Sunday, January 29, 2006

Jesus and the Devil: The Fine Line Between Faith and Stupidity

[Second in a series on Jesus' three temptations in the wilderness]
Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 91

I don’t know about you,
but I’ve always thought the second temptation of Jesus
isn’t really much of a temptation.
Jesus was taken to the pinnacle of the temple,
and told to jump, because God had promised to protect him.
Now I enjoy being on high places and looking out over everything.
There’s a certain thrill to it.
I got a couple chances to do that
when Irene and I took our vacation to Europe.
One day, in fact, I did climb to the pinnacle of a temple,
the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany.
I walked up 532 steps, almost to the top of one of the spires,
over 500 feet above the streets.
It was great. But I really can’t say,
“I was so tempted to climb out the window and jump.”
No, the thought never crossed my mind.

Later, I went on a hike with Pierre-André Lechot,
whom some of you remember, from their time here at Park View.
And I had my first-ever experience with a sort of rock-climbing.
It was actually a horizontal trail along the face of a cliff,
with a thick iron cable embedded in the rock,
that ran the length of the trail.
We were both wearing harnesses with clips,
so the whole time we were physically attached to the cliff.
And it was thrilling
to look down on their village a thousand feet below.
But never once did I think to myself,
“You know, if I unclip myself from this cable, and jump,
the Lord will surely save me.”

Nope. Second temptation of Jesus? Not a temptation.
And if it wasn’t tempting for me,
it certainly wasn’t for Irene,
who on both occasions kept her feet firmly at ground level.

On the face of it, this is a rather silly and stupid temptation.
Now the first temptation was different.
Turning stones to bread, after a 40-day fast in the desert,
might be kind of hard to resist.
But to jump from the temple,
expecting angels to swoop down from the sky,
and scoop you up in their arms
and keep you from so much as bumping your foot?
That’s not faith, that’s stupidity.
It must not have been much of a challenge for Jesus to resist.

So, if on the face of it, it looks too easy or too silly,
it must mean we need to look beyond the face of it.
Because these three temptations were not only real for Jesus,
they are emblematic of the temptations we face.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Christ is not someone
“who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect
has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

So if this story of Jesus’ victorious struggle with the devil
is to be of encouragement to us,
we have to look for the deeper struggle in this for Jesus.
Why was this such a temptation for Jesus?

Well, one way to put it, is to say that Jesus was tempted
to put God into the position of serving him,
instead of the other way around.
It was the temptation to try to force God’s hand.
And to give in to this temptation,
would be to hand a victory to the devil,
the Great Separator (as I called him last week).
Because it would separate Jesus from mission, and his identity,
which was to serve God, and the purposes of God.

This whole arrangement between the Creator God,
and the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ,
was that Jesus would be the hands and feet of God in the world.
He was here for the sole purpose of serving God,
and announcing the rule and reign of God.
For anyone to say to God, “Look, God, here’s what I’m about to do.
Now, it’s up to you to do this in response.”...
for anyone to say such a thing,
is to grab the agenda out of God’s hands,
and try to take over responsibility.
Threatening to jump off a precipice,
trusting God to rescue you,
is actually not an act of trust in God at all.
It’s an act of profound mis-trust.
It’s saying to God, “I don’t trust you with the agenda.
I’m taking it over from here.”

Now, I suppose, we can all begin to see,
how very real,
and how everyday,
and how much of a challenge,
this second temptation of Jesus really is,
the temptation to have God serve us, instead of us serve God.

Often, I’ve heard preachers suggest that this second temptation,
is primarily that of choosing the sensational and spectacular,
as the way to get the message across.
That Jesus was being tempted to use his divine connections,
to draw attention to himself, to achieve fame,
and to convince people to believe in him.
That makes sense, in a way.
But that explanation isn’t very satisfying to me.
Because, in fact, Jesus’ ministry often did wind up
being very attention-getting and sometimes sensational.
Some of his acts of ministry were indeed
public displays of miraculous power,
such that thousands believed in him.
What could be more spectacular and in the public view,
than feeding a crowd of thousands,
with five little loaves and two fishes,
then collecting 12 baskets of leftovers?
That was far more likely to draw attention and draw crowds
and convince skeptics,
than jumping from the top of the temple.
At most, only a handful of people could be eyewitnesses to that.

Furthermore, in the gospels, these three temptations of Jesus,
function in the story, as universal human temptations.
I don’t think the temptation to do things
spectacular and sensational and which make us famous,
is really a universal human temptation.
Sure, some folks have an ambition to achieve celebrity status,
and might be tempted to jump, strictly for that reason.
And public personalities,
like pastors, for instance,
or politicians, or other public figures,
could find it tempting to pursue the spectacular.
But most people actually prefer being behind the scenes.

No, I think this is a universal temptation,
and it’s a temptation on a deep level,
and it’s a temptation we all struggle with every day.

We aren’t being tempted to jump from a pinnacle every day.
But daily we are tempted to buy into the assumptions
of the pinnacle-jumper.
Daily we are tempted to make decisions on the same basis
as the pinnacle-jumper.

Pinnacle-jumpers assume God is here for them.
That’s the reason they’re willing to jump.
They are acting out of a false understanding of the nature of God.
Since God loves me,
it must mean that God will do anything for me.
If I have enough faith,
God will give me whatever I ask.
If I love God sufficiently,
and live a good, holy, and sufficiently pure life,
then God will surely return the favor,
and work on my behalf.

Whenever we talk about our faith in terms of
what God does for me,
we are in danger of falling for the second temptation.
Too much talk about how God has blessed me,
or done this for me, or that for me,
or provided me with this thing or that thing,
or how wonderful my life is with God in it,
some red flags ought to be going up.

The fact of the matter is that faith in God
does not prevent me from suffering,
it does not shield me from disaster,
it does not guarantee me a blessed and privileged life.

Authentic faith is God-centered faith.
Always and only.
Faith focused on me and my needs and my agenda
is a distortion of the Gospel,
and can scarcely be called faith.

That’s where the devil got it wrong,
when he quoted Psalm 91 to Jesus.
The psalmist never said and never meant,
“Take any risk you want, and God will protect you.”
No, the focus of this psalm is something altogether different.

Let’s take a look at it again...Psalm 91.
The heart of the psalm is in the first two verses.
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’”

This is a psalm about where to find our home, our identity.
It is about entering into the deep with God.
It is about becoming so immersed in, so identified with, God,
that it would be the worst insult for someone to suggest
that you’re in this for what you get out of it.
It would be inconceivable to think of God as your candy-man.
It would be like someone accusing you
that the only reason you go back home to visit your parents,
is the free food and lodging.
In some unhealthy families it might be that way.
But no one in their right mind would suggest
that the reason we should stay on good terms with our parents,
are the freebies we get when we visit.

So why is it we are so tempted to think of God that way?
Why is it that so often it’s our own agenda
that’s driving our relationship with God?
That’s the bottom line of the second temptation:
to let our agenda determine how we relate to God.
It’s to assume,
well if I have this need, then that is the way God will meet it,
or if I’m in that situation, then God will surely act in this way
on my behalf.
To think that way is to distort the nature of God.

In life, bad things happen.
Terrible, unthinkable things happen.
Unexplainable suffering occurs.
Last November 1, the Jeffrey and Carolyn Schrock family,
relatives of Paul Schrock,
suffered a terrible tragedy when a car accident took the lives
of their five children in Washington State.
This past Wednesday, in Florida, the opposite corner of the country,
the Barbara and Terry Mann family lost their five children,
and three other relatives, as a result of a crash.
Both families were heavily involved in their respective churches.
Their pastors spoke about their faith and commitment.

Now, who would like to go and read Psalm 91 to these two families,
and try to convince them
that if we stay on God’s side,
God will protect us from suffering?
that God will send his angels to keep us from
dashing our foot against a stone?

Claiming that God protects the faithful from suffering
is a gross distortion of the truth.
It’s a logical impossibility to claim both
that God will rescue us from every danger,
and that God is with us in our suffering.

In other famous psalm, we are assured that
God will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death,
not that God will keep us from ever entering the valley.

It’s a result of our culture
that glamorizes health and wealth and success and social status,
and stigmatizes disease and poverty and defeat,
that we have invented a God whose primary work in our lives,
is to protect us from suffering,
and bless us with abundance.

It’s a result of our culture,
that we have blurred the fine line between faith and stupidity.
Faith is,
to place our full trust in the God
with whom we are in deep communion,
with whom we dwell,
and in whom we find our refuge.
But to trust in some principle
that whatever we want or need or ask for, we will get,
is not faith, but stupidity.

That might sound a little harsh.
I’m not trying to call you stupid.
...Well, yes I am. But I’m calling all of us stupid, including myself.
And by stupid, I’m referring to the dictionary definition.
Stupid comes from the Latin word meaning dazed, or stunned.
And thus, unable to think clearly.

Our individualistic, consumeristic, success-driven culture
has us in a daze.
We are unable to think clearly.
We’ve been stupified.
And we have confused faith with a formula.
In our culturally-induced stupor,
we have confused authentic faith
in a God of love and self-sacrifice,
with a self-centered cheap religious substitute,
that would guarantee success and freedom from suffering.

So what can we say about Psalm 91?
What exactly did the devil get wrong,
when he quoted the scripture?

And to be honest, there are parts of that psalm
that are truly hard to reconcile.
Because it does claim God will deliver us
from pestilence, terror, and destruction.
A thousand will fall on our right and on our left,
but it won’t come near us, it says, v. 7.
I don’t have easy answers for all this.

But to just begin to answer, I would make several observations.
First, the psalm is not about risk-taking behavior.
It’s about living within the deep shelter of God.
It’s the ones dwelling under the wings of God,
that this psalm is addressed to.
It’s not those going out looking for trouble,
putting themselves at risk for reasons of self-promotion.
That’s the first reason the devil got it wrong.
The other observation is that the psalm itself
does not guarantee protection in every incident and every case.
V. 15 says, “I will be with them in trouble.”
V. 16 says, “I will show them my salvation.”
What we are assured of, if we make God our refuge,
is that we will never suffer ultimate destruction.
Our end is clear. Our end is salvation.
The angels will bear us up.
Maybe not in the time and manner we wish for.
But God will not allow our final destruction.
We will be delivered.
We will find rest.

And when you read the whole psalm,
you find out that, ironically,
when Jesus refused to listen to the devil when he quoted the psalm,
the real message of the psalm came true.
Jesus was delivered, like it says in v. 3, from the snare of the fowler.
The devil, the Great Separator, the deceiver,
failed to catch his prey in the trap.
Jesus was delivered from the snare.

This temptation, far from being easy to avoid,
is probably one of the most difficult.
It is only by the grace of God,
that we can be saved from the stupor
brought on by our culture, and by our sinful nature.
May God, in whom we trust, be gracious to us all,
and give us the strength to resist.

—Phil Kniss, January 29, 2006

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