We have a guest preacher this morning -- Rev. Bruce Barkhauer, of the Center for Faith and Giving. With that in mind, I decided to go back in time and pull a sermon for this particular Sunday and share it with you. I preached this in February 2005, while I served as pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA. May this word be a blessing to you.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a really bizarre movie, but it asks an important question: What does it mean for Jesus to be truly human? The movie portrays Jesus as physically weak and emotionally unsure of himself. This Jesus feels a call from God, but he also feels pulled in other directions. It’s no wonder many Christians complained, but then again, what about those temptations?
The movie pictures the last temptation as a dream of what life would be like if Jesus were to climb down off the cross and just live a normal life. What would it be like to have a job, a wife, kids? That’s a pretty powerful temptation – living a normal life. But then he wakes up from the dream, takes a last breath, and dies.
Though the gospels talk about the temptations of Jesus, too read these accounts with the premise that if Jesus is the Son of God he can’t give in to temptation. But what if, after fasting for 40 days, Jesus could give in to temptation? What if these are real temptations? I mean, did Jesus have to eat to live or was he like Commander Date of the Starship Enterprise, who just ate to be polite? In other words, did Jesus really share our humanity and did he experience life as we experience it?
The temptation stories parallel Moses’ first trip into the wilderness. Like Moses, Jesus has a spiritual experience in the wilderness, but unlike Moses, he doesn’t meet God, he meets the evil one instead. His tempter offers him three options, each of which challenges the Shema, the summary of the law found in Deuteronomy 6:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Each temptation challenges God’s reign and Jesus' identity. The question is not: “if” he is the Son of God, but the kind of son he would be.
A. MAKE BREAD
The first temptation challenges Jesus to serve himself: "Since you're the son of God, why don't you make bread from stones to satisfy your hunger?" In other words: you’ve got the power, so use it to feed yourself. Go ahead satisfy your hunger. The problem with giving in to this seemingly harmless temptation is what could follow. The people come to Jesus and ask for bread. On one occasion he gives it to them, because he pities them. But when they come back the next day, they come with an offer. You feed us, we’ll serve you! Jesus rejected this temptation, just as he rejected the first one: He tells the tempter, quoting from Scripture, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Deut. 8:3). Jesus declared his intention to achieve his purpose through preaching not through handing out free bread, either to himself or to others.
B. CREATE A SPECTACLE
The second temptation takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, where the tempter says: Why don’t you jump and let the angels catch you? Give the people a show, because, you know, God won’t let you fall. After all, there’s nothing better than a show to draw a crowd, so let me entertain you. Again Jesus turns to Deuteronomy for an answer: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (Deut. 6:16).
C. WORSHIP THE TEMPTER
The third time the tempter comes to him, he offers the world in exchange for a change of allegiance. Think of Darth Vader tempting Luke Skywalker to come over to the dark side. Join me, he says to Luke, and we’ll rule the galaxy. Here the tempter says: Look around and "I'll give you all the kingdoms of the world, if you just worship me." Which way will you go? My way is easier, says the tempter, than the way that God has set before you. No cross in the future, just glory. I like what Gene Boring says about this encounter:
The devil's command challenges Jesus to accept the status quo of the rebellious state of the world, to acknowledge that selfishness and practical atheism prevail, and to fit in with it. With Jesus' power, he could have it all. [Gene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," in The New Interpreters Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 8:164.]
Again, Jesus says no, because God alone can be worshiped and served. God’s way to power might be more dangerous and less glorious, but Jesus says: I’ll take God’s way any day, even if it leads to a cross. Though weakened by hunger and spiritual battle, Jesus gathers his strength and dismisses his nemesis.
Jesus would face another temptation, while nailed to a cross. He must have heard the taunts of the crowd: "If you're the Messiah, come off that cross and save yourself." Oh, it must have been tempting to take the bait, but as Philip Yancey says: “For Jesus to save others, quite simply, he could not save himself. That fact, he must have known as he faced Satan in the desert.” [Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 73.]
II. OUR HOPE
As we begin the season of Lent, we face a question: Which road will you take in life? Will you choose the narrow road or the broad highway, the difficult way or the easy way? Will you choose integrity or profit and gain? Will you care for your neighbors even if it means giving up something you want? Will you choose entertainment over discipleship?
Jesus’s journey ran from the wilderness to the cross. He could have turned away from the cross at any point along the way. He could have chosen marriage, kids, retirement. Instead, he chose to challenge the status quo. He spoke up for the poor and the powerless. He preached a gospel of compassion and justice, and he reached out to people society had tossed away.
We face the same choices, so it is good to know that we can draw strength in the knowledge that there is one who walks with us, who has tasted life as we have and yet has remained true to his calling. Hebrews 4 says that we have a companion who has tasted life as we have, and yet remains without sin, one who faced temptation and yet said yes to God.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.
Jesus stood fast in the ways of God, even when an easier road lay before him. Having tasted life as we live it, Jesus can sympathize with us. He understands our weakness, but he shows us a better way. Our path may not lead to a literal cross, but symbolically, we too must cast our cares on the cross. That is the way of the disciple.
When the tempter comes, we know where to turn. Jesus is our guide. The road can be difficult, but the rewards are great. Let’s do this thing the right way! Let us embrace our calling to lead people into a relationship with God that will change lives forever.
Picture attribution: Juan, de Flandes, ca. 1465-1519. Jesus and the Tempter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54301 [retrieved March 4, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/4008865269/.