Sermon of the Week
The Wrong Answer: Unchecked Power
Keywords: Temptation of Jesus, Biblical Interpretation, Saved!, Superman, Character, Humility, Power.
The first time a story of the Bible kept me up at night,
it was this story,
the story of the testing of Jesus in Gospel according to Luke.
It may not be for the reasons you think.
It wasn’t nightmares about the devil, or the tempter, or any of that.
It was never the notion of Jesus in peril, really,
the idea of him famished,
or caught in a high-stakes game somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.
It wasn’t even the change to Daylight Savings Time,
which, as we all know,
messes everybody’s sleep rhythms up.
That could have been a plausible reason I was up that night,
but it wasn’t, not in this case.
Rhein Dabler was my Sunday School Teacher.
He is a giant of a man.
I can’t remember exactly,
but somewhere around 6 feet 8 or 9 inches, or more,
so taller even than the Hathhorn boys, though just as gentle.
Rhein introduced me to this passage,
one Sunday morning at the church of my teenaged years,
using a pre-printed curriculum
and the bravery that only a Sunday School Teacher could have
when trying to lead a group of four adolescent boys.
We worked through the story:
Jesus being led by the Spirit, out into the wilderness,
stone into bread,
all the kingdoms of the world,
throw yourself down from the pinnacle
you know, PROVE to everyone who you say you are, Jesus,
and they’ll all believe you! They’ll all follow you!
What better way to fulfill the design of God?
And it struck me,
how, whoever this devil character was,
whatever you understand him to be,
and however you understand him to be acting,
he is perfectly reasonable.
He’s even cooly attractive, in a way:
Who wouldn’t want to feed the hungry?
Or provide for a benevolent takeover
of all the powers and principalities of the world?
To convert hearts and minds,
those who say “I’ll believe it when I see it.”?
You remember Superman, right?
Clark Kent. Lois Lane.
Superman made it into movies and comic books and the public imagination
by “leaping over buildings in a single bound.”
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.
The proof was in seeing who Superman was.
By watching him fly and look through walls and swoop down and save the day.
You can do that, Jesus,
Two-thousand years before special effects
You can do that.
And then the whole world can be yours, the whole world can be God’s…
Why put yourself in danger with the religious and civil authorities?
Why rock the boat when you can just take it all, right now?
This devil character, whoever you understand him to be,
is perfectly reasonable, and when you think about it, he’s got a point.
Maybe the most alluring thing about him,
actually, and the thing that I wrestled with at three-in-the-morning
one evening as a teenager,
was the soothing way that this antagonist kept on citing scripture—
the Bible quoted for nefarious ends.
Maybe that was the first sign that I was going to go to seminary.
But did you notice that about this story?
Jesus and the Devil are engaged in a bit of biblical disputation:
You’re hungry, Jesus.
Turn these rocks into bread?
Jesus’ reply: It is written….One does not live by Bread alone.
Come now, Jesus.
You and I both know you’re bigger than all this.
Come, let me show you,
and we can clean up all the corruption and kick out the despots,
and you can have their glory and authority to do with as you please…
Jesus’ reply: It is written…Worship the Lord your God. Serve only him.
But Jesus, surely there is an easier way.
Why are you making this so hard?
Let’s do something grand, shall we,
something that will make a splash,
something that the people cannot ignore?
I mean, you’re Jesus!
I saw what the disciples saw up there on the mountain of transfiguration
(Sorry we missed that sermon last week, when the snow forced us to cancel,
but the long and the short of it was a confirmation that Jesus really was Jesus
really was the anointed one, really was the messiah)
I saw what the disciples saw up there on the mountain of transfiguration,
says the devil,
so lets show the world!
For it is written…”he will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you…on their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a single stone….”
And with that, Jesus had had enough.
For the devil was quite adept at scripture, it seems,
even if he was using it wrong.
Jesus replied: “It is said, do not put the Lord to the test”
Which is another way of saying: be gone, Satan. Not today.
And that was that
Until a later, more opportune time…
In 2004, there was this fascinating little comedy-drama movie called Saved!
That’s Saved with an exclamation mark,
as if to stress the point.
Did you see it?
It follows the exploits of a teenage girl named Mary
who quote “has been born again her whole life”
and who is about to enter her senior year
at a private Christian high school in Baltimore.
The movie was a biting commentary
on more judgmental tendencies of the Christian tradition
as it wrestles with topics like social shunning, homophobia, teen pregnancy
with a lot of sass and wit and insight.
The reason I mention it here, though,
is that there are a lot of biblical quotes smattered throughout the movie
as people try to justify all sorts of awful behavior.
All of the key figures adopt a consciously so-called biblical perspective and attitude.
There’s a lot of religion-speak.
And the point is that,
through these characters,
we see that a lot of people—students and staff and parents
in this outwardly devout,
trying-to-be-pious Christian high school—
they are really awful, in all sorts of ways.
Orienting yourself around scripture,
familiarizing yourself with the Bible
adopting the language or airs of faith
is not the same thing as being a faithful, biblical, loving person.
Maybe the most memorable scene of the movie
is when the school pastor encourages Mary’s friends
to stage an intervention with her.
He’s worried about her.
She’s not been playing her part the way that everyone else has been.
Mary has started to see that this whole thing is wrong, you see.
And so her friends go and confront her.
Actually, they drive up in a van and try to abscond with her.
But Mary breaks loose and walks away.
And when she tries to explain to Hilary, one of her friends,
why all of this seems wrong, why she can’t stand it any more,
why there is so little of Christ’s love being expressed
by any of their friends and teachers,
that the Gospel should not, cannot, be used as a weapon,
Hilary is indignant at the accusation.
And as Mary is walking away
Hilary throws her bible right at her and shouts
“I am filled with Christ’s love”
as it hits her square on her back.
You can see the irony, right,
those armed with scripture, turning it against itself.
The takeaway, I think,
is that we should be cautious about just following any whim
that purports to be grounded in the holy text.
The bible doesn’t work that way.
We know this.
Jesus himself made it clear that he was both seeking to uphold
the lessons and the laws of scripture—by which he meant the Hebrew Scriptures—
while showing how to correctly interpret it, understand it, and apply it.
The underlying idea here is called hermeneutics,
which means “the art of interpretation”.
How you read the sacred text matters. How you apply it, even more so.
It is not as simple as the bumper sticker would have you believe:
The Bible Says It. I believe it. End of Story.
You can’t throw a bible at someone and claim to be full of Christ’s love.
You can’t quote scripture at Jesus and urge him to usurp power
and take the path of the benevolent dictator.
That’s not how God works.
That’s not who God is.
A pastor friend of mine, Richard,
has a good meditation on today’s reading
that I might as well just share with you here.
Here’s how Richard put it:
Every winter I interview college applicants to my alma mater.
One of my favorite questions is: “What would make you a good roommate?”
It often throws them, because they’re prepared to discuss what they’ve done,
but this question is really about their character.
In our story this week, Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days
to be tempted by Satan.
The word translated as tempted
means to “discover the nature or character of something.”
The point of the story is to learn about the character of Jesus.
Too often we hear people say that doing the right thing
means doing what the Bible says.
But that isn’t simple.
In our story, both Jesus and Satan
quote scripture at each other.
The difference isn’t Scripture.
The difference is character.
Jesus wanted to submit to God.
Satan wanted to rebel.
The author T.S. Eliot once wrote that
“the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
In a given situation,
it can be hard to know the right thing to do.
But what you should focus on first is your motivation.
Are you seeking acclaim?
Are you afraid of risk?
Or are you truly motivated by love and caring?
If your character is sound, your motives will be purer,
And that is key to doing the right thing.”[i]
We’ve entered the season of Lent:
this season of self-examination and maybe even repentance
Getting us ready for the amazing events of Easter Sunday,
where God really does show all the world what is what
through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
That would make the idea of jumping from a high place
just to show the world who Jesus is kind of quaint.
Jesus isn’t Superman.
Jesus is God among us, showing us a more holy way.
Jesus is fully human, and understands our struggles along the way.
This season is all about embracing a sort of intentional way of life,
one where we follow Jesus’ example
and seek to better understand ourselves as we really are,
the good things we do,
and our challenges, the real deal, warts and all.
The sermon series we’ve put together is called “The Wrong Answer,”
and we’re going to look at the way we tend to answer key questions poorly
and might look instead to Jesus for a better way.
This isn’t just a sermon on biblical interpretation,
on developing the right character so that we can interpret
on looking to the example of Jesus himself to do that.
This is also a sermon about power,
about who wields that power,
and how Jesus is confronting it directly.
One way to understand what Jesus was all about
is his refusal to adopt our typical standard of power,
our yearning for God to come and just take over and make it all right again.
That’s not what God is going to do.
God is going to work through us to bring about the realm of God
and wants us to do it the right way.
It is so interesting to read this story from Deuteronomy
alongside the story of Jesus’ temptation.
There are so many parallels.
Jesus out in the wilderness for 40 days.
The Hebrew people, out in the wilderness for 40 years
finally entering the promised land.
I mean, Jesus was a faithful Jew.
He knew these stories.
In Luke: right before leaving the wilderness
The Devil wants to give Jesus three things:
food, land, glorified life.
In themselves, there’s nothing wrong with these things.
Indeed, God wants people to have food to eat, safe and prosperous government,
and protection from harm.
You see this in Deuteronomy,
where the people are placed in a land flowing with milk and honey,
where they are given a law to govern efficiently and fairly and justly,
and an assurance that God will help protect them when they do that.
But Deuteronomy asks the people to remember
that all of it is a gift:
the food, the sound government, the protection,
it’s not because of their power;
it’s not something for them to brag about.
It comes from God.
This is wrapped up in the gift of the first fruits of the harvest:
returning back to God the first portion of the bounty received from the land
along with a recitation of the ancient story:
I remember how God took my ancestor, a wandering sojourner from a foreign land
and stood by him through trying times in Egypt
and here I am, today, safe and secure because of God’s mighty and loving care.
Through this ritual, described in Deuteronomy
the Hebrews built-in a societal mechanism
to remind themselves of the need to be humble,
to not assume that we built everything ourselves,
but that all of it comes from God,
whom alone we should honor and serve.
It was a ritual that was meant to build character,
so that we could honor God by our humility, rather than our hubris,
our generosity, rather than our pride.
The wrong answer is to confront
the problems of our age
with pure power,
to run roughshod over them,
even if we have the ability to do so,
to decide that might makes right,
or that the ends justify the means.
We know that Jesus desperately wanted to feed the hungry,
deeply was concerned with the way
that the powers of the world
treated the hurting and the outcast,
wanted people to truly and sincerely follow God with all their
heart, soul, mind, and strength…
But he wasn’t going to coerce anyone to do it
and he certainly wasn’t going to cut corners to get it done.
Instead, he’d go from this experience with the devil
out into the world
healing and teaching and loving and showing us
what it means to trust God
to overturn the powers of the world with a different sort of power
the power of self-giving love.
As we read these stories of the Bible,
we need to read them through that lens,
so that we can see what God is doing
over the long arc of history.
And when we do,
we see a caring, compassionate God,
who doesn’t want us to get wrapped up in all the tests and the trials of our lives,
but to see that the spirit will be with us through them,
just as the spirit was with Jesus through his trials,
so that we might endure them the best we can
and emerge ready to serve God afresh.
May it be so.
[i] Richard Hong, “90 Second Sermon” on Luke 4:1-13.
Image Credit: Joseph Mallard William Turner, c.1834, “The Temptation on the Pinnacle”. Found at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-temptation-on-the-pinnacle-t06500 and distributed under a creative commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). From Milton’s Poetical Works 1835 Watercolours, The Temptation on the Pinnacle. Photo © Tate