Sermon - 17th February 2013
Scripture - Luke 4:1-13
Luke tells us today that we are witnessing the start of Jesus’s ministry. And right at that very point of initiation, Luke places a question which will follow Jesus to the very day he dies. It’s a question which acts like a golden thread throughout Luke’s story, and it sits at the heart of our understanding of the truth about the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
When we think back to our Christmas readings, we recall the angel saying to Mary, “...the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”.
In Luke’s Gospel, immediately before today’s reading, we hear of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John. And during that event we are told a voice from heaven affirms Jesus with the words, “You are my beloved Son”.
And then, when Jesus retreats into the desert we hear that each of the devil’s temptations begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God...” prove it in this way, and this, and this.
And the question will come again, in a slightly different form, but no less demanding, when the soldiers mock Jesus, in his final hours as he hangs on the cross, with their words, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Jesus’s faith in God was not only tested at the start of his ministry when he spent time alone with his demons: it was tested every time someone said, “If you are who you claim to be, prove it”.
We tend to think of the physical deprivations Jesus suffered in the desert as the cause of his temptations. The second verse of a standard hymn for the start of Lent paints the following picture:
“Sunbeams scorching all the day,
Chilly dewdrops nightly shed;
Prowling beasts about thy way,
Stones thy pillow, earth thy bed.”
But was he really battling the desire for physical comforts, or was the deeper challenge more to do with Jesus’s faith in his own identity and his own calling, constantly bedevilled as he was by that “If you are the Son of God...” question?
The temptations devised by the devil are interesting. Jesus uses his knowledge of Jewish scriptures to brush each one aside with a scriptural quotation about the true nature of God’s covenant with humanity. But there are deeper meanings to what is on offer and what is being declined.
Turning stones to bread might serve to satisfy Jesus’s immediate hunger, but it would remove him from the company of the many multitudes who lived with hunger as a daily reality. The challenge for God’s Anointed One was to bring about a kingdom where all are fed. There was a bigger mission here than to simply attend to his own needs. Jesus counteracts this temptation with compassion for God’s people.
And what is the value of worldly power and sovereignty over all the kingdoms of the earth when God’s purpose for the earth and its people is so different to what the devil was showing to Jesus? Worldly power, achieved by a conqueror who would lead a war of liberation, was what the Zealots wanted and was one vision of what a Messiah would bring about. But Jesus knew that to pin one’s faith to worldly wisdom or authority is to worship that which is not God. Jesus counteracts this temptation with his commitment to God’s kingdom.
And is it ever our place to test God’s love for us? When we launch ourselves into freefall from the pinnacle of our lives, is it always God’s will to catch us and save us from danger? Or are we really asking for proof when we are actually called to live by faith? Jesus counteracts this temptation with his faith in God’s love.
I wonder how the temptations that we face today measure up to those themes of:
compassion for all people,
commitment to God’s kingdom,
and faith in God’s love?
Perhaps we fall short in compassion when we are tempted to live in ways which focus on self and have little left to share with our communities and our friendship circles. Compassion is something we may need to receive from others, as well as something we may show to others. It is a response to which we open ourselves, it engages the emotions, it’s a shared experience, and it tends to build on friendships and community connections which already exist. To experience compassion, we have to be open, accessible and vulnerable.
Perhaps we fall short in bringing about God’s kingdom when we are tempted to avoid challenges around justice and fairness. Jesus gave many insights into the values which underpin God’s vision for the world. How well do we embrace those values? How closely do those values match our own? What will we challenge and campaign for? And where can we make a difference which moves us a step closer to the Kingdom? To experience the coming of the Kingdom, we have to be ready to use wisely the power we have, ready to stand up for justice, and to challenge the damaging use of power by others.
Perhaps we fall short in making a reality of God’s love when we are tempted to think there is no forgiveness for our own actions or the actions of others. Letting go of baggage in our lives is not easy for us. Often we say we forgive someone, but we hold onto feelings of distrust and memories of past hurts. God’s forgiveness is complete and uncompromising, yet fear of the future makes us hold onto recriminations from the past. To experience God’s love, we have to be ready to love others as unconditionally as we can, and to love ourselves as generously as we can.
Many things in today’s world can tempt us to stray from the values which Jesus shared in his teachings and showed in his life. And we can choose whether or not we will respond to those temptations. Some of us may even undergo the ‘wilderness’ experience - harsh physical conditions, bodily or spiritual hunger, isolation, loneliness, or a whole range of other circumstances which will make the temptations to abandon our faith even more attractive to our weakened bodies and spirits.
This is a part of being human which Jesus himself shared, and he has never told us that we must be superhuman. All he asks is that, where we can, in the world we face, and in the spirit of his example, we should show compassion, work for the coming of God’s Kingdom, and trust in God’s love for all people.