14 February 2016

Ultimate Values

Duccio (d. 1319), Temptation of Christ on the Mountain
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

First Sunday in Lent
14th February 2016

So, here we are in Lent.  It’s the time of year when many Christians become obsessed with temptation.  Some choose to give up something for Lent, something that will be challenging to give up, something that one might be otherwise tempted to take back up during these forty days.  Some, however, don’t need Lent to remind them of their daily struggle with temptation.  It’s a constant part of their lives.  Some of us are more successful than others in our struggle with temptation. 

The playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) famously said, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”  While this is not the generally accepted Christian response to temptation, I suspect there’s some element of truth here.  I’m not suggesting that we yield to temptation, but that we face it in order to see what it’s trying to say to us.

We need to be careful here.  I’m not suggesting, in any way, that we diminish the force behind the things that tempt us—and we all know what they are.  But I wonder: can we look at what tempts us as something that has the capacity to deepen our understanding of who we are and what God wants for our lives?  Instead of seeing our struggle with temptation as a reminder of our powerlessness before these forces, that is, just another moment to judge ourselves ruthlessly and condemn ourselves for being tempted, for giving into temptation, perhaps there’s a different way.

The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary, the ones who came up with the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, obviously feel that focusing on temptation is a good place to begin the journey of Lent.  And so we have Luke’s version of Jesus in the wilderness.  When we read the accounts of Jesus in the wilderness being successful against the tempter’s power it’s easy to get the impression that we ought to behave like Jesus.  Because so many Christians have reduced the Christian life to simple moralisms, simplistic ethics—be nice, be good, obey, behave, forgive, love, etc.—we read a text like this and draw the conclusion that we are supposed to be exactly like Jesus, who was good and perfect, and therefore, like Jesus, we’re not supposed to give into temptation.  What happens is that in time we are tempted, and we realize that we fall short of the ideal, we realize just how depraved we really are and weak, and then we start to judge ourselves mercilessly because we can’t meet this standard—this impossibly high standard of Jesus.  Are we set up to fail?

It’s absolutely essential that we read this text carefully.  It’s critical for us to know, as Luke says, that, “Jesus, was full of the Holy Spirit.”  This story comes after his baptism in the River Jordan.  And it reads, after Jesus returned from the Jordan he “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). 

There are two things worth noticing here.  First, Jesus wasn’t tempted by the devil because he was weak.  Sometimes we think the devil tempts us when we’re weak, tries to find our weak spots, etc.  Jesus’ temptation occurred while he was full of the Spirit.  Second, the Spirit very intentionally led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted.  The Spirit threw him into temptation. It was the Spirit’s gracious intent to lead him into this wild and desolate place.  Struggling with temptation is not always a sign that God has abandoned us.

So, what if this story is not really about temptation, per se.  What if seeing it only about temptation says more about us than about what’s going on in the text.  For a long time I saw this story as primarily about the evils of temptation.  To be sure: temptation is real.  Temptation can be evil, even deadly.  But I’m struck by something else these days.  And the fact that the compilers of the lectionary link the Luke text with a reading from Deuteronomy 26—of God’s command for Israel to make an offering, it’s first fruits to God—points us toward a different reading of Luke. At first glance these two stories don’t appear to have anything in common, but they do.

Both texts concern the heart. 

Jesus’ wilderness experience follows his baptism, when he hears the voice say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  Then after the wilderness experience Jesus begins his ministry in Nazareth.  The season of temptation, allowed by the Spirit, is a kind of spiritual boot camp, a time of training, a time of discipline, of preparation and clarification for his calling. We see Jesus at his most human here, struggling with himself, struggling, like you and me, with the competing values of this broken, fallen world at odds with the values of God’s Kingdom and God’s plans for our lives.  You see, this text is really about vocation, calling; that is, it’s about the purpose of your life.  And our vocation—for each of us as child of God—is directly connected to how we view ourselves and the strength of our relationship with God. 

Each “Satanic suggestion,” is an adversarial conjecture, “If you are…” designed to test Jesus.[1]  What we have here in Luke is Jesus giving all the correct answers, of course.  But I wonder, did Jesus know the correct answers on day one in the wilderness?  Or did it take him all forty days to get to the answers right?  Were there other moments when he answered incorrectly?  Or maybe he got the answers right, but he wasn’t convinced of them—in his heart.  Just like it’s easy to say, “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is the Son of God,” with our heads.  It’s another thing entirely to know this from the heart.  Jesus had to be convinced in his heart.  Just consider what was required of him, the kind of physical, psychological, spiritual training required of him to fulfill his work.  His heart had to be in it.

The three temptations can be broken down very simply.  They have to do with mammon, glory, and power.  

By mammon I mean the temptation to put too much stock in “bread alone" (Luke 4:4), in material things—particularly money—to give us life.  The things you can buy.  We don’t live by money—even though we think we do in our age—which is one of the leading blasphemies or heresies of our age.  

There’s the temptation of glory.  We might think, "Well, that’s not my temptation; I don’t want glory, or even fame."  Glory has to do with worship and worth.  Do you follow after praise?  Do you seek out the glory and praise of others?  Do you like to be worshipped?  Do you seem to attract praise and attention or deflect it?  Where do you get your worth?  The devil wants all the glory, wants to be at the center of things.  But Jesus turns the focus away toward the worship of God and the service of God.  Every other expression of worship is idolatry—including the worship of ourselves as God or the worship other people in our lives, treating them as though they were God. 

There’s the temptation to power.  There are good forms of power, but as we know power, when separated from love, is often destructive.  Such as when we ask God to use God’s “power” to make up for our carelessness or foolishness—which is what Jesus would have done, had he jumped off the pinnacle of the temple.  Power is seductive.  We like to have power.  We like to use power.  It’s easy to become seduced by power and so-called powerful people, the “rich and powerful.”  Power, too, becomes an idol.  Albus Dumbledore confessed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “Power was my weakness and my temptation.”[2]  Often the weakest are tempted most by the allure of power. 

By the end of the wilderness ordeal the Spirit wants Jesus to be clear about where his heart is.  Where’s your heart Jesus?  Or will mammon or glory or power keep you from your purpose in life, Jesus?  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34).  These are familiar words of Jesus.  We know them well.  I wonder, though, did they just come down to him from on high one day?  Or was this part of the wisdom he gained from sweating blood and tears in the wilderness of Judea? 

Where is your treasure?  What or whom do you value the most?  Where is the devotion of your heart?

This brings us to the Deuteronomy text.  Here we have Israel, on the other side of the Red Sea, on the other side of slavery, on the other side of death, in the land of milk and honey, the land of resurrection.  And what is a faithful response to liberation and resurrection?  An offering!  “You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket” and go to the dwelling place of God.  Take your offering to the priest and he will place it on the altar of the Lord.  Place your offering there, at the altar.  When you place it there you shall tell the story, you shall remember and say, say it loud for all to hear.  
Tell how God has saved you from slavery and death, 
tell how God has redeemed you and saved you, 
tell how God looked out for you 
   every step along your way through the wilderness, 
tell how God has been faithful to you, 
tell how God never, ever gave up on you
      —even though you were often a pain in the neck—
tell how God has provided for you.  

“You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens [read, immigrants] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD has given to you and to your house” (Deut. 26:10b-11).

This entire scene says something about the heart of God and the heart of God’s people when their hearts are aligned with God’s vision for their lives.  And in the wilderness of Judaea we see the heart of Jesus aligned beautifully with the heart of God.  From here Jesus goes to proclaim God’s Kingdom, to take on the Empire and systems of injustice (Luke 4:16-21).

What was true for Jesus is true for you and me.  The Spirit wants us to be clear.  Where’s your heart?  Or is your love for mammon or glory or power greater than your love for God?  Are these things keeping you from your purpose in life, obstructing your call?  Of the three it’s probably mammon that has the most power in our lives, giving some glory and worth and security.  As Michael Slaughter writes in his new book The Christian Wallet, “There is no clearer indicator of our ultimate values than our financial priorities and practices—how we spend, how we live, how we save, and how we give reveal the true altar of our hearts.”[3]

Or, will mammon or glory or power keep you from your purpose in life?  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  It’s really about love.

In her book Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson writes, “Love is not something you can negotiate. Love is the one thing stronger than desire and the only proper reason to resist temptation.[4]

On this day, when love is air this Valentine’s Day, it’s love—true love—which allows us to resist the tempter, the tempter who tests the measure and strength of our love, the level of our commitment:  our love for God, love for God’s call in our lives, love for all God’s people.  It’s love—and only that love—that sends us, like Jesus, into the world to serve!

[1] “Satanic suggestion” is Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) designation for each challenge posed to Jesus.  See “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” Church Dogmatics IV.2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2010), 260ff.
[2] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009), 718.
[3] Michael Slaughter, The Christian Wallet: Spending, Giving, and Living with a Conscience (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 1.
[4] Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body (Vintage, 1994), 70.

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