|The following is Rev. Meeter's sermon for 02/29/04|
The Testing of Jesus |
|Lent 1, Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91, Romans 10:8-13, Luke 4::1-13|
My wife Melody has taught this story to pre-schoolers in a Children in Worship class. She uses a little wooden Jesus, but the character of the devil is simply a disembodied voice. After she tells the story she lets the children play with it. She told me that boys have a typical reaction. They go to one of the other stories on the shelf to get a second wooden figure to use as the devil. Then they make Jesus knock him down and beat him up. They make Jesus into a superhero, flying around and stomping on his enemy. Precisely what Jesus was tempted to do. Precisely what the devil would do if he were the son of God. It's only natural. Is it not what King David did? And Judas Maccabee? Is it not what every king or president has ever done?
Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit as a dove came down upon him, and the voice from heaven said, "Thou art my beloved Son." This confirmed him in his identity and destiny, but now what shall be his action plan? If he is the Messiah, what shall be his strategy? If he is the "son of God," then how much can he expect God to assist him? He has to sort this through. He'll be attracted to those strategies and expectations which are typical and normal and even natural in the world. They are reasonable and expedient and even Biblical. Don't think he was not really drawn to them. He might well have given in to them.
Think of these temptations as a sort of proving or testing. Like testing a new product to see if it will hold up. You subject it to extreme conditions to find its breaking point. The extreme conditions here are the forty days of fasting, and the desert is a proving ground. This is a trial run for his Messiahship. Will he hold up, will he break? The issue of his doing something wrong is actually the issue of whether he will hold the course.
As I said last week, the worst temptations come to you after you make the right choice, not before it. The longer you resist temptation, the worse it gets. You never feel the full force of temptation if you give into it. Jesus is being tested and proven here, and the conditions are extraordinary.These temptations make a lot of sense, they are not sinful in themselves.
If he can turn water into wine, then why not rocks into bread? I could imagine him finally doing it, just to shut the devil up, and then not eating it, just to show him up. The question here is what are the rights and privileges that come with his position as the Son of God? The ordinary expectations of humanity-a home, a family, a nice retirement? Nope. The extraordinary compensations of his royalty-wives, wealth, lovers? Not that either. Greater expectations, so greater compensations. Heavier burdens, then richer comforts. and Solomon. No, not that either.
The second temptation makes sense when you survey the nations of the world, over history-our wars, our consumption, our geometrically expanding ecological destruction. Looking at all of this, it seems quite credible that God is not in charge. It seems like God has gone off to study philosophy and handed the management of the world to the devil, a Machiavelli at best, and Tony Soprano at worst. So get real, Jesus, people who are idealists only end up cynical or burned out. Politics is politics, you gotta make your deals, waddayagonnado.
Jesus does not credit this, despite the apparent evidence. Jesus does not surrender to this convincing explanation of the world. He holds to the prophetic vision that it is God who holds the nations. He believes that God has never handed over any authority to the devil, never. What authority the devil has is only what humans have surrendered to him. But not this human.
Of course it will cost him. Through the agency of Pontius Pilate, the devil will say, "I told you so." Jesus will be taken out by him and all the other authorities who did not pass this test, who submitted to the powers and principalities of the world. It isn't fair. But subjecting himself to unfairness is the special privilege of his Messiahship. He may not fight back, for then he'd end up just another version of his enemy. But neither may he break and run. He's got to take it, and depend on God to see him through. He's got to trust that prophetic vision against all evidence, even his own experience.
The third temptation is understandable. If he were to make a tremendous leap of faith, and if the angels caught him and set him upright on the temple steps, then all the scribes and Pharisees would honor him as the Messiah instead of fighting him. All the Romans would hail him as a god, like Mercury, or a "son of a god," like Hercules. That would vindicate his special identity and destiny. His victory would be sure. He would be both radical and electable.
But then how could he sympathize with us who pray for miracles and do not get them? How could he be a Messiah to those in concentration camps? How could have he any credibility with those who of us who pray to be freed from depression, or from the bondage of addiction, and have to keep on praying more? How could he receive the devotion of those who have seen their own children die, or who have watched their children endanger themselves, without the rescuing of angels? Jesus must accept the limitations of mortality and still be righteous and obedient, or how could he ever stand for us, and ask us, when things are at their worst, to trust in him?
One of the most troubling questions of religion is why a God who is both just and powerful gives evil so much room Why doesn't Jesus smash the devil on the spot? Why does he put up with this? Why does he let himself by led around like this? Why doesn't he use the power of God to deal with evil when it's right in front of him? My answer is that if Jesus had done that there, it would have pre-empted the possibility of the full development of the new humanity that we see in him. Notice it was the devil who walked away first. When had this ever happened before?
Jesus was proving and testing the capacity of a human being to practice the love of God, the love that stays with us no matter what, the love which can endure all things, outlast all things. You step on it and it gets right back up. It never fights back, but it never breaks. Jesus was demonstrating the toughness of God's love. In this case not the "tough love" which is tough on someone else, but a love which is tough inside, resilient, which does not need to win its way by force. It can thumb its nose against all the pretensions of the supposed authorities of the world, it can outlast even against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" which naturally come our way in the world.
If Jesus had taken out the devil here, we would not have seen the full development of that love within a human being, the love which even endures the gross unfairness and injustice of the cross. If Jesus had taken out the devil here, we would not have seen the full development of God. In the testing of Jesus here, we see a God who thoroughly surrenders the rights and privilege that come with being God. God does not ask you to do anything God wouldn't do. Lent is when we explore the surprising strategy of the weakness of God. But what the world might think of weakness is actually the demonstration of the love of God for you, just the way you are.
It was just as much to himself as to the devil that Jesus said, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only." It was his personal strategy for keeping on course. He got it from Deuteronomy. We see it in our first lesson, that worship is God's strongly recommended strategy for ordinary people us to keep on our course. The practice of Lent is practicing again to trust in God. Once a year we freely enter special trials of discipleship, like fasting, like almsgiving-the giving of money to the poor, like prayer and devotion, voluntarily putting ourselves into extraordinary dependence on God, in order to test and exercise our trust in God. This is one extreme trial that you can try at home. In fact, it is most effective if you work on it alone. But you can be encouraged by checking in with many, many others who are practicing it the same time as you are.