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Friday, February 19, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: Jesus says NO!

Luke 4:1-13

On the eve of his wedding, a friend of mine was talking to a group of us about the difference marriage was going to make in his life. My friend had made the rounds of the dating world -- he had dated many women. "You know what's wonderful about marriage?" he asked. "It means that I've made a choice -- I don't have to ever wonder about which person is going to love me, which person I'm going to spend the rest of my life with. I've said no to all those other choices, so I can say yes to my wife. It's such a relief!"

Before we can truly say yes to something important, we have to say no to other possibilities. It begins early: do you want chocolate or vanilla; cake or pie; this program or that? As we progress, the choices get more complex: French or Spanish; band or chorus; basketball or gymnastics. Then come choices that mark us forever: which college, which major, which career, which friends, which job, which life partner, which place to live. Every yes, no matter how trivial, requires saying no to something else, at least for that place and time.

Does it feel to you as though we live in a world that doesn't want to make choices? We want good schools, good roads, and safety in our homes, but we also want lower taxes. We want the best health care possible, but don't want to pay much for it. We want to have clean skies, water, and soil, but we also want convenient food, the ability to drive huge cars, and disposable packaging. We want to be slim and trim, but also to spend our days munching nachos in front of a TV. We want our children to raise themselves or be raised by others, but we want them to respect us. We want women to work at lower wages all day, then come home and cook and do laundry and clean the house. We want to be disciples of Jesus, but on our own terms.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says NO to others at least sixteen times: he turns away would-be disciples, refuses to come when asked to heal, refuses to give signs when asked, is unable to do great works because of peoples' unbelief, and even turns away his mother and brothers when they ask to see him. Today's gospel reading is the first and most glaring example of Jesus saying no. But, you say, he is saying no to Satan. That's right -- but you never know when the powers of evil are at work asking us to do their bidding, whether it be a snake in the Garden encouraging consumption of fruit, a boss asking us to work longer hours, or a politician promising the moon with no sacrifice required.

Just before entering the wilderness for prayer, Jesus has been baptized at the Jordan by his cousin, John. Luke says the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon (Jesus) in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."[1]

Assault by Satan follows immediately. The most dangerous moments come when we have been lifted the highest. How many public persons like Tiger Woods have we seen raised up only to fall catastrophically? That's the brilliance of the story in Genesis: everything is perfect for Adam and Eve, and that's when they're most susceptible to disaster.

Jesus fasts in the wilderness for forty days. Luke is graphic in his description of this flesh-and-blood Messiah: he was famished. Satan whispers in Jesus' ear: if you really are the Son of God, as you think, you can do anything. See that rock over there that looks like a loaf of bread? Use your powers: turn it into bread. Take care of yourself. You can do this!

You can take care of yourself. You don't need anyone else. That is one of the biggest, and most evil, lies in the universe. Jesus, you don't need the farmer to grow, cultivate, and harvest the grain. You don't need the miller to grind it into flour, and the baker to mix the dough and bake it. You don't need the trucker to carry it to Ukrops and the stockers to put it on the shelves and the attendants to sell it to you and the little old men to bag it for you. You don't need anyone, Jesus: turn this rock into bread.

It's tempting. Jesus is starving. Why not take a short-cut? What's it going to hurt? But Jesus answers the tempter with Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is talking to the Hebrews about their journey, like Jesus, through the wilderness. He says that God led the Hebrews by the long way, not taking any short-cuts, to humble them. God humbled them with hunger, then fed them with manna, in order to make (them) understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. It is God who makes the sun shine and the rain fall so the wheat can grow. It is God who gives life to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the trucker, and the bagger at Ukrops. It is God who gives you the work for the income to buy bread. It is God who gives you that rumbling stomach. You are in absolutely no way independent: you are dependent upon God, and upon others, for every inch of your life.

Jesus says no to the lie of self-sufficiency, so he can say yes to dependence on God. We have to choose: we cannot be both independent and humble before God. That's precisely what got Adam and Eve in trouble -- the illusion of independence.

Well then, Satan proposes, if not independence, what about power? Let's test your real humility. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to you, if you will just worship and honor me. Here is the one place in the Bible where there is the opportunity to win the entire world to Christ. This is every evangelist's dream.

When I look at some religious leaders with colossal followings, this verse comes to mind. To win the whole world, you have to worship evil. What do you need to show on screen to attract the multitudes? What do you need to sell to bring the hordes? What do you need to promise to get the votes? How do you get yourself on the Forbes list of the rich? All you have to do is sell your soul. I worry that the church, in its paranoia about shrinking membership rolls, will win the world by taking Satan up on his offer. It does work, you know.

Jesus says no to success, so he can say yes to servanthood. Jesus doesn't win the whole world: he dies for it. He rebukes Satan with another Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:13: You shall fear the Lord your God; him you shall serve, and him alone. The ends -- winning the world -- do not justify the means -- serving Satan.

If you're going to quote Scripture, Satan answers, I can do the same. He takes Jesus to the tallest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. I think it's safe to infer this, like the previous temptation, is a vision. To say that it is a vision doesn't mean it's not real -- some visions are far more factual that the reality we believe we inhabit. Well, the tempter says, how about Psalm 91? "Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." Take a flying leap, Jesus, and see if the angels save you.

Salvation. Isn't that what faith is all about? God will save you. Ask God to spare your life, Jesus. Ask God to spare you the consequences of your selfishness. Jump off the temple. Live in disregard of others around you. Ignore the poor and the young and the aged. Squander your resources. Use people and then throw them away. Spend your days chasing pleasure and leisure. And then ask God to save you, lest you stub your toe.

Don't put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah, Jesus answers. Massah was the place in the wilderness where the Hebrews were thirsty, and accused Moses of having brought them out of Egypt just to kill them. We're thirsty. Save us, or we won't believe in you.

Why believe in God? Because it's good for you? Because God will save you if you believe? That's the third temptation. To love God for our sake, rather than for God's sake, is a faith that produces self-affirming actions. When we're called to sacrifice our interests, our time, our money, or maybe even our lives, well, that's not what we signed up for. We love those "no evil shall befall you" scriptures. It's the "deny yourself, take up your cross, and die" scriptures we don't want to hear. This is Quaker Oats faith: "Nothing is better for thee than me." Rebuked, Satan leaves Jesus alone -- until an opportune time, says Luke. When the chips really fall and Jesus' life is literally on the line, we'll see whether Jesus asks to be saved. Remember this text for the next five weeks: look for the next time when Satan enters the gospel story, to test Jesus with rescue. I'll give you a hint: Judas.

At the deepest, darkest levels of faith, said St. John of the Cross, we love God not because it's good for us. In fact, loving God may get us killed. We love God for God, no matter the consequences.

Jesus says no to his own rescue, so he can say yes to giving himself away. He -- and we -- can't have it both ways.

[1] Luke 3:21-22

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