What does discipleship cost?
A sermon on the Temptations of Christ (Lk 4:1-13 or Mt 4: 1-11) by Nathan Nettleton, 5 March 1995
Jesus calls us to follow his lead in rejecting easy comfortable paths and choosing the tough road of costly active love.
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Lent is about preparation and about choosing between alternative pathways. At our last meeting we discussed our view of Christian faith and we concluded that for most of us we understood it as a journey of discovery, as a search for truth along the pathways of life.
Lent is a season that focusses on that journey of faith. We follow the stories of Jesus' journey, and we travel with him as he makes known the news of the love and justice of God. It is a journey that faces us with the costs of following Jesus. If opposition and execution is where the road can lead, is it worth it? We may well, in our relationship with Jesus, have found greater love and freedom and hope than we had ever thought possible, but if it could end us up in that much trouble perhaps there are easier alternatives.
This morning we explore the tempting alternatives. We will see the struggle Jesus had with those temptations, and we will seek to identify the subtle compromises that seek to lure us into abandoning the road.
At its simplest level, the story of the temptations of Jesus has often been used to preach moralistic little sermons about how Jesus resisted temptation and so should we. And while that is not wrong, it is a fairly shallow surface reading of the story. What is at stake in this passage has more to do with the identity of Jesus, with the meaning of being God's representative on earth, and thus, with the nature of faithfulness to God.
It is no accident that the gospel writers all link this story to the baptism of Jesus. At his baptism, a voice from God identifies Jesus as the beloved Son of God, and then we immediately follow with this story where Jesus is confronted by the tempter saying If you are the Son of God, then do . . . The question at stake is what sort of son of God is he. What sort of action will his identity require?
The linking of the stories makes it clear that Jesus is still coming to terms with his identity and what it means. This is the beginning of his public ministry. He's had thirty years of relative anonymity as the local carpenter in Nazareth. Now everything is beginning to change. Life is taking dramatic new turns, and with them come new temptations. I don't know how many of you are avid readers of the sports pages in the paper, but some of you no doubt read articles speculating on what was going wrong for Shane Warne as his form dropped off in the cricket this summer. One theory was that his meteoric rise in three years from playing grade cricket in the local park to being considered the best bowler in the world had so spun his head that he had lost the plot and was falling prey to the temptation of just cashing in on his fame, turning himself into a marketable commodity and milking the situation for all it was worth.
Jesus here is having a similar meteoric rise to national prominence. One minute he's the local chippie, the next he's being seen as the Messiah, the Son of God. And in come the temptations. If you are the Son of God, you could do this. If you are the Son of God, you could accomplish all the good things you have longed to see. Are people hungry? You'd be pretty popular if you turned these stones into bread. You don't like simple band-aid solutions? Well, if you are the Son of God, step onto the big stage. Power, authority, the clout to change things, to make things happen. The influence to change the whole structure of society, to right injustice, to end wars and poverty. Let me show you the way. Come on, the ends justify the means. Oh, you will worship the Lord only. Going to be all spiritual are we? Well come on, look at all these people struggling in their faith. All these people desperate to be convinced and really believe in God. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of the temple so the angels will catch you. The rabbis have been saying the Messiah would appear on the top of the temple. Go on give them something they can really believe. You want them to know you're the son of God don't you?
What kind of Messiah is Jesus going to be? A leader with publicity stunts and power grabs, or a leader who is willing to suffer and die for his people? This is the question at stake here.
Let me point out two more things before we move on. This is almost certainly a summary story rather than a single incident. If I asked you about the sort of temptations you face, many of you would answer with a specific story typical of the sorts of temptations you often face. This story too, is more important than just what happened to Jesus one day. This is what happened to Jesus all the time. The end of the story says the devil left him for a little while, or left him until an opportune moment. You can be sure that at every moment of choice, and at every time he was tired or a bit low, the temptations arose again for Jesus. There must be an easier way.
Finally let me point out something about the Bible. Beware of voices saying do this because the Bible says; do that because God says; I'm right because the Bible says. That is exactly what the devil says to Jesus in this story. Three times. No doubt you've heard people say that you can make the Bible say anything you like. Well here is the proof. In the hands of the evil one the Bible can be made to support evil. We know that. The bible has been used to support apartheid, to support slavery, to justify wars, to condone the oppression of women, to justify the vilification of homosexual people. The bible has been used to turn the good news of freedom in Christ into bad news of fear and condemnation and restrictive legalism. The devil is an extremely competent user of the bible. If we are to be confident of the meaning of any scripture, we must be sure that it is being understood in terms of the tough active love of Jesus that will not compromise his mission of bringing the reality of God's love and acceptance to all people.
How many people saw the movie, Jesus of Montreal? For me, the most powerful scene in that movie, was the temptations scene. The movie was about a group of actors in modern Canada, putting on a passion play, a dramatic presentation of the story of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and to his death there. As they get more and more into the play, it begins to take over their personal lives as well. Events in their lives outside the theatre began to mirror the stories of Jesus. The temptation scene was so powerful for me because it snuck up on me. The actor who was portraying Jesus in the play, was an emerging actor and was beginning to win some acclaim. A young lawyer began talking to him about career development and what sort of things would bring him the sort of roles and the sort of recognition he wanted. And it was not till the conversation was almost over, and the lawyer looked out the window of his highrise office and said, All this could be yours, that I suddenly realized what had happened. He was being tempted to cash in on his talent. To compromise his integrity for the recognition and critical acclaim. I sat there shocked. If it can sneak up on me like that in a movie, how often does it sneak up on me in my own real life.
Temptation by nature, is not easy to spot. It is usually subtle and almost imperceptible. It gets us because it is just a slight variation on something good, not a glaringly obvious change. The devil did not say to Jesus, You're hungry, why don't you go and mug an old lady and steal her bread. Jesus would not have felt tempted by that. But turning a couple of stones into bread sounded harmless enough.
For me there is no real temptation to become an Alan Bond or a Christopher Skase, but there is a temptation to use my ability as a preacher to win myself a good job in a big church with a bit of prestige and an over-award salary. But the temptation doesn't present itself in terms of the salary. It says, If you're a good preacher, you could be preaching to bigger crowds, changing more lives for good. If you were preaching to congregations of 500, there would be others who would respond to your message and go and take the little churches like Prahran.
As interesting as it might be for us all to peer into each others temptations this morning, I think there would be more value in us looking at the temptation that face us as a group. We are in a process of making the decisions that will shape our future together, and there is no doubt that there are many tempting alternatives within that that would compromise our integrity as God's people. And the first step to avoiding them is to identify them. So let's see if we can pick up some leads from the passage.
Temptation 1. There are basic practical needs out there. Instant popularity if you can meet those needs. Are there some similar temptations facing us? How do they express themselves???
(Allow time for discussion)
Temptation 2. You could have a big impact if you climb the ladder of power and authority. The means of getting there might not be too flash, but hey, the end justifies the means, think what you can do when you get there. Are there parallel temptations for us as a church??? How do they express themselves???
(Sales techniques. Selling the good points. Making it palatable. The growth and effectiveness techniques of the world to produce a full church. Homogeneous church growth principles.)
Temptation 3. Pull a few stunts, make a big name for yourself, miracles are good publicity. Are there some similar temptations facing us? How do they express themselves???
(Supernaturalism, marketing strategies, authoritarian proving of ourselves.)
Temptation 4. This is perhaps the biggest one for us, but we won't find it easily in this passage. How many people saw the movie, The last temptation of Christ. What was the big temptation faced by Jesus in that movie? Are there some similar temptations facing us? How do they express themselves???
It's the temptation to just be normal. Just be nice, get on with quietly doing the right things, just like they've always been done. At the personal level it the temptation to just have a good job, get married, have kids, go to church on Sundays, join the Rotary Club, go for walks in the park, write a few cheques for World Vision. Just be comfortably anonymous. If we all did it the world would be a nice quiet peaceful place. At the church level, it is the temptation to run nice worship services, have morning tea after the service, have a Sunday school for the church kids, have ladies guild and a men's prayer breakfast, and perhaps a young adults social group, put on an annual fete, and all be very nice to each other. It doesn't sound too bad because it isn't. There is nothing much wrong with it.
It's just that there isn't much right with it either. A church like that might even grow, if it's in the right place. But it won't really have any impact on the world. It won't be helping to ensure that God's will is done on earth as in heaven. It won't be following Jesus on the road that involves lots of tough decisions and costly choices. It won't be following Jesus in the sort of radical confronting liberating love that got him in trouble with religious and political leaders. Jesus could not take that comfortable option without turning his back on us, and abandoning us to our own demise. We can't take that option without turning our backs on him and abandoning the rest of the world to its demise.
This afternoon over lunch we have to decide how to avoid the temptations and be the sort of church that is faithful to the Jesus who turned down the crown of popularity, the crown of power, and the crown of comfort, and took instead the crown of thorns. The proposal I have put to the church is not the only way of doing that, and I'm not sure that it is the right way. I think it is one way, but we'll be happy to hear others. But what I am sure of is that the only ways that will work are ways that stretch us beyond our easy comfort zones and make us face the tough decisions about how to be radically loving in a hostile and hurting world. That's where Jesus would lead us, and that's where, in this season of Lent, we commit ourselves to following.