A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
March 9, 2014.
Whew! What an amazing couple of Sundays we’ve had! We dedicated eight babies and children, ordained Joseph Johnson, welcomed the Watsons into membership, had the youth group lead worship, baptized three youth, heard how God is working in Mattie Morris’ life, and celebrated Will Wagoner’s decision to become baptized. Two Sundays of amazing experiences. Since then, several church members have asked me, “How are you going to top that?”
My answer is: “I’ve got nowhere to go but down . . .”
I wonder if Jesus felt the same way. Jesus had this amazing experience being baptized by John in the Jordan River. As he rose out of the water, the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven rang forth, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” However, immediately after Jesus was baptized, our Gospel lesson says, THEN Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.
Mountaintop experiences can’t last forever. Eventually, you have to come down the mountain. Some people seem to imply that once you become a Christian, once you become baptized, then life will be smooth sailing. But it seems like, many times, trials and temptations increase once you’re serious about following God.
That’s what happened to Jesus after his baptism. Scripture says that the devil or the tempter came to Jesus. Before I go on, I want to note that in Jesus’ time, the Greek word for “devil” was synonymous with the Hebrew word “Satan,” which means “adversary,” “false accuser” and “slanderer.” In the Old Testament, Satan is understood as an adversary of God who instigates tests upon human beings, like Job. This understanding of the devil and Satan is very far removed from the later popular idea that the devil is an immortal monster with a tail and a pitchfork.
With that out of the way, Scripture records that the adversary said to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God . . .” In English, the phrase “if you are the Son of God” may suggest that Jesus could or could not be the Son of God. But in the original Greek, this phrase is best translated as “If you are the Son of God, and indeed you are.” The tempter wasn’t stupid! He knew who Jesus was. The accuser was basically saying, “So, you’re the Son of God, eh? Well, show me the kind of Son of God you are! You can start by turning this stone into bread.”
At first glance, this challenge seems innocent enough. After all, Jesus was starving, and bread is a necessity of life. As the Son of God, he could easily use his divine power to get something to eat. Later, Jesus would multiply fish and loaves of bread to feed the masses. But behind the tempter’s challenge hid a deeper question, a question that probed into Jesus’ identity. “Will I be the kind of Messiah who merely feeds people’s insatiable appetites?” Behind the tempter’s challenge also hid a temptation. “Think of all the people who will follow me if all they have to do is consume what I can provide? Think of the crowds I could attract if I turned stones into bread! Wouldn’t that be a way to show people that I am indeed the Son of God?”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus’ reply indicates that His identity will not solely be based on meeting the physical and material needs of people. Instead, His identity will be based on how well He lives on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Meeting the physical needs of his people is a good thing, but that was not Jesus’ foremost mission as the Son of God. Round one goes to Jesus.
So the adversary led Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple and says, “So, you’re the Son of God, eh? You know you are, and I know you are. But what good is it if no one else knows? Show everyone that you’re the Son of God by throwing yourself off the Temple. Thousands of people in the city of Jerusalem will witness the event. They’re all good Jews, they know what the scripture says about how angels will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. When they see their scriptures being fulfilled, there’ll more people lining up to be your disciples than there are to buy tickets for the ACC basketball tournament! Promote yourself! Here’s the jump start you need for your ministry!”
The tempter knew that Jesus could have easily jumped. But behind the tempter’s challenge hid a deeper question, a question that probed into Jesus’ identity. “Will I be the kind of Messiah who merely puts on a good show?” Behind the tempter’s challenge also hid a temptation. “Think of all the people I can attract if I amaze them with spectacles? Wouldn’t that be a way to show people that I am indeed the Son of God?”
Jesus answered, “Scripture says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” If Jesus jumps and God saves him, God is no longer Almighty God, but a mere sidekick, a divine go-fer. If Jesus jumps and God saves him, Jesus will never be able to say, “Not my will but yours be done . . .” Yes, being spectacular will grab attention and garner crowds, but those crowds will not become disciples and they will go elsewhere once the spectacle is over. Round two also goes to Jesus.
So the adversary led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, and said: “Look Jesus, in order to be a Messiah, you’ve got to have political power, ruling authority, and military splendor. See all these kingdoms, and all these rulers, judges, and generals? I can make all these people submit to your authority, vote the way you want, and squash all insurgencies. I can make them work for you, if you’ll work for me.” This time, the tempter dispensed with subtlety. “Be a powerful Messiah, not a Suffering Messiah,” the tempter said. “Isn’t the power of a crown more tempting than the pain of a cross?”
But Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Yes, Jesus was bringing about a Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God will not be like the kingdoms of the world. In the Kingdom of God, the greatest will be least, the rich will be poor, the master will be the servant. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God, but His identity will not be based on the power, authority and splendor of earthly kingdoms. Jesus’ identity will be based on his allegiance and service to God. A clean sweep for Jesus.
The devil struck out that day in the wilderness, but that didn’t mean that Jesus was freed from further temptations. We ourselves know the power of temptations in our lives. Speaking for myself, it is tempting to indulge my appetites, to be defined more by the things I consume than by the Spirit of God who consumes me. It is tempting to seek approval and attention from others, instead of first seeking approval from a God who loves me deeply. It is tempting to seek and worship the power to control people and events, instead of asking God for the power and grace to control my own actions, behaviors and responses. How we respond to these temptations can shape what kind of Christian we are going to be.
It is the same for us as a church. During this season of Lent, we are invited to ask the question, “What kind of church are we going to be?”
What would it mean for the church not to live by bread alone? Of course we need to play attention to the things that are important for our existence – such as attendance, financial giving, and programming. But let’s not live by those things alone – those things should not define us and our mission. Instead of the church catering to meet our own needs, how can we live on every word that comes from the mouth of God, a word that not only offers us abundant life, but also challenges us to share that abundance with those in need, whether spiritual or physical?
Also, how can we as a church rightly celebrate new baptisms, moving testimonies, new members, and yet not fall into the temptation to manufacturing mountaintop experiences every Sunday? Instead of catering to spectacles, how can we be the kind of church that trusts God to move among us both in public ways and in private and intimate ways?
Finally, what would it mean for the church to worship the Lord our God, and serve God only?
Will we be the kind of church that wields our influence not by the power of a crown, but by the power of the cross? Instead of catering to power and to the powerful, how might our worship of God speak truth against the power of our own sin, against the injustices of worldly power, and speak on behalf of the voiceless in our society?
Just as Jesus was challenged to answer the question, “What kind of a Messiah am I going to be?”, during this season of Lent, these forty days of reflection and preparation for Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we are invited to ask ourselves, “What kind of church are we going to be?” May God give us wisdom to struggle with this question, and the courage to live into its answer. Amen.