This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Adversary.


Luke 4:1-13

I.
                  Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit out into the desert by himself.  And he stays there for forty days.  Anyone hearing this story would have been reminded of the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness, where they were also tested.
                  The wilderness has always been the place where people would go to wrestle with their demons, to encounter God, to test themselves or be tested by the elements.  God brought the people through Sinai for forty years to test them and build them into a coherent nation.  The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness also for testing.  It is as if God wants to replicate the experience of the ancient Israelites now in the life of this one Israelite.  Only this time the results will be different.
                  Israel caved in to temptation at almost every turn, culminating in the disaster with the Golden Calf.  As a consequence, God, while staying with them, also maintained a healthy distance from them.  The Lord continued to lead them, but from far enough away so that they were not consumed and destroyed by God’s holiness.  God always had to call prophets to bridge that distance and bring the people the Word.
                  How will this time be different?
                  Jesus is confronted by Satan or the devil.  This figure has turned up several times before in Scripture, usually as a heavenly Accuser or Adversary charged with testing the faith of people.  Satan kind of represents the self-centered urges and desires within us that tend to drag us into unhealth and death, and inspire us to do violence in the world.  He is the voice that suggests that we should not do things God’s way, but our own way, and as such he is the power of sin within us that drags us down into death. 
                  The devil’s words are very strong in all our lives because, as we shall see, they make perfect sense to us.  Satan’s path is always considerably more appealing and apparently reasonable than the usually pretty counter-intuitive and demanding words we get from God.
                  So when Jesus says to the rich young ruler in Mark, “Sell all you have the give the proceeds to the poor,” maybe he thinks, “No, that can’t be right.  The poor are so lazy, they’d only waste the money.  Wouldn’t it be better if I hired the poor to work in my factory?  Then they’d be working for their money and I would make a profit too.  Everybody benefits!”  It makes perfect sense to us; but it’s not what God says.  When we don’t do what God wants and do instead things that make more sense to us, mainly because they benefit us, we are listening and caving in to the temptations of Satan.  We only see what’s good for us.  God sees and commands what is good for everybody.

II.
                  The first temptation Jesus has to face is that he make a loaf of bread from a stone.  It is not unreasonable.  He has just fasted for a month and a half.  A sandwich would have sounded good.  He had reached his 40-day goal.  It wouldn’t make any sense to fast for 41 days.  Why should he not do something for himself?  He isn’t any good to anyone if he starves to death in the desert.  He’s a leader!  He’s going to have a lot of people depending on him.  He needs to keep his strength up for their sake. 
                  The devil appeals first to Jesus’ gut, his stomach, his need for nourishment.  It is an effective place to attack humans.  Food is important, obviously.  It is a matter of survival.  Anyone who has seriously fasted or even gone on a diet knows that our bodies are hardwired to eat.  Not eating, when food is available, is very challenging.
                  If someone keeps food from us against our will, that can generate anger.  Even when someone out of love denies you salt, sugar, fat, carbs, or whatever it is you’re not supposed to have, we can get impatient and upset with them, or with the doctor who gave us these rules.
                  The devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, then morphing a stone into a loaf of bread should not be a problem.”  He is tempting Jesus to prove to himself who he is, to try out his powers, take them out for a test drive, to verify what he can do, to demonstrate that he really is who the voice at his baptism said he is.
                  Think of all the hungry people Jesus could feed with this stone-to-bread thing!  Are you going to let them stay hungry because of a dispute over a theological point?  Caesar maintains his power by doling out bread; think of all the good Jesus could do were he to become the source of bread for the world.
                  But Jesus says no.  His ministry is not going to be about bread, or the economic growth that bread often stands for.  And he quotes Scripture.  “One does not live by bread alone.”  He has to say no to the demands of his belly, in order to say yes to the call of God.  He has to decline to feed the false self we all have called our ego.  Instead he chooses to feed his higher, truer, deeper identity as Son of God.  That identity gets fed not with bread, but with obedience.
                  Jesus isn’t saying don’t feed people, don’t provide for human needs.  He spends most of his career doing that.  He is saying that whatever we do, do it in obedience to God, not our own will.  Left up to us, feeding people generally happens in a self-interested way.  We will do it if it benefits us and doesn’t threaten our own bread supply.
                  But Jesus says to do what God wills first, without worrying about your personal bread supply.

III.    
                  The key to all the temptations is who is doing the tempting.  Jesus will conjure enough bread from thin air to feed 5,000 people later in his ministry.  It’s not about the bread so much as whom you are serving. 
                  The Adversary comes to us as a steady voice inside our soul simply telling us whatever self-serving word we want to hear.  It plays on and stokes our fear, anger, and shame, turning us into adversaries and accusers of each other.  And, as we know, that happens all the time.
                  We may frame it in terms of God versus Satan.  But the way we experience it is as God verses… ourselves.  The devil is only telling Jesus what normal humans tell themselves.  He is playing on Jesus’ needs, desires, hopes, dreams, and fantasies.  He’s even tempting him with a standard vision of what the Bible says the Messiah is supposed to do.
                  We see this in the second of the temptations.  The devil offers Jesus the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world: political, military, judiciary, executive power.  This is the kind of power that is enforced by armies, police, and courts.  It is the kind of power where you can fine, or imprison, or even legally kill someone who transgresses your will.  It is for almost all of humanity the only kind of power that matters.  It is what our minds worship as “power.”
                  Think of all the good Jesus could do if he were Emperor of the whole world!  He’d have way more power than a mere President or Prime-Minister, even more than an ordinary king, even more than Caesar himself!  He could really get things done!
                  Isn’t this the usual rendition of what the Messiah was supposed to do?  Raise an army, kick out the Romans, establish God’s Law in Israel again?  If this new Messiah is supposed to be for all people, even the Gentiles, doesn’t that mean coming to rule over the whole world?
                  No, says Jesus.  He renounces that kind of power.  He rejects the power to force people to do things, or not to do them.  He doesn’t use the legal system of his time.  Neither does he gather an army, or even advocate the use of weapons of any kind. 
                  The cost of such power is to worship Satan.  Jesus refuses to do this.  Coercive power, the use of threats and violence, applying main force against people in an attempt to compel virtue doesn’t work.  It is based on fear, and it only makes things worse because that kind of power is inherently and necessarily corrupting.
                  The church has caved to this temptation repeatedly and often.  To do so separates us from our Lord and discredits us in the eyes of the world.  The church as an agent of violence and coercion is not the church of Jesus Christ.

IV.
                  For the third temptation, the devil plays on the human desire to be popular, well-liked, beloved, and even famous.  Jesus is supposed to put on a spectacular show, enlisting his Father as a kind of supporting actor.  Indeed, he is supposed to force his Father’s hand; God is supposed to suspend the laws of nature for him.  The idea is that Jesus will throw himself off the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and God will send angels to protect him, in fulfillment of Psalm 91.  Satan helpfully quotes the Bible in support of this idea.
                  Presumably such a spectacular public miracle would get a great deal of attention.  He would be utterly unique.  He would win the hearts of the people.  More importantly, Jesus would demonstrate that God needs him.  God is at his disposal like a really powerful genie.  Jesus would be saying, “God loves me and so should you!”
                  Jesus retorts with another quotation from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 
                  The church does this all the time; so do Christians.  We test God when we assume that God is here to serve, protect, cater to, comfort, and otherwise support us.  So that when something bad happens we treat God like a customer service representative of a company that has failed us.  “How could you allow this?”  “Where were you?”  “I am not satisfied with your performance.”  “I want a refund.” 
                  Apparently when we do dumb or unwise things, or even when we are subject to the unfairnesses and liabilities of life, we expect God to show up with miracles… because we’re worth it, I suppose?  And when our life does hit the pavement, and angels don’t materialize to keep us from getting so much as a scuffed foot, we conclude that there is no God.
                  Because, we complain: “God didn’t meet all my needs.  God didn’t make me the best.  God didn’t make me special.”
                  But the whole point of trusting God is that God is in control and you accommodate yourself to what God wants, not the other way around.  Your job is to obey God and follow God’s instructions.  It is not God’s job to bail you out of every predicament you get yourself into.  Rather, God has shown us that the way through our predicaments, the way through our brokenness and failures, the way through our diseases and griefs, is by seeing our lives shaped by God.  It is by letting God’s Word, Jesus Christ, remake us, reform us, renew us, and restore us.     
                 
V.
                  All of these temptations have to do with putting yourself ahead of God in your life.  That’s what the devil says to each of us.  “You know better.”  “Your hunger, your desire for fame, your craving of power… these are what are important.”  “God wants you to be happy!”
                  Well, God does want us to be happy – but not by our own standards and definitions of happiness.  We define happiness too often in terms of how much we have accumulated for ourselves.  But God defines happiness in terms of how much of what God has given us we give away to others.  Our happiness comes in submitting to God’s will.  Our true happiness is found in letting go of our old selves that may so easily be tempted to grab for more.  For when we let go of that false self, we find the true self God has already placed deep within us.
                  Jesus does not perform any miracles in validating his calling as Messiah.  God validates him because he is strong enough not to have to rely on miracles.  The devil wants him to be self-centered.  “You’re the Son of God, of course it’s all about you!”  But Jesus reveals himself as Messiah not by self-promotion, ambitious drive, or sheer will-power.  Just the opposite.  He does it by perfect obedience to God’s Word.  It is an obedience so perfect he allowed very little of the mortal, historical Jesus of Nazareth to get in the way of the Messiah, the Son of God shining in him.  And the people noticed that. 
                  Everyone else who came to John for baptism was happy if their sins got washed away in the waters of the Jordan.  But when Jesus emerges from the water, his whole ego had fallen away, and he assumed his truest and deepest identity as the Son of God.  The temptations prove that.  No one still enslaved to their broken and sinful ego answers those questions the way Jesus does.
                  And because he rejects these things in their corrupted human form, they are able to flow through him into the world in their true and blessed form.  For in his poverty he brings us true wealth, and in his weakness he brings us true power, and in his simplicity he brings us true uniqueness.
                  What Jesus does here we must do as individuals and as a church.  We have to put ourselves in God’s hands, seeking first and only God’s will and reign, rejecting offers of wealth, power, and fame, and not seeking those things at all.  For in Christ all goodness and blessing and healing are given to us to flow through us into the lives of others, enriching the life of the whole world.
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