MISSION ROMANS 10:8B-13; LUKE 4:1-13
The news in recent days has carried stories of unexpected events in the
lives of famous individuals. South Africa’s “bladerunner”
Oscar Pistorius has been arrested and charged with shooting his girlfriend
dead. Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement – the first papal
resignation for nearly 600 years. The last one was in 1415. These two
stories are so different that they seem to have little in common. We can
only speculate or read the media speculation about the back stories of
these things. Of course one is an undoubted tragedy and possibly a crime
of passion. The other, many people say, is a courageous and selfless decision.
But perhaps both also remind us of human frailty. In one case the weaknesses
and passions that can lead to crime; in the other case, recognising the
signs of age and being willing to let others take over.
Every way except
The Bible tells us that Jesus was human in every way except that he did
not sin. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that part of Jesus’
humanity included being tempted – but the difference was that he
did not give in to temptation. These days, because of our culture which
values the individual and which encourages us to understand ourselves
in highly psychological ways, we can tend to interpret the story of the
temptation in the wilderness in a highly personal way. Jesus was hungry
after fasting for 40 days. The first temptation is to satisfy his cravings
by using his miraculous powers. The second temptation is to grasp at worldly
power but comes at the cost of losing his integrity. The third temptation
is to court popularity by creating a spectacle but was a highly risky
thing – a bit like doing a tightrope act without safety nets. If
we look at these temptations in a personal way like this, then it leads
to interpretations which are highly personal. We should not misuse our
power to satisfy only ourselves; we should not try to gain power by selling
out to devilish ways; we should not try to gain popularity or influence
by making a risky spectacle of ourselves. Whilst this kind of interpretation
is not wrong, it is limited. This kind of interpretation doesn’t
take into account the wider story Luke is telling and is based on a psychological
way of understanding Jesus.
Part of Christ’s Mission
In order to take a wider view of this story we need to take good notice
of the way Luke starts and finishes this episode in Jesus’ life.
In some ways it is not to be taken as a stand-alone story for it is part
of the whole story of Jesus. Luke has just described Jesus’ baptism
and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. He has mentioned the voice
from heaven declaring Jesus to be the beloved Son of God. He began all
of that by saying that Jesus started his ministry when he was 30 years
old. At the end of the temptations story Luke then connects it to what
he is going to tell us next: that although this occasion of temptation
was over, the devil had not left him completely alone – he waited
for other “opportune” times to come back. Luke is flagging
up that Jesus continued to suffer temptations during his ministry. All
of this should help us to realise that we are to understand the wilderness
temptations within the wider context of Jesus’ mission.
In C S Lewis
Screwtape Letters the more senior demon advises a younger demon that Christians
can sometimes be more successfully tempted with spiritual things rather
than fleshly suggestions of pleasure. In a slightly more profound way
T S Eliot portrayed Thomas a Becket being tempted “to the right
thing for the wrong reason”. Temptation can therefore be very subtle.
Temptation for Jesus was not to indulge himself. After all, he had shown
how self-disciplined he could be by fasting for almost 6 weeks. The temptations
Jesus’ suffered both in the wilderness and then throughout his ministry
were temptations to do with his mission.
In other words, Jesus was tempted to take shortcuts to fulfil his mission
and recognised that would ultimately mean failure. His mission was to
feed the hungry and did use his miraculous powers to do so. But Luke and
the other gospel writers try to show how these miracles were not about
how he was going to save the world from starvation or get many to follow
him. They were meant to be signs of the Kingdom of Heaven – signs
pointing to Jesus who was the bread of life. Jesus was to call people
to put faith in God through him, not in his ability to fill their bellies.
Immediate satisfaction is no substitute for eternal nourishment. Jesus
would leave the Church not only to feed the hungry whenever or wherever
they were to be found, but to challenge the unjust structures of this
world which mean that millions starve whilst others have plenty.
was to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the kingdoms of this world. But,
as he said to Pilate, his kingdom was not of this world, and he was not
to be an earthly ruler. Yes, one day Jesus will be King of Kings and Lord
of Lords, but his mission was not going to be fulfilled by grabbing that
role for himself at the cost of taking it from the devil’s hand.
The people of God had tried to make their kingdom a place where salvation
and knowing God was all about belonging to an earthly kingdom –
about being Israel. But Jesus came to bring in a way of living under God
that transcended belonging to one particular people or one contained geographical
place. The gospel was to spread throughout the world and time and touch
all human lives and hearts. The only way Jesus could fulfil that mission
was to die on the cross – to sacrifice himself in order to liberate
creation and humanity.
was to teach people about the Kingdom of Heaven. Many people flocked to
hear him and he was clearly popular as a preacher. He had a common touch
which he combined with a profound sense of authority. He could make people
laugh and then ask questions which led them on into the truth. Together
his miracles and his message were a powerful crowd puller. He certainly
wouldn’t need to dive from a high point on the Temple only to land
softly with the help of angels who might have been forced to the rescue!
But crowds can be fickle, and those who chase popularity soon fall from
their pedestals. Jesus’ real mission was to call people to repentance
and faith. His message was good news to the poor and powerless but didn’t
go down too well with the rich and powerful. Gaining a following is not
the same as announcing God’s judgement and mercy.
These temptations can certainly be understood in personal ways. It is
not wrong to take a lesson from them and be warned against seeking our
individual prosperity, power and popularity. God knows we’re greedy
enough, misuse the money and prestige we have and live in a society that
is consumed with ideas of popularity in the form of celebrities. But the
challenge is to see the wider picture and be concerned with what matters
the most. The subtle temptation for us is to narrow down the way in which
we understand Christ’s temptations in the wilderness.
his disciples to follow him and when he left them with the promise of
the Holy Spirit it was to continue fulfilling his mission. The Church
was founded not so that we could feel better about ourselves, but so that
Christ's mission to the world could be continued. We face, as the Church,
similar temptations to Jesus, temptations to take shortcuts in our mission
or to miss the point of our existence altogether.
We find satisfaction in church. We are nourished spiritually with bread,
wine and Word. We find friendship and fellowship which sates some of our
hunger for company. But to keep it to ourselves is like changing the stones
into bread. We value the Church’s place of privilege in society,
especially that of, say, the C of E, and its position in English culture.
Many still turn to us for special times in their lives: baptism, marriage
and death. But to keep it to ourselves and to mistake this for successful
mission, is to gain the kingdoms of this world at the expense of our integrity.
We are glad when we are noticed as a church, but to be satisfied that
we’re popular at Christmas or in the news when a new Archbishop
is appointed is not the same as announcing the Gospel to the world. These
temptations face us repeatedly as we seek to be faithful to Christ. The
thing that helped Christ refocus on his true mission was the word of God.
That word came to his heart in the affirming declaration at his baptism:
you are beloved of God! It came to him also as he recalled the written
Scriptures which he knew so well. Pray that the Spirit will renew that
inner affirmation in your heart: you are beloved of God, especially through
your baptism! Read and remember the Scriptures so that God’s truth
may sink deeper into your consciousness! As we respond to God then we
will resist temptation. Let that twofold word: the Spirit in our hearts
and the Scriptures in our minds rest more deeply in our lives as we seek
to follow Christ and be faithful both as individuals and as the whole
Church of God!
© Rev Paul Smith