Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lent 1 Sermon, Feb. 10, 2008, "No Shortcuts"

Matthew 4: 1-11

If there’s one thing I love, it’s shortcuts. This is probably one reason I wouldn’t make a good farmer or rancher. Lara likes to repeat the dictum that her grandfather always said to the grandkids. “Do it right the first time,” and “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I can theoretically agree with those principles, but they aren’t the principles that come to me as naturally as they do to some, I suppose.
I get a big thrill out of finding a new and better way to do something than I knew previously existed. To me, trial and error is worth the effort if it yields a shorter, faster, or more fun path. Messing up doesn’t bother me too much. I recall as I have gone to visit Dilly Russell over at Baptist Village, which is on the furthest side of Okmulgee from here, I began to think, “hmm, I wonder where that road goes.” Sure enough, if you drive down by the bottling plant and then turn, you can get from Baptist Village to Morris and only wait through one stoplight! That’s one reason I like to try to find shortcuts: to bypass stoplights.
On the other hand, sometimes shortcuts lead me into dead ends or even worse, trouble. One time in Los Angeles I tried to find a shortcut and wound up in the Rampart neighborhood—you know the one that has a police crime ring scandal named after it! Fortunately I didn’t find any trouble, but it was an area where trouble certainly could have found me!
Today we hear a story about a man who didn’t take shortcuts. Jesus would have nodded his head if he overheard my wife telling me, “do it right the first time..” He would have been nodding his head because he didn’t have any room for error. He had to get it right the first time. For him, there was too much at stake to be finding an easier way.
He went into the wilderness because that’s where the Spirit led him. First, we need to hear that. The Spirit is always leading us, but more often than not we drown out her voice.
But when we do follow the Spirit’s guidance, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus, and it isn’t for us. The path of discipleship usually leads into the wilderness.
What are our wildernesses? Where are we tested?
Christ had just been baptized and had heard the voice of the Father saying, “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” After that, he went to the wilderness, perhaps to concentrate on what that proclamation meant for him and his life. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after all.
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who "subtly suggested that Jesus deserved better than God was giving him." As followers of Jesus today, we may hear a "devilish voice in our heads [that] says things like, 'If you are a child of God, shouldn't things be going a little smoother for you? If you are really a Christian, I mean -- shouldn't you be happier, healthier, richer, safer?'" It's a huge challenge to reconcile the spirit of this kind of Lenten reflection with the spirit of many of today's theologies that seem to skip over the part of our spiritual journey that demands sacrifice ("the cost of discipleship"), taking a detour around Calvary to enjoy the sweet, comforting time in the garden, alone, with the risen and glorified Jesus. But that's getting ahead of the story.
If we are imagining some red horned figure with goat’s feet when we picture this encounter with the tempter and deceiver, we are probably doing a disservice to ourselves. Satan is far sleeker than that. I read one sermon this week called “Friend of the Devil,” which used the old Grateful Dead song title to make the point that the Devil and Jesus probably got well acquainted with each other out there in the wilderness, and that the temptations probably came very enticingly. They might have sounded to Jesus as if they were coming from that friendly voice inside us that so easily lets us off the hook when we’ve messed up or consoled us when we’re feeling down.
Most scholars say that the word “if” at the beginning of each of the first two temptations can also be translated “since.” So, in a way, there is less a tone of challenging the truth of the statement, “you are the son of God,” than a logical proposition. You are the son of God, you should begin your work by turning stones into bread. Moses, after all, was given manna in the wilderness, and he struck a rock and was given water. It was an expectation of the Jews that their messiah would usher in a time of plentiful food supply, like the manna in the wilderness, so it makes sense that Jesus would begin his ministry by showing the bounty and goodness of God, Right?
But this was taking a shortcut. The devil was tempting Jesus to take things into his own hands rather than wait for God’s plan. God’s plan was for Jesus to show the people a source of spiritual nourishment that would never run dry or short. He said to the woman at the well, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
It's not unusual for our focus to be limited, and perhaps it's understandable when the world holds so much possibility for pain over on the other side of our defenses. We'll take care of ourselves, and our family, and maybe our church, and perhaps the neighborhood around it, but we really don't have time or energy or ability to reach beyond those narrow lines drawn protectively around us and our loved ones, "the people we know."
Thomas Long sees the first temptation that way: "The devil is attempting to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his work too small – satisfying hunger – and the recipients of his work too few – only one, himself. As Messiah, Jesus is called to a ministry of great size...a sweeping ministry, encompassing the whole of humanity; but the tempter places before him another idea – make it narrow." It's important, Long says, that we, like Jesus, not give in to the temptation "to make the gospel too small.”
Next the Devil presents another shortcut for Jesus. “Since you are the son of God, throw yourself down from the top of the temple and the angels will then catch you, since it’s even written in scripture that this will happen.” This could very well have been the “easy button” that Christ desired. Remember, temptations don’t come out of no-where. The come from the seat of our hearts. This kind of stunt would have won converts pretty quickly. It probably would have put the Romans in their place, they might have bowed down on the spot too, who knows. How appealing! One act of clear-eyed confidence, and he’d have the people in his palm.
By the way, the phrase “if you are the son of God,” is used on Jesus again in his lifetime, but the next time it comes from those who are watching Jesus hang on a cross. “If you are the son of God, then come down from the cross.” Perhaps these words are one last temptation from the mouth of the deceiver. One last opportunity to take things into his own hands rather than yield his Spirit into the hands of the Father.
But before all of that transpired, Jesus had one more opportunity in the wilderness to rule the nations not by the cross, but by adopting the ways of the world. Satan speaks with authority here. He has the power to give. The world is his.
I’m reminded of that scene in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader reaches out his hand to Luke. “Join me and we’ll rule the galaxy together as father and son. Come to the dark side.” But Luke relents and in so doing brings his father back from the darkness and into the light. God has another plan too. It is his destiny to rule the world, but he’s going about it the long way. Jesus Doesn’t cut the corners. Shortcuts lead to shortcomings.
It is interesting that with all the Devil’s temptations, Jesus answers with the Scriptures. And if you go back and look where all these scriptures come from, they are all from the 6-8 chapters of Deuteronomy where Moses is addressing the people of Israel with Canan in their sights. They are at the end of their 40 year sojurn in the wilderness just like Jesus is at the end of his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness. Israel is about to enter it’s birthright, and Jesus is about to begin the ministry for which he was destined. But where Israel grasped so imperfectly the concepts of living not only on bread but on God’s word, of not putting God to the test, and of not worshipping anything but God, Jesus is faithful to them.
Fred Craddock writes, “Jesus survives the test in the desert … Not simply by quoting Scripture (Deut. 6:13; 6:16; 8:3) , although the Scriptures were for him an enormous source of strength. The sword of the spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17) . Neither was Jesus’ victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact. Rather, Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse to try to be like God or to be God. As Paul put it, he "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:6-7) . He did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.”
Those steps aren’t a shortcut. We understand that we are saved by free, unmerited grace. But that grace doesn’t just leave us where we are. It takes us and fills us and moves us into a way of living that reflects God’s image in the world. Oftentimes this makes things more difficult than if we were to just “blend in” to the darkness.

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