We’re tempted to take shortcuts, especially when we feel pressured, vulnerable and weak. The LA Times recently ran a story about the prevalence and the acceptability of cheating among high school athletes. In fact, the survey suggests that coaches are encouraging their student-athletes to cheat and cut corners academically to gain the advantage. When we’re confronted with the possibility of sure success, it’s often easy to rationalize our choices. We say to ourselves, no one’s getting hurt and I’m just helping myself out. You see how easy it is?
Luke tells the story of the day Jesus encountered the Tempter. He asks the question: Who is Jesus and what’s his calling? If he’s the Son of God, then what does that mean? The story picks up as Jesus is ending a forty-day fast in the desert, and the tempter puts the question to him – why not take a short cut and achieve your dreams?
If only all our choices were easy ones – black and white, two equally powerful but strikingly different choices. There’s right and there’s wrong, good and evil, you’re with us or you’re against us. Because we too often think of evil only in terms of violence, terror, and repulsiveness, we forget that often it’s much more subtle. In fact, evil can be very attractive, especially when it promises power and fame. The end, justifies the means, which is why ordinarily good people engage can engage in dirty politics.
The tempter asks Jesus three questions; one personal, one political, and one spiritual. First he’s asked: If you’re hungry and you’re the Son of God, why not turn these rocks into a sandwich. That doesn’t sound so bad, you have the power, so take care of yourself. But weak though he is, Jesus declares that God alone is the provider of bread and that bread alone is not enough. It is God’s Word, not bread, that is our sustenance (Deut. 8:3).
Jesus passed the first test, but the second one was more difficult because it asked for a change of allegiance. The Tempter says: Why not join me politically, because as you know, I’m in charge of all earthly kingdoms. If you put your trust in me, I’ll give you power. In hearing this temptation, we’re reminded of Israel's desire to have a king just like all the other nations (Deut. 6:13). As enticing as this offer is, Jesus answers that all power ultimately comes from God, and so you can’t offer me what you don’t really have.
The final test is perhaps the most interesting one, because it seems so modern. Why not achieve your goal by using a bit of theatrics? If you jump off the wall of the temple you know that God’s angels will rescue you, and that will draw a crowd and prove your importance. The tempter says: if you want to quote scripture, I’ve got one for you. After all, Psalm 91 says, that if you fall the angels will come and lift you up so you won't be hurt! There is something of this temptation in the beliefs of the snake handlers, who take the longer ending of Mark 16 as a command to handle snakes and drink poison as a way of proving that God protects his children. Now the longer ending isn’t original to Mark, but that’s not the point, which is: Don’t put God to the test. Jesus helps us understand that God is not a God of the spectacle. To embrace the spectacle is to embrace darkness.
Passing a Different Test
Jesus chose to take a more difficult path, but that path leads not to darkness but to light. Instead of seeking power for the sake of power, he chose the way of the cross. And so, it’s in the cross that we see Jesus as Son of God.
As God's people we face the same temptations. We hear the call to share the gospel, but we also hear the temptation to take the easy way, the way of power and spectacle. The experts tell us we’ll be more successful if we remove the cross and Communion, because they’re just not modern enough. They tell us to give people what they want, but is what they want what they need?
Lent issues a call to self-denial. We hear in its message the call to pick up the cross and follow Jesus wherever he may lead. The road ahead may be longer and more difficult, because we must choose to say no to the world’s offer of power. It is as Henri Nouwen puts it:
In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. (Henri Nouwen, "Temptation" Sojourners, July 1981)
And yet this is what Jesus did and it’s what he calls us to do as well. But the good news is that we won’t be going alone. As Hebrews reminds us: We have a high priest, who can sympathize with our weakness, because he has been tested in every way like us, and yet he is without sin (Hebrews 4:14-15).
Luke tells us that after the tempter "exhausted every way of putting him to the test, [he] left until an opportune moment." The tests didn't end there, in fact, they haven't ended yet. Every day we must say no to the tempter and choose instead the way of the cross. And as we walk the Lenten path, we remember that Jesus passed the test because he kept his trust focused on God. He understood the whole message of Psalm 91:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
Yes, our hope lies in the Lord who chose to give up power and take up the cross, because that’s what it means to be the Son of God!
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 25, 2007
1st Sunday of Lent