Sermon - First Sunday of Lent (3/10/2019)
Dt. 26:1-11; Ps. 91:1-2, 9-16; Rom. 10:8b-13; Lk. 4:1-13
In the letter to the Hebrews it is written: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). And yet it’s hard to imagine Jesus being tempted. I mean, maybe someone gives up chocolate for Lent, and by 3:00 on Ash Wednesday they really want some chocolate – but I don’t imagine Jesus had much trouble with those kinds of temptations. Or, you know the old Baptist saying: “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, I don’t go with girls who do.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t see Jesus really struggling over that one.
In the gospel today, we read that after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and a voice comes from heaven: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” – after this, but before Jesus actually does anything in public, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, into the desert east of the Jordan, where Jesus fasts and prays for forty days and forty nights.
And what is Jesus praying about during his forty days and forty nights in the wilderness? It seems that Jesus is trying to discern what it means to be the Son of God, to understand what it is he is being called to do and how he is supposed to do it. And during this time, there are some ideas that come to him that, at first, seem like pretty good ideas. Tempting, if you will. But Jesus comes to see these ideas as not being from God, but from the devil – things that would in fact lead him away from what the Father had sent him to do. And, to give the devil his due, these ideas are clever; at first they really do seem like good ideas.
So first the devil says, If you are in fact the Son of God, you can command this stone to turn into bread. And the devil is right; this is something Jesus can do. We know this, because one day Jesus will feed the five thousand with just five loaves of bread. And when Jesus did that, the crowds were inflamed with passion and tried to make Jesus king. But Jesus ran away from the crowds, and when they found him he told them the same thing he told the devil in the wilderness: Don’t rely on bread that perishes; you need to feed on the Word of God made flesh.
And then the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. If in fact you are the Son of God, if in fact you are the Lord of all creation, the whole world can be yours. After all, Alexander the Great conquered the whole world, from Macedonia all the way to India, by the time he was 32. Jesus the Great could have done it too, and probably even better. And it would have been for good! To spread God’s word, to enforce obedience to the commandments of God, to build the city and the civilization of God. The emperor in Rome calls himself the Son of God – if you’re the real Son of God you should take his place! Just do it my way, the same way the emperor does it. With the sword, with fear, with threats of violence. But don’t worry, it’s for a good cause! For peace, for security, for civilization. It’s for their own good.
Tempting, isn’t it? Especially for those of us who are working or have worked in the military or in the government – we know that this-worldly power can be used to do good. And when that power is subject to constitutional and democratic controls, it can be less dangerous than the conquering emperors of old. Sometimes. So there are legitimate vocations, calls from God, where we can properly serve our neighbors even in an Army with fearsome and lethal weapons or as public officials spending tax money collected under penalty of law. But that’s not how God exercises God’s power, and Jesus is very clear on this. He says to the devil: It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, serve God alone.” Jesus is the one who reveals God in human form, and so Jesus will only exercise power the way God exercises power: without coercion, without domination, without force, submitting to violence rather than inflicting it, forgiving the enemy rather than taking revenge. And when Jesus is arrested and Peter lifts a sword to protect him, Jesus says to Peter: “Enough of this!” There may still be a role for the sword in a fallen world to maintain a kind of order and enforce a kind of justice, but the Kingdom of God will not come about through force.
And then the devil takes Jesus up to the very top of the Temple. If you are the Son of God, jump off the Temple in full view of the crowds. Do it at Passover, when the city is full of people from all over the world, do it for maximum effect. The Bible says, “God will command the angels to protect you!” What an amazing sign that would be! Everyone will see that you are the Christ, the Messiah. They will have to accept you, there will be no room for doubt. Isn’t that what you want, for them to have faith in you and to be saved? Isn’t that what God wants? So do it! Go ahead, jump!
Also very tempting, don’t you think? I mean, have you ever wondered why faith has to be so difficult? It would be so much easier if God would just give us unrefutable evidence that God exists – with no possibility of doubt, no margin for error, no room for the devil to say, “Are you sure about that?” Why does Jesus always act so discreetly? Why at the wedding at Cana did everyone enjoy the wine, yet very few actually saw what Jesus had done? Why doesn’t God just do a huge miracle that would convince everyone – cure cancer, or take all the extra carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to stop global warming? That would be impressive. Everyone would have to believe then.
It’s interesting, how Jesus responds to this temptation: It is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus is quoting from a speech by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses tells the people that when they are in the Promised Land, they should not put God to the test as their ancestors did at Massah. What Moses is referring is to an incident immediately after the people had escaped from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. Now that was about as spectacular a miracle as you can imagine – a wall of water on the right and on the left, and dry land through the sea. You all saw the movie, right? And the next thing the people say is: OK, now we’re in Massah, we’re on the other side of the Red Sea, in the middle of the wilderness, but there’s no water here. We’re going to die of thirst, Moses! Are you trying to kill us?
You can witness as spectacular a miracle as you want, but it doesn’t mean you will have faith. The people of Israel saw the hand of God dramatically rescue them from slavery in Egypt, and yet when the first thing didn’t go as they wanted, they did not yet have trust that God was doing something amazingly wonderful for them and that God had a plan. What God wants to give us is faith, trust in God’s good intentions for us, confidence that despite all appearances God is bringing us out of slavery to freedom, out of death to life. Miracles that convince the mind but not the heart do not produce faith. And as Jesus reflects as he himself is in the wilderness, he comes to see that doing a spectacular miracle to prove his identity as the Son of God is a temptation to be rejected. Jesus wants more for us than simply to know that he is the Son of God. He wants us to trust God, and he does that by living a life of trust and confidence in the Father even when everything goes wrong – which means he has to embrace things that will go wrong.
And after Jesus rejects all these temptations, we read that the devil left him, to wait for a more “opportune time.” The devil is coming back! When? Well, on Good Friday, after Jesus is nailed to the cross, Luke tells us the crowd said: “He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Messiah of God.” And the Roman soldiers joined in, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And then one of the thieves crucified with him jumped in, “Aren’t you the Messiah! If you are, then save yourself and us!” If you are the Son of God …. That’s how the devil talks.
And then Luke tells us that the other thief who had been crucified responded: What’s the matter with you? Are you the one who has no respect for God? We deserve death, but this man does not. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus said, Today, you are with me in the kingdom of God.
Jesus resisted temptation for us. The temptation to save himself, the temptation to use human power to establish the Kingdom, the temptation to overwhelm us with divine majesty and force us into submission. Instead Jesus establishes the Kingdom using God’s power, which suffers for the sake of love and invites without coercion or threat. May we, like the Good Thief, recognize the voice of the Tempter when we hear it, and may we also hear the welcome of Jesus to join him today in the Kingdom of God.