Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Temptations Luke 4 1-13

When we come to the story of the temptations we notice that Luke has reversed the order of the last two temptations so that Jesus=s last encounter with the devil (for the time being, Luke cautiously notes) is in the temple - or at least on the roof of it. Thus the temptations mirror the journey of the gospel from wilderness via mountain top to temple.

The journey starts in the desert: no‑one need be surprised that Jesus encountered the devil there: in Luke=s gospel it was the place of evil: it was the place where the evil spirits roamed looking for a home. Jesus, though, went out there filled with the spirit of God. Here he is tempted to turn a stone into bread. This temptation is basic to all: to make a living without work. As Paul put it: AIf a man does not work neither should he eat!@ Perhaps the point is that Jesus is resisting the easy option of living in the desert, away from human contact, the life of the hermit. What does seem obvious is that the temptation was to turn away from serving others into a life of self‑indulgence, either the by choosing the easy route of breaking his fast, or the easy route of isolation from mission, since if bread could be found as easily as stones in the wilderness, why should anyone want to live with the pressures of depending on community?. We are not immune either: the church has always struggled with the tension between escape into the desert, feeding its face spiritually while neglecting the hunger at its doors, and being actively present in the world, serving the community.

The next temptation, as Luke tells it, is clearer. In a flash Jesus sees in his mind's eye all the nations of earth: suddenly he has swung from one extreme to the other: now, far from escaping from responsibility into the desert, the temptation is to be a man of the world. This temptation has also trapped the church: for too long and in too many places, still, the church has muddied its hands in squalid politics, rarely emerging with any dignity and, usually, obscuring the simplicity of the gospel: thus we read reports of how church leaders in France for years harboured Nazi criminals: we are aware that the racist government in South Africa went hand in hand with the Dutch Reformed Church: the Vatican has played politics at a mostly demeaning level for most of its history; the easier place for Christians is in opposition rather than power. It is scarcely possible to be active in politics without denying at some point the heart of the faith: for the self‑giving love of God fits uneasily into any political programme; it leads more easily to crucifixion than landslide election victories. So Jesus teaches that while he cannot live alone with God in a desert of his choosing, turning stones to bread in a self‑indulgent neglect of his social responsibility, he also shows that whole‑hearted involvement in the world's affairs and the grasp of power is equally dangerous, especially if it is not accompanied by a controlling worship of God and concentration on his will. As the Philippian hymn teaches, every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus; but the route to that glory lay in slavery, humiliation and death on a cross. There are no short cuts to establishing the kingdom. And if there were no short cuts for Jesus, there are none for us either.

The last temptation takes place not in the desert, not on a lofty mountain peak, but in the temple. If the desert is the devil's natural habitat, the mountains God's special meeting place with man, where the law is given and the prophets see God, the temple was the very house of God himself. No-one expects to be tempted in God's house. Yet here, perhaps, the temptation is the most devious. Here the Word of God is read out. Surely this causes no trouble: we listen, we obey, we do. The psalm is sung: 'He has given his angels charge over you, to protect you . . . they will carry you in their arms lest you trip over a stone.' The devil has twice been repulsed by Jesus=s use of scripture now begins to use it himself. Put the verse to the test, do something the world can't fail to notice! Call yourself God=s chosen one? What's your faith like? How much are you prepared to rest on the promises of God? But what are we being exhorted to do? To put God to the test, says Jesus. Never do that! When Jesus says “Do not tempt the Lord God” that does not mean, 'Do not tempt me!' He means, 'Don't try to tempt me into putting the Lord God to the test.' Now some people have seen in this temptation a reference to the trial of Jesus: apparently the punishment for blasphemy was being thrown off the temple tower. Similar punishments existed in Rome where the traitors were thrown off the Capitol hill. Luke reports that they tried to throw Jesus over the cliff at Nazareth in the very next story! So the temptation might be to give in, throw in the towel, inflict the punishment on yourself, test God to see if he is on your side or not! This is a sort of medieval trial by ordeal: if he saves you - and surely he will - you are proved in your mission. Though this was a temptation specific to Jesus, often in the house of God we hear the word twisted by the deceiver to make rational sense to us. It is also tempting to judge mission by results: to test our own closeness to his will, the measure of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by increases in offerings, baptisms membership statistics and size of congregations. But by doing this are we putting God to the test by demanding evidence of his presence with us? Does the absence of signs point to the absence of God? Many people thought so. If Jesus was the Christ, where was God=s protection at Golgotha? His apparent absence was noted by all.

The church has traditionally used the passages about the temptations in wilderness as the passages of scripture to be read on the first Sunday in Lent. In a another desert the old Israel had failed to put faith in God: faced with giants they felt like grasshoppers: for 40 days they had stared the enemy in the face: at the end they shrank from the task and so faced 40 years of nomadic aimless existence: Christians live their lives under the shadow of the cross: to be a follower of Jesus is to be at that heart of suffering where God touches earth. We are tempted to try to retreat into a specious spirituality, concentrating on our own needs; we are tempted to throw ourselves into political action, oblivious of the demands of worship, all action, no spirituality; we are tempted either to throw in the towel, or look for easy answers. In Luke=s account Jesus showed that these temptations must be resisted: the cross is there to be carried. And he makes clear that this is not just a 40 day test but the battle of a lifetime.

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