January 20, 2019
William G. Carter
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
We are considering Jesus in this winter series. The Gospel of Luke portrays him as the prophet-preacher. Last week, we considered his heritage: Jesus is both the child of Adam and the child of God. He comes for the benefit of the whole human race. And immediately after Luke tells this profound truth, he speaks of the preacher’s temptations.
The temptations are three: turn stones into bread, sell out to the devil, and arrange for a few angels to rescue him from deadly behavior. On the surface, these are strange invitations. Nobody that I know has the power to turn stones into bread. No rational soul would give himself to Satan. Jumping from the tip-top of a temple is generally a stupid thing to do.
But this is the scope of what Jesus is tested to do, and the temptations do not go away. Luke says the tests will come up again and again. At the outset, Jesus needs to work them through if he is going to serve and save his Father’s world. If he gives in to any of these temptations and what they represent, God’s entire mission will fall apart.
The late, great preacher William Sloane Coffin Jr. suggested a fourth temptation for our time. If Jesus walked among us today, he would be tempted to appear on national television. Coffin may have been on to something. Do you think Jesus, the prophet-preacher of God, was tempted to be famous?
It’s there in that unusual second temptation: all the glory, all the authority, all the power. Satan says, “Bow down before me, Jesus, and I will make sure everybody notices you.” You will be the lead story every night on the news. You will make the headlines of newspapers. You will have a lot of friends on Facebook. Your life will become one big Tweet on Twitter. “Just sign here…”
The same temptation is in the offer to turn stones into bread. Jesus has the power, presumably because he is one with the Father and together, they created stones and bread. Here in Galilee, he is surrounded by scores of hungry peasants. They don’t have a lot of bread, but they have a lot of rocks. If he can perfect that magic trick out in the desert, he can feed a lot of people and satisfy that growl in his own stomach. It would make him famous.
Just imagine how famous he could be if he gave into that third temptation. The Tempter says, “Do a triple flop from the top of the Temple.” Use God to catch you. Be sure to quote Psalm 91 all the way down, ‘God will catch me, God will catch me, God will catch me.’
“After all,” says the devil, “you command all the angels. Right? So take a flying leap and prepare to autograph everybody’s Bible.”
At the heart of these three tests is the singular enticement of becoming famous. If Jesus should give in, everything he has come to do will be at risk.
The spiritual life is never aimed toward fame and glory. The prophet preacher will remind us of this after he makes his way through the desert. He will say, “When you give your money to the poor, don’t blow your own horn.” When you pray, don’t call attention to yourself – because prayer is not about you. When you fast, don’t moan and groan about it, lest your spiritual growth be suffocated by the attention you seek.
There is something risky about being famous. Ever notice how many famous people go off the rails or smash into the wall? Every week we hear about some new movie star going into rehab, some famous musician who develops destructive habits, or some sports hero who smashes up a bar room. And no preacher is exempt from this, even Jesus. In fact, there’s something about celebrity status that seems to have magnetic power for attracting trouble.
We have a love affair with fame, and we hate it, too. Maybe that’s why we secretly love to see famous people fall apart before our eyes. Maybe that’s why we crave the sordid stories. We amplify their troubles, push them toward the cliff, and then buy the books they hired ghostwriters to write. It’s a way to cope with the sadness in our own souls, to see someone soar in the stratosphere of public appeal, and then to be knocked down into the mud.
Nobody talks about Vickie Lynn Hogan any more. She quit school after failing ninth grade, bounced from one job to another, and read a lot of tabloids about Hollywood stars. Her idol was Marilyn Monroe, and Vickie Lynn decided she wanted to become like her in every way. She dyed her hair, had a couple of surgical enhancements, and changed her name to Anna Nicole Smith. Then she married an 89-year-old billionaire and buried him fourteen months later.
Fame was fickle. Just like her idol, she died of a drug overdose. I remember thinking, “That poor soul.” Even with 400 million dollars in the bank, she was a poor soul, a victim of her own need for attention. She didn’t invent anything, make anything, or contribute anything. Her reality show was so bad it was re-labeled a comedy. A line from her obituary is now repeated regularly: “She was famous for being famous.”
As someone said about her, “She was a giant cartoon version of the universal danger. Her tragedy is the extreme danger that faces every one of us… to be something that we are not.” To live larger than life. To forget who we are.
Jesus won’t have any of it. At least, not for himself. He resists the fame and fortune that the tempter offers him in the wilderness. He will not take the easy way out for feeding the hungry, nor will he order God’s angels to give him preferential treatment, nor will he skip the cross to gain the power and the glory,
In fact, it is on the cross, at an opportune time, that the tempter tries again to twist Jesus’ understanding of his identity. The soldiers say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself (23:37).” Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He is the prophet preacher who comes to save the world. In his mission on earth, as in his authority of the resurrection, Jesus shrugs off the fame machine.
It is hard to keep this straight. Someone reminded me recently of the off-the-cuff remark that John Lennon once made. The Beatles were at the peak of their fame. They filled football stadiums with frenzied fans. Their recordings were flying off the shelves of stores. Ever the wise guy, Lennon said to a London reporter, “We are more popular than Jesus now.”
The religious response was furious, even though in many corners the statement was probably true. The Vatican demanded an apology, while the Southern Baptists declared it was an unforgivable remark. The Ku Klux Klan sponsored record-burning bonfires, which meant people had to buy Beatles albums before burning them. Lennon and his bandmates received death threats, and the response was one of the reasons why the Beatles stopped touring.
It is ironic that the Christ who refused fame and fortune would be defended by people who were unforgiving and threatening. It is particularly curious that a world that first rejected Jesus would not acknowledge that he is still overlooked and rejected. And the saddest bit of all is that John Lennon was later murdered by a man who had once adored him. It was being more popular than Jesus that eventually did him in.
Meanwhile, the assassin’s parole board keeps turning down his appeals, noting more than once that John Lennon was killed by a man who craved a lot of attention.
So I raise all this because it identifies the ongoing temptation of the preacher. As we will hear through the Gospel of Luke, the fame of Jesus will increase and advance, yet he himself never acts like a famous man. He walked flat on the ground like everybody else. He spoke with great power but never used his power to lie, manipulate, or advance his cause. Jesus had the authority to shout down a wind storm and chase away a physical illness, yet he never used his abilities for his own benefit. It was always in service to the needs of others.
It is hard for us to keep this straight, to not let it spiral off in one direction or another. Maybe the best advice is to paraphrase what the apostle Paul gives us in one of his letters, “We don’t think of ourselves too highly or too lowly (Romans 12:3).” It’s probably best to stay somewhere in the middle, balanced, intact, and honest; confident of how God equips us, yet trusting God to finish what we cannot.
There are no experts in holiness, no famous people in the Christian life, no perfect heroes who have it finished or figured out. All of us are pilgrims on a journey, strugglers in the desert, disciples on the road, forgiven sinners who might be saints in the making.
So as we reflect on the prophet preacher and his temptations, let us walk with our feet flat on the ground and remember who we are. We are the children of God, claimed in the grace of the Son of God. We are God’s own people, called from the shadows of our own self-magnified glory into God’s marvelous light.