Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tempted By the Fruit of an Other (Luke 4:1-13)

(Yes, the sermon title is a play on the chorus from the Squeeze song "Tempted." I'm a child of the '80s.)

Even though the gospels don't pay any more special attention to Jesus' temptation, it's a very important part of who he is as our Messiah. Because he knows temptation from the inside, so to speak, we can find a humanity in him we can share. If he'd never been tempted, then his sinlessness wouldn't have much meaning.

But Jesus is tempted, and Luke says it happens right before he begins his public ministry, just after his baptism by John. The Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness for a time of fasting and preparation for his work, and during that time the tempter comes.

First, he's tempted to ease his hunger by changing the stones around him into bread. No, Jesus says. We don't live only by physical nourishment, but by spiritual nourishment as well. Jesus knows that his purpose is not simply to bring a message but to be one as well. Part of his work will involve his own suffering, and if he gives in to the temptation to use his power to ease the suffering of hunger, how will anyone believe he didn't do the same to ease greater suffering later on? He will focus on fulfilling God's plan instead of fulfilling his own needs, and rely on God's provision in small and great things.

Next, he's tempted to have all the power in the world. I admit I don't fully understand this temptation. "See all the kingdoms of the world," the devil says. "I've been given power over them; worship me and I'll give it to you."

I wonder if Jesus considered saying, "Maybe if I want power over them I should ask whoever put you in charge of them in the first place?"

Obviously the devil thinks that if he offers Jesus something he really wants, then he would be tempted to worship the devil instead of God. But what is there about authority over the kingdoms of the world that could tempt Jesus? "Yeah, I know you've got that authority," he says. "I'm the one that gave it to you."

Maybe the temptation is to take that authority back and to ease the problems the world has? Whether or not the devil actually does things to hurt people, he's certainly not stopping any of them that go on -- natural disasters and human evil continue unchecked. Maybe this is an offer to let Jesus step in and solve those problems.

But again, Jesus knows that root problem for people isn't the world and the things that go on in it as much as it is their separation from God that stems from their sin. To step in and start playing with natural laws so that nothing bad ever happens and playing with people's wills so that they never do evil won't address that separation. Unless he deals with that problem, solving the others will ultimately mean nothing.

For his third temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump down from the top of the temple, this time quoting scripture himself to suit his purpose. A prophecy of the messiah says that the angels themselves will keep Jesus from any harm, even protecting him from a hard landing when he hits the ground.

But Jesus knows that to do something like that just for show would reduce his ministry to one of magic tricks and showmanship. People would flock to see him, but only to gawk at whatever trick he might do next. John records Jesus' own question to the people who followed him after the loaves and fishes: Are you here to see me or are you here for the free food? Playing Super-Jesus, who leaps from tall buildings without a single wound, would create an even worse misunderstanding.

The temptations, of course, don't end there. I suspect they remain throughout Jesus' ministry, and Luke even says the devil only went away "until an opportune time."

Each temptation plays a variation on the same theme: Don't do it like God has called you to do it, do it the way that looks best to you because you know better than God does about your life. Which is pretty much the same temptation set before the man and woman in the garden, and really not all that different from every other temptation Mr. Have I Got a Deal For You has ever tried.

I believe each of these temptations, as well as whatever others the devil may have cared to try, really did tempt Jesus. There really was a part of him that wanted to do things his own way, the easy way. He was really hungry after forty days, and he really cared about the suffering of the people who hurt in this world and he really would have liked to have grabbed people's attention to listen to what he had to say. And he felt all of these things even though he knew they would be the wrong choices to make.

But he did know they were the wrong choices, and he did know what God planned for him to do. Whether his human nature fully understood every detail of God's plan or not, he knew that departing from it would get in the way of God's purpose rather than accomplishing it.

Like Jesus, we face the same temptation to believe that what we can do on our own will be better for us and maybe for others as well, than what we can do under God's direction. Unlike Jesus, we don't have the divine intimate knowledge of that plan. We fail where he succeeded.

But because he succeeded, our failure is forgiven. Which sounds like good news to me.

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