Sermon: 1st Sunday of Lent, 14 February 2016

St.Alban’s Epping,14th February 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“HANDLING THE TEMPTATIONS OF POWER”

(Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91; Romans 10:4-13; Luke 4:1-15)

Achieving power is a different thing from using that power well. In recent years Australia seems to have had a series of political leaders of whom many people have had high hopes, but those hopes have turned to disappointment. Foolish decisions, arrogance, weakness, unwillingness to make hard decisions, and corruption: these seem to have been characteristic of so many leading politicians for far too long. And if we are disappointed here in Australia, we look overseas – whether it is the USA or the Middle East or Africa – and think that perhaps we are not too badly off!

And we look at others who wield power – CEO’s who oversee huge losses but still get paid in the millions, while ruining the lives of thousands of employees. Or sadly, far too many church leaders who have used their power to abuse children and other vulnerable people.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus about to begin his public ministry. He is a man of unique power: the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Luke in the opening part of his Gospel has told us of his birth, of his baptism or commissioning by John, and at the end of Chapter 3, his genealogy, showing him as the descendant of David, of Abraham, of Adam.

Jesus is qualified and given the nod. But how will he approach his work? And how will he handle his power? Is he truly ready?

There is one more step for him. He must be tested – or tempted! In the New Testament, there is one word which can be translated as “test” or “tempt”. We are familiar, for instance with the Lord’s Prayer. The one phrase can be translated as “lead us not into temptation”, or “save us from the time of trial, or hard testing”. Either is right. How to translate and understand this word always depends on the context and the situation. After all, when we are tempted to sin, we are also tested to give us the opportunity to do prove faithful in doing what is right, even though it may be difficult.

But Jesus doesn’t just decide to take himself into the wilderness for a silent retreat. We are told that the Holy Spirit leads him to the wilderness. This is an essential part of God’s plan. Jesus must undergo this testing as part of his preparation for ministry. He has the power. But how will he use it?

This temptation or testing will establish the direction of his ministry. And in the process Jesus is identifying himself with the people of Israel of old. They had their forty years in the wilderness. They had to depend on God’s provision for food and all their needs. They were tempted, but too often failed. Jesus also will have to look to God for food. And he too will be tempted.

Luke tells us that the devil came to tempt Jesus. Now I don’t know what you think about the devil. I suspect that not too many of us think of him as a man in a red suit with horns and a forked tail and a pitchfork: a sort of evil superhero! I remember a film of the sixties telling the story of Jesus which had Donald Pleasance as the devil sidling up to Jesus to make him a good offer or three. Certainly if you remember Donald Pleasance, you will know him as a specialist in sinister characters: but not really the devil! Or then there’s the Sunday School student who tells his friend that he has finally worked out about the devil. “It’s like Santa Claus”, he tells his friend. “It’s really your father!”

Whether you believe in a literal angelic figure who is the devil, or you see the devil as a figurative image used to express the personal reality of evil, I will leave to you. Luke has important things to tell us, and we will allow him to tell the story his way.

“So you are the Son of God!” says the devil. “And your are famished after 40 days without food. God hasn’t been very kind to you, has he? But you’ve got the power! You can turn these stones into bread. You need to eat. Get yourself something to eat! Turn this stone into bread!”

It seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But Jesus rejects the idea. He will eat in God’s time, and in God’s way. He will not use his divine power to meet his own desires and needs. He quotes the words of Moses from the Book of Deuteronomy. “One does not live by bread alone.” There are more important things than satisfying our physical hunger. Jesus will put God’s agenda ahead of his own wants and needs.

The devil comes back for round two. “You know that God claims to be ruler of the world, but you know who really is in power! People live my way, not God’s way. I’m the real boss. Worship me and I will give you real power.” There is some distorted truth in the devil’s claims, but if Jesus submits to him, it is clear that he confirms the devil in his evil power. He again quotes from Deuteronomy. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”, he replies. The devil’s proposal might be an apparently easy way for Jesus to establish his power, but it was contrary to God’s way.

And then it is round three. The devil invites Jesus to display his power by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem into the valley below. This time the devil himselfquotes from scripture. Words we said from Psalm 91 this morning: those who live in God’s care, trusting in him, abiding under the shadow of the Almighty, will have his protection, says the Psalmist. Angels will lift the believer up as he falls and ensure that he comes to no harm. Surely, says the devil, this is a way to demonstrate that God is truly with Jesus.

Jesus responds by again quoting scripture. Again it is words of Moses: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” For what the devil was asking him to do was to test God out, to seek to use God for his own ends. To do this was not to forward God’s purposes but to try to manipulate God. Psalm 91 was written to encourage people to trust in God in their time of need. What Jesus was being tempted to do was to artificially create a situation of need for his own glory, rather than submitting to God’s purposes and God’s way. Jesus was not going to give in to this temptation either.

But this exchange raises an interesting question. Here we have the devil using scripture to tempt Jesus, and Jesus using scripture to counter him. Why was Jesus right and the devil wrong? It is not because there is some sort of pecking order in the books of scripture: that Deuteronomy and the books of Moses outrank the Book of Psalms in some way. Rather we have the reminder that just quoting scripture doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

To do justice to scripture we must always look at the context. As I already pointed out, this Psalm is an encouragement to trust the God who cares for us: it does not give us an invitation to try him out and see what tricks we can get him to do to impress us and others.

Like so many of God’s good gifts, scripture can be abused as well as used. If you think that might be happening when someone is quoting from scripture, a good starting point is to look at the whole passage being referred to. Another thing is to consider how it relates to those fundamental truths you know which are at the heart of scripture and at the heart of our Christian faith. An honest humble and sensible use of scripture will rarely lead us up the garden path.

All the way through these encounters, the temptations are aimed at getting Jesus to put his own agenda ahead of God’s. If he weakens on this, he will never go through with God’s plan, centred on serving people, and ultimately suffering, dying and rising for them.

Some have suggested that the devil is actually suggesting how Jesus should approach his ministry: “Give them food and the things they need! Give them miracles and spectacle, and impress them so that they will love you. Take the easy way, not the hard way of service and suffering.”

While Jesus will indeed perform miracles, they will always be serving the real needs of people. He is not there to impress or to overawe people, but to serve them.

Jesus’ will is to do God’s will. He is able to recognize what God’s will is, and to reject other agendas. Here he proves himself to be the true and faithful Son of God, triumphing over temptation, and uniquely fulfilling his Father’s purposes.

Jesus rejected the easy ways, and took the hard path to the cross. We will at times fail when temptation comes to us, though the challenge is – like Jesus – to recognize it and to resist it. We can trust him because he did and does measure up. We can truly follow him along the path of loving service. He is not only the unique Son of God, but he is the perfect Servant of God, who brings us forgiveness through his suffering and death for us, and who leads us along the path of life, the path to fullness of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver