A sermon based on the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-12)
We tend to describe what Jesus experienced in the wilderness as temptation but another word would be choice. Jesus is confronted at his baptism with a revelation of how special he was and is then faced with a choice. Does he follow the Devil, or does he follow God? In the accounts of Matthew and Luke this general question is distilled into three more specific questions, but I think we can take this as poetic license. If he was away for forty days then I’m sure that many more issues must have worked away at his mind alongside the three that we are told about.
It’s interesting that at the end of his ministry all three synoptic gospels have Jesus facing another choice, being tempted. He enters the Garden of Gethsemane and prays about whether he should allow himself to be captured with the virtual inevitability of this leading to torture and crucifixion. Again he needs to make a choice about whether to follow God or not.
Jesus ministry and later his crucifixion were the consequences of the choices that he made. He could have come out of the wilderness and gone back to the life of a village carpenter in Nazareth, he didn’t, he chose to proclaim the gospel, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. He could have run away from the Garden of Gethsemane, spent some time as a fugitive and then used his carpentry skills to earn a living anonymously in some provincial town. He didn’t, he chose to be true to the gospel of love and peace that he had been proclaiming throughout this ministry and to submit to the consequences, even if that included his own execution.
It’s interesting to speculate about how Jesus came to his decisions when confronted with these choices, I say speculated because of course it is impossible to know what was going through his mind. There is no mention of any external evidence, evidence in the sense that the modern scientific mind might look for when making a decision. Neither is there any evidence of any explicit revelation of God1. Jesus appeared to be struggling internally, searching deep within himself. What we do know, from the answers he gave, is that this internal struggle drew on his knowledge of the scriptures. The three answers he is reporting as giving to the Devil are each verses from the book of Deuteronomy.
Similarly in Gethsemane Jesus is left to himself 2. Surely this would have been a time for God to reveal himself and confirm Jesus faith, yet Jesus is left to himself. Again he has to search deep within himself to determine where the truth lies. It is his decision, from this examination of his inner self that leads him to conclude that “not my will but thy will be done”.
So how does this relate to us. Well, throughout our Christian lives, and particularly during Lent, we are called upon to make a decision about whether to follow God or not, whether to do his will. This decision cannot be evidence based, there is simply not enough evidence of who God is or what he wants to make an objective decision. Last week in church I preached on the healing miracles from the perspective of someone who has been involved in medical research for 25 years. I’ve conducted research, I’ve taught others to do research, I’ve spent a considerable time reviewing other people’s research, I’ve served as an associate editor for an international academic journal. I understand the scientific process by which evidence is used to construct our knowledge of the modern world and the evidence we have for who God is and what he wants falls way short of the standards of modern science.
This lack of objective evidence is confirmed by the fact that recent surveys show that less than half the people in this country now claim to be Christian. If the evidence was more clear cut surely this figure would be higher. It is also confirmed by attitudes within the church. If we went around this congregation and asked each of you about the specifics of who God is and what he requires we would receive a wide range of answers. If the evidence was clear cut surely we would be more consistent in our views. As we heard earlier in the discussion, even the writers of the gospels had perspectives on whether Jesus was primarily human or primarily divine3.
Neither are most of us lucky enough to have had some definitive revelation of God that provides a definitive answer to who he is and what he wants. Most of us would dearly love to have such concrete evidence on which to base our faith but few of us do.
Like Jesus we are forced to make our decisions in the absence of sufficient evidence for this to be an objective process. The decision has to be subjective, it has to come from an examination of who we are at the very deepest level of our being. Like Jesus we can draw on our knowledge of the scriptures and, unlike him, we can draw support and encouragement from fellow Christians. Ultimately, however, we have to make that decision ourselves, as individuals, from deep within.
But when we do make that choice to believe in God and to commit ourselves to do God’s will our lives are transformed. Before we make a choice for God the world seems a random place with as much bad as good, indeed it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the bad. After we choose God the good appears to dominate and we become so much more aware of the beauty and goodness in the world. We want to celebrate and give thanks.
Before we make a choice for God we view most people in the world as remote from ourselves. After we choose God we see every individual as a child of God and our passion for fairness and justice is ignited.
Before we make a choice for God our lives are merely a transition from birth to death. After we choose God our lives take on meaning, we share a desire with Christians all over this planet to work for the coming of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
The certainty of choosing God doesn’t come from the evidence provided to us before we make that choice. It comes from the affirmation that we are granted afterwards. Lent is a time to be reminded that we have made that choice and, through reflection, to rediscover the transformation it has worked within our live.
But that choice is not a single choice. Jesus faced explicit choices at both the start and end of his ministry but we can be certain that there were many times in between when he, like us had to make choices. His whole life and our whole lives are an ongoing series of choices. We need to make sure that whenever we make choices we choose God.
Oxfam has over 10,000 employees across the world. It is unarguably an organisation that, overall, is bringing God’s Kingdom closer on earth. Last year it supported 8.6 million people in 31 different international emergencies (both natural disasters and man-made conflicts). We can choose to focus on the actions of handful of its staff who have nevertheless behaved badly acts and the small number of executives who have failed to respond to this appropriately and turn against the organisation as urged by the current media frenzy. Alternatively we can celebrate the achievements of all the other staff working with passion for international development and justice and offer our continued support for one of our finest national and international institutions. The choice is ours.
In our personal lives we are constantly being confronted by individuals who behave badly towards us either intentionally or unintentionally. When this comes from those we only know slightly we can often shrug this off but when it comes from those we love this is far more difficult. When we confront this we can harbour resentment and allow ourselves to shrivel into a shell of defiance or we can choose to offer love and forgiveness and open our relationships to the potential for redemptive transformation. The choice is ours.
All of us will face bad news from time to time in our lives. Again we have a choice. We can choose to separate ourselves from God with a futile argument about “Why me?” Or we can move closer to God and open ourselves to the healing power of his grace. The choice is ours.
So this Lent, do give things up if you really want to, but more importantly try and create time to reflect on the choices you have made and continue making. Reflect on how your life has been transformed by the choices you have made for God in the past and dedicate yourself to continue to make choices for God in the future. Choose God – choose life.
1 Note that the angels referred to in Matthew 4:11 helped Jesus after the Devil had left him (and are not mentioned in Luke’s gospel at all).
2 Note that Luke mentions Jesus being strengthened by an angel as he prays in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43) but that the originality of this and the following are verse are disputed as they are missing form the earliest and most authoritative manuscripts of the Gospel (and the angel is not mentioned at all in Mark or Matthew’s account).
3 Earlier in the service we had talked about the fact that John’s gospel doesn’t include any reference to the temptations and how this reflects John’s emphasis on the divinity of Jesus – if Jesus was God how could he be tempted by the Devil? Matthew, Luke and Mark, however, tend to emphasise Jesus’ humanity of which vulnerability to temptation is a key element. These differences suggest that even the writers of the gospels had different understandings of God (and in this case of who Jesus was).