Saturday, February 16, 2013

Since You Are...

Thanks this week to the writings of Scott Shauf, D. Mark Davis, and the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton.

You know, I think it's fine if you want to use Lent as a way to cut back on sweets, or to try and stop drinking so much caffeine or eliminate nicotine or tobacco from your life. Just remember: God doesn't want your chocolate or your Marlboros. God wants you, all of you, without reservation.

And ain't that good news?

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan. After decades of preparation – which looked strikingly similar to quietly living his life in Nazareth, working as a carpenter – Jesus is plunged into his calling, brought fully into his true purpose and mission on earth. And he begins it not by turning back down the road toward civilization, but by crossing the Jordan and walking off into the wilderness.

You may have heard of John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” which is a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve. Less well-known is his sequel, “Paradise Regained.” Not surprisingly, the subject of this poem is Jesus Christ; however, the work doesn’t focus on his birth, his death, or his resurrection… but on the subject of our Gospel reading today. John Milton sees, in the temptation in the wilderness, the rebirth of hope. By giving in to temptation, Adam and Eve lost, for all of humankind, the possibility of life lived in God’s presence. By resisting temptation, Jesus Christ restored that possibility.

The first of the three temptations is interesting, not in the least because there is nothing at all wrong with what Jesus appears to be tempted with. Food is vital to life, and after forty days with none, Jesus is at a point where he must eat if he wants to keep on living. However, it isn’t the “what” that is the temptation here. It’s the “why.”

Look at the phrase from our reading: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” One noted Bible translator, Paul Achtemeier, points out that the word for “if” here, “ei,” means “to be, to exist, to happen, to be present,” and should this be translated “Since you are the Son of God…”

This is significant because it means that Jesus doesn’t have to prove to himself that he is God’s son, He knows he is. In fact, even the devil is willing to concede the point! The question, the temptation, is “how should God’s son act?”

Jesus’ response to the devil is an echo of Deuteronomy 8, verse three: “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Jesus is asserting that, from the outset, he exists not to do his own will, but the will of his Father in Heaven. This is true in this most basic of ways, getting some food, as it is on the night he is betrayed, when he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It is true this day in the lonely wilderness, and on the day he hangs on the cross in front of passersby who both mock him and plead with him to assert his authority and save himself from death.

The next temptation deals with the basic human desire for power, or, perhaps more specifically, the question, “if Christ is King, what does the Kingdom look like?” Does it look and act and feel like a political and military empire, overpowering and eliminating all lesser kingdoms, consolidating the planet and all within it under the banner of the one true and living God? No problem, the devil says, I can make that happen in an instant, just say the word.

On its surface, this temptation, to worship the devil, seems ridiculous! How could he even begin to imagine that the son of God would bow to the devil? How could this be a temptation?

I don’t know, but here’s what I think: Certainly, any kingdom Christ establishes will be eternal. And yes, eliminating the cruelty of the Romans, the hedonism of the Herods, and the rampaging lunacy of the tinier outlying kingdoms dotting the globe in those days would be a very good thing for the people suffering under the oppression of despots and emperors and kings. And sure, the sooner the better.

After all, Jesus had seen the suffering, had felt the terror of a Roman legion marching in to town, had seen people struggle between feeding their family or paying taxes. Given who he was, why wouldn’t he want that to end forever, why wouldn’t he want to bring peace and security and comfort to as many people as he could, as quickly as he could?

But the price is, of course, too high. In any case, Jesus’ Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is a different kind of kingdom. If God is God, then power, especially earthly political and military power, is irrelevant. God has all power, and as such, doesn’t need to prove that power, doesn’t even need to have that power acknowledged, it just is, and it is absolute. Because of this – the complete assurance of power and authority without qualification, the Kingdom of God turns our expectations of empire on its head. The Kingdom of God is thus not predicated upon power, but upon service. Jesus will tell his disciples, and all who follow him, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

This third temptation seems another call for Jesus to prove himself. And again, if we make the devil’s challenge begin. “Since you are the Son of God…” as I mentioned in the first temptation, then Jesus isn’t proving anything to himself or to the devil. They both know full well who he is.

And no, I don’t know how he got to the top of the Temple, whether he was physically there or there in a vision or in his mind’s eye – though I suspect that any presence less than immediate and physical would change this event from a temptation into an academic discussion. I think he is somehow right there, standing at the highest point of the Temple, the hot Judean winds whipping at his robes, the noise of the priests and people and animals and merchant’s stalls faint and far below.

You and I both know who you are, the devil says. Prove it to all of them, now, and get on with it. Skip all this slow, plodding, teaching and preaching and healing stuff, jump right past the resurrection and in to people knowing who you are and worshipping you. Show ‘em the sizzle, get their attention.

By this time, someone, perhaps a youngster, has happened to look up and spot Jesus, way up at the very top of the Temple, and soon Jesus sees everyone below looking up at him, their faces like a field of flowers turned toward the sun. Imagine just leaning forward a bit, his feet slipping from the stone of the Temple, the wind rushing past as he falls, and at the last moment, a band of heavenly angels appearing out of nowhere, boom!, and catching him!

Ha! Let them try and doubt him then!

If Jesus does something this spectacular, this obvious, there will be no question in anyone’s mind who he is, and the path to making him king will be short and sweet. Faith will be a moot point, because the proof, right before their eyes, will be inarguable.

Not believing in Christ will be as impossible as not believing in gravity. Jesus would make an end run around the cross and establish his Kingdom based on the fame and fortune of a very entertaining stunt.

But Jesus understands not only who he is, but what that means for himself and for the world he came to save. The signs he does are done not simply as an indication of who he is, but in order bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Jesus knows that his purpose is not to serve himself. Those people, those faces staring up at him from far below, it is about them. These lost sheep need a shepherd, not a stuntman. So he steps back from the edge and begins the longer, more painful, more terrifying and lonely journey – the one that leads, inexorably, to Golgatha.

Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God. Since as Christians we are called to continue the Spirit-led proclamation and enactment of God’s kingdom, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally.

Who am I? Who am I, really, and what is God calling me to do? Who are we? Who are we, the church in all its expressions, really, and what is God calling us to do? As Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, we are also tempted to make shortcuts, to abandon the task God has given us in favor of the easy ways, the ways of self-fulfillment, power, and spectacle.

But if all we are is a gathering of like-minded people, who share a preference for a certain form of theology and worship, then the things we do should be designed to provide for our survival, to take care of ourselves. Shortcuts, power grabs and self-aggrandizement not only make sense, they are vital.

But if we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ: Called to be Christians, gathered around Word and Sacrament, Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Sent into the world to spread the Love of God, then the things we do must be designed to care for the world, for others. No shortcuts.

Now, unlike Jesus, we will fail at times. We will give in to the temptation to take the easy way, to grab power, to take care of Number One at the expense of someone else. Lent is the time for confessing our failures and redirecting our steps to the way of Jesus. And through the power of the Spirit, we, too, can resist the temptations of the devil.

Since we are the children of God, let us step away from the edge, and walk the narrow path that leads to the Kingdom of God.

1 comment:

  1. I think there is so much that has been missed in the temptation of Jesus.I really wish more teachers would dare to explore deeper how we are to understand "the devil".I was always taught the devil was a fallen angel,but after I was freed to explore and question scripture apart from what my religious leaders told me I had to believe,I was shocked to find absolutely no scripures to back up that teaching.