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All the Kingdoms of the World

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

March 1, 2020
Matthew 4:1-11

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

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.


At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, the thing about this first temptation is I’m not sure how tempting it is. The thing about it is that Jesus has already spent his forty days of fasting in the wilderness. He’s famished, Matthew tells us, and no doubt Satan’s offer — just turn these stones into bread — no doubt, it has a certain pull. But I wonder. First off, Jesus could have turned those stones into bread at any moment in this whole ordeal and I don’t know how much it matters that Satan turns up to whisper in his ear at the last moment. And more to the point, the forty days is over. No matter what happens next, Jesus is about to go have a meal. If Satan shows up halfway through the fast, say, twenty days in, this is a different story. But by showing up at the end, by showing up on the brink of breaking the fast,  I’m not sure how much oomph this one has. Even for me, I think in the highly unlikely event that I survived a forty-day fast in the first place, that even I could stave off Satan for a minute, if I’m just going right for tacos in the next.

And I may be hopelessly naive, but the thing about the second temptation is I’m not sure how tempting it is. Satan whisks hungry Jesus up to the top of the Jerusalem temple and says, “Throw yourself off, so that God can catch you,” and Jesus kinds shrugs it off, because Jesus doesn’t have anything to prove. There’s no upside to this temptation. The temptation is only to confirm something Jesus already knows because of who Jesus is, which is that God would have the power to save him from his fall. The only reward is something Jesus already knows, it’s worth less even than a loaf of bread made from a stone. It’s a bad deal. And obviously, if it were me, it would a bad deal for other reasons. I don’t have Jesus’s inside information. But precisely because I don’t have Jesus’s inside information, it would not feel prudent to jump off a building just to see if God would save me. The upside isn’t there. Even this one, I think I can fend  off.

But that third one. “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.’” It’s hard to know whether this temptation lands with Jesus at all. It’s hard to know whether any of these cause him any real hesitation; Matthew doesn’t write dramatic pauses into the Gospel. I can’t tell you whether or not Jesus gives this one a hard look. But for a moment, let’s consider, maybe he should. I mean, only one chapter later Jesus will start  the Sermon on the Mount and talk about blessed are the meek and blessed are the peacemakers and blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of heaven — but with all the kingdoms of the earth on your side? He could make those blessings come true right now. What good does it possibly do for the meek and the persecuted for Jesus not to take this deal? Put him in charge, send him into office, all the kingdoms of the world, he can do as he sees fit, he can make the world somehow more righteously arranged.

Yes, of course, there’s a cost, and yes, of course, I know it doesn’t happen. But, just for a second. Isn’t the point of Jesus  that he lifts up the well being of the vulnerable above everybody else? Isn’t the point of Jesus that he sacrifices himself for the greater good? Wouldn’t this deal give him the opportunity to do the greatest possible good? Just imagine what good he might do with all the kingdoms of the world in his control. All the meek, blessed beyond imagination. All the persecuted, the kingdoms belong to them. All the hungry, fed. All the strangers, welcome. The potential scope of justice and equity and righteousness ushered in by putting Jesus in charge of the kingdoms of the earth. it is unimaginably vast. I don’t know whether he’s really tempted. I don’t know whether he gives this one a second thought. But I know this. I know in my heart. I kinda want him to give it a second thought.

I know I’d have a hard time saying no. Think of it this way. Scientists tell us that we have about a dozen years to stave off the worst-case scenarios for catastrophic climate change. And then I think through the obstacles here just in the United States to making the sort of policy changes necessary to get on board with that timeline. You have to elect the right executive leadership. You have to overcome a polarized and oppositional congress. You have to navigate a politicized court system. You have to somehow counteract the power of the billions of dollars that will get spent to oppose whatever you try to suggest. And there are days where I wonder whether all those obstacles are even possible to be overcome in the time allotted. Wouldn’t it just be easier to take this deal? If it was on the table? Y’all could come with me, we could do this together. All the kingdoms of the earth, we reset the clock. And, while we’re at it. We lick global poverty. We put an end to mass violence. We feed the hungry and welcome the stranger on a scale we have never before imagined. If someone would just give us the power. Surely that deal would be worth the cost.

There is, however, a bit of fine print. The first is that we know what it looks like when churches take this deal, and it’s not pretty. The history of the Christian faith is the history of Christian faith communities dreaming of what they might do if only someone would just give them the power. In South Africa, fresh in my mind, the apartheid regime came into place in the late 1940s in small part because the Dutch Reformed Church was eager just to have a just a little bit more power. Of course, they modeled themselves on their German brothers and sisters, who, in Germany not only a decade earlier had legitimated the rise of the Nazis because the church just liked being close to all that power. And much as I might wish it to be otherwise, it is now unavoidably the case that there are wide swaths of Christianity in this country on this morning as we speak that have lost themselves, and  have lost their integrity, and have lost the Gospel, because they could not help but imagine the good they could do if only they had enough power. We’ve seen this movie before, and we are watching it again in real time.

Also, and not for nothing. Jesus doesn’t take the deal. Jesus says, believe it or not, the price is too high. Jesus knows the price is too high, because even with the best intentions, there’s no way to have that kind of power — all the kingdoms of the world — without also having that kind of devil. Which means that this rough history of our faith isn’t just a loose scattering of churches that have gotten unlucky rolls of dice. The problem is built into the contract. It’s there in the terms and conditions. The problem is that as soon as we start believing that one party, or one candidate or another, as soon as we start believing that one of them can give us just a bit more power, all the power we need, all the power we need to do good. The problem is that as soon as we hitch our wagon to a chosen one, all of a sudden somebody else is driving. And it’s not Jesus. And just because some other church has wrapped themselves around one devil doesn’t mean that we wrap ourselves around another. There’s no good version of a bad deal. For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and him alone.”

All the news is politics and horse-races. On Tuesday, many of us will go to the polls, and many of you have already done so, and put our voice into the long, long, so very long conversation about who gets to be in charge. About who gets to have power. And of course it feels so crucial, because we are so anxious. There is so much crisis, and there is so much brokenness, and the emotions run so high. It feels urgent, for good reason. It is urgent. And I do hope you will vote. I don’t endorse candidates, but I do endorse voting. And of course, I hope you will vote for the well-being of the vulnerable, for the blessing of the meek, for the restitution of the persecuted. I hope you will take a long look at all the candidates on your ballot and decide carefully for yourself which ones in your opinion have the best chance to advance those gospel-tinged words like peace and justice.

But make no mistake. Even in our anxiety and our brokenness and our crisis. There is no savior on that ballot. Not a single one. There’s not a one of them that made heaven and earth. There’s not a one of them that spins the planets or calls forth the heavens. There’s not a one of them that can heal with a touch or forgive with a glance. There’s not a single one of them any less sinful or any less broken or any less corruptible by power than we are. I know you’re anxious and scared. I know the temptations of all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus isn’t on that ballot, for good reason. So this Tuesday, go vote. Please vote. By all means, vote. But don’t take the deal. Instead, remember the gospel. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Remember the gospel, which is that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul, and with all your might. Remember the gospel, which that the Lord is your God, The Lord alone. It’s the gospel for Tuesday. It’s the gospel every day. And it’s for sure the gospel of these forty days, as we enter into the season of Lent together.

You may have noticed by now that our worship service for the first Sunday of Lent is just a little different than normal. We haven’t moved around any of the big things. But for the season, we’ve tried to simplify some of the small things. In some ways this is a sort of Congregational Lenten discipline, to give up some of what gives our worship life so that we can remember who gives our worship. So that we can feel the long deep rumblings of God creating and re-creating through this place. So that we can feel the stirrings of the winds of the Holy Spirit ushering us in and through this place. So that we can hear the calling words of Jesus Christ spoken to us over and over to the generations of the faithful in this place. So that we can be attentive to this place where our Christian lives begin over, and over, in liturgy, in rhythm, in repetition, in discipline, in remembering over and over who we are, and whose we are, and who we are, and whose we are, and who we are, and whose we are …

The Lord is my light. My light and salvation. In God I trust. In God I trust.

Amen.


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