Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Lent.
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
This week I was at rehearsal for a community choir I’m a part of. We were practicing Handel’s Messiah, singing about the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, when suddenly, out of nowhere, our substitute director burst out:
“Have you seen the lottery lately? 381 million. Can you imagine? I don’t even know what I would do with that.”
His comment sent my mind racing—because unlike him, I have plentyof ideas of what I could do with 381 million dollars. And a lot of them involve this very church. Building repairs to ease our financial burdens, staff hires to expand our programs, marketing materials to get our name out. My heart very nearly beat faster when I realized the kind of mission work we could pull off with 381 million dollars.
It would feel like a miracle, right? To deposit that kind of check into the church’s bank account?
I wonder, though, what the long-term repercussions would be. Not all bad, certainly—but what would it do to us, to our faithfulness as a congregation, if we no longer needed to provide our own stewardship funds, our own time to teach Sunday School, our own man-hours to clean the church? What would it do to us if we could buy our way to the mission God has for us, instead of working for it?
Mulling over this hypothetical church jackpot, I think I better understand the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. 40 days he has been fasting, 40 days he has been hungry. 40 days trying to be faithful to God when everything around him says he won’t be able to make it. And then Satan strolls in—Satan, which in Hebrew means the adversary, the prosecutor for the defense—Satan strolls in and offers him everything, not that he’s ever wanted, but that will help him achieve the mission God has called him to.
These are the temptations of Jesus—not to bad things, but to shortcuts to faithfulness.
When I use the word temptation in my own life, I am usually thinking about things that are bad for me—too much Netflix, the snooze button, mcdonald’s French fries, defense strategies. As a product of the 90s DARE program, I think about temptations as something I need to “just say no” to.
But Jesus doesn’t need to say no to feeding the hungry, to ruling the nations, to trusting in God. It’s not the what of the temptations Satan offers him that’s dangerous. It’s the how.
Satan offers Jesus three shortcuts to the mission God has given him—feed the hungry, yes, but start with yourself, alone. Take this one stone and turn it into a loaf of bread and chow down. Don’t multiply it and share it with the hungry crowds. Don’t break it and share it with your disciples. Claim your miracle for yourself. You’re still feeding the hungry, right? Isn’t that what your God asked you to do?
Rule the nations, yes—but from afar, from this high mountaintop. Don’t go down into the cities and meet the people. Don’t touch the lepers and the blind and bleeding ones. Don’t listen to their stories and their cries. Don’t make friends. Don’t love them. Just rule them from up here. You’re still Lord of Lords, right? Isn’t that what your God asked you to do?
Trust in God, yes—but on a dare, by doing harm to yourself, by making a spectacle of it. Throw yourself down from the temple and make sure everyone sees God come to your aid, and yours alone. Make sure everyone sees how special you are, that the angels come to you. You are God’s chosen and beloved, right? Isn’t that who your God asked you to be?
Satan offers Jesus ways to live out his mission that keep him away from people, above them, apart from them. He offers Jesus shortcuts, ways to look faithful and feel faithful without ever doing the hard work of discipleship. If he can only keep Jesus from the people he was born to love, he knows he’ll have the victory.
But Jesus, to absolutely no one’s surprise, is wiser than Satan. Not because he “just says no”—in fact, the word “no” appears nowhere in the temptation story—but because he knows there are no shortcuts to faithfulness. He knows the work he is called to cannot be fully accomplished by a magic trick, backroom deal, or single spectacle. He knows it is going to be hard, and slow. It is why he takes 40 days to prepare.
Jesus isn’t called to a life where things are handed to him. In fact, entirely the opposite. Jesus is called to a life where nothing comes easy, but everything is real. He’s called to work with and among people to bring God’s kingdom the hard way, authentically, one beloved, healed, faithful human at a time.
When he feeds the hungry, it will not be as a parlor trick. When he rises as ruler of the nations, it will not be as one who has never lived in them.
And when he plummets, when he is in danger, when death is on his heels, he will trust in God and the angels will not come. No one will save him. No one will show him that trusting God never means not being hurt.
And yet that very trust—Father, not my will but yours—will carry him even further. Into the grave, yes, but through it and out of it once more. The hardest three days of God’s life, I’m sure, and then Jesus will rise to show us that it is the long journey, the hard journey, the slow and painful and real journey, that leads to true faithfulness.
There are shortcuts to what looks like faithfulness, for us as individuals and for us as a church. I sometimes think—if only I could give more money, then I would be faithful. Or if only I could go on more mission trips, then I would be faithful. Or if only there was some miracle in my life I could point to as proof, undeniable tangible proof of God’s favor for me, then I could be faithful.
But I think faith gained easily doesn’t last. It’s only what we’ve worked for that we hold onto.
And as a church, there are shortcuts we could take to the mission we have been given—to be a home for people of faith here in northern Kentucky, to teach the gospel, to practice love, compassion, and justice in our communities, to encourage people in the way of Christ.
I remember some years ago a news story about a megachurch in—of course—Texas that filled their easter service with raffles and giveaways, including Sixteen cars and 15 flat-screen televisions. Everyone who showed up to Easter Sunday was eligible to win, and even just for showing up, received a gift bag with over 300 dollars worth of coupons.
To no one’s surprise, the place was packed. By the numbers, their church looked great—bursting with faith—on Easter Sunday.
Now, criticizing another church is always an exercise in hypocrisy, and I am sure there are a few folks who stuck around, and who fell in love with jesus the hard, slow way once the shiny new buzz had worn off. But I can’t help but wonder how hard it would be to learn about a faith that calls us to humility, to sacrifice, to service, when it’s founded on getting your hands on a high-def plasma screen.
With enough money, we could grow this church to epic proportions. With enough money, we could make our Christmas baskets the talk of the Internet. With enough money, we could hire world-renowned Christian artists and make each worship service a concert experience.
And I think while we did all that, our faith would atrophy. I think we would come to rely not on god, but on the money. I think we would get used to the path of least resistance, to the easy road.
And I think when something hit us that money—or power, which is often the same thing—couldn’t solve, we wouldn’t have the strength to turn back to god to sort it out.
To follow Jesus is to be people of the long road. It is to do the hard, grunt work of developing relationships with people, of loving when it’s hard to love, of not seeing big results. It’s being willing to go slow, and earn every step of your journey. It’s not giving into shortcuts, even when the end result seems like everything we’ve ever felt called to do.
Lent has long been called a journey. It’s a journey we’ll take with Jesus. And sometimes we might wish we could skip straight to Easter, straight to the happy ending of it all.
But that’s not what god calls us to. For God, the journey means something. It means learning what real faith looks like.
Faith is slow, hard work. Challenging work. But to take that long road is the only way to walk, step by step, with Jesus.
To God, who is with us all the way, be the glory. Amen.