Jesus is Trustworthy
Jesus is Trustworthy
On the first Sunday of Lent our attention is drawn to the three temptations of Jesus. The lessons in this passage tell us much about Jesus and about how the church is to behave.
Scripture: Matthew 4: 1-11
On a stormy night, a businessman boards a plane and takes a middle seat between a middle-aged woman sitting at the window and a little girl sitting on the aisle. After the flight took off, he began a conversation with the little girl, who appeared to be the same age as his daughter. He found it strange that such a young girl would be traveling alone, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
About an hour into the flight, the plane was suddenly jolted by extreme turbulence. The pilot came over the PA system and told everyone to fasten their seat belts as they had encountered rough weather. Several times over the next half hour, the plane made drastic dips and turns, shaking all the while. Some people began crying, and many—like the woman sitting by the window—were praying intently.
The businessman was sweating and clenching his seat as tightly as he could. Meanwhile, the little girl sat quietly in her seat with her hands resting calmly on her legs. Incredibly she didn’t seem worried at all.
Suddenly the turbulence ended. The pilot came on to apologize for the bumpy ride and announced that they would be landing soon. As the plane began its descent, the man said to the little girl, “You are just a little girl, but I have never met a braver person in all my life! Tell me, dear, how is it you remained so calm while all of the adults were so afraid?”
Looking him in the eyes, she said, “My father is the pilot and I trust him.”
If the temptation narratives do anything, they show us that Jesus is trustworthy. He faced the devil and remained faithful. He prepared for the encounter, made himself ready, and through the three trials demonstrated his loyalty to God and the ideals of Gods kingdom. This encounter that we read in scripture sets a high bar for us.
Douglas John Hall offers that there are not really three temptations, but three variations on the same theme. These are the temptation to attempt the miraculous, the temptation to spectacle, and the temptation to political power. The first two are somewhat ambiguous, surely having some food isn’t so bad and we often talk about guardian angels, but embedded within are issues of control. The third temptation doesn’t even try to be subtle, rather it offers unfettered political control. Throughout it all Jesus remains faithful, Jesus remains trustworthy.
Now, I’m not sure that we should setup ourselves up to follow in Jesus footsteps here, not that we shouldn’t resist temptation. That’s not what I’m saying. Rather what temptations are we resisting. If it’s the temptation of a cookie that might push the scale in the wrong direction, then I think we’ve trivialized temptation and perhaps missed the point. Often in Lent we will give up something for forty days to emulate the forty days and nights that Jesus spent fasting. These are usually things we might consider indulgences, chocolate, coffee, or alcohol are typical examples. I’m not saying don’t do this, but I would ask in what way does it become a spiritual practice. What is the internal reflection that is occurring as we engage in such activity.
Often, we internalize these passages. The message we hear is, I need to be a better Christian. I need to stop sinning and then we come up with a list of short comings, real or imagined, that we feel we need to deal with somehow. That’s the message, that we as individuals are bad people. I actually think this misses the point of the passage. It’s not that you or I fall short or make mistakes. I think that’s a given. None of us are perfect. And while certain actions or words we speak might be cause for moments of reflection or an effort to behave better, I don’t think we should beat ourselves up about it.
This is when we need to step back and consider the passage in its context. Ask yourself, why did God send Jesus down to earth? What is Matthew trying to tell us as he writes this passage? Was it so that 2000 years after the event I would recognize how bad a sinner I was and clean up my act? Was it so that the common citizen at that time would be appropriate chastised and get right with God?
To be clear, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. That is, we are called to be good and ethical people. But are the temptation narratives meant to remind us of our own individual failures and moments when we’ve given in to temptation?
Jesus came with a message for all of society, it was a corporate or community response that Jesus was seeking. And it is a community response that Matthew is seeking as he relays this story about Jesus.
We put blinders on and focus on ourselves or worse our neighbours short comings. We forget about the community we reside in or the systems which exist all around us. In his commentary on this passage Ronald Allen talks about how the church must chose between following God and the kingdom or the devil and the often-broken systems that surround us.
Douglas John Hall writes the following and I think it’s worth pondering, he writes, “We miss the point, I think, when we consider this text only from the perspective of its characterization of Jesus and his mission. It is also and therefore a statement about the church – a statement, moreover, with high theo-critical potential. Jesus, not without difficulty, resisted these temptations; the church, however, has rarely been able to do so. Indeed too often (and perhaps characteristically) the church has succumbed with alacrity – to the point of acting as though the devil’s proposals were entirely compatible with its Founder’s divine commission.” (Hall, Douglas John, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2. P. 44)
Now that’s a damning statement towards the church. Hall is an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada. He provides a critical reflection on how the church historically, and sometimes still operates. As if it could turn stone to bread, as if it was untouchable, and which sometimes covets political power.
I believe there is a lot of truth in what Hall writes. I also fully believe that this passage which Matthew has provided for us, for his community of faith, speaks to the very things the church as a whole must resist. I think Hall is accurate in his assessment of this passage and the history of the church and I believe Matthew was watching some of these temptations play out within his own community of faith.
If throwing off the shackles of power is our calling, if acting out of humility, and a position of want or need is our posture then how do we live that?
What is our responsibility to one another?
What is our responsibility to our community?
Notice I’m not asking what your responsibility is. We don’t carry it alone, this passage is a message for the church, not the individual believer or follower in the Way of Christ. Christ may be an individual, but Matthew is careful to craft a story which allows us to see ourselves as the body of Christ in ministry together.
This passage invites us into a deeper relationship with Jesus. To ask more than superficial questions about temptation and sin, but instead grapple with the deeper issues that divide and fracture us.
Yesterday evening a group from the church went out on a walk. It was the Coldest Night of Year. We walked around Cobourg and stopped at a few locations where individuals who don’t have a home to call their own are finding rest and a warm roof. We don’t walk because as individuals we feel guilty about this, we haven’t caused this to happen. However, we recognize that there are larger issues at play which cause inequity. We walk to draw attention, to focus our own awareness, and to bear witness just as Jesus did towards the plight of many.
Maybe we walk because the alternative is doing nothing is easier and that’s a temptation too. Not of the individual, but of society. Have we done enough, could we do more?
As the final temptation concludes, Jesus says “Worship God and serve him only.” How is this done? Jesus demonstrates that it is done through love. Love of God, love of neighbour. The challenge is to ensure we are tempted to do less. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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