Sunday, February 21, 2010

The way of Christ means struggling to do what is right (First Sunday of Lent, Luke 4:1-13)

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
and: With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.

* * * * * * * * *

We read today of Jesus going to the desert to prepare himself for the work that lay ahead. The story goes that while in the desert, he had a vision of the suffering he would endure and the death he will face—all in the name of doing God’s will. And he found himself wondering whether he had the strength or the will to face it. That’s when the tempter shows up and says: “You want to save people? Why do it God’s way? Why torture yourself? I’ve got an easier way for you”. And he presents Jesus with three temptations: bread—the symbol of wealth and riches, power, and finally, fame and popularity.

Wealth, power, and fame are the world’s solutions to all our problems. The interesting thing is Jesus was himself tempted by them. Here he was, at the beginning of his ministry, being shown two ways of doing it: God’s way, which was tough and required much sacrifice, and the world’s way, which was quick, painless, and easy. Would you have chosen God’s way? Would I? Why would anyone want to do that?

In the story of Christ’s passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas Iscariot: the traitor, the betrayer, the man who sells his friend for thirty pieces of silver. Judas, we are told by bible scholars, probably loved Jesus more any other disciple. He was also the most intelligent of the group—which was why he was in charge of finances. Judas was also the one who was convinced, more than any of the disciples, that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Son of God. But Judas also wanted the Messiah to be a powerful, political, and popular earthly king who would restore Israel by destroying its enemies.

Judas believed in Jesus. But he found himself wondering more and more why Jesus seemed more interested in following the path of suffering and death, rather than the path of power and glory. And so in one last act of desperation, Judas betrays Jesus. Why? Because, like the devil in the gospel today, he wanted to force the hand of God. He believed that when Jesus was finally getting hurt, God would finally be forced to reveal to the world that Jesus was his son. And he would come down with all his angels to smite and destroy anyone who would dare hurt his son.

But Judas miscalculated. He completely misunderstood the identity of Christ. Like the devil, he wanted Jesus to choose the way of wealth, power, and fame. He wanted Jesus to choose the world’s way. Instead, Christ chose God’s way.

By saying ‘no’ to the world’s temptations, Christ had in fact sealed his fate: he was to suffer and die. But by doing so, he also affirmed once and for all, that he was God’s Son and secured for himself, God’s promise that after suffering and pain, there will be victory and everlasting joy.

Likewise, by saying ‘no’ to the temptations we encounter in our lives, we too seal our fate. For our life will be a constant struggle to do what is right. And that is never easy. But by doing so, we will, like Christ, affirm that we are sons and daughters of God, and not of the world. And in doing so, we secure for ourselves true greatness in this life and in the next—a greatness that wealth, power, and fame cannot buy.

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, Christ confronts us with a question: Will we choose the world’s way, or God’s way? The choice, of course, is ours.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)