This morning’s sermon at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, Lebanon, PA… The lectionary readings for today are Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11. Today is a Communion Sunday for the congregation.
Many of us know this story from the Bible. Shortly after being baptized, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, and at the end of his fasting, the devil appears to him. The devil tempts Jesus into making a magic trick, of transfiguring or changing stones to become loaves of bread. But Jesus says no.
Then the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple, and said, if you are God, allow yourself to fall to safety. And Jesus says no.
And then the devil brought Jesus to a high mountain, and there Jesus is offered all of the kingdoms of the world, if he would worship the devil. And Jesus says no again.
What I find so interesting about this is that what the devil is actually tempting Jesus to do in all three of these cases here is something that Jesus himself later accomplishes. The devil tempts Jesus to transfigure an object into something else. Not only does Jesus transfigure himself, as we discussed last week, but he later turns water into wine, turns dead people into living people, and later institutes the changing of bread and wine into his body and blood. So Jesus says no to the devil, but he in fact does this later in the story.
And the devil tempts Jesus to cheat death from the highest point of the temple. Now it would have been considered blasphemous for anyone to comprehend that they could stand atop the holy temple in Jerusalem and command the angels to carry him down, yet Jesus elsewhere blasphemes directly against the temple, and as the story goes, Jesus conquers death in the act of the resurrection. Jesus is then carried away by angels on the Day of Ascension, escaping the coming destruction of the Temple, having been transfigured and ready to enter the spiritual temple of the angels. So Jesus again says no to the devil, but he goes on to do this, later in the story.
And then the devil offers Jesus lordship of all that is on earth, to be above every living king and to be the god above all other god in the world. Jesus says no again, saying famously, “Away with you, Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Now, if we think about this a little, what the devil is offering to Jesus is in fact what we believe about Jesus, and what we sing about Jesus nearly every Sunday. I immediately think of the prayer hymn, “He is Lord”: “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” And also the Hallelujiah chorus from Handel’s messiah: “King of Kings…and Lord of Lords.” So what I am saying is that the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to become the incarnate Lord of the world, and Jesus says no thanks, because to do so would be idolatry, and he would not worship the devil to do so.
To read the scripture this way suggests to me that, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus here has the opportunity to forgo the ritual dance that will be his ministry to the poor and his eventual sacrifice that will demonstrate to everyone that he is in fact the Lord. Jesus could simply go the easy route, and skip Lent altogether, and go right to Christ the King Sunday. There would be no need for the church, apart from worshiping him; there would be no need for him to die and be raised from the dead, and there would be no need to go to Hell. There would be no need to ascend to heaven. We could make everything a whole lot easier and go straight to the Reign of Christ on earth now.
Or could it be that it is the devil giving Jesus clues for what he must eventually accomplish later as he progresses toward his execution? Is it possible that, just as the talking serpent in the book of Genesis is more crafty than we thought, that the snake is working in cahoots with God to begin what must happen for history to commence from the Garden of Eden? To suggest that the evil forces or the devil works with the side of God isn’t a terrible stretch, if you read the book of Genesis closely, it seems as if the snake and God were setting the first humans up. And if you read the book of Job, clearly Satan is working with God.
To read the Jesus story this way, Jesus meets the devil at the beginning of his ministry, and Jesus resists the devil, though it may seem as though the devil put some ideas into Jesus’ head that were part of the grandiose plan of God from the beginning. Jesus does not bite from the forbidden fruit, but he goes into the last chapter of his life with some new and bold ideas. And, I will say again, all of the things the devil tempts Jesus with later happen, except Jesus does not fall on his knees to the devil, instead, as the story goes, the end of his life is bookmarked with Jesus overtaking the devil once and for all on Holy Saturday.
What Jesus could have avoided, the last chapter of his life, and his death, is what we now remember as we enter into this season of Lent. Today we celebrate the sacrament of Communion as a way of remembering Jesus. Jesus chooses to remain with humanity and not enter the rank of the gods, and he chooses to remain with the poor and oppressed. Jesus here is a divided individual—man and God—but not yet fully man nor fully God. He is divided, as we often are in our lives and decisions, and Jesus chooses the more difficult road to avoid worshiping the devil. The devil offers Jesus the illusion of wholeness, and not true wholeness.
Jesus chooses to search for wholeness and purpose by not placing magic, or great spectacles, or cheating death, or political domination over the world as the beginning of his introduction to his people, but to instead live with and suffer with his people, and die a death of a criminal. Jesus spiritually and physically dismembers himself so that we not only worship him because of a good deal made with the devil, but instead because he remembers us even as we too are tempted to be made whole by offers given to us by the world and not from God. Jesus re-members us as we are dis-membered members of his body, which is broken and shed for us and for many.
And in this re-membering, par-taking, and in be-coming, we too be-come the dis-membered body of Christ, as our liturgy says, given for the world that is often harsh and hates peace, love, and friendship. It is with this spirit we now reverse the wishes of Jesus, and fulfill the temptation of the devil, by singing and proclaiming that “Jesus is Lord.”