Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Power and the Glory (3/5/17)
William Blake, The First Temptation: "Command that these stones be made bread."

Over the last couple months we’ve jumped around the Gospel of Matthew quite a bit. Back in January, the season of Epiphany began with the baptism of Jesus, which can be found in Chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew. Then a couple weeks later, we jumped forward to Chapter 5, and we heard the Sermon on the Mount, which was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Then last Sunday we heard the story of the Transfiguration, which marks the end of the season of Epiphany. In both the story of Christ’s baptism and the Transfiguration God says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” These readings are presented in this order so that we don’t forget who Jesus is—the living Son of God; the Word made flesh. Matthew’s account of the Temptation occurs right after Jesus has been baptized.
The Power and the Glory (3/5/17)

          Good morning! I would like to thank all of the Boy Scouts who joined us this morning. It is so nice to have you in worship this morning! On a personal note, let me say a big thank you for taking on the children’s sermon! It was really nice to leave the planning of that message to someone else. When I first started ministry, nothing scared me more than children’s sermons.
          Fortunately, the first congregation that I served gave me no choice: if I wasn’t willing to give the children’s sermon every week, then I wasn’t the right person for that job. So I learned to get past my fears, but it wasn’t easy. Many of you have told me that you enjoy my children’s sermons, and I’m so glad to hear that. It still doesn’t feel 100% natural to me. I always feel like I’m faking it.
          I’m a single guy. I have no kids, so I have no idea how I’m supposed to talk to kids or teach kids. I have no idea if what I’m telling them is getting through. I don’t know what to do if a kid asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. And that gets to my deeper fear: I’m afraid of losing control. Up here in the pulpit, I’m in control. Or at least I think I’m in control. That’s an important distinction. When you have to give a children’s sermon, you have to abandon the idea of control. For me, that’s frightening.
          I think power and control are at the heart of this morning’s Gospel lesson. This is a familiar story: Some version of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We hear this story every year, and usually on the first Sunday in Lent. It’s very easy to oversimplify this story: Jesus fasted for forty days, he was tempted by Satan, and he resisted temptation. The end. Now all we have to do is give up chocolate for forty days and we’re good to go!
          Remember, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, after God declared that Jesus was the beloved Son. Then he is tempted by the devil:
·       First, Jesus is tempted with food. He’s famished, and the tempter said to him: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” It’s important to note that there is more than one stone, and thus, more than one loaf of bread. Jesus is being tempted to “amass more than his share of food.”[1] Jesus is being tempted with more than his daily bread!
·       Second, Jesus is placed on top of the temple, and asked to throw himself to the ground below, knowing that angels will angels will catch him—if he is truly the Son of God. Of course, Satan knows that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s quite possible that there were crowds of people at the temple; had Jesus thrown himself to the ground, many people would have seen him fall and then be caught by angels—it would have been a public demonstration that Jesus was the Messiah.[2] There would have been witnesses.
·       Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth; he offers Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the earth. Satan said: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
          We need to look at these temptations as not as three separate events, but as a complete set: Satan is offering Jesus the ability to fulfill his earthly mission. If Jesus can turn rocks into loaves of bread, then no one will go hungry. If Jesus has power over all the kingdoms in the world, there will be no more wars. This also means that the Jews will not be under the dominion of the Roman Empire. And after all that, if anyone still doubts that Jesus is the Son of God, well, he can always jump off another tall building and get caught by angels in full view, for everyone to see. This might be a bigger deal than giving up chocolate or potato chips for forty days. Just sayin’.
          Now I have to ask you, by a show of hands, how many of you gave something up for Lent? You don’t have to tell me what it is. I, too, gave something up for Lent.  There is nothing wrong with fasting during Lent. It’s a great idea, when it’s done well. Also, there can be good reasons for giving up chocolate or potato chips. However, it’s really easy to kid ourselves and congratulate ourselves for giving up something trivial. When this happens, we make the fasting about us and we miss the opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ. This is, I think, the danger of a shallow reading of this story.
          The name, Satan, is one of the few words in the English language that comes to us directly from Hebrew. When we hear that name, I think most of us picture a guy with red skin, horns, and a tail. He might even have bat wings and he may or may not be holding a pitchfork. All of these images come to us from medieval artwork and popular culture.
          In fact, the Hebrew name, ha satan, simply means, the accuser. And what does Satan do? He accuses mortals of not having faith. That’s it. He tests us; he claims that our faith isn’t true. Think of the story of Job. Satan inflicts all sorts of terrible suffering upon that poor man, in an attempt to get Job to renounce his faith in God. And that’s what’s at stake in this story, too! Satan is testing Jesus’ faith and he is testing Jesus’ calling as the beloved Son of God:
The temptation is not Jesus’ personal test to exhibit to God that he is up to the challenge. Rather, it gives Jesus a glimpse of what lies ahead. It confirms that being the Son of God will be full of circumstances that try to convince you otherwise. It suggests that doing the will of God requires going beyond your own self-interests. It says that the kind of obedience God needs is that which demands extraordinary vigilance.[3]
Friends, this is our test, too! If we say that we follow the Lord, then we will be tempted to:
·       Satisfy our own hunger when millions go hungry.
·       Insist that God’s loyalty and promises need to be tested.
·       Choose the power that the world values.
·       And to choose this power over obedience to God.[4]
          Satan tempted Jesus with the power to accomplish the goals of Jesus’ earthly ministry, all while the human Jesus was alive. Jesus rejected these temptations. By the rules of the world—the rules that we make for ourselves—Jesus’ obedience to God doesn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t we all be better off if Jesus just turned enough rocks into bread and fed everyone? Wouldn’t we all be better off if everyone knew the story of Jesus and God’s overwhelming love for humanity? Wouldn’t we all be better off if God or Jesus micro-managed our governments and our lives?
          Friends, one of my core beliefs is that God doesn’t do things for us that we can do for ourselves. This is not an original idea. I expect that most of you have heard this from other pastors. I certainly have. It’s easy to forget that God has provided us with so much, that there probably is enough food in the world to feed everyone. What keeps us from making that reality? What keeps us from taking the message of God’s love to every corner of the world—to say nothing of every home in this community? Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” yet we have trouble making peace with one another after this last election.
          The rules of the world tell us to look out for number one. The rules of the world tell us to provide for ourselves first and to save for a rainy day. The rules of the world tell us that we have to divide the labor—someone else can spread the love of Christ, I’m busy putting food on the table. Or I’m busy relaxing, because providing for my family is hard work. The rules of the world tell us that we have irreconcilable differences. It’s difficult to make peace with our neighbors, let alone our enemies, so we just need to build bigger and better walls. The world tells us that you and I don’t have power and control over these things, so we shouldn’t even try. We should focus on the things we can control, and that’s it!
          But Jesus doesn’t teach us to follow the rules of the world; Jesus calls us to follow him! Jesus calls us to live into God’s commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are not the pursuits of self-interest, they’re the paths of righteousness.
          For us to get back on the paths of righteousness, we have to give up our own temptations for power and control. We have to work hard to see the world as God would have it, not as it is, and we have to remember that we are called to work toward that kingdom. We also have to remember that the kingdom is present, but not yet here. The inbreaking of the kingdom began when Jesus entered the created world, but we haven’t finished that work.
          The world has always been broken! It is tempting to think that there was a time in our past when the world wasn’t broken, when our society wasn’t broken, when our church was not broken, but that just isn’t so! We might think there was a time in our past where it felt like we were more in control. The world wants us to believe that we can be in control—it tempts us into believing that’s true.
          In this season of Lent, we are called to look within and ask hard questions—of ourselves and of the Church. What are the things that prevent us from seeing the Lordship of Christ? What are the things that challenge our faith? What are the temptations that interrupt our faithful response to Christ’s call? Do we seek power and control because we don’t fully believe in the Lordship of Christ or God’s overwhelming love for humanity? These are some of the hard questions that we must ask during this season of Lent. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. We are called to follow, even when the world tells us to focus on our own needs and desires. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Audrey West, “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11,” retrieved from:
[2] M. Eugene Boring. The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press (1995), p. 164.
[3] Karoline Lewis, “Choice Temptations,” retrieved from:
[4] This list is adapted from Karoline Lewis, “Choice Temptations.”

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