisoning himself. I also believe all of us here are capable, by the grace of God, to be freed from our own prisons, whatever they may be. Liberation doesn’t always mean doing whatever we want. Very often, liberation comes from the power of saying “no.”