February 29, 2012


“The Temptation of the Church”

Matthew 4:1-11




Still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterward he was hungry” (Matt. 4:1-2).  


What Matthew proceeds to tell us about Jesus’ wilderness tests (4:3-11) is a multilayered story. At the deepest level lies the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent’s proposal that they become like God (Gen. 3:5). Next are the accounts of Israel’s 40 years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2) . Even closer to the experience of Jesus is that of Moses who was with the Lord for 40 days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank but was taken to a high mountain and shown all the land as far as the eye could see (Deut. 34:1-8) . Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ desert struggles to highlight his relationship to our forebears in Eden, the history of Israel, and the prophecy that God would raise up among the people one like Moses (Deut. 18:18) .



The impact of the story, however, lies not in its echoes of earlier biblical records. Most readers don’t need commentaries to resonate with what is going on in the life of Jesus. Nor is the story preserved to satisfy the historical curiosity of those who might wonder what happened to Jesus immediately after his baptism. Rather, the account directly spoke and speaks to a church whose own faithfulness is forged again and again in the desert.


In the church, much has been said and written about the ways that the church loses its sense of being creature and not Creator.  Often times we become so focused on being relevant that we forget just how much the Gospel transcends relevance.  At the same time, the church is always tempted to always depend upon God for safety when we jump headlong into whatever it is we believe demonstrates a radical trust in God.   


Have you ever sat in a consistory meeting, a board meeting, and wondered, even for a minute, why it is so hard to get some ministry up and running?  Maybe God isn’t desiring that we do this thing.  Maybe the opposition is God’s way of saying ‘don’t go there, come here.’


Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will. Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit. Take a poll among the churches, ask them about their mission initiatives: it’s usually the obedient efforts and not the disobedient that are struggling, being opposed and tested. The ‘play it safe,’ the ‘we’ve never done this before, the ones that say ‘I don’t see anything about this in the Heidelberg Catechism or Luther’s shorter Catechism:’ it is those projects that never challenge the current culture or status quo that  seem to have a knack for locating the cushions.


I, for one, believe that temptation, in the church, indicates strength, not weakness. The church is only tempted  to do that which lies within it’s capacity. The greater a congregation’s capacities, the greater their temptations. The fierceness of Jesus’ desert struggle is testimony to his power.


Sometimes this temptation is subtle.  Temptation does not usually involve an obvious or undisguised evil. We first convince ourselves that an endeavor is reasonable and promises good results before we put our mind and hand to it. The scene before us is not a cartoon of Jesus debating some horned creature with a fiendish face who smells of sulfur. Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for the ministry now before him and is presented with three avenues. All three have immense possibilities for good.  The church is no different.


Jesus’ victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. Yet it isn’t that he didn’t accomplish the very things he was tempted to do; in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact.  What Jesus’ rejected in every test was to try to be like God or to be God. As Paul put it, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7) . He did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.


One of the greatest temptations for the church is a sense of ‘arrival.’  A few weeks ago, in a sermon, my Associate reminded Hain’s church (Reflecting on the Elijah and Elisha saga) that the mantle of faithfulness crosses generations.  In this sense, God is no respecter of persons or churches or denominations.  This God of desert temptations can raise up a faithful few if we cannot or will not heed the urgings of the Spirit.


Jesus’ temptations did not end in the desert. Again and again he was tested. “Avoid the cross,” said his close and well-meaning friend Simon. And, of course, there was Gethsemane. With the church, the story is the same; testing never ceases. This is why we gather frequently and pray: Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.