4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The three temptations of Jesus that we have heard this morning are temptations the church still faces in one form or another, and so I would like to center my remarks this morning around this theme: The Church’s Three Temptations. You have heard the hymn The Church’s One Foundation. We are going to talk about the Church’s Three Temptations.
Before we talk about each of these temptations, we should be clear on what we’re talking about. We all experience temptation, but what is it, exactly?
What it is not is just wanting something. That’s not enough for temptation. Nor is it just wanting something that is bad for you. I would like to come into a lot of money, and that desire may come from greed or jealously, but it does not come from temptation. For most people, there is nothing wrong, after all, with the occasional slice of cake, or glass of wine, or what have you. Temptation comes into play when we want the cheap thrill over the sustained goodness. Temptation is about the now versus what could be. If you don’t have a problem with eating too much, then a piece of cake is fine. But if sustained goodness in your life looks like losing weight or getting back on the track to health, then that cake is about a cheap thrill versus the sustained goodness. If you struggle with alcoholism, that drink that may be what you want now is in conflict with the productive future of sobriety that could be.
Do you see the difference? Temptation is much more insidious than just wanting something, because you can legitimate temptation by saying, oh, this is what I want now, I deserve it now, who knows what tomorrow will bring so we should spend today eating, drinking, and being merry.
So it does my heart good to know that Jesus also experienced temptation, and as we seek to be the church in the modern world, as we seek to share God’s gracious Gospel with others and grow in our faith together, it happens to be the case that we face very similar temptations to the ones Jesus faced. In the interest of maintaining the church, which is an important task for us, the church is constantly subject to the three temptations of the devil that Jesus faces, so we must be on constant watch. All right.
The first temptation is this: to turn God into a magician. To turn God into a magician. You sometimes hear me rag on the television preachers who like spectacle more than substance, and here’s a great example of the ways in which the church has been prone to give into the temptation to turn God into a magician. You’ve seen those preachers who put their hands on the heads of poor folks with debilitating diseases or whatever, and they start shaking and fall backward and all of a sudden, pow, they are healed! I hate to break it to you, but that’s magic. It is spectacle. I don’t doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to heal, but that kind of thing is about turning God into a magician, into an illusionist, rather than a gracious presence, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer we understand through the Holy Trinity.
You know, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. After that kind of experience, you’re hungry, you know, you’re weak and you’d almost eat the rocks themselves. And so, the story goes, the devil says to him, “if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” But Jesus answers, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And perhaps that’s a bit of a strange answer, but he’s quoting scripture, like he sometimes does, and he’s resisting the temptation to fill his belly now by mortgaging his legacy as the Son of God. For everything else he was, Jesus was NOT a magician. He didn’t perform miracles just for the sake of performing miracles. In every miracle, he was pointing to God, which is a nice way to understand miracles in our time, too. If it doesn’t point to God, it’s just magic, just illusion. Miracles point to God.
Why this is not good enough for us, I don’t know. We seem to think that the business of sharing the love of God with others is not enough, so we try to put on a show, as if God were more present in grand theater than in the mundane moments of life. I know that in my life, love has looked a lot more like small moments of grace than over-the-top celebrations. The wedding is nice, of course, but it gives way to the tough slog of true love. And yet somehow we seem to want more, to turn God into a magician, because we doubt that God’s grace is enough on its own. To this, Jesus says no. One does not live by miracles, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
That’s the Church’s First Temptation: To turn God into a magician.
The Church’s Second Temptation is to pretend the Bible stands on its own. Maybe you think that’s a strange thing for the preacher to say, but hear me out. The Bible is the primary way we understand God’s truth, but it cannot be divorced from the interpretive lenses each of us brings to the table. The Bible is not a book, after all, but a series of books, and there are places the Bible contradicts itself, details about who did what when, that sort of thing. I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, and I don’t mean to say that the Bible isn’t the most important source of truth we have, but when you read the Bible without context and interpretation, you are missing out on the richness scripture has to offer.
I mean, just look at the second temptation of Jesus in this morning’s scripture lesson. The devil took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, the high point, and said, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you do not dash your foot against a stone.”
And this one is a tricky, because the devil is actually quoting scripture, Psalm 91, as if merely by using scripture, he can make his case. As if scripture can be read without context and interpretation. I mean, let me say it even more strongly. Quote scripture all you want, but don’t pretend that quoting scripture makes you any better than the devil. The key for us as United Methodists is understand scripture in context, in reading the Bible using our lenses of tradition and reason and experience. This is our legacy as Methodists, and so when somebody tells me that they don’t worry about all that, they just believe the Bible, you understand why I balk at that a little bit. The devil can quote scripture. What we as the church are tasked with is interpreting scripture. You can’t read the Bible without interpreting it using tradition, reason, and experience. Anybody who tells you that they are just teaching the Bible without shining it through the lens of their own context is not telling the whole truth, because the Bible is much richer than one book written by one author. It is inspired, but the genius of the Bible is that until we interpret it, until we as the church come together and with God’s help engage it through the perspective of our humanness, it is just words on a page. And it has been my experience that those who say the Bible speaks for itself frequently mean that THEIR interpretation is the CORRECT interpretation, and oh, that is dangerous ground, friends, for the devil can do sword drills with the best of them. God does not expect us to read the Bible without filtering it through the lenses of experience, reason, and tradition, for God does not expect us to read the Bible as anything less than the human beings we are. This is why we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit: to guide us; to help us understand the complexity of scripture. God is even greater than the Bible, for God helps us to interpret the Bible. This is the church’s second temptation: the pretend that the Bible stands on its own. The devil can quote scripture, too.
The church’s third temptation is the most dangerous, because we’ve been taught it our whole lives. The church’s third temptation is this: staying put, rather than moving forward into God’s future. Accepting things as they are. Believing our best days are behind us. The story goes that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. All the kingdoms, all the riches, all the power. And the devil said, All this you could have if you will just do one thing. Just fall down and worship me. You can have all of this, all that is, if you will just give up your plan for the world, if you will give up all that could be. After all, you’ve got a sure thing in all that is. Who knows what is around the corner in the realm of what could be? Why bet it all on final Jeopardy when you’ve already won?
I say that this is the most dangerous temptation of all, because it is about mortgaging the future for the present. It is temptations boiled down to its essence: the cheap thrill over the sustained goodness. What is versus what could be. It is about saying, well, things may not get better, so let’s not risk it. It is the most dangerous, most insidious temptation of all, but you knew that already, because it’s bred into us. It’s taught to us as children. A bird in the hand is worth two in the . . . bush. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Bloom where you are planted.
We’re taught to avoid risk, and it’s a temptation, you know, not just worshiping the devil, which I’ve never been tempted to do and I don’t think is the point. The temptation is about saying this is the best it will ever be, and so rather than taking the difficult steps to move forward in my own life, in my own journey, my own walk with God, I’m just going to plant right here.
It’s a problem of trust, really, and I get that. It is hard to trust an invisible God, hard to trust that God has a plan for the world when life can see m so utterly random, so full of death and destruction, hard lives and hardened people. But it is also a failure of imagination, a situation of being stuck in the muck of the way things are and the way we’ve always done things and the disease of trusting our own limitations more than we trust God.
I was listening the other day to this remarkable interview with the vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin is a very devout Christian, which I did not know, and he talked about the ways music speaks to the mystery of faith. He says that when he has the opportunity to conduct an orchestra, he hates over-rehearsing, “for the simple reason that [he doesn’t] want to take all the mystery out of the music-making.” If he over-rehearsed the orchestra, they wouldn’t look at him during the performance for direction. They’d rely on the black and white on the page, which gets you only so far, for there is a reason an orchestra needs a conductor. Beauty happens in those gray places, those imaginative places, in-between the notes. So, he says, he would “under-rehearse a little bit, because [he] wanted them to wonder what the music was going to be like.”
The church has suffered for a long time with a failure of imagination, a failure of wonder, and it is in this context, in this time, to the devil and to us, that Jesus speaks this word: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Don’t worship the past, or your own limitations, or some version of God that is so static as to be dead. Worship the God who is far larger than our own limitations, the problems we’ve had in the past, the hurt and pain we’ve had to walk through, because I don’t know about you, but my Bible says that yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, thou art with me. I do not walk alone, for God is greater than my troubles, greater than my past. I know it in my experience, I understand it in my reason, and I hear echoes of that great promise throughout the history of the church.
It is the church’s third and greatest temptation to stay put rather than living into God’s future, to stay on the familiar path. But then, the familiar path has only led you up to this point. The journey of following Jesus is about what is ahead, about traveling through, about taking the next steps to follow the Savior who is always on the move, for you can’t walk through the valley if you are standing still.
So these are the church’s three temptations: to turn God into something God is not, to turn the Bible into something it is not, and to turn the Christian journey into something of a dead end, merely because we’ve been there before and because it feels safe. These are nothing new. Jesus faced these same temptations two thousand years ago, and yet he managed to overcome them by building the movement we’re still involved with today.
Church, if we want to overcome these temptations, if we want to continue that grand movement of Christianity, there’s wisdom for us in this passage, wisdom in following the savior who is always on the move. We’d best get busy, because it is an inescapable truth that you can’t be part of a movement if you aren’t willing to move.