Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Maybe Moment

Matthew 4:1-11
January 19, 2014
William G. Carter

Here is a scripture passage that we often hear in the season of Lent. But it occurs right after the baptism of Jesus, and that’s why we hear it today:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The bumper sticker comes from a more Christian age than the one that we live in today. It began with a line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation…” Then the next line: “I can find it all by myself.” I can’t imagine those words on a bumper sticker these days, but I certainly understand the sentiment.

There is temptation all around us. There are people who cannot drive past the hot red light at Krispy Kreme without pulling in for a donut. There are home shoppers who look through every catalog when their closets are already full, declaring, “I feel tempted.” Some car enthusiasts can’t wait to find out more about next year’s model. And sometime around February 11, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition will arrive in the mailbox. “Lead us not into temptation, I can find it all by myself.”

But Matthew says Jesus was led right into the wilds in order to be tempted by the devil. And he (the second person of the Trinity) was led by the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity). This was to be his test, probably the first of many. It sounds as if the Father (the first person of the Trinity) said, “Let’s see what you’re made of.”

Ever think of temptation as a test? That’s actually the Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught: “Lead us not into the test.” It is what we pray to God, some of us praying these words every day. Lead us not into the place where our integrity is tested, where our virtue is challenged, where our fidelity is pushed, where our eyes see something that our leaky hearts want to fill.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” precisely because the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He knew what that was like. He also knew that our souls are at risk if we give in.

Temptation is a test. In Matthew’s story, the angels stay off stage and all heaven watches. Jesus, in all his humanity, in all his divinity, is given three sinister examinations. Each one seems like the right thing to do. Each one appears very attractive. He is not tempted to do anything that seems wrong. No, he is tempted to do things that, on the surface, seem exactly right.

  • If you are God’s Son, use your heavenly power to feed the hungry. The world has a lot of hungry people.
  • If you are God’s Son, use your miraculous power to impress the crowds. The world needs a miracle to believe.
  • If you are God’s Son, hand your authority to me and I will give you everything. Skip the cross and resurrection and get it all now.
Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer, saw what was so tempting, both for Jesus and the people who follow him.[1] The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is the temptation to be relevant. It is to put ourselves at the center, to say, “We are the ones who can do everything that is needed.” If there are hungry people, we will feed them. If there are problems in the world, we will fix them. If there is something the world needs, it’s up to us. In other words, nobody needs to wait for God to provide. Here we are to save the day!

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been tempted to turn stones into bread. I don’t have the ability. About all I can do is turn peanut butter into a sandwich. But I have been tempted to fix things that I never can fix. Two friends refuse to talk to one another, let me try to mend that. Somebody has a life-threatening disease, let me tell it’s always going to get better. Someone is missing a loved one, let me offer to fill the gap.

The truth is, we can’t do everything. The real question is whether we can do anything. How convenient for Jesus, in all his hunger, to turn a boulder into a sandwich! And while he’s at it, fix the problems of world hunger with a little magic at the stone quarry! Wouldn’t that be nice? Use the magic of heaven to fix the problems of earth!

Except someone is always going to reach for more bread, and probably take it out of somebody else’s hands. Or if you fix it today, it’s going to need to be fixed again tomorrow. We can’t do it. We need God. And Jesus reaches back into his scriptures to declare what Moses taught: “We do not live by bread alone; we live by the words that God speaks.” And in the face of great need, if we don’t start there, with God, we are tempted to put ourselves in the middle. We are tempted to become over-functioning friends, hovering parents, or obsessive do-gooders who burn ourselves out. To push God out and make ourselves relevant rarely turns out well.

The second temptation is to be spectacular, to be impressive, to be so amazing that you can sway other people. “Take a swan dive from the top of the Temple,” says the Devil to Jesus. To make the invitation, the Devil quotes Psalm 91, where it says, “And God shall raise you up on eagle’s wings, lest you dash your foot against the stone.” God will catch you. Call in the favors. Remind God what he promises to do for you. And then show off, in the most public places, at the most available time, and everybody will be impressed.

A lot of people buy into this. What the world needs now is a lot of razzle dazzle. Lights, camera, action. A series of ongoing fireworks displays, each one bigger than the last. We swim in a sea of hype. The marketing people used to tell us that we needed to hear a message seven times before it sinks in. With all the advertising, the screens, the internet pop-ups, the commercials, our desires have been rewired. Now we need to see a message, as well as hear it, at least seventy times before it can sink in. Have to make it bigger, flashier, more impressive!

The Devil says to Jesus, “Let’s put this on TV, all 1850 channels at the same time. Hire a great graphics team. Zoom in on your face with a hi-definition camera to catch your smile when you jump from the top of the tower. That will get them. That will win them over.” Make it spectacular!

Well, wouldn’t that be nice. But if you subscribe to cable TV, you know one of the problems. You can have 1850 channels and have nothing to watch. Or you become weary of so much spectacle that you dismiss it all, like eating too much chocolate cake. The first piece is fantastic, the next three pieces are tasty, the tenth and eleventh pieces are wearing you down.

And God has no interest in winning people’s hearts through miracle and spectacle. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Jewish faith almost died out, sustained only by a small remnant. Jesus is sent to be the child of peasants, raised in a town off the beaten path, keeps a hidden profile until he was thirty, has only a few years to do his work, then is crucified between two thieves. And when God raises him from the dead, nobody sees the actual event, and he appears to a handful of loved ones, none of them important. The rest of us have to lean forward to see if it’s true.

Nouwen writes, “To be spectacular is so much our concern that we, who have been spectators most of our lives, can hardly conceive that what is unknown, unspectacular, and hidden can have any value.” The God we know in Christ is all of those things: largely unknown, unimpressive, and hidden - - until we discover that he is our treasure. The Christ comes quietly, rarely with a lot of pizzazz.

The third temptation is the temptation to exert power. Power! “See all those kingdoms out there?” says the Devil. “Say the word and they can be yours. You can be the king of kings if you let me put you there. You can rule over it all and never have to put on a crown of thorns.”

Wow, what a wonderful offer! To win over the world. To use your authority to bring everybody around you. To accomplish in one executive order all that you want to have done! There are Christian people who think this is the way it ought to go: tell the rest of the world we are calling the shots. Get the right people elected to do what we tell them to do. Declare in all our authority that everybody else is wrong and it’s time for them to get in line behind us. You can read about this sort of thing in Time magazine, you can watch it on your favorite cable news network, and it can even get you elected as the governor of New Jersey. Tell everybody else what to do. Exert your power!

I remember I had a dog years ago. I loved to bark out orders at that dog: sit down, roll over, be quiet. That dog would do whatever I said. And then two cats came to live in my house. When I barked, they just looked me and yawned. And then they started influencing the dog. Pretty soon, none of them would listen to me. It was the best preparation in the world for becoming a parent. I should have known better; I’m a preacher.

The first problem is that, in the process of exerting your power, you run the risk of selling out your soul. You ascend by putting others under your feet; never a wise long-term move. I think of the line that Thomas Beckett speaks in the T.S. Eliot drama “Murder in the Cathedral” -- “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

The second problem is that exerting power is not the calling for those who are baptized. God is the authority, and Satan is not his office administrator. God rules, not us. Like Jesus, we are always baptized to be servants, never authorities. That is the shape of our Christian conversion: to become servants. We stand beside people, not above them. We win the right to be heard by coming alongside those whom we first serve. We listen with a quiet heart before we speak. And Jesus keeps all things rightly aligned with the words, “Worship the Lord your God; it is God alone you shall serve.”

These are three temptations after the water of baptism, and they remain: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to exert power. Each one begins with the word “If… If… If…” Each is a moment that decides between the hard way to heaven and the highway to hell. Maybe it could go this way, maybe it could go like that. Temptation is the Maybe Moment. It will reveal what we are made of.

When that moment comes to you, the best way ahead is keep your eyes on Jesus, who went through this before we ever came along. See what he sees, do what he does. Declare what he declares: that we are here to serve God, not ourselves, and we serve God alone. The Devil will depart you for a while, and suddenly the angels will come to help.

God bless you.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] I am grateful for Father Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985). His insights in pages 47-66 have influenced this sermon.

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