Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

Luke wrote his gospel in a highly organized, pointed way. I would encourage you to actually look at the layout of the gospel at some point for yourself. But I am going to take my job as “teaching elder” more seriously this morning and talk you through some of his organization. The gospel of Luke begins with his prologue and dedication to Theophilus, Chapter 1:1-4. Luke then begins the gospel narrative with the infancy stories, explaining about John the Baptist and Jesus’ conceptions and births. That story is told beginning in Chapter 1:5, continuing through 2:21, the verse where Jesus is named, and then on through verse 39, his presentation at the temple. All of these verses are for the purpose of showing, proving, providing the signs that Jesus was the chosen one, that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God. These verses establish for the listeners Jesus’ divinity. These are followed in Chapter 2: 41-52 by the one story we hear of Jesus as a boy in which he was preaching in the temple. As I’m sure you remember, his parents couldn’t find him, and finally when he was found in the temple, Jesus scolded them for not understanding his role, his job, his position as a temple leader. In the gospel of Luke, this story again serves the purpose of showing us Jesus’ special calling and unique place in the history of the Jewish people. In Chapter 3 John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus, baptizes him, and then Jesus is marked by the descent of the holy spirit pronouncing him to be God’s son. Finally, chapter three ends with Jesus’ genealogy. For the Jewish people, this would be like giving his credentials to prove that he really was a person who was qualified to be the messiah. While for us in the United States, this genealogy may not seem like an important sign of Jesus’ kingship, try to understand this as a blood line monarchy. Descent is important for a king to be considered legitimate. This was especially true for the divine monarchy. Jesus’ genealogy would have been a critical, crucial part of identifying and understanding who Jesus was.   
Today’s scripture reading about the temptations of Jesus then follow this genealogy.  And in these verses as well, Luke is about the work of establishing for us who Jesus is. Up to this point, Luke is telling us that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, the chosen one. With the temptation stories, Luke tells us what this Messiah is to be like. Or rather, these verses are key as they lay out in exact terms who Jesus is NOT, what the Messiah is NOT going to be, despite the expectations and hopes of the Jewish people of the time.
The Jews around the time of Jesus’ life were expecting the Messiah, and looking for the Messiah. But they had very specific ideas in mind of what that Messiah would look like, who he would be, and what he would do. They believed the Messiah would be one who would rid them of oppression, of poverty, and of hunger. And so Luke tells us that Satan first tempted Jesus to perform the miracle of making stone into bread. In this story, Satan tempts Jesus to make the bread to feed himself. But I think it would have been very easy to justify giving in to this temptation for the sake of other people. For the ability to turn stone into bread, the choice to create food where there was none could have been used for the good of the people; Jesus could have given in to this temptation and chosen to end poverty and oppression for all people simply by turning stones into food, necessities, the things people need. But Luke tells us this temptation came from Satan: this was not Jesus’ job. Jesus was not called to simply wave his hand and make everybody comfortable. And this story tells us that he resisted the temptation to do so. 

Many Jews at the time believed the role of the Messiah would be to reestablish the kingdom of Israel, overthrowing the Romans who ruled over the Jews and all the land of Israel at this time in history. The second temptation addresses this. Satan offers Jesus the power of the world, all fame, all authority. Jesus could have used this gift for good as well. He could have overthrown any power, like the Roman rule, that was oppressive and dominant, and establish a new rule, led by himself, that was for good, that was just and kind. But this, too, was not what he was called to do. We know this again because Luke tells us it is Satan who offers this. This was not Jesus’ call, and so this temptation, too, he resisted.
Finally, many simply believed the Messiah would be a priest who would, through his power, protect the people, care for the people, warding off all evil that might threaten their lives or their comfort. And so in Luke, Satan tells Jesus to test God’s call, God’s love, the power God has given Jesus. He asks Jesus to jump off the temple, and throw himself into the arms and mercy of the angels. But this temptation, too, comes from Satan and Jesus resists.
I’m guessing that all of these temptations, all of these images of the Messiah are ones we would wish for Jesus to claim as well. We, too, would want a savior who would make sure we were fed, would lead us as a king, as the President of the United States and of the world, acting
with justice, thwarting all evil, leading us as both a political and as a religious leader, doing miracles and acting with power to insure that all are safe, happy, and secured of God’s grace even when we do stupid things that might look like throwing ourselves off of buildings.
But Luke tells us very clearly this is not Jesus’ call. This is not who Jesus is. He did not cater to his own needs, he did not reach for power or popularity, compromising his beliefs or calling, he did not test God’s love for him; and, despite what everyone wanted him to do, he did not “fix” the problems of the world instantly. Instead he began a ministry which angered people because it did not support the hierarchy that had been set up. He began a ministry which eventually got him killed because he told the truth to those in power about their unjust and evil behavior, and he called them to change. He began a ministry of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed, but not by ridding the world of these problems. Instead, he worked through the people themselves, through empowerment, through love, and through calling all of us to likewise carry out this mission, this plan. He did his work one person at a time, and sometimes in communities of people.  But he never took away free will, he never took over power, he remained humble yet continued to speak and act with love and truth. 
We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We are called to be his disciples, and to do the work that he has begun. That means that in the face of similar temptations, we, too are called to resist and to follow Jesus’ way instead. We too are called to resist the temptation of feeding ourselves first, of seeking power and fame and popularity, of testing God’s love for us, but also, of taking the easy way in the face of the great needs and oppression of those around us. We are called to remember in everything that we do that the ends do NOT justify the means, that the way we get where we are going is just as important as the end result. And taking away people’s freedom, people’s choices does NOT get us where we are called to be.  Acting, even to save the world, must be done with love rather than hate. And we are called to resist the temptation to say that it’s okay to grab for our own needs because we can use them to do good for other people. 
            The truth is that I think all of us are tempted by the same things. And as people of faith, we tell ourselves that we want these things to serve and care for others. If we only had enough food, comfort, power, popularity, wealth, surely we could change the whole world for the better. But these temptations sometimes cause us to face hard day to day decisions that are not always in the best interest of others, of our communities, of the world. For example, we might have the face the choice to do something in a job that is questionable, but we do it because we need to support ourselves and our families. We might justify doing something questionable because if we don’t have a job, what use can we be to anyone? Sometimes we debate between what we believe we need for ourselves and our families and giving to those who are truly, deeply in need of basics. This is a temptation I believe we face every single day. Do we give to those most in need, who are struggling to simply survive? Or do we use what we have for ourselves and our families. We don’t want to be afraid that we or our families won’t have enough. And we sometimes lose sight of the fact that somehow our ideas of what is “enough” expand based on what we actually have. Similarly, how many times do we keep quiet, keep our mouths shut about important values or things we hold dear in order to not “upset” people when maybe we are called to do exactly that? To take a stand for something we value? 
These are things I struggle with as well. As pastors we talk about this. As I’ve mentioned before, the larger Church across the country is shrinking at an alarming rate. Across denominations our churches are dying out. We can’t, therefore, we tell ourselves, or perhaps Satan or evil or temptation whispers in our ears, afford to speak the truths that we hear in scripture, that we read there every day, when we fear it may alienate people in our congregations.  People might get mad at us if we said when we really know, think, or believe. So we fail to do it. Francis of Assisi actually put it another way when he said that people of God should never be put in positions of high authority in any institution because our job then becomes preserving the institution rather than telling the truth. But this is not what we are called to do. How is the church relevant if it isn’t looking seriously at what the scriptures say, are and do? How are we doing our jobs by failing to speak those hard truths that many would rather not hear? 
A colleague of mine wrote, “So I asked my three year old boy ‘Honey, if we were at a store, and Dad and I were in one aisle, and you were in another aisle, and there was candy, and the devil said, “You should take some!” What would you say back to the devil?’ A genuinely sweet grin lit up his entire face and without hesitation he replied, "Oh! I would say thank you!" It is far easier than not for us to say, "Thank you," when temptation comes calling. (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.)
But as we know, giving into temptations is a slippery slope.  There once were a couple of kids who wanted ice cream. The ice cream truck was coming, they could hear it coming up the street. So they asked their mother for money for ice cream and she said no. But they REALLY wanted the ice cream, so they were scouring the house for money but couldn’t find any. But then they found their mother’s wallet. And they took the money and used it to buy ice cream. So now they’ve done two things wrong. They had ice cream when their mother said no. They stole money to get it. But then the mom saw chocolate on their faces and asked them if they had had ice cream. And they added to their mistakes by lying about it. She knew they had, so then the next question was where did you get the money and they lied about that as well. One “sin” or mistake or error led to another, and another and another. Eventually one of the brothers gave in and told the truth. The other became angry and punched the one who told. Another wrong-doing. And it goes from there. 
In this world where there are hungry people, where there is oppression and injustice, where people are fleeing their countries because of genocides and other acts of mass violence, the bigger temptation, the biggest evil, is apathy, is inaction, is passivity. The biggest temptation for all of us is choosing to take care of our own and to not think that care for those who are out there is our job. But we are not called to be passive. We are not called to solely take care of our own. We are called to act out of love, for ALL people. That love should affect everything we do. Where we shop, paying attention to what stores are paying fair wages to people in this country and abroad. What we buy, paying attention to who has made or grown the things we buy, the food we buy and if they are treated fairly, if the land is being treated well. What we do with our money, who we vote for, how we talk to people, how we talk to strangers. All of these things, every choice we make should be informed by Love. Hard? Of course. For all of us. But that is the call. Anything less is giving into temptation.

The truth is that all of us become tempted, and all of us fail at times. The good news though is that God gives us more and more chances every day to make different choices. The good news is that God gets it because Jesus, too, was tempted. And the Good News is that Jesus models for us what to do when those temptations come. Jesus responded to his temptations by quoting scripture back to Satan. To put it in more modern terms, Jesus responded to the temptations that he faced by re-grounding himself in what he believed, in his relationship with God. And he models for us similar choices. Prayer helps. Confession helps. Meditation helps. Remembering what you believe, what is important, where God is in your life and that God calls us to love others because in doing so we are made whole. Remembering that…all of that can help reground us. Staying present so we are focused on what needs to be done now, right this minute for the good of the one in front of us, for the good of God’s creation. And again, that can be done best with God’s help. We pray each week, “lead us not into temptation”. But we will find ourselves tempted, and when we are, the prayer needs to be continued, “(and when we are tempted), deliver us from evil” both the evil of others AND our own.  Amen.