Similar to your favorite television drama, this sermon comes to you with a recap, a quick refresher on last week’s spectacle. Last week, in the Gospel of Matthew, John the surprise son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was baptizing people in the Jordan River.
I can’t do movies here, of course, so you’ll have to imagine the montage that begins with the angel speaking with Zechariah in the temple, shows a joyous shot of Elizabeth knowing that she’s pregnant, then the birth. The child grows and takes his place as a desert monk clad in camel hair. The camera lingers on John waist deep in the Jordan, ringed by crowds of devotees.
The voiceover returns: John was also predicting the advent of a man of power and strength, a man whose sandals he would be unfit to untie. The crowd by the river is puzzled, but the camera pans out and we see Jesus walking down to the riverbank. Jesus enters the water, asking John to baptize him. John is aghast. They have a short exchange, John agrees to it, and into the water Jesus goes.
At that moment heaven was opened, and [Jesus] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”
The heavens are open, God is speaking, and that was last week’s cliffhanger: what now? Jesus has been claimed by a heavenly voice and an otherworldly dove. Well, who is going to bring him the crown and the scepter and the ermine robe? Who will be the first to bow? Is Jesus going to reign from Rome, or from Jerusalem, or shake up the system a bit by building a castle in Nazareth?
None of the above. At the start of this week’s story, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
I think it’s worth wondering what it means to be chosen by God, if it leads straight into the desert like this.
So. Jesus has just been publicly identified as the Son of God. That’s a political title, as I’ve mentioned before. The title of Son of God is reserved for Caesar. It’s the title of a King.
John Howard Yoder notes that each of the temptations to follow explore a different, and demonic, way that Jesus could show kingship. Here I don’t mean demonic as referring to little red beasts with tails and horns. The matter is much more serious than that. Each of these is an invitation to an abuse of power.
First, the tempter came to [Jesus] and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus is hungry, remember. Jesus hasn’t eaten in forty days. Jesus would like some bread. In one sense, we can read this as a fairly flat story: starving person wants food.
But are you familiar with the phrase bread and circuses? It comes from this era, when the residents of Rome were kept from rioting by a steady stream of free bread and free entertainment. The circuses distracted the people from the machinations of the empire, and the bread ensured that they were willing to be distracted.
Starving people are difficult to distract, and thus food is a powerful motivational tool. A person who can provide bread for hungry people is a person who could lead an unscrupulous revolution. Jesus isn’t the only hungry person after all, in Galilee. Food insecurity, then as now, is a way of life in places that don’t have the power of Rome.
So yes, Jesus could make bread to feed himself. More broadly, though, there’s an economic route to power implicit here. Jesus could make bread for the masses, and thus become king.
But the bread provided by an unscrupulous leader is not manna in the desert. This is not the way that the true Son of God will give.
Jesus rejects the version of the Messiah story in which he bribes people into the kingdom. He rejects it in words, here in the desert: man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Jesus rejects this with his life, too. He makes bread for people in the wilderness, later on, but does not use this to seize political power. When he rides into Jerusalem as a king, in the story we tell on Palm Sunday, it’s not with an eye toward economic control. Jesus doesn’t promise to make anyone rich. Unlike Caesar, the true Son of God isn’t willing to buy the people’s love.
The tempter tries again: then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” [the tempter] said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“[God] will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
The devil is citing Scripture! Prooftexting is a widespread talent. But look at the offer here! The tempter is not asking Jesus to be a stunt man, simply throwing himself off a building and not getting hurt.
No. The tempter is offering Jesus an obvious route to spiritual dominance. So you’re the Son of God, eh? Prove it. Go to the place of worship, and demonstrate that God will do supernatural things on your behalf. What better way to be accepted as a messenger from heaven, than to go to the seat of religious power and prove oneself more powerful?
Messiahs, you know, were a dime a dozen in Roman-era Israel. How better to differentiate yourself in a crowded market, than to call down legions of angels to act as your defenders? None of the fake Messiahs are doing that, no matter how much salvation they’re promising.
But Jesus rejects the version of the Messiah story in which he uses the power of the Almighty to force people to worship. That’s not how salvation will be coming. Jesus answers scripture with scripture: do not put the Lord your God to the test.
This temptation, too, Jesus answers also with his life. Skip ahead twenty chapters or so, and Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane. His disciples are there, and then also a large crowd with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Seeing that the circumstances are dire, Peter draws his sword and slices off the ear of a soldier. Peter is ready to fight.
Jesus says, though, put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?
Jesus is not interested in using his spiritual authority to deal in pain and fear. So before they arrest him, Jesus heals the soldier’s ear. Because yes, a new kingdom has arrived, but it’s a religious revolution precisely because it recognizes that spiritual authority is not a sword to be drawn, but rather a hand of healing to be extended.
The tempter tries again: the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” [the tempter] said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
This temptation is about idolatry. All this I will give you, if you will sell your soul. All this I will give you, if you will only say that it’s mine to give, if only you will acknowledge my claim that the world is already hell’s possession.
It’s not, though. The tempter has no such right. But where the temptation of bread-making is economic at the core, and the temptation of the safe jump is religious, this temptation – the temptation to bow before the world in order to gain the world – is explicitly political. All the nations could be yours. All the power could be yours.
Jesus rejects this temptation, too, in word: it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only. No lesser version of the Son of God is permitted. No corners can be cut.
Again, though, Jesus rejects this temptation not only in word, but also in deed. Jesus follows the directives of the Spirit, wholly. He follows even when it leads to the cross, even when it leads to one of the most power-less deaths imaginable.
Of course, we know that the cross then leads to the resurrection- that Jesus’ choice to serve only God, even to death, is met by the power-full reversal of death and life. We know that Jesus is vindicated. But it’s Jesus’ unwillingness to practice anything less than full worship that leads him to the cross in the first place.
The political implications are, I think, fairly obvious. Jesus, as the true Son of God, as the true king, rejects economic pandering, spiritual bullying, and placing anything but God’s priorities on the kingdom’s agenda. Go forth and administer your nation likewise.
Most of us, though, are not faced with the choices of a Barack Obama or a Benjamin Netanyahu or a Vladimir Putin. We vote, but we aren’t steering a national ship through matters of international intrigue. None of us, to the best of my knowledge, have been offered all the kingdoms on the earth in exchange for our worship.
But on the other hand, none of us get through a single day without dealing in power dynamics. What about our own kingdoms? We are our own worst tyrants. Sometimes we have the upper hand, in a relationship, while other times we are on the losing end.
As uncomfortable as it can be to talk politics in church, I think it’s more uncomfortable when we talk about power dynamics within our own lives.
Because how easy is it for us, to offer I’ll give you what you want (or what you need), as long as you do what I say. Maybe you’ve gotten one of those gifts, the ones where the tag might as well say
From: Your Friend
And: This Is How You Will Repay Me.
How easy is it for us, to give manipulatively?
But Jesus calls us, instead, to give sacrificially. We’re called to give without expecting anything in return. Because giving a gift with strings attached is really just bartering. It’s a way of piling debt on the other person, of making them owe you one.
Jesus didn’t preach the barter system. Jesus cleaned the moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus preached Jubilee, letting the debtors go free.
And how easy is it, to trust in an overwhelming display of power. Humans (and let’s admit, this is particularly true of church-y humans) are very good at out God-ing each other. We’ll do nearly anything to avoid giving up the high ground, in an argument, because it’s from the high ground that you can convince your opponent that the armies of God might arrive to fight your battle.
Jesus didn’t preach power. He preached love for the powerless. If we wish to be residents of the kingdom of the true Son of God, then we have to be less focused on clenching our own power, and more focused on extending the hand of fellowship.
And it’s so easy to sell out. This is as true for us as it would be for any president- there’s an illusion, Friends, a false prophecy that we can have whatever we desire, if only we are willing to sell our souls.
We’ll fall for it, hook line and sinker, this idea that compromising our integrity is somehow the realistic thing to do. This is the bargain that Faustus makes with Mephostophilis, right? The powers of hell will be at his command, if only he will never look to heaven.
In case you are not up on your Christopher Marlowe, I’ll just note that this bargain does not end well for Faustus. Make a friend of the tempter if you wish, but you’ll find him no ally in the end. Faustus has power for a moment, but in the end what we worship is what consumes us.
Enough about hell, though, even in fictional works. I think, in this sermon, I’ve used the words hell, devil, and tempter more than in all my other sermons combined.
We are called to more than this. We called to life in a new kingdom, one where the currency is not power, but love. We are called out of a system that rewards domination, and into vulnerability instead. We are called to imitate Christ’s humility, believing that as Christ was resurrected, so to shall we be raised.