February 14, 2016
William G. Carter
We begin the season of Lent in the wilderness. Luke says that’s where Jesus had to work out what it meant to be Jesus. He was there for forty days, and the Holy Spirit was with him, but there was still a time of testing. Jesus couldn’t start his work without working a few things through.
That might sound unusual. We would like to regard Jesus as a finished product. Like in the Gospel of Mark; Jesus shows up and he is ready to go. But this is Luke’s story, and he has slowed everything down. Jesus is about thirty years old, he says. What has he been doing all that time? Living, and working, and going to the synagogue.
Luke says Jesus had to grow up in the faith of Israel. At twelve years old, he was learning the scriptures and discussing them in the Temple. When he returned with his parents to Nazareth, he “increased in wisdom” as he increased in years. Growth and maturity did not happen overnight. It took a while for his faith to be shaped and formed, just as it takes a while for any of us.
He went about his life for thirty years until the day he was baptized. On that day, he heard God says, “You are my Son, my Beloved Son. I am pleased with you!”
The next thing he knew, he was in the wilderness. Everything he knew was tested. Turn these stones to bread. Climb up here and look at all the nations that I will give you. Jump down from there and let the angels catch you. Jesus had to sift through the voices – what was God calling him to be, what was God calling him to do? Which was the right voice – and which voice was wrong?
Now most of us have to admit: we have never been tempted to turn stones into bread. Nobody has ever offered us all the nations of the world. Never have we been tempted to test gravity. These are extraordinary temptations. None of us can claim the same power and ability that was given to Jesus. You might say it’s tempting to think that these happened only to him.
But they happen to us. At the level of our own capacity, temptation comes all the time. The more capable we are, the more thoroughly we are tested.
Turn these stones into bread. Taken literally, we don’t hear that so much. But what the Tempter is saying is something like: Take your needs more seriously than anybody else’s. Use every ounce of your ability to look out only for you. Do something to ensure your own survival. Above all else, think about your stomach first.
This is a deep temptation, because it has enough truth to make it appealing, but not enough truth to make it true. As someone says, “We do not live by bread alone, but we do not live long without it, either.”
Peter Gomes, the great Harvard preacher, tells about his grandmother. Her doctor told her to lose some weight. She replied, ‘Better to die from havin’ it than from wantin’ it.’” (Sermons, p. 51).
We need food to live. Food can be very attractive. I own a whole bunch of cookbooks. Forget about the recipes. Sometimes I’ll sit down and look at the pictures, just to get my mouth watering. If I’m honest about it, what I’m hungry for is something greater than food. It’s the idea of food, of being satisfied, of having everything I need.
That’s very tempting. We can start relying on all the stuff in our cupboards. When we are hungry, we can go out and get some more. We were created to consume. But what we are hungry for is greater than all the stuff.
Jesus knows this. His faith was shaped in such a way that he knows this. He starts quoting from Deuteronomy, chapter eight: “We do not live by bread alone.” And then the verse goes on, “but we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Now do you know what he’s saying? He was out in the desert for forty days, just like Israel was out in the desert for forty years. When somebody is out there that long, they start getting hungry. God knows this, and God cares about us.
But if God sends you manna from heaven, you look at it and grumble and say, “Is that it?” It’s so difficult for us ever to be satisfied, even though God keeps us good things every day. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and that’s what we get, and we grumble about bread because we didn’t get cake.
And if God gives us cake, we want pie. On and on it goes. Nothing is ever satisfactory. Do you suppose the reason our stomachs growl so much is because we’re tempted to want something more than God gives us? I don’t know.
I do know that all of us get tempted by power. It doesn’t matter how important we are. Look at that ladder. Climb that ladder of success. Get to the top so you can look down upon everybody else. That’s a tempting thing.
You don’t have to be famous to have a lot of power. You don’t have to be the next nominee for the Supreme Court, You might be my friend Tony, on the day in Philadelphia when he blew out a tire on the Schuylkill Expressway. One afternoon, he was driving down by City Line Avenue. Suddenly he hears kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk. He had a flat tire.
He pulled the car off to the side and tried to jack up the car. He has the car radio on, so there’s something to listen to while he’s changing the tire. It was rush hour, so the Top Forty DJ switches to the traffic report. The traffic reporter is in a helicopter high above the city. As Tony changes the tire, he hears the guy in the helicopter say, “Sorry folks, you’re not going to get home tonight.” He groans. “Do I have to deal with that, too?”
The reporter in the helicopter says, “They’re backed up on the Schuylkill Expressway all the way to Montgomery Avenue. They’re standing still in both directions. The traffic of Philadelphia is frozen. The city is paralyzed.”
Tony has lug nuts in his hand and says to himself, “What evil has befallen my fair city?” The man in the helicopter said, “I see a car, a brown car, just west of City Line Avenue.”
Tony said, “Wait, that’s me! I'm the one that's making this happen. My flat tire has paralyzed the city! Children are crying for their parents. Business deals are falling through. Lovers are not meeting. And I am the one with the power to keep it all from happening." Now that’s power!
Some say that’s the way to determine your own value. Just climb to the top of the ladder. Forget that servant work. Forget all that stuff about the cross. “Hey Jesus, all the kingdoms can be yours. Sign here.” He would never have to preach another sermon because everybody knows the Bible. Never have to heal the sick because everybody stays healthy. Never have to talk with a stranger about the Christian faith, because everybody already agrees with you. All the nations can instantly be yours, Jesus. Just skip the cross.
Once again, Jesus has to take a stand. He says, “It’s not about my power. It’s not about my prestige. It’s only about God and God alone.” You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
Then comes one more temptation: Jesus, jump down from the tip-top of the Temple. Do a couple of flips and whistle for the angels to catch you. Didn’t God say, ‘You’re my Son, my beloved Son, and I’m pleased with you’? If you really do belong to God, shouldn’t you get some preferential treatment?
Maybe that’s the most tempting offer of all. Anybody who has ever been baptized in the name of God has been tempted to doubt that relationship. Either that, or we look for ways to cash it in. Maybe we expect for God to pay more attention to our prayers. Or we expect God to love us more. Or we go poking around the Bible for some special verse that will promise us some special treatment.
But what we are tempted to forget is that God keep providing for us. What we get from God is not so much what we want, but what we need. God loves us that much. When we remember that love, it is the first step in sifting away every kind of temptation.
I have a friend named George. He and his wife have two beautiful daughters, both of them settled and married. George says when they were teenagers, the girls were always getting asked out for dates on Friday and Saturday nights. At first, George and his wife would always insist that their daughters had to wait until the young men came to the door. Then they would face a short little exam: Where are you going? What street are you going to take? How late are you going to be?
As you can probably imagine, that didn’t last very long. Both protested the interrogations, especially in front of their guys. So George came up with something else. The rule was that before either girl was allowed out the door, she had to give Dad a hug. George would take her into his arms and whisper, “Precious Treasure.”
That was their code. It was short for, “You are my Precious Treasure.” It meant she was free to go, free to enjoy herself. But if she ever got in any kind of trouble, all she had to do was call and say “treasure” and he would be there immediately. “You are my Precious Treasure.”
Brothers and sisters, temptation keeps swirling all around us. There are forces within us and beyond us that twist the truth. There are voices calling us to take the easy way out. There are wayward impulses urging us to exalt ourselves to the exclusion of everybody else. There are regular opportunities to cash in our trust in God for something that grants some instant security.
But we have been baptized to live by a different script: loving, giving, trusting, sharing, and serving. We are the beloved children of God. We are called to follow after Jesus, go where he goes, confront whatever he confronts, and love what he loves.
So whenever temptations come your way, don’t forget who you are. You are God’s precious treasures.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.