Testing the Messiah

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday in Lent + February 14, 2016

Readings: Deut. 26:1-11; Rom. 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13


 

Many of you know by now that I have a German Shepherd Dog named Hugo, who is not quite two years old. And that dog, at that age, needs a lot of exercise. One trick I’ve found that helps me to both wear down some of Hugo’s energy and get some work done is to listen to podcasts that help interpret the Bible readings for the week.  A side effect of this is that my neighbors probably think I’m crazy. I’ll be throwing a Frisbee with my dog, then suddenly stop, and my jaw will drop open, and then I run into the house to take notes on some exciting insight that just came through my earbuds. That happened twice with the commentary on this week’s gospel reading.

The first exciting insight was this. In this passage, the devil tests Jesus by suggesting three different things: (1) turn stone into bread; (2) worship the devil in exchange for worldwide political power; (3) throw himself off the top of the temple to prove that God will save him. Jesus refuses all three suggestions, proving his obedience to God. But — so the cool insight goes — what if the devil was testing Jesus about something even more specific than his obedience to God? What if the devil was testing Jesus’s obedience to his calling? Testing Jesus’s understanding of what it means to be the messiah?[1]

That idea fits pretty well with what’s going on in the story. Something really monumental happens right before the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tested for 40 days. Right before all that happens, Jesus is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). This is the moment when Jesus is publicly anointed as the messiah, the moment when his mission officially begins. But first: he is tested in the wilderness. He is already anointed, he is already chosen. But does he know what that means?

The devil begins two of the temptations with the same words: “If you are the Son of God…” And we can hear all that he is implying: If you are God’s chosen one, if you are God-made-flesh, if you are the one they’ve all been waiting for, if you are the messiah…let’s see it. Let’s see your miracles. Let’s see how much God loves you. Let’s see your power and blessedness.

 But Jesus resists the temptation to think that being the Son of God means getting power and honor and angelic bodyguards. Instead he tells the devil what it truly means to be chosen by God: to live on God’s word, to worship and serve God, to trust God and obey God’s will. None of those things are motivated by guarantees of blessings; they are simply the faithful way to be. The life of the messiah is not marked by glory but by faithfulness.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness and returns to society, we see that he does indeed live his life by these marks of faithfulness. He sides with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sinner. He stands against the powerful, the wealthy, and the religious people who are abusing their gifts and abusing their fellow humans. Eventually, he is put in handcuffs. He is brought to trial. He is executed. That is what happened to the most faithful man that has ever lived. This is what happened to the Son of God.

The second exciting insight has to do with us. Can we be faithful to this understanding of what it means to be the messiah? Can we follow in the way of the messiah?

Often we are not. Often we fall into thinking that following the Son of God ought to guarantee us a good life…or at least less suffering and more blessings. We end up expecting God to give us the good stuff.

The biblical scholar talking to me through my earbuds this week put it this way: when we read stories of Jesus talking to the Pharisees, we usually imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisees. When we read stories of Jesus talking to the disciples, we imagine ourselves in the place of the disciples. So what if, when we read this story of Jesus talking to the devil, we imagine ourselves in the place of the devil?

The result sounds pretty familiar: If you are the Son of God, fix my problems. If you are the Son of God, lead me into wealth. If you are the Son of God, protect me. Turn this rock into bread.

 It’s a mistake we Christians often make, and it’s a common criticism from people outside the faith. “If your God really loves you, why do bad things happen to you?”[2]

But living a successful, comfortable life has never been a guarantee of faith. Yes, Jesus heals people. Yes, Jesus multiplies the fishes and loaves. All these things are possible. But the only thing he ever guarantees his disciples is that they will suffer for the gospel, just as he did (ex., Matt. 24:9; Luke 21:16-19).

In a culture where Christianity is so often marked by the prosperity gospel, can we be faithful to that understanding of being a Christian?

The season of Lent can help us be faithful to our suffering messiah. Lent begs us to remember the suffering side of the Christian life: on Ash Wednesday we remember that we are mortal, that illness and ailments and accidents and time still have power over our bodies. During Lent we remember that we are sinners, and we need to do the work of confessing and changing. During Lent we remember the ways sin has built the world around us: many are poor, many face discrimination, many are sick, many are trapped — and we are called to know those who suffer, and to help.

During Lent we are reminded that the Son of God did not come into the world so that he could tap it with a magic wand and make everything perfect. That would have been nice, but that’s not what he did. Instead, he freed people from bondage to sin and fear and social status, and he showed them that they were welcome into a relationship with God. He redefined what it means to be blessed. He took up our weakness and our pain, and he made them holy.

When I worship with the guys in one of the Davidson County jails, we begin almost every worship service with the same song. It’s called “Glory, Glory;” it’s this up-beat gospel number that praises for God for the blessings we receive when we give our burdens over to God.

But at one service one of the guys — this beardy fella called Tweety — described one of his burdens as a blessing from God. Tweety struggles with controlling his anger; when someone steps on his toes, his first reaction has always been to get mad, yell, start a fight. Over the months I’ve known him, I’ve often heard him ask for prayer to help him react in love instead. He even talks about trying to change the angry culture that exists among his bunkmates.

Last week he stood up and said, “I’ve been struggling this week. I’ve been backsliding; I’ve gotten mad and lost it a couple of times. Then I get back to my bunk, and I realize that I’ve sinned. My sin weighs on my heart. But I’m glad for that burden, I love that burden, because I know it’s God helping me get back on the right track.”

When we lay our sin and our suffering before God, they become part of what God is doing in us. They become part of what God is doing in the world through us.

That is one of the strange “good news” messages of Lent: that our weakness or pain are not signs that God is weak or nonexistent; they are not signs that God does not love us or that we are not faithful enough. They are part of the beautiful, broken reality of being human. And when we bring that weakness and pain into our life with God, God can use them for good.

This is, after all, the God of Jesus Christ, who did not throw himself off of the Temple to prove that the angels would catch him. Instead he took on sin, suffered, and died, so that our own sinning, suffering, and dying would not be the death of us — but the seeds of new life.


 

[1] “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent,” Sermon Brainwave (podcast) from WorkingPreacher.org, with Caroline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, and Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx. Idea that the “tests” regard Jesus’s understanding of messiahship comes from Matt Skinner.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent.”

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