Sunday, February 5, 2006

Jesus and the Devil: When Worship Gets Political...As Well it Should

[Third in a series on Jesus' three temptations in the wilderness]
Matthew 4:1-11; Deuteronomy 6:10-19

I’m curious how many of you read the title of my sermon today,
“When worship gets well it should,”
and wondered to yourself how I was going to preach this sermon,
and manage to avoid either
#1 - getting fired, or
#2 - getting the church investigated by the IRS.
You may have heard about the churches in Ohio under investigation
because their preachers got a little too political in their sermons.

Maybe some of you read the title,
and just decided to prepare to be offended.
Well, if you took some offense at the very idea
that worship should be political,
I can’t say that I blame you,
in today’s polarized political climate.
But I assure you that what I’m going to say today
is not going to jeopardize Park View’s tax-exempt status.
The only status I hope to jeopardize today, is the status quo.

This is the third temptation of Jesus.
Last week I said that the first temptation,
turning stones to bread, after 40 days of fasting, made some sense.
Might have been hard to resist.
But the second temptation,
to jump off the temple roof in hopes that angels would rescue him,
was a little far-fetched,
and didn’t sound like much of a temptation...
until we looked at it closer.
Well, the third temptation is wilder yet.
Jesus is tempted to bow down and worship the devil,
so the devil will turn over control of the whole world to Jesus.
Yeah, devil, likely story.
How much of a temptation would that be?
Jesus is secure in his awareness of God’s supreme authority,
and that the Creator of the Universe owns it all to begin with.
Any Jewish boy who went to synagogue knew that.
Is it really a temptation to bow down and worship Satan,
so that Satan will turn over the world to him?
Can’t the devil be any more creative than that,
and give Jesus a real temptation?
Wouldn’t hurt to try the food thing again,
maybe some fish, to go with the bread.

No, like I said last Sunday,
all three of these are representative of universal human temptations,
temptations that were real for Jesus, and real for us,
and agonizingly hard to resist.
So once again,
we’ll have to look beyond face value,
to discover how this temptation might have been a struggle for Jesus,
and a struggle for us.

This is clearly a temptation to misdirect our worship.
It’s a temptation to idolatry.
Now I could take that point and run with it.
And I’ve heard plenty of preachers do that with this temptation.
It’s an opportunity to point out a few of the many things in life
that can take the place of God in our worship,
that can become idols for us.
That wouldn’t be a bad interpretation.

But I’m going to take this another direction,
and suggest that this is a temptation
to make our worship into a 2-way transaction,
to make our religious devotion into a deal
between ourselves and the one we worship.
Now that’s a temptation.

The devil was trying to strike a deal with Jesus.
Just worship me, Jesus, and this is what you get.
Look at this bargain!
The whole world, as far as you can see.
All the nations, their resources, their power.
I’ll give it to you, if you worship me.
Now, if Jesus would have followed the line of thinking,
in which worship is a 2-way transaction,
he could have wondered,
well, what have I gotten so far out of my devotion to God?
I’m approaching middle age,
and hardly anyone knows who I am.
(remember he hadn’t begun his ministry yet)
People only know me as the carpenter’s son.
And as a reward for this spiritual pilgrimage in the desert,
40 days of prayer and fasting,
what have I gotten out of it?
Just complete physical exhaustion,
terrible hunger pains, and spiritual torment.
If worship was about striking a deal,
the devil actually had a pretty good deal going.
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t follow that line of thinking,
and by God’s grace, he turned down the offer.
“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

But I truly have to wonder whether we have what it takes
to turn down such an offer,
if such a great religious deal was ever made available to us.
No, I don’t think that literally,
we are being tempted to sell our soul to the devil.
In the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou,”
they depicted the legend of blues guitarist Tommy Johnson,
who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads,
in exchange for his amazing talent on the guitar.
Well, I doubt any of us have been offered a deal just like that.
But maybe we are tempted with the spiritual equivalent.
Maybe we do enter into our relationship with God,
as if we were making a bargain with God
to benefit our individual self-interests.

In fact, in the broader culture we live in,
that’s exactly what’s expected of religion.
It’s a deal individuals make between themselves,
and whichever deity they worship.
That’s why it’s common knowledge
in our individualistic and pluralistic culture,
that it makes no difference who you worship,
as long as it works for you,
as long as it’s a good deal for you.

This individualism that we have imbibed as Western Christians,
is what leads me to the connection between worship and politics.

Robert Webber and Rodney Clapp wrote a book, entitled
“People of the Truth:
the power of the worshiping community in the modern world.”
They make a pretty convincing argument
that modern individualism has resulted in a more narrow faith,
and more narrow politics.
They say this individualism
is responsible for the fact that so much Christian worship
is self-oriented and self-directed,
and is responsible for the fact that so much of politics
is destructive and polarizing.

We have moved away from seeing the church
as a primary means of influencing the way people live in society,
and have looked instead to governmental politics.
Christians on both the Left and the Right have aligned themselves,
individually, with the political Left and Right,
and we have made it our primary mission
to influence the political process of our nation.
As a result, Christians in the same body of Christ are polarized
and keep their distance from one another.

You’d think they wrote this book as a response to what happened
in the church during the 2004 election.
Churches have never been more polarized.
It’s prompted a call within Mennonite Church USA
to take a 5-year sabbatical from national partisan politics.
But actually, Webber and Clapp wrote this book in 1988.
Not much has changed in almost twenty years.

I want to read a couple sentences,
that I think capture the heart of what they are saying.

“The church at worship is the radical center from which
a Christian political presence in the world radiates.
Worship is central because it celebrates and reenacts the Christian story:
the story of Christ come to suffer, the defeat, evil.
When Christians worship they are shaped by this story;
they become a corporate body formed in the image of Christ,
called to heed the truth and live in a divided world
as a sign of the future kingdom.”

What they are saying is that Christian worship
forms Christian community,
and that community will live out its life in the real world,
and influence that world.
The worshiping Christian community is a political entity.
But the politics of a Christian community
has a whole different basis
than the politics of any national government.
Governmental politics is about exerting social control,
reinforced ultimately by violence, or the threat of violence.
The politics of Jesus, the politics of the kingdom of God
is something different altogether.

Webber and Clapp coined a phrase, “depth politics.”
Depth politics is what shapes a people’s vision and identity.
Depth politics is the way a people see the world
and understand their purpose in it.
Engaging in depth politics is attempting to influence
how people live together in society.
Jesus was the consummate depth politician.
Worship is depth politics.
For that matter, Sunday School, prayer, Bible Study,
small groups, evangelism, mutual care,
just about everything the church does
is an exercise in depth politics.
Because the church is trying to form a contrast community,
trying to show a better way of living in this world,
trying to demonstrate that living our lives together,
under the rule and reign of the living, Triune God,
fulfills our greatest potential as human beings.

But depth politics bears almost no resemblance
to the kind of partisan politics we’re all too familiar with:
a politics based on competition, one-upmanship,
manipulation, and control.
And believe me, that kind of politics has no place whatsoever
in the context of Christian worship.

So now, read my sermon title again,
and think “depth politics” instead of “partisan politics.”

It’s time the church reclaims its central role as church,
as a distinct cultural, sociological, and political entity in this world,
a people founded on Christ,
formed by the politics of Jesus—
the politics of openness and hospitality,
of self-sacrificing love and compassion,
the kind of politics...that ended up with
Jesus walking through the darkness of Passion Week,
instead of walking down the red carpet under bright lights,
to take his seat in Jerusalem’s equivalent of the Oval Office.

And it’s worship that will help us reclaim our role as church,
It’s worship that gives us a chance to retell the God story.
It’s worship that reminds us who we are,
and who God calls us to be.
It’s worship that will help the church regain
and live out of its identity and vision,
which is a very different identity and vision
than the one operative in the world around us.
It’s worship that will help us be a depth-political community.

But we won’t get there
if we think of worship merely as an event where
a bunch of random individuals happen to be together,
where God and me have this private transaction going.
Worship is not a deal we make with God.
I bow down to you,
and then you bless me with good warm feelings,
or material blessings,
or physical well-being,
or wonderful fulfilling relationships,
or whatever my individual need might be.
When our life of faith, and our experience of worship,
is reduced to striking a deal with God,
then we are going to be vulnerable
to striking a deal with the enemy of God,
with the Devil, the Great Separator.
And we just might be so blinded by it all,
that we won’t know the difference.
We won’t know which God we’re bowing to.
We’ll just know we’re getting what we came here for.

In contrast, worship as depth politics,
worship that reminds us of who we are as a church in the world,
worship that facilitates a corporate encounter with Jesus Christ,
the one whose body we are,
the one whose mission we are participating in,
the one who has sent us into the world,
that kind of worship is worship that will send the Devil packing.
The Great Separator doesn’t stand a chance
of deceiving us into thinking
that he even has the wherewithal to offer us the wealth of the world.

We just heard a reading from Deuteronomy 6,
the passage Jesus quoted from in his last answer to the Devil.
It’s a wonderful picture of the way God intends for us,
as God’s people, to live in the world.
God was warning the people of Israel,
who were about to enter the promised land,
and were about to settle down in cities,
and enjoy the blessings and abundance of life
in solid houses, and fruitful fields, and deep wells.
God says to them,
remember who you are and where you came from.
Don’t ever think that this stuff all around you is your identity.
Don’t fall for the gods of the people all around you.
V. 13: “Worship the Lord your God. Him only shall you serve.”

When we get our worship straight, we get our politics straight.
You know, worship and politics ask the same kind of questions.
They ask, “Who do you love most?”
“Where do your loyalties lie?”
“Where do you find security?”
“Whose story is forming your story?”

If being “political” as a people of God,
means discovering who we are as church,
as a community of disciples living in a confused and broken world,
and if “worship” means encountering the God
who forms us as this community, in this world,
then I hope and pray that our worship gets political
every time we gather.

If that’s the character of our worship every week,
then it’s not just the IRS that has something to worry about,
that kind of worship should be unsettling to all the powers that be.
Because that kind of worship will change the way we live in the world.
It will shift our loyalties.
It will jeopardize the status quo.

It will please God. it did in Jesus’ case,
it will make the devil turn his back, and slink away.
And we will be cared for by angels.

Sisters and brothers, let us worship the Lord our God,
and serve only the Lord our God.

—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2006

1 comment:

AK said...

I enjoyed this sermon quite a bit.
- Aaron