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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11In almost every area of modern life there comes an examination of some sort – a test. The results of the test determine whether or not you can continue along the path you are following. Obsession about passing tests begins early in life. Our Elementary and Middle School students have recently gotten stressed over MSAs – the Maryland State Assessments as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Students must pass proficiency exams in school before they can proceed to higher levels of learning. You cannot drive a car legally until you pass a written and a road test. You cannot participate in high school or college athletics unless you can pass a physical exam and a skills test. If you want to get authorized to fix air conditioners, or give manicures, or be an electrician, or fly an airplane, or sell stocks and bonds and other financial securities you first have to take a test.
Whether you want to be a plumber, a barber, a scientist, a lawyer, a teacher, or a minister there comes a moment when you must take and pass the test before you can reach your goals.
There are other tests beyond career and academics. One of the most important tests I passed was when met Chris’s mother and sisters as Chris’ boyfriend. Did I have the potential to be a good husband to their daughter and baby sister? Did I have good values? Did I have potential to be a good parent? I think I did OK.
So, there are some tests that measure the content of one’s knowledge. Other tests measure the content of one’s character.
Life gives us a series of tests that can identify type of persons we are. We are tested on what the lengths we will go to bring fulfillment to our lives. We are tested on how we use or abuse our influence and privilege. We are tested on the limits of care and respect. Fulfillment. Power. Autonomy. These are the same kinds of tests that Jesus faces in the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.
The story is not so much about temptation as it is about passing the test. Imagine the devil as a prosecutor, not a demon. The devil is an accuser who appears to see if Jesus has true character. He gives three oral examinations to test three key areas of integrity: fulfillment, power, and autonomy. Wait a minute . . . those words also sound like American idealism to me. They are part of the pillars of American exceptionalism. The American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.
In other words; power, fulfillment and autonomy. Are these tests to be passed, or ideals to be embraced?
This year, perhaps more than any other, many of the movies that contended for the Oscar’s Best Film ask the same question. The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of whether money can bring fulfillment. Jonah Hill, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, said he wanted his role because he knew men he had grown up with who worshipped wealth exclusively, who could not see anything in life as alluring, as enticing, as money. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character has everything money can buy: drugs, sex, financial corruption. Will it bring happiness?
Blue Jasmine won Cate Blanchette an Oscar for her performance as a woman who sacrifices everything for a privileged lifestyle of wealth, living happily among people who, like her, have no other real attachments. Ill fortune plunges her into the misery of a blue collar life, from which she tries to escape by going it alone, and fails.
American Hustle preaches a sermon on greed for power and its destructive effects.
Philomena, Nebraska, and Dallas Buyers Club turn the camera toward the meek and the persecuted, showing how suffering comes to them by the greed and cruelty of the powerful around them. The young Philomena is persecuted by nuns who sell babies for money and who enjoy lording it over penniless pregnant young women. Nebraska depicts the wonder of a family that never had much love for one another, rediscovering their abiding affection and declining the temptation to pull apart in the name of individualism. Dallas Buyers Club follows a hate-filled Texan from his discovery that he has AIDS to his creation of a group of mostly gay men who buy powerful drugs from other countries and smuggle them in to keep themselves alive. To what lengths will people go for survival? Fulfillment. Power. Autonomy.
Matthew’s gospel wants us to know that Jesus faced these things, too. He wants readers to know that Jesus has the credentials to be the Messiah. He’s vetted for the job, because any Messiah worth anything will remain faithful under fire. So the Devil appears and says, “Jesus, turn these loaves into bread.” Jesus is now tested to use power to create self-sufficiency. Jesus knows if he can make bread out of a stone once, he can do it twice. Then he can do it a hundred times more. Then he can store it. Then he can feel less afraid when hunger pangs make his stomach grumble. Then he can sell the surplus to others and make a profit out of suffering. But that’s not part of Jesus’ economy. He’d rather rely on God’s daily bread.
The Devil says, “If you really want to show everyone you are Messiah, you need a dramatic, high risk stunt. Throw yourself off the top of the Temple and show us you can fly with the angels. Scripture says any good Messiah would be able to do it.” Jesus is now tested on whether he will manipulate authority for his own purposes. Stunts create spectacle and buzz; oohs and ahhs. In God’s economy, the gold standard is love and its value grows one heart at a time.
Finally, the Devil gives a melodramatic ultimatum. “I will give you everything your heart desires if you worship me!” Jesus can become like the other political rulers of the day who become power hungry and join Rome to get a slice of the Empire’s power. Jesus says no. In God’s economy, the oppressed are set free by the power of sacrificial love.
In this sense, Jesus is more like Solomon Northrup in this year’s Oscar-winning best picture, 12 Years a Slave. In the movie, Christian slave masters wear a devilish mask for horror, shown to us through the unflinching eyes of a kidnapped slave. Solomon Northrup hangs on fiercely to his sense of Belovedness. Similarly, in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to endorse an economy of slavery that ensnares and enslaves God’s beloved.
Jesus will emerge from this and make his way through thickets of conversation, angry mobs, and stumbling friends, until he comes to a brooding capital city, as tense as Kiev is today. The shadows will lengthen, and he will once again wrestle with these fearful temptations in the Garden, his closest friends asleep by his side.
On one hand, none of these Jesus stories are not about us, unless someone here is trying out for the role of Messiah and didn’t tell us yet. On another hand, these stories are all about us. We need these stories to remind us that life can become a wilderness, whether it’s family life, the car pool, the office, small towns, large cities, the church, even a zealous vision for peace. Tests of character abound.
For me, these tests are all about weighing costs and demands. Making priorities. Living out our values with our lives. Tests are about being true. Staying faithful. Being grateful. It’s about stewardship. Lent is actually a great time to relearn stewardship. Lent invites us to a spiritual practice Italians call distacco. It means giving up a lesser value or goal to achieve something better, like an athlete who stays home Saturday night and doesn’t party before a big game, so as to be in great shape. This kind of detachment is a healthy spiritual way to help us regain control over our instincts and desires.
Think back to the American Creed I mentioned before: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Are they tests to pass or essential principles for survival? We can only answer that when we become aware of times we have accepted and follow the Creed without thinking about it. It’s true of any creed or doctrine. Have we made a wide-awake, character-driven choice to follow a creed, or are we living out someone else’s ideals uncritically? Once we become intentional, once we become awake, only then can we decide if something helps us or harms us.
That’s what Lent is for. Lent is a season of intentionality. It’s a time to give up control. We give up fear-driven control that makes us grasp for security. We let go of the ways others control us. We ask, “What are the ideas and behaviors that, if I were to lose them, would actually enhance my quality of life?” We ask, “What are the ideas and behaviors that, if I were to take them on, might help me to feel closer to God and others?”
Since it is our Stewardship Season, what if we were to accept the idea of giving just 5% of our waking hours for prayer, reflection, and works compassionate justice – a half-tithe of our time? How would our lives look? During a 168 hour week, average American s work 50 hours, sleep 45 hours, eat 15hours , watch TV 12hours, socialize 6 hours, shop 5hours, read/watch movies 4 hours, do hobbies 3 hours, exercise 2 hours, and do religious activity 1hour -- .6% of our weekly time. 5 % of our time for prayer and service is 8 hours a week – just about one hour a day. When it comes to how we spend our time and talents, I encourage us to ask, “What are the ideas and behaviors that, if we were to lose them, would actually enhance our quality of life? What are the ideas and behaviors that, if we were to take them on, might help us to feel closer to God and others, and can we give up a little control of some of these other things to nurture our spirits?”
And since it is our Stewardship Season, let’s think critically about how we spend money. This is good for us as we live in a culture of consumerism that entices us to purchase pleasure as a way to find power, fulfillment and autonomy. We are bombarded by appeals to buy things we do not need and often do not even use. We are told the economy depends upon it. During a total year, Americans spend $44 billion on soft drinks, $35 billion on sports, $29 billion on diets, $12 billion on candy, $8 billion on pets, $5.5 billion on video games, $3.4 billion on cut flowers, $2.7 billion on skin care, and $1.7 billion on religious ministry, or about 1.3% of our total expenses. When we think we are giving of our treasure, what are the ideas and behaviors that, if we were to lose them, would actually enhance our quality of life? What are the ideas and behaviors that might help us to feel closer to God and others? Can we give up a little control of some of our wealth in order to nurture our spirits?” Let’s not judge, yet. Let’s just be aware.
The question Lent raises is this: When the time of testing comes, what I am willing to let go of in order to make my character reflect the character of Christ? How can my community be better loved and better served? If we’re giving up something for Lent and we’re really not missing it, maybe we don’t need it at all or as much as we think. If we are adding a new practice at Lent and it’s not making an impact, perhaps we have more time, more talent, and more treasure that we could give for the good of others!