While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Wandering in the wilderness is a powerful idea. It is much more than symbolic: the wilderness is the opposite of civilization; you don’t have the infrastructure of society; you don’t even have planted crops; you don’t know where your next meal is coming from and if you are truly alone, like Jesus was, you don’t even have other people to help you.
Being in that place, alone with God and the raw world, forces you to look at what really matters; it compels you to deal with basic needs like hunger, thirst, and shelter. If you’ve learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs you know that these basic needs are so fundamental that other priorities go out the window until they are met.
At least, that’s one interpretation. At the very least, an empty stomach and parched mouth command a person’s attention and other things can take a back seat.
Jesus is described as being really hungry at the end of his long time alone in the wilderness and the first thing he is offered is a temptation
based in his physical hunger: transform stones into bread – “just a little abuse of power – eat and you won’t feel so desperate.”
It doesn’t take the theories of modern psychology to know that physical needs can be powerful, can even overwhelm our better judgement if we become desperate enough.
And that’s how this passage is often seen: it has been used by Christians for centuries to demonstrate Jesus’ perfect self-control; to defend the doctrine that he was sinless. And when you look at it that way, this whole lesson makes Jesus seem super-human. We can admire his iron will but we know we’ve stumbled and we always doubt that we could ever match what we read here.
But consider what was going on in each temptation. Each one was the offer of a short-cut; a corner-cutting way to achieve something: a full stomach; world domination; or the fame and admiration that would come from proving that God is protecting you.
Each of these things is a common human desire: the basic needs of life; power; fame and fortune. But what we see from Jesus’ teachings and his life is that he didn’t want to fit the common mould. He wanted to re-shape our understanding of what is important; to re-define what power really is; to become known for who he really was rather than a flashy false image.
The shortcuts offered Jesus really wouldn’t do the job. Yes, the miraculously transformed stones might briefly satisfy his hunger but you’d always know you had eaten granite and worse, it would cut him off from the community he planned to establish. He would need them to support his ministry, to feed him, and if he started using miracles to feed himself he would undermine the very basis of his work: to build a family of faith.
Getting the armies of the world on his side might look effective but Jesus chose to go to the cross instead; to welcome vulnerability and weakness and demonstrate that what we think of as power ultimately will not win.
Sadly, I believe that over history the church has failed in this temptation, over and over: when we became the official religion of the Roman Empire and when we tied ourselves to other empires over time. If we had not embraced the kind of power Jesus resisted we would not need to apologize for the Residential Schools, would we?
And as for leaping off the temple and being borne up by angels? Well, our modern world has a much better sense of how shallow fame works than past ages could ever have imagined. Social media has allowed all kinds of people a time of fame, and how well do we really know them? How cynical have we become knowing that even regular people only ever put the good pictures up for us to see and hide the failings and flaws. How many people are tempted to believe the pictures everyone else puts up and then consider themselves failures
because their lives aren’t picture perfect?
Jesus was able resist these temptations, I believe, because he knew that such short-cuts never work. The quick and easy solution comes with hidden costs. But more to the point, it skips the parts where we lay the ground-work, where we do the things that matter, where we put in the time to connect with others, establish relationships, earn trust, and allow ourselves to become vulnerable and real.
By the end of his time in the wilderness, Jesus was clear about what really mattered and he knew that these tempting short-cuts would undermine everything he was trying to do.
He decided to go at it the hard way, the real way: talking to people; sharing his understanding; teaching ordinary people to become leaders – not with a horse and a sword, but with a community and with love,
One of the ironies of all this is that Jesus managed to work incredibly quickly. The gospels give different time frames for Jesus’ ministry, but the longest time possible is three years from the wilderness to the cross. Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to agree that Jesus did it all in a year or less – he didn’t need a short-cut!
Of course, the hard way was really hard for Jesus. It involved betrayal, torture and death. But it worked.
If Jesus had chosen another path he might have become as famous as Caesar Augustus who ruled a huge, powerful empire. But we wouldn’t be studying his wisdom right now; we wouldn’t be trying to follow his example. And it is because of what Jesus taught
that when we see someone who wants to become another emperor, like Vladimir Putin, we are filled with horror rather than admiration.
This lesson about the temptations of Jesus isn’t about following rigid rules. It isn’t about being perfect, either. It is about keeping clear in our hearts and minds what matters, what is important. And recognizing that short-cuts don’t work.
Jesus brought his honest, real self to his ministry; he admitted his hunger, and trusted others to feed him; he worked to persuade by love, not by power or flashy tricks and he even let his vulnerability become a message: that his weakness was greater than the power of the Roman Empire.
So, as we live our own lives and as we go forward as a congregation,
with finances and membership concerns hanging on from our meeting last week, let us remind ourselves of what matters. Let’s not be tempted to take short-cuts.
Let’s be ready to do the real work to which we’ve been called: to connect with others; to love, and share and to build a community where God’s love is found, one relationship at a time. It won’t be quick, but it will be authentic.