The Temptations of Ministry
A little girl was proud of learning all the words to the Lord’s Prayer, and she prayed earnestly one night: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from e-mail.” I can relate to that, and I imagine others can as well. It was a relief this past week to have a good reason not to check messages. There were still evil sources of temptation, specifically the absurd amount of food available on cruise ships. I had lost several pounds in the months prior to sailing, and was determined not to just gain them back in a week-long gluttonous. On the last night, Leroy and I ate at a French restaurant onboard. As I perused the menu, the waiter let us know that we could only choose one entrée, as though that might be a hardship. Then he happily informed us that we could have as many desserts as we wished. “Lead us not into temptation,” right? I am not too proud to admit that I had two desserts.
The voice of the tempter was syrupy sweet as Jesus was offered one amazing opportunity after another. The title of today’s sermon is based on the content of a book by Henri Nouwen, the Dutch psychologist who wrote broadly on spirituality and social justice and lived his final years in community with developmentally disabled adults. While I was still in seminary, I read his very small book titled In the Name of Jesus, and was so influenced by it that I have attempted to read it through at least once each year since then. Nouwen suggests that the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness represent the choices that every minister and ultimately every follower of Jesus has to make.
Several years ago, lovers of golf and those who don’t really care about golf but do love celebrity gossip were shocked by Tiger Wood’s confession of infidelity. It was followed by an apology that contained these words; “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”
What a great statement of truth that is. We most often succumb to temptation when we feel entitled. If there was anyone who might have felt entitled, it was Jesus.
The lectionary of gospel readings after Christmas takes us from Bethlehem to the Jordan River for Jesus’ baptism to the calling of disciples to Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Rev. Sheila Dierks preached about last Sunday. Many of these accounts lift up the gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus’ unique relationship with God. Whether at the river or on the mountain, the message about Jesus was the same: “This is my child, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” Talk about a potential recipe for entitlement.
Squeezed into the middle of this progression of stories is one that we skip and then come back to for the beginning of Lent: The temptations in the wilderness. While Jesus is still dripping from his baptism, the Spirit drives him from the water into the Judean wilderness. The temptations prepare him and also provide a framework for his ministry. In confronting and responding to each test, Jesus demonstrates something critically important about living in general and leadership in particular.
Jesus was tempted, and three of the gospel writers tell the story and describe how Jesus passed the test. Not everyone does, of course. Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything… except temptation.”
The problem with temptation is that the opportunities that test our character are not necessarily all bad. We’re often drawn into a tempting situation not just because something seems so desirable, but also because temptation can seem so reasonable.
There were three temptations for Jesus:
“Turn stones into bread.”
“Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple.”
And “Take all the kingdoms of this world.”
Let’s take a look at these.
First off, what’s wrong with turning stones into bread? Not only was Jesus hungry after many days of fasting, but he could most definitely serve that bread to other hungry people. Nouwen calls this apparent good the temptation of being “relevant”: meeting the expressed, felt need of people. It was a temptation for Jesus, because he knew that doing so would not be giving them what they needed most.
And what’s wrong with jumping off the top of the temple and floating safely to the ground? Impressive and even spectacular acts get attention and showcase how awesome God is. But Jesus didn’t want to be spectacular just to get attention. He apparently believed that something else was more important.
And since we’re on a roll, we could ask why Jesus would object to acquiring all the kingdoms of this world. You can’t influence people for good if you don’t have power. But Jesus had a different understanding of power and was unmoved when facing his adversary.
Speaking of the adversary, who exactly is this creature called the devil who shows up in Mark 2? Is it the guy with the red suit and pointy tail and pitchfork who lives in a fiery pit underground? That’s a hard sell for progressive thinkers, but is it too difficult to imagine what such a figure represents? Certainly, we have heard the inner voice that urges us in directions that are not best for us.
Remember Flip Wilson? For those of us who do, we don’t need the devil to make us do it. Or at least, we know that all of us face temptations of various sorts regardless of our understanding of what is meant by evil and whether we believe in a personal devil or not. Again, temptation isn’t always a choice between an obvious good and an obvious bad. Just like Jesus’ choices in Judea that day, the possibilities can look very attractive and altogether reasonable.
Turn stones into bread. Who doesn’t want to be relevant? In church ministry circles today and for at least the last twenty years, there has been a persistent emphasis on cultural relevance. Three such articles rolled down my Facebook feed this morning. This concept is not unimportant. We can’t help people understand the message of Jesus if we don’t first understand who they are and what their needs are, including the language and priorities of their generation. There is nothing wrong with being relevant, unless the pursuit of relevance blinds us to the truth that people are mostly just people, wherever and whenever they live, and that what people respond to most is love. As a pastor trained over and over again in principles of church growth, I know that there are all kinds of ways to build programs around demographic data and current trends in media and consumption, but ultimately that can distract churches from the greatest priority of simply knowing and loving people and creating a community where they can be affirmed and thrive.
Then there is jumping off the tip of the temple: maybe some Olympian back-flips with a nice solid landing on two feet. Jesus chose not to be spectacular in that manner. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that his choice is a good reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. Whatever good we do is likely to someday be forgotten (we are not Jesus, after all.) So it’s important to stay focused on doing the right thing right now, regardless of whether it’s a huge crowd-pleaser or not. I want to be remembered for how well I cared about people and lifted up their value and helped them to do the slow, steady work of God’s realm. That may not look so impressive from day to day, but in the end it’s what matters most.
Outside of Jericho in the Judean desert is a funny-looking mountain. At its foot is a restaurant that serves up falafels and is named “Mount of Temptation Restaurant.” The mountain above has long been identified as the place where Jesus was tested. He was told to look in every direction and was promised that he could have it all. Just one catch: bow down and worship the devil. Obviously it was ixnay on worshipping the devil, but Jesus’ refusal was about more than that. Power is seductive, and the desire for power for power’s sake inevitably leads to no good.
Jesus could have grabbed power there on the mountain. Later, he could have ridden the waves of popularity with the large crowds that followed him. But again and again, Jesus chose the way of humility. At his relatively young age, he had an amazing sense of his own self. He was secure in who he was and he did not need to be anyone different as he began and eventually completed his three-year ministry. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that Jesus did that, and it is a model for me as I slowly move along a forty-year path from ordination to retirement. Trying to be someone other than one’s self is never a way to success or satisfaction.
The temptations to fix everything, to jump higher, and to grab more, are common to everyone, I think. Jesus faced those tests admirably, and this little part of Mark, repeated in Matthew and Luke, reminds us that we can do the same. We can choose to act with humility even as we use the amazing gifts God has placed within us. May we live in ways that lift everyone higher, that provide enough for all, and that assure that power is shared, not hoarded or wielded selfishly. And may our community always be a place that models those values in the name and spirit of Jesus, for the good of all. Amen.