Tuesday, March 13, 2007

the temptation to be relevant (luke 4)

Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days. Elijah had a 40 day flight to the mountain of God. The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus quotes from the Deuteronomy passage three times in the first 13 verses of Luke 4.

We have left the mountain of transfiguration---do you recall that place, that “transforming moment”, maybe the best day of your life? We have walked into the valley of temptation. It is clear in the New Testament that Jesus identifies with us, as one who encounters testing, we have a high priest who has been tested, in every respect as we have been, without sin, the writer of Hebrews insists (4.15). And the wonderful spiritual writer Esther de Waal puts the question into focus:

“Those three temptations Jesus faced are equally my own temptations: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Am I able, like Christ, to put them down?”

In the next three messages we will be looking at Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. These are the traditional scriptures for the beginning of Lent, which is a time of spiritual preparation for Easter. Today we look at the first temptation, and we keep before us a parallel question: how is this temptation of Jesus my own temptation as well?

The first temptation: if you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. This is the temptation to be relevant. What is the temptation to be relevant? It is the need, the drive, the desire, the compulsion, the obsession to do what is urgent, what is productive, to make a splash, to be known, to be helpful, to be useful.

Now, in a sense, there is nothing wrong with relevance. A loaf of bread is a wonderful thing to a person who is fasting, or to a starving world. But Jesus’ mission is not to turn stones into bread. He had a clear sense of where he was headed in life, or his Father’s purpose for him. And so he rejected the tempters voice that urged him to turn stones into bread. He said “no” to what someone has called “the tyranny of the urgent”.

Steven Covey, the best-selling author, has written about the urgent and the important. Some things are urgent and important: my car won’t start this morning, that’s urgent and important.

Some things are urgent, but not very important: This sale will last only three more days!” Somehow we know there will be another one.

Some things are neither urgent nor important; they are simply a waste of time. Some mail, some phone calls, some activities, some events.

But some things in life are not urgent, but they are important. What is not urgent, but important?

Reading the Bible is not urgent, but it is important.

Playing with our children is not urgent, but it is important.

Putting flowers on a grave is not urgent, but it is important.

Taking a trip, for fun, is not urgent, but it is important.

Exercising is not urgent, but it is important.

Having a date with your spouse is not urgent, but it is important.

Prayer is not urgent, but it is important.

None of these activities has any urgency about them. They are not relevant. They can be pushed aside when a voice says to us, “you can put this off, you can do something else, something more important, something that needs to be done now”.

Turn these stones into bread, the tempter says to Jesus. Now remember, Jesus is hungry. Temptation always comes to us at our point of weakness. Temptation does not come when we are ready for it. It comes when we are overwhelmed, and at the worst possible time. Turn these stones into bread.

Jesus responds, “You cannot live by bread alone”. There is more to life than bread, more to life than the next meal, more to life than the urgent and the relevant. The scripture from Deuteronomy reads, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” 8.3).

We overcome the temptation to be relevant, to do the urgent, as we listen for the voice of God. Have you ever found yourself watching television, and all of a sudden a commercial comes on and boom, the decibel level goes way up? And sure enough it gets our attention.

How different it is with God, who speaks to us not in the shattering of the rocks, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still, small voice (I Kings 19. 11).

We listen for the voice of God, for the word of God. As I look back over twenty years of doing much the same work every day and every week, being a pastor, a wonderful life, I can identify particular settings in which I have listened for the voice of God, for the word of God. A couple of settings come to mind.

One was an annual pilgrimage that a number of people made to Dayspring, a retreat center at the Church of the Savior, in Germantown, Maryland. We would drive up and take part in a weekend-long silent retreat. Some years I went because I was the leader. Some years I went because I was exhausted.

Whatever my motive, in the silence, in the rest, in that holy place, 200 acres of wooded forest, I heard the voice, not an audible voice, but a voice, and it told me to think not just about the immediate and the urgent but the important and the eternal. I realized that sometimes the voice of God could be drowned out by the noise of the culture and the marketplace. And I realized that my priorities could easily become misplaced.

Another that comes to mind is Haiti. I try to make that journey once a year, usually in January. Two fairly brief airplane flights and there you are, in a sea of beautiful black people, who speak a different language. There you are with people who have a totally different set of problems from the ones I usually encounter. And there, amazingly, you are among a people with a deep sense of joy and gratitude about life, and God speaks through them, and somehow my priorities are rearranged and my mission in life becomes a little clearer.

Now, it seems a little foolish to drive four hundred miles or fly five hours to hear the voice of God, and yet for some reason we need to get away from our routines and habits to get that kind of clarity. The wilderness is that kind of place. Everything is stripped away. It is just you and the Voice.

Amazingly, this is not only our need. This is God’s desire. Recently I was walked through the lobby of a retirement community where one of our members lives. And in this part of the facility there were several people talking, calling out with loud voices. At the same time there were others, with real needs for friendship and someone to listen, who were silent.

God wants our companionship. God wants us to listen, God has a word for us. And we hear God’s voice as we tune out all of the noise of relevance and urgency and listen instead for the gentle whisper. In these 40 days of Lent we tune in to God’s word. In Lent we confess that we have spent a lot of time and effort trying to turn stones into bread. For most of us, there is more stress in our lives than significance, more urgency than importance.

Much of the stress, much of the urgency has to do with the temptation to be relevant.

Maybe it is to want the next big thing, the next new thing, the next fascinating thing. A pet rock, a beanie baby, an X box, Nintendo, a Cabbage Patch doll…

I know, its absurd. And a disclaimer: if you collect any of these things, please forgive me!

Or you are a young person, and what you most want to do is fit in. Or you are in a corporate culture, and what you most want to do is fit in. Teenagers do grow up to become adults.

Or you are a church and you want to be successful. We need to copy what some other church is doing”, someone will tell me.

The grace to overcome this testing has everything to do with who we really are, and what our purpose is on this planet. It is grace because it reminds us that we are worthy even if we are irrelevant---our worth is not attached to a fad or a trend. It is grace because it reminds us that we are children of God. It is not accidental that prior to the temptation of Jesus, in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, we read about his baptism, in Matthew 3 and Luke 3, and there the voice of God had clearly spoken---you are my beloved son, I am pleased with you.

In Lent, we tune out the Voice of the tempter, the insistent voice of relevance, and we tune into the still, small voice of the One who calls us his beloved sons and daughters.

If you want to give up something for Lent, I invite you to give up the need to be relevant. God will equip you to overcome temptation, that God will sustain and strengthen you, to discern the important and put aside the urgent.

A couple of weeks ago, on Tranfiguration Sunday, I asked you to reflect on a question: what was the best day of your life? Here is where we are going: if you can give up the need to be relevant, you are in a position, this morning, this Lent, to reflect on another question: What is the most important thing in the world to you?

You see, relevance is a temptation because it keeps us from asking that question. In a few minutes you are going to be invited to eat the bread and drink the cup, and then, if you wish, to kneel and pray. As you are praying, I want you to think about this question:

What is the most important thing in the world to me?

This was the same question that Jesus asked, in the wilderness, when he was tempted to be relevant.

What is the most important thing in the world to me?

Sources: Esther de Waal, Living The Contradiction; Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus. Steven Covey, First Things First.


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