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Back to Basics

San Williams

March 13, 2011
Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11

03-13-2011 SermonSoren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish Theologian, took issue with the Christian culture of his day. The problem, as Kierkegaard saw it, wasn’t a lack of information. The Danes of that day were a Sunday-schooled people.  They knew the biblical stories, had memorized many verses, and were conversant with the creeds. Kierkegaard leveled sharp criticism at the Danish Christians, but it wasn’t because they lacked knowledge.

Our situation today is very different from that. There is a lack of fundamental knowledge. At UPC, our new elders and deacons are reading a book together, and in the introduction the author declares: “Much of what bedevils the church today is rooted in the twin maladies of biblical illiteracy and theological amnesia.”  Well, let’s grant some validity to those charges and, with the help of our scripture readings this morning, go back to basics. Let’s briefly rehearse the ABC’s of our faith. 

Start with Matthew’s story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  As do Mark and Luke, Matthew inserts this fanciful story between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry.  By its strategic placement in the Gospel, Matthew is saying to his readers that the temptation story conveys some information that is fundamental to everything that follows. Specifically, Matthew lets us know at the outset that Jesus is inseparable from the whole history of God’s dealing with Israel. Matthew wants to be sure we recognize how Jesus re-presents, re-lives and re-defines Israel’s relationship with God. The mention of “forty days and forty nights” is reminiscent not only of Moses’ fast but also of Israel’s forty-year in the wilderness. Jesus’ responses to the temptations are all direct quotes from Deuteronomy.  Moreover, the order in which Matthew places the temptations of Jesus is the same chronological order of Israel’s testing in the wilderness.  So every detail in the temptation story places Jesus within the larger narrative about this beleaguered people and their faithful God.

Now, identifying Jesus within a larger biblical story may seem obvious, basic. Yet check out today’s best sellers in the spiritual reading category, and you’ll notice how frequently Jesus is depicted as a kind of wise teacher. From the way many people tell it, Jesus simply appeared on the stage of human history as highly evolved spiritual guide, a sage who enlightened people about the ways of God. Jesus was these things, but what’s interesting–and I believe misleading–is the widespread attempt today to understand Jesus apart from the whole biblical narrative involving creation, fall, redemption and new creation. 

Jewish painter Marc Chagall knew better.  In his painting, “The White Crucifixion,” he shows Jesus on the cross wrapped in a Jewish prayer cloth.  Scenes around Jesus recount the history of Jewish trials and suffering—scenes from the Exodus, the sojourn in the wilderness, the exile in Babylon, the destruction of the Temple, and even the pogroms and holocaust of the last century.  In Chagall’s painting, the long history of Jewish suffering is embodied in the person of Jesus, especially in his suffering on the cross.  Well, in the temptation story, Matthew shows us with written images what Chagall did with visual ones.  Namely, that Jesus can’t be understood apart from the scars, the sufferings, the hopes and the promises that are narrated for us in the biblical story.  That’s letter A in our theological vocabulary.

B.   Unlike his ancestors before him, and unlike all of us who came after him, Jesus was unwavering in his obedience to God.  In his baptism God declared of Jesus:  “Here is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Then in today’s story, we learn why God is well-pleased. Whereas Israel failed the tests in the wilderness, Jesus succeeds.  Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall notes that there are not really three temptations but three variations on one temptation. It is the temptation to assert power apart from God.  In the first variation, Jesus is tempted to forge a new way forward by using miraculous powers (“Command these stones to become bread”).  In the second variation, he is tempted to impress the people with spectacular power (“Throw yourself down from the temple’s pinnacle”).  And the third variation is to rule the people through political power (“All the kingdoms of the world can be yours”).  Yet Jesus resisted the temptation to assert himself in any of these ways.  As the hymn in Philippians declares, “He emptied himself, took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.” 

Jesus’ steadfast faith in God brings to my mind the booming voice of the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who declared during the Nixon impeachment hearing, “My faith in the constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.”  In the story of Jesus resisting worldly temptation, Matthew declares, in effect, that Jesus’ faith in God is whole; it is complete; it is total.  The people of Israel had faith in God, but as the testing in the wilderness showed, it was not complete, it was not total.  You and I have faith in varying degrees, but our trust in and worship of God is fragmented, incomplete and partial at best. Jesus is set apart from the rest of humanity in that his obedience to God was whole; it was complete; it was total. Matthew’s primary focus in the temptation story is on Jesus as the obedient Son of God. Such information is basic Christian knowledge.  It belongs in the ABC’s of our faith.

And so does Paul’s stunning insight that Jesus’ obedience is good news.  As we heard Paul exalt in Romans, “Through one man’s obedience, all have been made righteous.”  Paul preached that Jesus’ obedience was not for his own sake, but for ours; it is a gift that puts us in a right relationship with God.  During Lent, we’re looking for the good gifts of God in Jesus Christ. Here on this first Sunday of Lent, we’re reminded that Jesus’ obedience is God’s gift to a disobedient humanity. What a relief to know that our fragmented, incomplete and partial obedience does not separate us from God.  As our baptism declares, we are joined with Christ and through Him claimed by God as beloved children..  As we say every Sunday, through his obedience we are forgiven, healed and made whole.  Even though this word of undeserved grace is basic Christian grammar, the force of it often eludes us.  We may continue to assess ourselves as inadequate, unworthy, unable to love and give as we should. Thus, we become weighed down with guilt and shame.  So hear again the good news: By his obedience Jesus has lifted from us the burden of perfection and brought us with him into the life of God reconciled, healed and made whole. Or as I heard a friend put it this week, “God loves you and you can’t do anything about it.”

Friends, I realize these basic ABC’s don’t spell out the whole of the Christian faith.  There’s much more to the story. But if we don’t get these fundamental ABC’s right, we probably won’t get the rest of it right either.