Thursday, March 22, 2007

the temptation to be powerful (luke 4)

Lead me not into temptation”, the bumper sticker reads, “I know the way already”. The hymn confesses, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love”. Temptation is a part of life. It forms the stage upon which the drama of Lent begins.

But what is temptation? Is it the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue? or a big bowl of homemade ice cream, covered in chocolate syrup? or the desire to buy a car that is twice as big as the one my parents owned? or, a question I put to myself, “could I really give up March Madness for Lent, all of the basketball over the next few weeks, even if I wanted to”?

Well, this year it might not be so difficult, but that’s another story.

Is temptation always something external, something beyond us? Or is temptation internal, my own choice, my own issue, what I think about another person, how I dismiss or judge or stereotype them?

What does temptation mean to you?

Some of the early Christians talked about a world filled with demons; temptation was the battle with those demons. Others saw temptation as inner an inner struggle. But they all agreed on one basic fact: the demons had no more power over us than what we granted to them. Some believed that demons were a reality only for the most devout; most of us caved in too quickly to our own desires for the demons to bother us. “Lead me not into temptation, I know the way already.”

The Bible itself speaks about the devil and temptation in a variety of ways: as tendencies within ourselves, as a personal being outside ourselves with whom we struggle; as a powerful angel gone astray; as an organized force at odds with the will and purpose of God. The word “devil” means “the slanderer”. The word “Satan” means “the adversary”.

But what do the temptations of the devil have to do with us? Temptation is a non-issue when we cannot tell the difference between compromise and conviction, between truth and slander. There is no struggle. We know the way already.

But if we are trying to live in God’s plan, striving to stay close to God’s purpose, we will encounter temptation, there will be an adversary. And the closer we get to God the more real the temptation, the more intense the struggle,

The devil takes Jesus up to a high place and shows him in an instant all of the kingdoms of the world. And the devil says, to you I will give all of this if…there is a catch, if you will worship me, it will all be yours. In movies about Jesus, or about the struggle between Jesus and a person, this is the scene where the conversation is on the top floor of an urban skyscraper, and Satan points to the whole of Manhattan Island, and the skyline, and says, “this can all be yours”, and then a pause, and you know there is a catch, an “if” is coming, “If you will worship me”.

The temptation must have been a difficult one for Jesus. It was a temptation to do good, to gain power. And wouldn’t we want Jesus to have power? Don’t we sing, in Handel’s Messiah, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever”?

Take it”, we say to Jesus. You deserve it. Who better than you? You’re the messiah. You’re the king. Take it.”

In the first century Roman Empire, there was a great desire for a righteous leader. This is our chance, the One from whom we have been praying”. We are not so different. There will be utopia after this dictator is removed, we will have peace after this war, it will be better after the next election,

It doesn’t matter how you get the power, we want to say. Take it. We need you”. The end justifies the means.

And so the temptation to be powerful is a powerful temptation. Jesus resists. He says, quoting again from Deuteronomy, “worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”. For Israel the temptation was to be like the other nations, who had earthly kings. Israel cried out for a king. You don’t want a king”, the prophet insisted. kings will only tax you and send your young men into war”. God is your king. But they were tempted toward the kingdoms of the world, and God gave them the desires of the heart. And they suffered.

Jesus represents Israel, he stands in the wilderness for Israel, Jesus stands in the wilderness for us, resisting temptation, examining the desires of his own heart, discerning the Father’s purpose for his life. He resists the temptation for a simple reason: Jesus was offered status without sacrifice, power without love. If Jesus had given in to this temptation, if he had embraced compromise, he would have given us a very different vision of God: a God without love, a Christ without a cross. This is temptation as a bypass, a shortcut to spirituality.

It is like reading the last page of a book, and pretending to know what it is all about. It is like skipping spring training and taking the field on opening day. It is like showing up for a dance recital without bothering to practice. It is like Easter without Lent. It is, in the words of the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace”: grace without discipleship, grace without a cross, grace without Jesus Christ. It is, Bonhoeffer insisted, the “grace we bestow on ourselves”. (The Cost of Discipleship, 47).

With Jesus there is no shortcut to spirituality, no Easter without Lent, no crown without a cross, no status without sacrifice, no power without love. And it is exactly the same for us. There are no shortcuts in the spiritual life.

Henri Nouwen has a wonderful reflection on this temptation:

“What makes this temptation of power so irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people,
easier to own life than to love life.

Jesus asks, “do you love me?” We ask, “can we sit at your right hand and your left hand?” [Our] painful history is that [we are] ever and ever again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, leading over being led” (In The Name of Jesus, 59-60).

There is nothing wrong with having authority. But here is the insight: true authority comes from the Lord, real power comes from God. The illusion, of course, was that the world was Satan’s to give to Jesus. Jesus knew that going Satan’s way was the way to lose power. Jesus opted to receive from the Father what was the Father’s to give. The early Christians sang about this in a hymn:

Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus

Who though he was in the form of God

Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped

But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant

And humbled himself and became obedient unto death,

Even death on a cross.

Therefore God highly exalted him and has given him

The name which is above every name,

So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow

In heaven and on earth and under the earth

And every tongue confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2. 5-11)

We have been asking the question, “How are the temptations of Jesus your own temptations?” We too are tempted by power.

Aren’t we led to places and asked to compromise our convictions? Who would know, or care?

Don’t we wonder, at times, if life wouldn’t be better if we crossed the line and went over to the other side? The lights are bright, and the people seem happy.

Don’t we hear words coming out of our mouths, words that express what is really in our hearts?

Don’t we realize how smooth is the slope that takes us downward? “Lead us not into temptation, we know the way already”.

All of us, in a number of ways, fight adversaries that are outside of us and within us, and if there seems to be no spiritual battle, then there is a problem.

Each of us is presented with the exact choice that Jesus faced:

Power without God, which is power without love, or

The power of God, which is love.

Next Sunday we will conclude this series of messages on the temptations of Jesus, and we will look specifically at the resources he used to overcome them. If his temptations are ours, his ways of resisting them can be ours as well.

Lead us not into temptation, we pray. Let us pray those words, let us choose love over power,

let us cling to the cross even as we give up control,

let us not worry so much about being the leader,

and focus instead on being led.

As we journey toward Easter, where a garden, a cross and an empty tomb await us, may we have a clarity about the desires of our hearts, an honesty about the ways we are tempted, and a desire to worship and serve God alone.


Post a Comment

<< Home