lessons from temptation

This message shared with the South Moreton Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, Feb 2013. Relevant scripture reading is Luke 4:1-13.

I’ve just recently returned to Queensland having spent a wonderful five years living in Tasmania.  I have to say that as a place it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s of course beautiful, but also a great place to live, and our season there was a fantastic time for our family. We were there at the invitation of the Presbytery of Tasmania to help the presbytery resource its congregations and communities around mission development.  The church in Tasmania is poised in a delicate place, but the work and opportunities to share with congregations around the state encouraging imagination and creative missional engagement was very rewarding. The future there, I think, is hopeful. Some other time I’d be happy to share some of the stories of Tassie with you.

I’m sure that it’s not only in Tasmania that there has been a heavy emphasis on the question of mission in recent times.  I suspect it’s the same here, and the appointment of a project officer for mission for the Presbytery will no doubt help in your continued explorations.

The key questions we grappled with in Tasmania really emerged from the two-pronged enquiry: what is the missio dei, the mission of God? And how do we participate in it?

What does it mean to shape a congregation, faith community or agency by our understanding and answers to these kinds of question?  How can we be missional?  What is God up to in my neighbourhood and how do I be part of it?  In my view we are right to place such emphasis on these questions of mission, and particularly in the approach to mission that observes that it’s the mission of God that has a church, not the other way around.

As we gather today at the beginning of Lent, and as questions of mission continue to be front and centre for us, I’m interested in what this scripture reading from Luke 4 has to say to us about mission.  It’s a traditional reading for the beginning of Lent, and of course there are lots of ways to meet this passage.

As Jesus is tested, tempted, right at the very beginning of his ministry, of his earthly participation in God’s mission, I can’t help wondering what we can learn from this astonishing encounter about our own ministry.

Firstly, I think it’s important to note the setting that Luke records for this encounter.

Jesus returns from the Jordan, the place of his baptism and the point at which God declares “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” There is no question that it’s a powerful encounter for Jesus, and Luke reports that he returns full of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that then leads Jesus into the wilderness for this time of preparation and of tempting and testing.  There are some clear links between this forty day wilderness experience, and the 40-year wilderness wandering of the Israelites, and it would be interesting to compare the ways in which Jesus responses are different than the responses of the Israelites when encountering similar kinds of challenges. Maybe that’s a theme for another day.

After 40 days in the wilderness Jesus is just a little worn out. Don’t you love Luke’s gentle understatement? “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” I’ll tell you what I think.  I kind of reckon that description barely scratches the surface. After just a 40-hour famine I would gladly eat my own shoe, and yet Jesus has been out there 40 days? I think he’s more than hungry.

I think maybe Jesus is at the point of exhaustion, of physical weakness, of starvation.  At this point of supreme human frailty comes this encounter. Luke’s story tells us that the devil approaches Jesus in three different ways.

First there is an appeal to Jesus’ most basic human need – hunger.  Feed yourself the devil says and with a subtle challenge to identity, adds the phrase “if you are the Son of God.”

And then an appeal to a desire for power:  “I will give you all of this,” the devil says, “all glory and authority. All of this can be yours.”

And thirdly the devil offers the opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate his identity and to command attention through the performance of miracles. “Throw yourself down, the angels will protect you” is the offer, “and everyone will know who you are”.

I think these three approaches are very interesting for a number of reasons. In particular, I think they’re so very clever, so potentially on the mark for Jesus because they’re so closely related to the very mission of God in which Jesus comes to participate.

Roch Kareszty thinks that Jesus is promised in these three temptations something very close to what he truly wished for the people of Israel with all his heart.

He is offered the means to feed the hungry.

He is offered the means to bring liberation from Roman oppression, to usher in an earthly Kingdom of God, to bring about God’s rule and reign over the whole world through his own authority.

He is offered the capacity to bring irrefutable heavenly signs to convince the people of the truth of his message, and of the truth of his identity!

Not only are these temptations delivered at a point of human frailty, but they’re multiplied by the immediacy of connection to the mission of God upon which Jesus was embarked! One might argue that they are so close, so almost right, that the temptation must have been powerful indeed.

It is Jesus’ responses in the moment, and then his declarations in the temple shortly afterward that can teach us, I think some important lessons about our participation in God’s mission.

First, though the temptations are close, Jesus knows they’re not right. The short-cuts offered by the devil are not a genuine substitute for bringing about change, for proclaiming the gospel and engaging the community to deliver the kinds of missional outcomes Jesus was on about.  And of course Jesus knows that whatever outcomes might have emerged from doing a deal with the devil would have been highly conditional….and not ultimately the outcomes he longed for.

Jesus knew what he was there for. He knew what he was on about. He knew his purpose, and he knew it well enough to be able to spot a fake or a distraction….even a good one.

And there’s our first lesson. As a congregation, or a faith community, as a family or as an individual disciple, I think we need to be clear in our understanding of God’s mission and our part in it.  We need to spend the time preparing so that we can spot a fakes or distractions of our own – even an apparently good ones – that offer an incomplete short-cut.

Secondly, and I pointed it out earlier, Luke makes it known right from the get-go that Jesus arrives at this point “full of the Holy Spirit”.  Jesus (even Jesus!) doesn’t charge off under his own steam, but is empowered and sustained by the spirit of God. We find time and time again in the Jesus’ story that he takes the time to ensure a right relationship with God, withdrawing for times of prayer and contemplation, reflection and planning.  Jesus knows that participating in God’s mission involves preparing one’s heart and mind, and seeking to follow the Spirit of God.  I’d suggest that’s precisely what enables him in this instance to stay focused even at the point of frailty.  These are practices of discipleship that enable mission.  Discipleship and mission, I think, are two sides of the same coin – again perhaps a theme for another day.

Thirdly, I think we can conclude from this story that our understanding and approach to mission and critically our understanding of our identity is to be biblically informed.  At every moment the devil offers an enticement, inducement or possibility, even when they’re close to the real-deal, Jesus replies from a biblically informed stand-point.  The replies demonstrate Jesus’ understanding of his relationship with God and thereby his own identity and purpose or calling.  Again, I’m not suggesting we need to carry around a ready-made grab-bag of biblical quotes to throw at our opposition. It isn’t just quoting of scripture that lends Jesus responses their power, but what it reveals about how he understands God, how he understands his own identity and calling, and how he understands his relationship with God. These aren’t empty quotes, but powerful statements of God’s mission and Jesus’ place in it.

It’s no coincidence that immediately following on from these potentially harrowing encounters, Luke records that Jesus returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and heads to the synagogue at Nazareth. For all the physical, emotional and spiritual trauma of the wilderness experience, I wonder if Jesus is filled to overflowing with the Spirit of God precisely because he has stood tall, has been clear in his understanding of identity, calling and ministry, and has pursued God first and above all.

So Jesus goes to the Synagogue, recorded in Luke 4:14-19 and following, and in his declarations there we see the mission of God for real, in ways that the trickery and fakery being offered by the devil in the earlier story can never match.

And it’s right here in this following passage, I suggest, that we find one of the key places we ought to camp out as we seek a clear understanding of God’s mission and our part in it, as we seek to be led by the spirit of God, and as we allow a biblically informed perspective on God’s mission to form and reform within us.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

As Jesus wandered in the wilderness, fasting, preparing and meeting with ultimate test and temptation, this is what emerges: clarity of purpose; a clear sense of identity; and an understanding of his part in God’s mission that has been refined in the fire.

This testing, this temptation, it’s to be celebrated for what Jesus learned through it. And for what it can teach us about our participation in God’s mission.

Be clear in knowing our purpose.

Seek and then follow the Spirit of God.

Allow our understanding to be informed and reformed biblically.

Amen

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