January 17, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The theologian Karl Barth once said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both,” as a reminder to preachers that sermons must be relevant to current events and that current events should always be seen through the lens of the Bible. Well, this year, I have been taking Barth literally. During the week as I am preparing my sermon, I have a Bible open on one side of my computer screen and on the other side of my screen I have the NY Times website because these days, the news is changing so fast that I’m afraid if I don’t pay constant attention, my sermon might be strangely inappropriate to what is happening in our collective lives. Just last week, for example, the scripture lesson was Jesus’ baptism by John, and so I spent Tuesday researching and outlining a remarkably eloquent treatise on the meaning of Christian baptism. It was to include soaring poetry, humorous asides, stellar biblical exegesis, and an emotionally moving conclusion that would have people flocking to the River Jordan in repentant tears.
OK, maybe not, but I did spend that Tuesday working on a sermon about the ritual of baptism all of which became suddenly irrelevant on Wednesday, the 6th, when far right extremists attacked the Capitol. I knew that none of us wanted to debate infant versus adult baptism while our nation was breaking apart and so I quickly changed my sermon plans. And that isn’t the first time I’ve jettisoned my planned theme to address “breaking news” whether it be concerning Black Lives Matter protests or the pandemic or the longest election in history. For the past year, we have been walking on the deck of a ship in a rough sea, and like the disciples caught in the storm, we cry out to God, “Lord, don’t you care if we drown?”
That’s all a preface to note that this week I was pleased to see I didn’t need to change directions because the scripture passage for today describes pretty accurately the challenge of our times.
Most of us are familiar with the story I read — the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness — but we generally read this story as a general warning against general temptations. We think of temptations, for example, as the temptation to eat the bag of chocolate cookies in out cupboard. “Temptations” in our mind are the sort of the things that we add to our list of New Year’s resolutions: “This year I will resist the temptation to sit around all day playing computer games or this year I will not indulge my appetite for empty carbohydrates.” When the journal Discipleship asked its readers to list areas of greatest spiritual temptation, the top four responses were, “Materialism, pride, self-centeredness, and laziness,” and so when we pray, “Lord, lead us not into temptation,” these are the sorts of behaviors that we generally have in mind. We ask God for the strength to resist personal behaviors that we know are not good for our well-being.
But is this generalization of the idea of temptation that makes it hard for us to understand Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. There is nothing in the gospel that indicates Jesus was constantly watching his waistline so what temptations could Jesus have faced in the wilderness during those forty days, and why did I say a moment ago that his encounter with temptation is particularly appropriate to our times?
To answer that question, let’s look more closely at this passage.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness,” Matthew says, “to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Temptation #1: “Change these stones into bread.” Ah yes, here is something that we can relate to: you know those days when you’ve been working all day and you’re exhausted but you still have to get dinner on the table to feed the hungry mob? Have you ever been tempted to just grab a few stones out of the yard and change them into bread and tater tots? Of course not, because none of us have the ability to do that. You might wish you could do that but we can’t claim to be tempted to do something that is beyond our ability and so this is our first clue to the fact that this passage is not about general temptations but is about a very specific form of temptation. Jesus had just come fresh off his baptism where God had declared him to be God’s beloved son and the devil was testing Jesus to see what Jesus would do with that power.
“You are the Son of God,” the devil said to Jesus. “You are a man of power so take advantage of that power and turn these stones into bread.” The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to become independent of his need for the community. If a person can change stones into bread, he certainly doesn’t need farmers, or bakers, or store-owners, or any of the normal social structures that we weak and helpless people depend on for our well-being. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power and status to prove that he had no need of others, no need for the social structures of human community.
Temptation #2: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and command the angels to protect you.”
Once again, this is not a general temptation that we would add to our New Year’s resolutions: “This year I resolve to stop throwing myself off cliffs.” No, this is a specific temptation designed to test Jesus’ use of the power he has been given as the Son of God. A man who can command angels to protect him, the devil says, is invulnerable to harm and consequently such a man doesn’t need to worry about who he angers or what others think of him; he doesn’t need to consider the consequences of his actions. He can fly through life doing whatever he wants in the world knowing that he himself will remain unscathed. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power and status as the Son of God to work his will upon the world invulnerable to the consequences.
And finally, temptation #3: “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
In the wilderness, the devil offers Jesus the chance to use his power to advance his own self-interests, to elevate himself above others, to rule as a monarch and exercise his might through an allegiance to the powers of hatred and evil. God had anointed Jesus as his chosen Messiah to bring the world into alignment with God’s vision and the devil tempted Jesus to fulfill that task not through the cross but through the sword.
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness isn’t a story about resisting chocolate chip cookies; it is a message about power and the temptations we face in using our power. It asks us to consider whether we are using the power we have been given for good or for ill, to advance the interests of others or to advance only our own interests, to create or to destroy.
Now maybe you are tempted to say, “That’s all well and good, Laurie. I can think of other people who should be listening to this but I don’t see how it applies to me. I don’t have any power.”
And I will say to you in response, “Maybe you don’t have the power of a god, or a King or Queen, or a president, or a CEO, but you still have power. Every one of us has power. Every word you say to another person is a word of power that can either bring them into a place of greater kindness or leave them more isolated and alone. Every time you post something to Facebook, you have the power to shape other people’s thoughts, to bring light into their social media thread or darkness. Every time you pull out your wallet, you have the power to help the hurting of the world or to feather your own nest.” Because we are human beings living in community with one another, every word we speak, every choice we make potentially has the power to build up or to tear down those with whom we live. Christ resisted the temptation to use his power to advance the cause of hate and division and instead turned his power toward the work of good and he made that choice because he knew that the devil’s promises were empty ones; that power used for hate and self-interest will not only destroy the community but will also ultimately destroy the one who wields it. The only way to save your hurting soul is to use your power for love.
Some years ago, Frans de Waal, a researcher who has studied behavior in the great apes, observed a fight between members of a chimpanzee troupe he was observing. Chimpanzees, like their human cousins, are highly communal and depend on one another for their well-being, but, also just like us, they can argue and hurt one another in their struggle for dominance. One day, de Waal writes, a small scuffle broke out between a few of the female chimps and escalated to include several adult males. The fight quickly became violent, noisy, and serious, and as de Waal watched the males tearing after each other screaming in fury, he was certain that blood would soon follow. The commotion finally reached a standoff: the exhausted males stood panting heavily and growling at one another while the females eyed each other warily. The air was thick with tension. And then onto the scene came Peony, an older female chimp who had been watching the fight from the sidelines. Peony was the dominant female of the troupe and as she walked toward the angry chimps, their eyes turned from each other to fasten on her approach. Several backed away a bit and sounded soft warning grunts, as if to whisper, “Uh, oh, now we’re in trouble.” Peony strode calmly into the center of the angry circle, turned to one of the males who had been fighting, and then surprisingly, began to groom him. After a minute, the other chimps followed her example turning to groom those beside them until the entire community, including all of the angry males, was sitting quietly stroking one another. Peace was restored to the troupe. 1
After concluding his story, de Waals adds, “Christianity urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to clothe the naked, feed the poor, and tend the sick. It is good to realize … that in stressing kindness, religions are enforcing what is already part of our [inherited nature]. They are not turning human behavior around, only underlining pre-existing capacities.”
In these days of division and violence, when evil seems to have the upper hand, we must trust that God has placed within us all of us the capacity for kindness and peace. That capacity can be forgotten as the voices of hatred rise around us but Christ calls to follow him in resisting the temptation to believe that the powers of self-interest and destruction have won the day. Instead, Jesus calls us to turn aside from evil and find within our hearts the power to love: to use our words to build up, to use our hands to create and restore, to use our social media feeds to restore hope, to use our wallets to support community, to use our voices to speak peace. Your power may not be the power of monarchs and popes but when each of us exercises the small power we have in the ways of kindness and goodness, we will all together be healed.
- Frans de Waal, Our Inner Ape , (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), pp. 211-212.