I’ve taken a short break from my weekly sharing of reflections on my daily Scripture readings, to revisit an old sermon series I gave on the life of Jesus during the midweek devotional I provide at Progressive Redneck Preacher.
I would be remiss, on a blog about progressive Christianity in the south, to not share a traditional southern tale of temptation, before turning to a message about Jesus’ temptation. Here it is.
I hope this reflection helps you learn how to confront the shadows in your life in a way that is liberating and life giving.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Our Gospel reading comes in Luke chapter, beginning in verse 1, going down to verse 14. We join Jesus after he has chosen to answer his calling, like we spoke about last week. I feel Jesus’ example here shows us some necessary work we must do in our life to begin living our life to the fullest by truly living out our callings from God.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside
These are the words of God, for the people of God. May the Spirit inspire our reading, discussing, and I hope and pray, embracing, of these words today. Amen.
Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is drawn by the Spirit to confront potential pitfalls he might face that could trip him up by keeping him from fulfilling what he is called to do.
I remember when Jowancka became a deacon, giving her the sage warning I was given when I was ordained: hold on tight to something. Whenever you step forward in your calling, get ready: if the devil hit Jesus hard, you can know he will attack you. All growth produces spiritual resistance.
That advice was not bad when I first received it from a mentor of mine, and not that bad I think when I shared it, but as I began to study this passage getting ready for this sermon, I realized isn’t completely true. It makes it sound as if what happened to Jesus was some attack out of the blue, a tragedy or travesty it was too bad he could avoid; and as if we might have to fear such attacks in our life.
But as I read over this passage, getting ready for today, I realized that this is not really the case. Instead we are told that God actually drove Jesus to the desert where Jesus had to confront the devil. The Spirit of God leads Jesus right to this moment that Jesus has to face the heart of darkness itself.
Instead of the devil coming on Jesus out of the blue for Jesus, Jesus is being led to come on the devil out of the blue. Jesus is being led to confront the darkness that lays before him in his own life before he goes full-tilt into his ministry that way he is ready to confront that darkness.
I don’t know about you but this is very different than I have tended to look at darkness in my life, but it shows me that I do not need to fear the darkness in my life, the painful broken places that are a part of who I am, those aspects of myself that are growing edges which make me struggle to be what I am called to be – whether the best Christian I can, the best employee I can, the best husband I can, the best minister I can.
We don’t often think of Jesus as having weaknesses, but during his 30-some year life span, he did. To be fully human means to not just have wonderful gifts we can delight in, which God delights in us about, but also means to be limited. Jesus gets tired like we do, and has to sleep or become grumpy. Jesus has to eat like we do, and gets lonely and sad at points. Jesus can only be in one place at at time and, like us, at times struggles to have faith crying out “Father if you would just take this cup from me”.
And so by confronting the devil Jesus is confronting his own growing edges, his areas where he is vulnerable, where he is weak, where if he does not do the work of preparation, he could fall short.
Sometimes we are slow to confront our own weaknesses. We might be slow by trying to appear we’ve got it all together, when in fact we need to admit we need help. We might be slow to admit our failings and growing edges, instead blaming focusing on where we are strong. We might become angry or defensive when others point out we are not perfect, even blaming others for our seeming short-comings. We might refuse to try new things, to be pushed, for fear of failing. All of these are ways we can be slow to confront our short-comings.
Yet the fact Jesus has imperfections he has to confront before he can go full of the Spirit into ministry, even as the Son of God, shows us something: If the Son of God has imperfections that means being imperfect, having weaknesses, isn’t sin. It isn’t wrong. It is simply being a human being, a child of God. As one of my favorite writers, Pia Melody, says in her book The Intimacy Factor, to be a child is to be perfectly imperfect. It is to be vulnerable, needy, and full of weakness and have all of that be where your potential lies. It is not despite the fact that a new-born baby has to be held, has to be fed, has to be clothed that we love it but precisely in its needing to be held, fed, clothed, and cared-for vulnerability.
So God uses the devil to help Jesus confront his own weaknesses and vulnerability. Those weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of his temptations, just as our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of our own. And it is only by confronting them head on that he can avoid falling into them.
To me it reminds of two things. First of all, it reminds me of trip planning. In a way beginning to live out a calling is like planning a trip. One of the first things my dad taught me when learning to drive was to check the engine before a trip. Checking the engine is checking the vulnerable areas of the car – does it have enough oil and water to make the trip? Are there any parts of the car that don’t look right? Not taking time to get to know your areas of weaknesses is like not checking your car engine. You might feel better for a short time, but you know what? If that oil and water runs low, or the belts bust in your car, you might very well end up stranded.
Likewise it is by coming to know and accept your vulnerabilities you can begin to care for your self so you can make it long haul in answering the callings in life God is giving you, making it less likely you’ll get “stranded” through falling into temptation, or collapsing under the weight of trials later in your journey.
A second example of this is how I’ve seen this when I’ve counseled couples. Often couples having troubles in their relationship will want to avoid talking about or dealing with their issues. Usually to get their relationship working what I have to help them do is find ways to do the opposite – to talk about their pitfalls in their relationships, but in ways that bring them together, not push them apart. The way forward is only through really owning up both their strengths and their weaknesses.
These points of weakness are actually the flip-side to what is good in Jesus and his calling.
I never noticed this until I began to really look at the temptations the devil uses for Jesus. What fascinating ploys the devil uses.
First he questions Jesus’ identity – if you are the Son of God. Being able to question or call into doubt Jesus’ identity stems from the fact Jesus truly is a child of God. Deep down Jesus knows his need to be connected to God and to know who he is. The devil tries to use something good: a sense that Jesus should be connected to God, a sense that he ought to have worth, in order to try and lead Jesus astray.
Then the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus – which is only important because Jesus knows Scripture. The devil knows how important being connected to Scripture and to the faith it proclaims to Jesus. So the devil uses this very good part of who Jesus is to try to lead people astray.
If we are committed to Scriptures or to a particular faith, is that a good thing? Certainly. It can ground us, giving us a place to turn to in order to find God’s voice and discern if we are on the right path. Yet the devil can also use that connection in our life to wreck us, if the particular form of faith we join in becomes an idol that is more important than loving God and loving others. Even the Bible can become twisted into an idol when we let it become used in ways that are not loving. I have seen this happen when a church began to ask of people sacrificing family, or health, or work to serve the church. I’ve seen it when the Bible was twisted to justify mistreating inter-racial couples or gay couples. People’s positive commitment to Scripture and to the faith has been misused by the devil to lead them away from loving others and at times even accepting themselves.
This same thing is at work with the three classical temptations. We usually get it wrong by talking as if the great temptation of Jesus’ is to eat food. In reality in each three temptations he is being tempted to be a certain type of Savior. Turning all the rocks to bread in the desert will allow him to feed all the hungry peasants in Israel, and set up the ultimate kitchen for the poor. Jumping from the top of the temple and being carried down by angels will be the ultimate sign or wonder so people can believe in Jesus because he is a wonder-worker. And getting the power to rule the nations would allow Jesus to set right all that is wrong in the world. These temptations are in fact things which, on their own, Jesus actually kind of does. Jesus does feed 5,000 people with miraculous bread – but never makes miracle bread the center of what he does. Jesus does in fact perfect countless wonders, healing the sick and raising the dead, but never makes flashy signs the point of what he does. Instead again and again Jesus tells people what they need is faith, even if just a tiny bit, which comes not based on what is seen but what cannot be seen or proven. And Jesus proclaims there is a day coming when every nation will bow to him, and he will sit in judgment of the nations separating them from the east from the west, but he refuses to let power become an end in itself that is expressed through violence or worship of anything other than God. All of these pitfalls are actually things which, in another context, would be good and beautiful becoming blessings in our ministry.
This is true for us too. So many aspects of who we are are good and wonderful, in the right context but bad for us & others when they take the wrong place in our lives.
Caring for your family is such an important priority. But if you let what your parents or brothers and sisters believe keep you from being true to who you are and who God is calling you to be, you can shipwreck your lives.
Prayer can move mountains, and is important, but if you use prayer as an excuse not to do your part in solving the problems in front of you, you short-change your growth and end up shutting the door to God answering the very prayers you offer.
Alcohol, when used in moderation, can be relaxing and a source of joy. But if someone becomes addicted to it or misuses it, it can wreck their life and, as I’ve seen before while in the hospital, take others in drunk driving accidents.
Sex is a beautiful gift that can bond two people together, and help them celebrate each other and their love. It can also be misused in ways that treat others as objects, or even where it becomes a weapon of abuse.
Being willing to help others can be a great way to show God’s love but if your willingness to give the shirt of your back puts you in the poorhouse, or ends you in the hospital for not taking care of your own health, it can become a pitfall.
Being a contemplative person can help you shut out the noise of the world and hear God’s voice; it can also be an excuse to pull away from others who need you and can build lasting friendships.
All our vulnerabilities and weaknesses include potentials for strength; all our strengths include potential weaknesses.
This is why we need to learn to be able to say, as a popular song right now does,
“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head…”
We need to learn to embrace our brokeness, our weaknesses, as well as our strengths.”
What happens with Jesus to me shows me that the answer to our weaknesses which the devil can use to tempt us off God’s path for us is not as simple as we often make it. The answer is usually neither giving in to these pitfalls or rejecting them, but learning from them and embracing what is good in them. Jesus is able to still produce bread to feed the thousands, but without reducing people into being animals who only need food. He also teaches them of their spiritual worth, and the way to food that will last to eternal life.
Likewise we need to learn to look for the positive lessons our weaknesses teach us, and how they can become not vessels for temptations off God’s path but instead vessels for blessing us and others.
Your sexuality instead of making you an abomination can be a way of finding a life mate, or of relating with someone who is some other minority and, like you, faces prejudice for who they are.
Your disability might not just stand in the way of you doing certain things others can do, but might open up doors for understanding yourself or others in ways you would not otherwise do.
What I’d like to challenge you to do this week is to take time this to think of one area you view as a weakness, a failing, a frailty about yourself and are insecure about us or ashamed of for every day this week. I want to challenge you to take time each day to meditate on that area and consider strengths, blessings, or gifts it makes possible for you and how it can become an asset you lean on or learn from. By considering how our weaknesses are a part of our strengths and our strengths are a part of our weaknesses we open ourselves up, like Jesus, to being God’s presence of healing and life for others more fully.