For Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
January 20, 2019
Well, we just heard the account of Jesus’ temptation from Matthew’s Gospel. Comparing the Gospel accounts, imagining Jesus and the devil going at it, pondering how much was internal and how much was acted out, puzzling over the meaning of each test, and plenty more easily scrambles our brains. My experience is that researching Bible commentaries often muddies the water further. So I am going to take what I think of as a contemplative approach to explore my own journey with Jesus. I hope this will help you to meet the tests of anxiety, fear, and power on your journey by cultivating active companionship with Jesus.
First, I want to suggest a shift in vocabulary from “temptation” to “test.” We typically think of temptation as being lured into doing something evil, even against our will. Jesus was not being attracted to something dirty. He was being tested to be prepared for his ministry.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “lead us not into temptation.” You may remember that Pope Francis recently got in some hot water for suggesting a change of wording so as not to imply that God tempts people. The NRSV correctly translates it as “do not bring us to the time of trial.” So I want us to think about the daily tests we face.
Some of you may remember the comedian Flip Wilson evoking laughs with the line, “The devil made me do it.” We are going to avoid “Flip Wilson theology” today that leaves us feeling helpless so we can focus on how our daily tests can benefit us.
Matthew and Luke say Jesus was tested by the devil; Mark uses “Satan.” We tend to think of “Satan” as the devil’s name and miss the point. Satan comes from the Hebrew hasatan in the Book of Job. Hasatan is not tempting Job to some evil but testing his integrity. Hasatan is the title of the prosecutor in a criminal court, the one who brings the charges. This is in keeping with Revelation 12:10 in which the Messiah casts down “the accuser of our comrades” (“the brethren” in KJV). So I would suggest that when we go around making accusations of each other we are doing the devil’s work.
After fasting for the spiritual strength for his test, Jesus was hungry and satisfying that bodily need was certainly natural. With our joyful noise offerings we are reminding ourselves that the congregation is in a time of need to provide the resources to keep going. I expect most of us have times of holding our financial breath and scrimping at least a little to get to the next paycheck to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. This can be a test of how well we trust God with thanksgiving to meet our needs.
In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not asking for our weekly, or monthly, or yearly needs to be assured in advance is a test of faith.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assured us, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 5:31-33)
In explaining the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said that what was sown among thorns is choked out by “the cares of the world.” (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18; Luke 8:14) The point of this test is not to scold us for worrying about daily needs but to free us from the anxieties that interfere with our joy in daily walking with Jesus.
Over the years I have found I often need to listen to my own sermons. Today is one of those. Our car goes in for major repairs this week, and I feel the test to relinquish my anxiety about paying for that and enjoy walking with Jesus. I am thankful we’ve got enough in our reserve. The test is whether I trust our reserve or trust God.
In my college days I enjoyed rock climbing, even after having taken a pretty serious fall. Part of the thrill is the exhilaration of feeling the fear of queasy legs from a perch viewing a grand panorama not visible from another vantage point. For Jesus the test of jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple may have been about doing something spectacular, but imagining it reminds me of those fears on a rocky cliff. To be sure we all face fears every day. Fears of violence and crime, fears of political and economic chaos in the country, fears of compromised health, fears of relationships gone sour.
1 John 4:18 says that perfect love casts out fear. Based on that, I have long said that the opposite of fear is not courage but love. A mother does not dash in front of a speeding car to snatch her child to safety because she is brave but because her love for the child is greater than her fear. I suggest that when we feel afraid, we ask, “How can I give (or receive) love?”
In Luke 12.32: Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As small and weak as we may feel, God’s love is so great do need to be intimidated by anything.
And 1 Peter 3.14: says “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear.” Sharing love is more powerful than any of the threats that might immobilize us.
The devil offered Jesus power over all of the kingdoms of the world. So much of the political conflict in churches, in our country, and in the world revolves around a lust for power. With the #MeToo movement, we are hopefully learning that sexual harassment and violence is often more about power than sex. All too often, “getting what I want” outweighs “getting what is right.” Not that we don’t each have our own yearning for power, but for most of us the test is how to respond to those who exert power on us.
Jesus is the quintessential example of the power of humility and service, which he equated with greatness in Matthew 18:4; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43-45; and Luke 9:48; 22:26.
This kind of power culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The prayer in Ephesians 1:19-20 asks for “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe. … God put this power to work in Christ when [God] raised him from the dead.”
This is a great mystery. The power of Christ-like non-violence is not capitulating to evil but confronting evil with love. Finding the path between vengeance and victimhood is a profound test that we can meet by cultivating intimacy with Jesus.
All three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) report that Jesus passed the tests and was ready to begin his public ministry picking up where John the Baptist left off proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near.” To pass the tests of your journey, cultivate active companionship with Jesus who passed his tests. A number of years ago I heard Father Thomas Hopko speak on cultivating the spiritual life. He has retired but was then the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said to us, “My mother used to tell me that if I wanted to grow as a Christian I should read my Bible, say my prayers, and go to church. Now I am in charge of training people for leadership in the church and I tell them to read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” I would add this from Father Henri Nouwen, “The spiritual life is not complicated, only difficult.”
You don’t need to become a Bible scholar to stick close to Jesus. I suggest just a single paragraph or episode from a Gospel each day and pay attention to Jesus, especially how he treated people. Don’t skip around (though you could skip the genealogies), just saunter through one Gospel at a time. If you haven’t done this before, I’d suggest starting with Mark and ending with John. Then go back and start over.
When you pray, don’t make it too complicated. You don’t need to be eloquent. Don’t stress over telling God what to do. Just ask to recognize God’s presence and guidance on your journey.
Going to church is not a religious duty or something we do to make God happy. Church is about being with others who are also journeying with Jesus to support and encourage each other. As you cultivate active companionship with Jesus who passed his tests, you will pass the tests of your journey.