Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 6, 2022
Why do people do the things they do? Maybe because we aren’t robots; our behavior isn’t programmed; we have such a wide variety of choices.
We hear that Jesus was tested as we are. On one level we accept that because it is part of our religious tradition. On one level we question it because we think, “He couldn’t have been.” After all, how do you really test the “Son of God?” Would he not have just fallen back on his primary powers and claimed his diplomatic immunity from prosecution?
From a different angle we might wonder what the similarity is between the temptations that someone faced 2000 years ago and the ones we face today. How do we make that connection?
Or, the very idea of temptation is an outdated concept that has no place in post-modern secular thinking.
The story of the temptation of Jesus in its basic form involves some simple elements –
Something happened that caused him to question his identity – to wrestle with some basic questions, “Who am I?” and “What am I supposed to do?”
To find the answers he went on a retreat. He went to a place termed the “wilderness.” The wilderness is a metaphor for a place where the usual support systems are absent. Sometimes the wilderness is an actual place and sometimes it is a season along our journey of life.
In the wilderness we can’t lean on the usual support systems. They might be close at hand, but they don’t provide the answers we need.
The tests that life places before us come in many forms. Sometimes the test is multiple choice. Usually in a multiple-choice test there is one obvious wrong answer that you can throw out immediately. But the rest all seem fairly reasonable. You know that there is only one right answer. Maybe you know the answer and maybe you don’t. It could even be “none of the above.”
Sometimes the test is a true or false exam. Do you recognize the truth and if so, do you choose it?
Sometimes test is an essay question. The answer is layered and multi-faceted. It is colored in shades of gray. You hope that you understand it fully enough to make the right choices.
We might imagine what it must have been like for Jesus. Village life – hard work – poverty – Jesus son of Joseph but in quotation marks. He learned a trade – he practiced the religion of his people. He enjoyed the company of others and he enjoyed his own company.
He was probably a mystic of sorts – the kind of guy who would spend long hours in thought and prayer. He wasn’t husband material – his parents never arranged a marriage for him.
At around the age of thirty, he ventured out on his own. He traveled to the region of the Jordan River, where he found one of his relatives, John the son of his mother’s sister. John was a colorful character. He had charisma – he was a holy man and a preacher. He told people they needed to get ready for the judgement day – get clean and get right with God. He was a curiosity and people came in droves to hear what he had to say.
Jesus was just another face in the crowd. When John called people into the water, Jesus went forward. “What are you doing here?” John said. “I should be baptized by you. I’m hardly worthy to carry your sandals.” He baptized Jesus anyway, and when he did, Jesus had a mystical spiritual experience. He heard a voice and he felt the presence of God come upon him. The voice said, “You are my son, I love you. I’m pleased with you.”
What did that mean? He would need to find out. Jesus went on a retreat, like a vision quest. He would stay for as long as he needed to, which was as long as it would take to finally grasp what it was God wanted him to do, and once and for all settle the question, “who am I?”
One day of prayer and fasting rolled over into the next. Days turned into weeks, fasting, just drinking water, no distractions like what the next meal is going to be. Just prayer and meditation. Each moment of each day, Jesus grasped the meaning of those words, “You are my beloved son.” Those words were his daily bread. Every day began with the struggle of identity, until Jesus finally owned that message to the core of his soul.
I AM GOD’S SON. GOD LOVES ME. GOD IS PLEASED WITH ME.
Once he owned that truth, he realized how hungry he was. It was time to go back. Time to eat. Maybe he thought he had passed the test, but it was only just beginning. Maybe that’s when he though, “If you are the Son of God, you could turn these stones into bread.” You could make bread. If you are the Son of God, you don’t have to wait until you get to a village. Just pick up a rock and say, “let there be bread.” He wouldn’t even need the rock.
He could do that, if he wanted to. It might be an amusing exercise. Was this multiple choice as in what kind of bread to create? Or true or false as in whether he should or not? Or an essay question as to what it would mean.
Of course, there were things to consider. If he could make one loaf to satisfy his own hunger, he could make many loaves. Think about that. As many loaves as he needed; or better yet as humankind needed. Give people what they really need: food. No more hunger. And if hunger, why not all their suffering. You can wipe away their tears. People will indeed come from east, west north and south.
But wait, if? If you are the Son of God? He didn’t have to prove himself. “There’s more to life than bread,” Jesus said. “The word of God is life.”
We’re not likely to think we can turn rocks into loaves of bread. But we do face this test. We might sometimes think, “What good am I, really? How do I contribute? Would anyone really notice or care if I didn’t exist? Am I relevant?”
The way that Jesus came through the test points us to truth, by pointing us to what God said, the “word of God.” He didn’t mean anything such as, “When people are hungry tell them to read their bible!” His response points us to the reality of, “You are God’s beloved child. God loves you. God is well pleased with you.” In claiming such an identity, we take to heart a truth that guides our actions.
The test came at him from a different angle. He began to think about his calling. His calling to bring God’s realm into view so that people could recognize it and take it to heart. How to do that. One simple way to accomplish that which would be start with the power brokers of the world. Go to the leaders, the rulers, the movers and shakers. If they grasped the message, then the general public would take it on – they would have to.
The lure was real. If Jesus had the prestige, then people would listen. If he was a man of some accomplishment, then people would pay attention, they would know that he knew what he was talking about. Who’s going to seriously consider the son of a carpenter who claims to be the Son of God?
He imagined the glory of all the systems of world power. The temples of commerce – the fortresses of power and wealth – where the real decisions were made. But in order to avail oneself of that power, one has to “buy into” the system. One has to recognize the legitimacy of the establishment. One has to give over one’s loyalty – in essence to worship the power.
Was the good worth it? It seems so simple on the surface, true God or false gods. It should be an easy choice. But even good things can become false gods. He reminded himself of the basic commandment. “Worship God and serve God only.”
Jesus was not swayed by the temptation to relevance, or by the lure of power. But he had to go through one more test. He imagined the view from the top of the temple. What would happen if he jumped?
“Didn’t God say he would protect you? If you are the Son of God, then angels will fly to rescue. People will witness such an astounding miracle that they will have to listen to you.”
They could put the word out in advanced. Draw a big crowd. Even the Romans would have to take notice. Jesus could then start his ministry as the guy who jumped off the temple and was rescued by angels. But it was obvious what would happen. Somewhere along the line, someone would say, “I didn’t see it.” Pretty soon, Jesus would have to perform a stunt in every town he came to. And after awhile, people would say, “Big deal. Show us something we haven’t seen.”
What have you done for us lately?
These are the tests that once taken, never end. They call our identity into constant question and constant doubt.
Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
We are the ones who go through the wilderness journeys, the times of testing; they are unique to us individually and common to all of humankind. We know these journeys by the signposts marking the pathways –
Mental health issues;
When we are in the wilderness experience, it is tempting for the labels to identify us – so that we become the thing we are experiencing. When you are there and there is no easy way through, just remember – remember who you are – God’s beloved child.
Everything else might be called into question, but that truth will never change.