The Allegiant One
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I’ve always been a big believer in testing things out, and I’m thinking here particularly in my own context of a church service. I talked last week about tuning my guitar before rehearsal and then going back and testing the tuning right before the service begins. Testing the mic. Testing the mic again before things start. Is everything working? Is everything fit for service?
The importance of this kind of testing has been brought home particularly as we’ve been having church online. It’s been almost a year now since we began recording our services. We normally record them on Thursdays so you can be praying for us Thursdays if you aren’t already (and I know many people are). Test the camera. Test the lighting. Try new locations, new angles. Check the sound mix. Test the mic location. You would think one might get to the point where testing was no longer required, and you’d be wrong. One Thursday about a month ago, I found to my dismay that once we had finished recording all the worship songs, the sound had not recorded. We had to go back and do them all over again. Later when we were recording Adolfo’s prelude, offertory, and postlude, I found again that the sound hadn’t recorded. We were close to breaking point at that point, and Adolfo asked me very kindly to make sure things were working after each piece. Checking the mic. Testing the mic. Making sure everything was fit for service.
We’re going to be going through the Gospel of Matthew throughout Lent and for some weeks beyond. I think it’s a good thing to journey with Jesus through a Gospel through the weeks of Lent, but it’s hardly enough time to do justice to the Gospel, so we’ll keep it going through the season known as Eastertide which lasts 50 days after Easter. Matthew is a much beloved Gospel and was given pride of place among the four. It contains five amazing blocks of Jesus’ teaching which we’ll look at through these weeks. The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most famous. If you ever have a chance to go to Israel and sit down on the hills around the Sea of Galilee, do take it. Perhaps you’ve had the chance. Galilee being a rural area, very little has changed scenery-wise in 2000 years, and you can cast your mind back as you sit there thinking “This is where it happened.”
Speaking of things that happen, more so perhaps than any other Gospel writer, Matthew is explicit in emphasizing the ethical nature of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The connection between faith and morality. What we believe and what we do. It is not for nothing that Jesus ends the story of the wise man who built his house upon the rock like this – “So is anyone who hears my words and does them.” It is not for nothing that among Jesus’ lasts words to his followers is a command to go and make disciples of all nations, “Teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.” The only Gospel writer to use the word “church.” A Gospel writer who was concerned that the church is living out its calling as the body of Christ in the world.
So unless you think we’ve got that down no problem, it’s a Gospel for our age. A Gospel for followers of Christ and a Gospel that serves as an invitation for those who aren’t following Christ.
The heading in my Bible at Matthew 4 is entitled “The Temptation of Jesus.” It might equally be called “The Testing of Jesus,” because that is also what is going on here. Matthew has told of the story of the birth of Emmanuel (God-with-us), son of Abraham, son of David. The King. Magi from the east have come to bow down before this King. Christ’s identity has been affirmed at his baptism when a voice from heaven is heard saying “This is my beloved Son.” The Holy Spirit rests on him and leads him. “What sort of man is this?” is the overarching question we’re looking at through these weeks. What does it mean in terms of those who follow Jesus? Let’s ask for God’s help as we begin…
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (the accuser, the deceiver, the one who speaks against). He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” He was hungry. The Judean wilderness is a harsh place. It’s barren. Rocks and desert. It’s not like what we might consider wilderness here in Canada with all our woods and rivers and lakes. The wilderness is a harsh place, but it’s also a place of the Spirit’s leading. It’s a place of God’s provision and protection. When we think of this story we can’t hear “wilderness” and the number 40 without thinking of the people of Israel. Israel not being ready to take on the call that God had for them to be God’s people. The people of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 years. Being tested.
Which is what God does. God tests to make us fit for service, in the same that we test equipment or metal that’s going to make up an airplane or mics or amps or all the things we test. The word for test and temptation is the same word, which is interesting. It has two meanings which are really representative of the two opposing forces that are at work here. God who tests and the accuser, the liar, the deceiver, the one who speaks against, who tempts. You might say that the difference between being tested and tempted is determined by how we do in the test – to fail is to fail into temptation.
The tempter came and said to him “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The “if….then” proposition being made here is not so much about whether or not Jesus truly is the Son of God. The question might be better phrased “Since you are the Son of God…” Since you are the Son of God, what are you going to do? What is this sonship going to mean?
Who are you going to pledge allegiance to? Is Jesus going to be, as someone has said, “a self-serving wonder-worker flexing power for his own ends?” We may be very familiar with this story and how it turns out (and of course I just read it and told you how it turns out if you’re familiar). Let us not presume that this outcome was inevitable or say “Well it was Jesus, what choice did he really have in the matter?” He had a choice, the same way he’ll have a choice a little later in the story where he’s tested again and he’ll tell his followers “Do you not know that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” He had a choice. He remained faithful to his Father. Faithful trust in his Father.
The one who remained faithful where the people of Israel failed. The one who remained faithful while we failed. But he answered “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” This is not simply a moral tale which we read and say “And so the lesson is that with the Holy Spirit and the Bible we can overcome temptation.” Jesus is the one who remained faithful to his Father – the one in whom and by whose faithfulness we are enabled to do the same. We cannot hear about 40 days in the wilderness without thinking of the people of Israel, and we can’t hear of being hungry in the wilderness without thinking of the people of Israel who after being delivered from slavery complained to Moses and Aaron and said they might as well have died in Egypt than to be killed out in this wilderness by hunger.
They failed. We failed. The question that hangs over this entire is one of allegiance. Here the specific question is one of trust. Who are you going to trust? God? “Trust yourself,” says the deceiver. Help yourself. Then we hear this wonderful answer from Jesus - “One lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Our entire existence is dependent on God. In whom Jesus trusts. In whom we are invited to put our trust. God who has us, who holds us in His strong right hand.
- Circuses. Power. These are the temptations the accuser lays out before Jesus. We’re at the second one now. If Jesus is held in God’s strong right hand, why not test the theory out? The accuser can use scripture too, and you get this kind of rabbinical debate going here. It’s a reminder that Holy Scripture can be twisted and used to justify horrific things. “Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” The temptation of circuses. Do something spectacular. It will cause a sensation, and hasn’t God promised protection after all? Jesus replies “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again this goes back to the people of Israel in the wilderness Exodus (17 this time) when they had no water and they quarrelled with Moses and put God to the test and said “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” and they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Jesus doesn’t need to test anything when it comes to his Father. I may need to test out the mics and the amps but I have no need to test that God cares for me. “Again it is written,” says Jesus, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally the big one. We’ve looked at personal gain. We’ve looked at popularity. Power is the last one. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, and he said to him, “All these I will give you (not even bothering now with the “If or since you are the Son of God”), if you will fall down and worship me.”
At heart, this episode is about allegiance. Here the choice is laid bare. Who are you going to serve? Again we look back in this story and remember the failure of the people of Israel. The golden calf episode. We look at our own failures and if it’s not so much about golden calves now we can perhaps say it’s gold or cash or ourselves or whatever our world turns into gods and whatever we turn into gods.
Jesus, the allegiant one, reflecting the words of the Shema, that daily Jewish prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Jesus says “Away with you Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
This is what sonship means for Jesus. It’s quite the thing to be at the top, looking down on everyone. This is where we should aim to be no? Personal power, popularity, political power, social power, economic power. This is what we’re told to crave no? It’s quite the thing to be on top, looking down. Raised up.
Of course, the only place Jesus will be looking down from is a cross. The power of self-sacrificing other-serving love is what sonship means for Jesus. This passage prefigures what’s going to happen later in the story. It looks ahead to what happens immediately afterward as we have this great line - suddenly angels came and waited on him. They cared for him, served him, it’s a word that suggests offering food and drink. At the end of his Gospel, Matthew will tell of Jesus on another mountain with 11 disciples. It’s after his death and the discovery of the empty tomb and we’ll get there. On that mountain, Jesus will say that all authority has been given to him, the authority of his loving Father in whom he trusts and to whom he is faithful.
Now I hear you saying “What does this have to do with us?” We’re not divine. We’re not being whisked from place to place by the devil. We’re not the Son of God.
The thing is, to follow Christ is to be an adopted daughter of God, an adopted son of God. What does sonship mean for us? What does daughtership mean? It means we have a brother who identifies with us. A few weeks ago I said a quote – “Jesus came to us to become as we are.” We see in his baptism his identification with sinful humanity who failed the test. Here in chapter 4 we see Jesus passing the test, fitted perfectly for service to his Father and worthy of our allegiance and love.
This testing/tempting doesn’t stop for Jesus and it doesn’t stop for us. The accuser still goes about like a roaring lion. The accuser doesn’t have any power over us except for the power to deceive, to make us believe his lies. Lies like “We should really be looking at for ourselves first.” To cause us to wonder “Is God really worthy of our trust or do we really depend on ourselves?” To say “Calling something like work or leisure an idol seems a bit much, I mean I have to work after all right?” How could such a thing be an idol?
We fail and I’m glad for seasons like Lent which call us to intentional turning to our forgiving God. Our tests or trials or temptations take many forms. Someone has written about this story in terms of Christian leaders and how we might fall to the temptation to rely on our usefulness, our ability to do things/show things/prove things that make a difference in people’s lives. They talked about the temptation to be spectacular, to do something to win applause and popularity. The temptation to be powerful – to use economic might, political might, military might even to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. Instead of looking to the example of Jesus – prayer as a way of life, vulnerability to others in shared ministry, and trust in God’s leadership.
Jesus is not only our example in passing the test, he’s our enabler through his Spirit. He has blazed the trail for us. I was watching a special on the US women’s hockey program recently. Cammi Granato was on the first women’s team to win Olympic gold at Nagano in 1998. She spoke of watching the US women’s team win gold at Pyeongchang in 2018 – 20 years later (and I know I know we like to win the gold but we won the four in between). Women’s hockey had not been a thing at that level prior to 1998. Her generation blazed the trail. She spoke of how touched she was by being able to inspire those young women who won in 2018 many of whom would have watched her win in 1998.
The trail has been blazed, and it’s been walked by faithful followers of Christ for over 2,000 years now. Thank God Jesus passed the test. Hebrews 4:15-16. This is the Son of God. This is the one through whom and in whom we claim sonship and daughtership. May all of us approach the throne of grace confidently and boldly in him. Amen.