Saturday, March 09, 2019

March 10, Lent 1, Temptations #1: The Good

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

This is my twelfth time preaching through the Gospel of Luke, and I’m finally realizing something basic about it, something hidden in plain sight, but suddenly obvious once you notice it.

Last week I said that the Gospel of Luke is the most humane of the four Gospels that we have, with the most human interest, and that’s because one of St. Luke’s distinctive themes is the new humanity that we get in Jesus Christ. Yes, the Lord Jesus is God, and partly so in order to be a human being, the firstborn and founder and leader of a new model of humanity, a new way of being human in the world.

By the time St. Luke wrote his gospel, at least two other gospels were already available. St. Matthew had invented the gospel as a literary form in order to serve the specific message that he wanted to convey. Then St. Mark used that literary form to tell the same story but with his own emphases. St. Luke did the same thing, with different emphases. Who was this St. Luke, and why did he do it?

We don’t know much. We think he was a Gentile convert, not a Jew, the only Gentile author in the Bible. He probably never met Jesus. He was an associate of St. Paul, a doctor, and well-educated in Greek and Roman terms. Before he came to believe that Jesus was Lord he will have believed other things, such as the ideals of Hellenistic culture—the dominant ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what makes a person good, what is a human being. He will have learned those ideals from the philosophers and also from the epics of Homer and maybe of Virgil. He probably interpreted the mythological gods and goddesses to be the personifications of the principalities and powers of the world and the ideals of humanity. And then—we don’t know how—he converted!

So he spends a few years assisting St. Paul, organizing and teaching, making use of the gospels as they become available, interpreting them for his own context, and we can imagine him develop his own emphasis—a new way of being human in the world, with new ideals, a kind of humanity that the philosophers had not imagined, a new model human being that Homer and Virgil would not have praised, a new model citizen that the Roman Empire did not desire—the new kind of human being that we see in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And of course, a new kind of God. A kind of God who would dare to become this kind of human being. Yes, many of the Greek gods took temporary form as human beings, but none of them so thoroughly as to suffer and to die as such. You can imagine Jesus being tempted not to do that either. Who wants to be a god to be a loser, who wants to be a god if it means suffering and death? Well, who wants to be a human being to be loser? The choices that the Lord Jesus made would not have been made by any right-thinking human or any right-thinking god in the Greek and Roman world that St. Luke was addressing.

This helps to understand the devil in this story. He’s not the devil of our cartoons, he’s more like the Satan of the Book of Job, and he hangs out with gods and goddesses like Jupiter and Aphrodite and Apollo. He doesn’t think of himself as evil. He’s a realist, he knows how the world works. He believes what he says. He doesn’t tell any lies here. He even quotes scripture. Everything he tempts Jesus with is a good, on its face. But Jesus says No to these three goods, both as human and as God.

When I preached on this passage six years ago I emphasized how Jesus was being tempted as God. Satan tempts Jesus with three things that we typically ask of God, in all religions. First, feed us, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Second, give us success, give us power. Third, save us, rescue us. If God would just do these things more often more visibly in the world, more people might believe. “Just prove yourself, God, just do your job—why do you keep depending on us stumbling Christians to convince the world?”

But this time around I want to focus on how Jesus is being tested as a human being, as the prototype and test model of the new kind of human being. The proving-ground is the desert, and Jesus is like a new product being tested to the breaking point.

The United States Marines claim to take their recruits apart and rebuild them to be a different kind of human being. To become a ballet dancer you have to change the way you run and the way you jump and even the way you stand, painfully, until it’s second nature. So understand temptation as the training for your second nature.

You are tested and proven and you endure the temptation for the new humanity you are called to become. And you can’t endure if you avoid the suffering. So you can use the season of Lent a little bit of a desert, a self-imposed boot-camp or ballet lessons. So my sermon series for Lent is called Temptation, and this week, the Temptation of the Good.

For the first temptation I think about Park Slope life. Good bread, good food, good taste, good books, good music, good conversation, the good life. Such things we can accept as good gifts in our lives, as we thank God for our daily bread, so when we say “No thanks” to them we really do mean the “thanks,” our No is to confess they cannot fully satisfy, and if we are fully satisfied by them, then we cannot be the human beings that the Gospel calls us to become. We say No to them only when we say Yes to the Word of God. We believe that more, the promises of God, the judgments of God, we hold off from the goodies set before us for the hope and the vision ahead of us.

For the second temptation I think about American life. For example, I have always been challenged by the argument that if not for the military might of America the bad guys would have their way. I am sure it’s true. It’s realistic. And does it not yield the good life that I enjoy? It’s just because it’s so true and realistic, and because it yields me so much good that it’s a temptation, to which there is no argument other than “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” Does that mean God first and country second? I think it means God first and nothing second. This is a tough one, and a cause of constant testing, especially from good people who are the good kind of patriots. 

Both of these temptations can train us to be less defensive of the goods that we enjoy and the goods to which we have allegiance, and they train us in freedom. But we will be resisted by those whose interests are those goods, from simple lack of sympathy to mockery to discrimination to persecution. The temptation is a testing. You have to keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth in order to endure it, to be kept safe in it, and confessing mostly to yourself, “Yes, I want to believe this, I want to believe this.” Even the Lord Jesus had to say it out loud.

For the third temptation I think about the Christian life. That we live the good life in Christ and we expect it to yield more good. I mean if we believe in a good God who rules the world and who loves us, if we walk with God, then we should expect some benefits along the way. You know, God bless us when things are good, and God save us when things are bad. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

But you can do this without putting God to the test. You can do this when your prayers are not answered as you asked them. You pray to God wholeheartedly without putting God to the test, though you are tempted to give up. You will be tried beyond the breaking point. There is no proof. You save it for yourself when you keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth, if only to that one friend who tells you it’s not worth it, give it up. You are that new model of human being who stands up in front of God and who gives God back all the mysterious and sometimes frustrating freedom that God claims, and still believe in God.

This kind of courage is called faith, this decision is belief. St. Paul says to believe with your heart. He doesn’t say your head, because belief is not mostly thinking, although it must engage your thinking. “Believe with your heart.” Belief is in your heart because belief is mostly love. Think about it—belief is faithfulness, belief is fidelity, belief is wanting the other to be other for the sake of the other, which is love, belief is wanting God to be God for God’s sake, wanting the world to be God’s world for God’s sake, and loving your self for God’s sake, because God loved you first.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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