The sermon for week March 09, 2014
ScriptureEphesians 6:10-13 and Matthew 4:1-11
Today we find Jesus and the Devil in the desert, having a Bible fight. The devil quotes one verse from a psalm and Jesus answers with quotes from Deuteronomy.
Now I don’t know about you… but really? Just when we thought we knew what to expect from Matthew. We just listened to a few weeks of the sermon on the mount. These simple and straightforward teachings from Jesus. And then we get the Transfiguration… okay. That’s a little weird, but we can understand seeing things in a new light, can’t we? Then we get to this story… Jesus and a mythical figure arguing about the bible in the desert. This story even has teleportation in it! Did you catch that? Zips up to the temple, then to the hill to see all the kingdoms of the world… May that’s something I would pick up on… What does it say about the Bible?! Is this fact? Is it all myth? If the devil is mythical, does that mean Jesus is, too? What are we to do?
We might be feeling the pull of the culture war right now. We’re tempted to either believe Jesus' story as historical fact and read it at face value, or we get scholarly and start complex arguments of editing & revising, form criticism and dismissing what’s on the page. This is a divide I’ve spent many hours online and in real life arguing about. And my sparring partners and I just run to the idiot’s warehouse quibbling on what the bible is and what proofs and support we have for viewing it the way we do. I’m kind of over that stage, at least I want to be over that. What I would rather do is to sit quietly with my brothers and sisters in Christ and sing beautiful hymns to God.
Both approaches miss the forest for the trees. Neither satisfies or gets to the transcendent meaning. It is times like these that the Bible can be a barrier to faith, a stumbling block to understanding, a stone in the path of our faith journey. How can we transform that stone?
The ancient rabbis (and current rabbis for that matter) were very playful with their scripture, what we call our Old Testament. They would tell stories about the stories. Stories that would provide motivation for why Cain murdered Abel. Or what Abraham was thinking as he was leading Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Or what was going through Ruth’s head when she decided to stick with Naomi. All sorts of stories to help with the scriptures to get to the transcendent truth. They resist playing the fact or fiction game that Christianity and our culture seem to be stuck in.
The way we put it at this church is that we encounter scripture as radical and revelatory. We didn’t write this scripture. It is not a product of our time or culture and it could care less about our political correctness or concepts of what is true and what isn’t. It is an encounter. It is alien to our thinking. And this gets us outside of ourselves. And this is radical! And it can lead to new revelations! New insights! A new hope that might help us make a way out of where there was no way.
And what this scripture is saying to me is that I want to follow Jesus. Here’s a leader tempted by the devil, or evil, or his own ego, whatever you want to call it. That is not the point. It is NOT WHO tempted Jesus. The point is WHAT tempted Jesus and how Jesus got over these temptations.
The first temptation would be greed. “Turn these stones into bread” says the Devil. This is the temptation to go after material things or accolades. Bread back in those days was financial security. So making bread from stone is like saying that you had a tree that grew money. This is the temptation of our consumer culture: get the car, get the look, get the house, get the stuff! But Jesus’ ministry isn’t about that, it is about God. It is about loving God and loving our neighbor.
The second temptation takes place on the roof of the temple, what was thought of in Jesus’ time as God’s house on earth. And here Jesus is tempted to test God. It’s like the devil is saying, “Oh, you’re not about wealth Jesus? Then it’s probably about personal security. Throw yourself from the temple and see if God is really protecting you.” The idea was that if you followed the law perfectly, you would be blessed and live a life that reflected that: no illness, no “bad luck,” no alarms and no surprises. But Jesus again denies this temptation. Jesus is not about personal safety, and that point is driven home literally on the cross--the most God-forsaken place someone could be.
The third temptation is an affirmation of the power Jesus possesses. “Bow down and worship me and you will rule the world!” The devil says. Well, if Jesus isn’t about personal greed or security, then he must be about power and control. To quote a 1980s song, “everybody wants to rule the world.” Yet Jesus came not to lead in that sense, but to show greatness through service. With great power comes great responsibility....said Voltaire, and later Spiderman. Here in our consumerist, militaristic American culture we are tempted to misuse our power at every turn. We must learn how to resist.
This is the beginning of Lent: a time where we traditionally give things up and fast. Fasting is resisting: gossip, desserts, arguing, etc. The point of this is to open space in our lives God to dwell in. To encounter God’s still speaking voice and experience divine revelation. Phillip Gulley, who will be with us next Sunday, states in his book Evolution of Faith "This is how we know something is from God. It will call us beyond self-absorption, empowering us to love and include others in our lives. For God is love, and those who live in God live in love." We see the revelation that Jesus is following, which he supports by quoting Deuteronomy each time he is tempted. Quoting scripture calls him beyond self absorption and into love and service for others.
If you have been fasting from the Bible, encounter it. If you’re studying the Bible with only those who agree with you, you're only gaining perspectives of what you already know, I love how this church has expanded my own thinking through questioning, having people like Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggeman & Philip Gulley speaking and broadening our views of God, Jesus & our mission in this world. For Jesus, the Bible was a touchstone, an authority in his life that he wrestled with and applied to his life. It pointed him to God and God’s kingdom. It opened up ways for God’s revelation to break into his life. May it do the same for us, this day and always. Amen.