TEXT: Luke 4:1-13
When it comes to making decisions – especially BIG decisions – one of the most common questions asked in ministry is, “Did you pray about it?” Now, I’m not saying prayer is unimportant – but I think that when it comes to making decisions, we often pray for God to make the decision for us. For God to “give us a sign.” And even after we ask for God’s decision or sign, we often don’t sit still long enough to actually hear the answer. To discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
And yet, sitting and listening is critical – especially when it comes to discerning one’s calling from God. We have different names for this process. Whether you call it “soul searching,” “discernment,” “meditation,” “clearness,” or “hovering,” – it is the process by which we look within ourselves and seek out the various energies, desires, and passions that are aligned with our calling from God. And what’s more important, is that we also learn to distinguish between the various voices that are all fighting for our attention. To be able to distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices of this world.
As New Testament theologian N.T. Wright says, “It is central to Christian vocation to learn to recognize the voices that whisper attractive lies, to distinguish them from the voice of God, and to use the simple but direct weapons provided in scripture to rebut the lies within the truth.” (Wright 44). And in our text today, we find Jesus doing just that – distinguishing between the loud lies of the world and the whispered will of the Holy Spirit. In the text Jesus is presented with three temptations by the devil. Now, you can choose to believe that the “devil” is a supernatural demon, trying to trick Jesus into making the wrong choice. At the same time, you could also view the “devil” as all the voices of this world telling you what you should do, how you should act, who you should hang out with, and why you should NOT do X, Y, and Z. We all know these devilish voices. We hear them every day. And they never sound like negative things. If anything, these voices often sound like very good, sensible, even beneficial things. And these voices often shape our identity. Looking at the three temptations presented to Jesus by the voices of his time, we find attempts to define Jesus’ ministry and identity along social, political, and religious lines.
The first temptation – to turn stones into bread – is a personal and social temptation. Will Jesus’ simply be known as an ancient revolutionary of the people? Will his ministry only focus on social justice, where he only provides for people’s material needs? When things get tough, will Jesus – and those who follow him – trust in what God can do? Or will they trust only in what Jesus can do?
The second temptation – to rule the nations of the world – is a political temptation. Will Jesus simply be known as a skillful politician? Will his ministry be one that equates loyalty to God with loyalty to one’s nation? When people are being oppressed by the political powers of this world, will Jesus simply submit in order to play nice, avoid upsetting people, and not talk politics because it’s “too divisive”? To avoid awkward and uncomfortable social or family situations? Or will Jesus actively challenge the politics of the world by speaking truth to power and offering an alternative, upside-down, political order – called the Kin-dom of God – in which the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, foreigners are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick are cared for, and prisoners are visited. A world in which the last become first and the first become last?
The third temptation – to throw himself off the top of the temple, challenging God to spare him – is a religious temptation. Will Jesus simply be known as a beloved magician – able to perform death-defying feats by forcing God’s hand? Will his ministry simply be known for his mastery of the supernatural? Will his ability to turn water into wine, to heal people, and to raise the dead be a means of coercing people into faith? Or will Jesus not exploit his equality with God, but instead, humble himself and become fully human – experiencing all that we experience, while obeying God fully, even unto death – so that we might have a fuller relationship with God?
How would you respond to such temptations? I’m sure most of us would jump at the opportunity to be able to solve all the world’s hunger problems by simply turning stones into bread. Because such an ability means that you sacrifice nothing to address the issue. While we in America may struggle day to day, the reality is that you are immensely wealthy compared to the vast majority of the world’s population – who survives on less than $2 a day. When you embrace the temptation for a quick fix to a problem like hunger, without taking time to hover – you fail to look inwardly and ask yourself the deeper questions: Why do I feel the need to hold on to so much while so many have so little? Why do I accept society’s myth of scarcity – the ideology that says if I do not hoard my material things, I will someday go without? Meanwhile Jesus proclaims the Gospel truth of abundant life, experienced here and now? Why do I not trust God enough to know that I will be provided for when I truly need it? After all, you profess to trust God to provide every time you pray – “give us this day our daily bread.” Do you truly trust God to provide your “daily bread”? Or are you just going through the motions? Why are you so afraid of being generous? Do you think it’s someone else’s job? That there will be someone else to make up for your lack of generosity? What if Jesus had not been so generous with his life? Where would you be?
Why do most of us jump at the opportunity for power? To be the “best in the world” both politically and religiously? Why does society make everything a competition where there are winners and losers instead of a community where all are accepted and cared for? Why do you not seek a world ordered according to the Kin-dom of God? A Kin-dom that Jesus describes over and over again in numerous parables. A Kin-dom proclaimed by the Old Testament Prophets time and time again. A Kin-dom that Jesus first ushers in and calls you to continue building with the power of the Holy Spirit. A Kin-dom that is nothing like the political structures that currently rule our world – not even the United States – despite how much you may want it to be. A Kin-dom where the wealthy are not allowed to profit off the backs of the poor, where rulers are allowed neither to oppress the marginalized nor to be above the law. A Kin-dom where the hungry and thirsty are provided food and water – not because they “deserve” it, but simply because they exist – because they are children of God made in the image of God just like you. A Kin-dom where the foreigner is welcomed like a native in the land – as the Old Testament commands over 80+ times – because you were once a foreigner in a foreign land (even if you are native to this country). A Kin-dom where no one fears getting sick because they know they will be cared for. A Kin-dom where those who are imprisoned are treated like human beings they are – because if you treat people like animals, they will become animals. A world where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted-up. Do you fear this Kin-dom because you know that you are not the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the sick, and the prisoner you believe yourself to be? Do you not hover because when you do, you realize just how powerful and privileged you truly are? Do you not reflect inwardly because you might realize you are not one of the “sheep” set to inherit the Kin-dom, but instead are one of the “goats” subject to God’s wrath? Do you not search your soul to understand your role in the Kin-dom because it’s too risky and requires too much of you? Because it’s simply easier to avoid the hard truth and stay the same? Because it’s easier to jump on the bandwagon of religious nationalism where you can at least numb yourself with self-righteousness and avoid the painful truth of your eventual fate? So that you can at least have some momentary sibilance of peace and “niceness” before being sent to “eternal punishment” after this life is over? Are you avoiding the fear that you might not be the Christian you think you are?
Why would most of us jump at the ability to magically and miraculously fix all our problems? Why would you embrace the ability to turn water into wine, to heal the sick, and to raise the dead? Is it because you don’t want to feel pain, suffering, and loss that comes with being human? If that’s the case, you desperately need to hover – to spend time searching your soul and contemplating what it means to avoid all the negative feelings you dread. If you avoid these feelings of discomfort, are you truly human? And if you could avoid all this pain – even death – then what is the point of the incarnation? What is the point of Jesus? What is the point of Jesus’ humanity and his pain, his suffering, and his death? If you could magically avoid physical death – then what is the point of resurrection? If there is no Good Friday – will Easter still be as joyful? Will life be as joyful? If you never experience pain, suffering, or loss – will you be able to show compassion to others? (For the root of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with” someone.) And if you can’t show compassion, can you love your neighbor as yourself? Can you even love yourself? Because resisting temptation is not about rejecting your humanity and embracing your spirituality. As N.T. Wright says, “…fighting temptation is not about self-hatred, or rejecting part of our God-given humanity…[but]… about celebrating God’s gift of full humanity, and… discovering how to tune it and play it to its best possibility.” (Wright 45) It’s not about escaping the struggles of this physical world by only reaching to the spiritual world – that’s called Gnosticism and was declared heresy by the church over 1800 years ago. It’s about bringing the spiritual world to the struggles of the physical world. It’s not about getting humanity into heaven, but about bringing heaven to humanity.
On the surface, these temptations look like great things. They look like great opportunities not only for your benefit – but for the benefit of others. The chance to stop world hunger, the opportunity to run the world “your way”, the ability to stop all the suffering, sorrow, and loss in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to accept such positive things? These things can’t be temptations because their outcomes are all good things! Real temptations result in bad things. Right? Yet, as the great preacher Fred Craddock wrote: “…real temptation beckons us to do that about which much good can be said… real temptation is an offer not to fall but to rise.” And in order to recognize the deeper, darker, negatives hidden beneath the shiny, polished, positive, exterior of our temptations, we must hover. We must spend time in deep contemplation with God. We must meditate on the example of Jesus in Scripture. We must be still and discern the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit as she guides us into God’s future – a future that is nothing like the exciting, powerful, and glory-filled temptations of this world – because it is a Kin-dom that God co-creates with us, for us, and for all Creation.
And resisting these worldly temptations requires us not only to know God but also to know ourselves. As John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian tradition, wrote at the beginning his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” I have asked a LOT of questions in this sermon. And these questions are all about self-knowledge. Self-knowledge that leads you into greater knowledge of God. For a long time, our tradition has focused on an academic knowledge of God, through the study of scripture and theology – something that Calvin himself encouraged. But along the way, we forgot that Calvin prefaced this academic knowledge of God with a reflective knowledge of self, first.
As a result, we have generation after generation of Christians that simply do not know themselves – and therefore do not know God beyond an academic argument, beyond a mental exercise. Christians who have not spent time hovering, self-reflecting, meditating, or discerning who they are so they can know whose they are. As a result, we’ve developed a disconnect between us and God. A disconnect that explains why so many of us are co-dependent upon clergy for assurance of our faith and salvation. Why we’ve reduced the faith to a series of rules and regulations to be followed instead of a way of love to be lived. Otherwise, how would be assured that we’ve “got it right.”
This is why we see ministry as the calling of clergy only – not something that the everyday Christian is called to do as well. Why we view clergy as “hired by us to do ministry on our behalf” instead of “called by the Spirit to lead us into ministry.” This is why so many of us feel so ill-suited, unqualified, and unable to lead ministries within the Church – even something so simple as leading prayer for others.
And it’s all because we simply do not know ourselves. Because we simply don’t take the time to know just how amazing we are created to be because of the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit – that is given to each and every one of us at our baptism. Because if we take the time to hover, to self-reflect, to meditate, to discern both who we are and whose we are, to listen to the weak, whispered calling of God instead of the loud, demeaning demands of society, we will learn three great lessons that each of Jesus’ temptations teach us:
1) “physical needs and wants are important, but loyalty to God is more important still…
2) the path to status… is humble service, not a devilish seeking after status and power”,… and… 3) “Trust in God doesn’t mean acting stupidly to force God into doing a spectacular rescue. The power that Jesus has…is to be used for restoring others to life and strength, not for cheap stunts.” (N.T. Wright, 44).
And once we have spent time hovering, self-reflecting, meditating, or discerning who God has made us to be and the gifts that Spirit has given us for our calling – then we can begin to take risks on behalf of the Kin-dom of God. Risks that are even more frightening than our self-knowledge – because it requires us to reveal our self-knowledge to others. And such risk, such a revealing of ourselves to others, makes us vulnerable to suffering, especially at the hands of those who lack self-knowledge. What do we do in the face of such risk? Well, RISK is the topic for next Sunday. I hope to see you there.
Until then, I challenge you to take this week to hover. To work on your own self-reflection. And it can begin by simply “Practic[ing] the pause. When in doubt, pause. When angry, pause. When tired, pause. When stressed, pause. And when you pause, pray.” And then, listen to what you learn about yourself and about God. AMEN.