Sermon 18th March 2018 – The Second Temptation
So, the Second Temptation. Or the third, depending on which gospel you’re reading! But, we’ve taken this version, so this is the second one. Last week, Jesus was tempted with the ordinary – bread. To be satisfied with the same as everyone else – that everyone else seems to get by on. Food for the body. To be just ‘a guy’. He was tempted with not having to struggle – and he chose to go high. HE chose to give up the safe, ordinary way for the exciting but incredibly uncertain journey of living with, and by, God day by day.
So this week, he’s tempted with the opposite – all the kingdoms of the world. Bread, All the kingdoms of the world, it’s a very clear case of ‘One thing didn’t work, we’ll try something completely different’.
Oh, you’re extraordinary? God’s Beloved! Son of Humanity! Let’s push it to the max, then. Let’s change everything. All at once. Here you go – kingdoms of the world.
And, you know, maybe not the kingdoms of the world, but it’s amazing how much we can have, if we’re not fussy how we get it. If we allow ruthlessness, or manipulation, or boasting, or bullying, or selfishness to be part of our M.O. ‘Satan’ (whatever we mean by that) can get us most things. If we’re prepared to trample others on the way up. There’s plenty of examples. We call it ‘business sense’. We call it being ‘go-getters’. And you don’t have to be the Mafia, you don’t have to go as far as literally shooting or stealing, to let this temptation get the better of you in getting ahead. Any academic whose path to success was on someone else’s uncredited ideas. Or any writer who was published without crediting their co-writer. Any department head who subtly denigrated their colleague because they had the boss’ private ear.
We can get on that crowded commuter train of we’re willing to push in front of the less mobile. We can have the nicest clothes if we don’t care that they were made in sweatshops.
But, that said, given that this was Jesus, I used to think that this was the weirdest temptation. Number one, he’s Jesus. We’ve just had a baptism in which it was said ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. How exactly does Satan think he’s going to get this guy to worship him, instead of the Parent who’s just said ‘Go, Son!’ But temptation is never that obvious. What we’ve got in the gospels is a synopsis. A little paraphrase of this process that Jesus is going through. What we really mean by this sort of temptation, this sort of thing, is self-worship. Self-interest. Serving our ego, our desires. That’s Satan’s role in the Hebrew testament. It’s not about encouraging us to put him before God, it’s about encouraging us to put ourselves before God. That’s the role that the Tempter takes in the story, and that’s the role that he’s taking now.
And reason number two, that I thought this was a daft temptation, is why is he tempting Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, when he’s already got them? At least, he did. And he will again. But now, at this point in my life, I remember, that when I was on my break from ministry training, and I was doing the only job I could find that didn’t require a driving licence and 6 years’ experience, having just moved to a new city and having nothing and not knowing where to go. And knowing that I had once been a PhD student, and I would one day be a pastor, didn’t actually help much when I was being sneered at by some rich lady because I hadn’t scrambled fast enough and humbly enough to lean her toilet! You know, Satan could have done some heavy-duty tempting that day! Knowing that their opinion was irrelevant and uninformed didn’t help when life had kicked me hard, and my ego was on the floor. And right then, standing up there, Jesus wasn’t the eternal Word, but an illegitimate labourer’s son from Nazareth – not the best address – no-one knew him yet. No-one knew what was going to happen next. I think that ego, and hurt ego, has a lot to do with this temptation.
Because there you’ve got the temptation saying ‘Go on. You can really change things. You know that the powers that be have got it wrong. You can stop other kids having to go through what you did. You can make a better, fairer world. You can smash up all those boulders that are flattening people, and give them something better.
‘I’ll butt out’, says Satan. ‘Give you free rein, eh? OK, so far I’ve given the world a hard time, but you can fix that! Son of God? I’ll give way to you, because, between you and me, God’s not been doing so good a job so far, right? A lot of stuff needs fixing. Do it your way. New broom and all that. What do you say? Be all you can be – and leave the old boss out of it.’
Put that way, you can see that it is a reasonable temptation. Because who hasn’t thought, some time or other, that they’ve got a better solution than the one God seems to be going with right now? And who hasn’t been tempted, for a good cause, to cut a few ethical corners on the way, and let the end justify the means. And whose ego has never, ever, led them about by the nose. Because I’ve got to say – not me! I’ve fallen over all those stumbling blocks, one way or another.
But Jesus (and we’ll never know how much it cost him to make that decision at the time, but we know well what it cost him at Gethsemane, and at Golgotha), he said ‘No. No, we’re doing it God’s way. Even if it seems like a crazy way. Even if it seems like I’m getting nowhere. Even if I can’t see the end of it.
Day by day, step by step. Living on God’s word, not mine.
And it’s worth thinking, as we go through our lives, how we fare making those decisions, and how often, in very many different disguises, that temptation comes our way, and take some strength from knowing that Jesus went through it too.
And I think that decision took as much humility and courage as any other decision Jesus ever made, and it’s the sort of decision he could only have made on the far side of the desert, when he’d been through all that breaking down, having learnt surrender and acceptance and trust.
But, Jesus still has one more testing of his trust to go – as Michael will tell us next week!