Choosing with Care (Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
It seems to me but a moment ago that we lit the first Advent candle to prepare for Jesus’ coming in a physical sense long ago, and again today in a spiritual sense. Then, it was Christmas and, after that, Epiphany with its stories about Jesus the Messiah in whom God was, and is, carrying out the divine mission set forth in the ancient words of Isaiah 61: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”
I can hardly believe that now we are in Lent. As Advent was a time of preparation for Jesus’ coming to earth and to us, Lent is a time of preparation for Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection on our behalf and on behalf of the world. Lent is sometimes played out in sombre tones as about what we give up. The name “Lent” itself, however, is derived from Middle English word for “spring,” in turn derived from the more hopeful experience of the “lengthening” of the hours of daylight which most of us experience with gratitude now, if not on this day we lose an hour’s sleep. And that’s hopeful not sombre. Our experience and our confidence is that it will get lighter and lighter outside and in. So, Lent doesn’t need to be depressing. Rather, it can be a time when we choose how to follow Jesus. Following anything or anyone is a choice that takes discipline. I want to listen to our scripture lessons today in the light of what they teach us about how and in what way we choose to follow Jesus.
Deuteronomy 26 contains a summary of part of Israel’s story that worshipers at the Feast of Weeks chose to recite when they presented the first of their crops to God. The summary started that Israel really began with non-Israelites. With Arameans, with foreigners, with immigrants, and these folk were wanderers. They had names such as Abraham, Sarah, and their children down the generations. God’s call to them was to follow in God’s way to a safe and good land. Their journey, by and by, also led to a safe place in Egypt as a shelter from famine. The shelter turned into an ugly place of slavery when a nameless pharaoh enslaved them as pawns of the state. To make a long story short, these slaves cried to the God they knew of old, who liberated them and led them, again, to their own land where they, once again, flourished. And, in solidarity with their great-great (many times great) grandparents, these worshipers told this, as their own story, out loud. It was as if God had done this, not just a long time ago, but, right now, for them. Israel chose to tell their story with God out loud in the context of their community worship, and underlying this worship, as its motive, was gratitude for the person and work of this God who had been faithful to their ancestors, and was still faithful to them. To see life in the context of community through the lens of gratitude was a choice, and it still is. This text encourages people through the generations to choose to see their lives within the worshiping community of faith as it gratefully tells God’s story out loud, and continues to say, week by week, this is our story too. Of course, after the first generation, the real stories of these Hebrews were different in detail from those in the biblical story. In spite of the change of details, however, these people, too, had known what it meant “to wander” and be lost. They had known what it meant not to know where to turn, and to cry to God and to find God sufficient for the moment. And so do we.
I am convinced deep in my soul that gratitude to God and others is the root of both Christian worship and Christian action and discipleship. It is also a choice to see life so, or not. The words “gratitude” and “grace” are related in English. In classical Latin and the Greek of the New Testament the same word serves for both (Latin gratia, Greek charis). It is very difficult to experience God’s grace, much less be channels of it into the desert places of our world if we have not chosen to be formed and shaped by and in genuine gratitude to God and one another. To live in communities that tell God’s story out loud and that base their common life in gratitude is a choice. We can do it or not. One of my former colleagues used to say that people could visit the Louvre and be swept away by the glories of art, or simply complain about their sore feet. .
Of course, as Christian disciples our task is to follow Jesus, who is our model. This applies to the ways in which he dealt with testing and trial as much as it does anything else. In the Gospel Lesson Jesus was tested to determine what kind of ministry he would exercise. What would the centre and root of it be?
Luke’s account of Jesus in the wilderness, although similar to Matthew’s and so connected to his baptism, comes at it in the immediate context of Jesus’ genealogy at the end of chapter 3. This genealogy showed that “people thought” (it says) that Jesus was the son of the humble craftsman Joseph. Of course, he was, but the genealogy actually showed that he was, much more, also the son of such as David, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Adam, and, finally, son of God. Earlier in the text we find he was also the son of Mary, who had been chosen by God for her work. And, though his human birth was in a humble stable, it was far deeper and more profound than just that. What a stupendous claim! Now, in Jesus’ culture such claims were sure to be tested and challenged. In our story, the challenger is not a human, but “the slanderer,” or the devil. The other Gospels use the Hebrew name Satan, which means “the adversary.”
Luke’s story operates at two levels. At one level, the devil tested Jesus’ loyalty three times to find out whether he was worthy of the honour the genealogy that Luke claimed for him. In Jesus’ culture, the right way to respond to such challenges to honour was with family tradition. The devil said, “Won’t you serve yourself? Won’t you serve me? and Won’t you serve God by taking outrageous risks? Jesus responded three times with texts from his “family tradition,” so to speak, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy to be exact, and his answer is “No, no, no, my loyalty is to God and God alone,” “I am the son of God.” At this level of the story, Jesus’ claim to honour was tested in a culturally understandable way. He chose loyalty to God through the word of the scriptures, and so, maintained his honour in the face of all the slanderer’s tests of it. So the devil slipped away until to await another opportunity.
But Luke also told this story at another level. He’s not just passing on a piece of information about what happened to Jesus at least a generation before he was writing. He is telling this story as a model for normal disciples of Jesus who are not only being tested, but actually being enticed – tempted – to make harmful choices about discipleship to Jesus in a different day than Jesus lived. And, many years later, we, too, may hear this text in this way. At this level of the story Jesus (and disciples with him) are enticed, not to do what he/they/we can’t do – that’s really no temptation at all – but rather what he/they/we can do in a harmful way. Choose with Care.
Here, the devil is tempting Jesus, and disciples of every age, to decide to use certain methods to get the work done. In this text, when the devil says, “If you are the son of God (in vv. 3 and 9),” he is not saying, as so many have thought, “If you really are the Son of God (and I don’t think you are), then…” In a Greek sentence like this we can actually tell whether the speaker believes what is said. Here the devil does. He does not mean, “If you really are the Son of God (and I don’t believe it).” He means “If you are the Son of God (and you are),” or even, “Since you are the Son of God…” The devil says, “Since, you are the Son of God, use your power as son of God to honour and feed yourself after fasting forty days, and do it in a flashy, miraculous way.” “Turn this stone to bread!” I think more of us are familiar with Matthew’s version of this story where Jesus says, “People are not fed by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” If we stop to read Luke here, he only reports the first half of that. In Luke Jesus only says, “People are not fed by bread alone.” Period. For Luke, Jesus’ temptation is to try to serve God by making himself comfortable first. And Jesus says, God’s way isn’t self-centred. It isn’t even just about meeting our own needs, as important as those may be. Again, this is not a temptation to do what we cannot do, but to misuse what we can as we follow Jesus. Discipleship is not about making ourselves feel good and comfortable, even in the service of others. What a lesson for our Lenten reflection.
Again, the devil says, “God has made me the one through whom you’re going to have to go to get rich and famous. Honour and serve me and I’ll give you the world.” Jesus says, “It is written, Honour and serve God only.” As disciples who have to make choices about what we can do to follow Jesus, what can we make of this? First, let me say, I don’t think Jesus is saying to be suspicious of those who are unlike us, for that’s just “getting in bed with the devil.” That’s a common mantra in some churches I know. Forget it! Suspicion of others denies what we learned from our Old Testament Lesson about living out of an underlayment of gratitude both to God and to others. No, what Jesus is being tempted to do is to use methods that really conflict with the other-centred, inclusive, gratitude-based, story-telling values of community that Jesus came to teach. It can be easy and effective to manipulate people, push their guilt-buttons, play on their fears, all in the name of God. It’s been done. To continue choosing those kinds of methods really pays homage to values other than those of Jesus. “Serve God alone,” no matter how easy it is to manipulate and get to people with slick tricks and bumper-sticker slogans. What a lesson for Lent!
The third time the devil says, “Since you are the Son of God (he’s back to that) show your honour and power as son of God by tossing yourself off the top of the temple.” By now the devil’s on to the fact that it impresses some people to quote a Bible verse or two. So the devil quotes part of Psalm 91 to say “God’s angels will protect you, if you jump.” Jesus responded, “Don’t test God.” It’s not that Jesus won’t trust God and take risks. That will become evident in the rest of his story. But Jesus says, “Don’t take risks for no reason, or, even worse, for stupid or selfish reasons.” Don’t just dare God to “come through.” What I take him to mean here is to be prudent and thoughtful about decisions that you must take in discipleship. What this implies for those who would follow Jesus is that they must continually assess and evaluate what they are doing so as to choose to do what is wise today. This may mean a change of course from yesterday, and tomorrow’s course may change yet again. Thinking, reflecting, meditating about how we follow Jesus and are faithful to his teachings is an ongoing task. One reason for this comes in Luke’s unique conclusion to his story. The devil, was only bested by Jesus for a while. He would return. Reflecting on discipleship is an ongoing series of choices. Lent is a good time to reflect on such ongoing goals for discipleship.
In 1845, American poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem called “The Current Crisis,” during the Mexican war that, for him, demanded immediate moral choice. Some years later another poet took a few lines from here and there in the longer poem and made a hymn that he called “Once to Every Man and Nation.” I love this hymn, and it’s in our hymnal, but we don’t sing it much not only because it is hard to make inclusive, but also because the words can be startling and abrupt. Two of of my favourite lines speak to the fact of the ongoing need for reflection as we chart our course of following Jesus. They are: “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.” Think about it.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.