February 17, 2013

Jesus … led by the Spirit in the wilderness

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.


The Discovery Channel offered the following tips, among others, for avoiding shark attacks:

The splash of a dog paddling is like a dinner bell for sharks. Do not take your pet with you in waters where there is even a remote chance of encountering a shark.

Got an uneven tan? Skip swimming in open water because skin colour contrasts, which may resemble colour variations found on fish, seem to attract sharks.

I’m thinking, stay out of the water!

It seems to me that any discussion of temptation is predicated on a prior commitment that there is something harmful is to be avoided; in a manner of speaking, there is the potential of something in the water that could rise up and bite you.  The thing about temptation to sin is that the shark infested waters look just as inviting as those waters that are safe.  There is pleasure in sin, though fleeting, according to the Bible (Hebrews 10:25).

But the avoidance of sin is a Biblical idea.  In our cultural milieu there is little talk of temptation; there is no common agreement that there are even sharks in the water, so to speak.  “If it feels right, and if I want to believe it” seems to be current cultural guide.  In a recent study of emerging adults (18 – 23 year olds) researchers found that when asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment.  One young adult is quoted as saying, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.”

In this hyper-individualistic culture young adults call home doing “what feels right to me” lives in tandem with withholding any judgement for “what seems right to someone else”. Reducing the categories of right and wrong to a matter of individual preference sounds to me like an accurate definition of a wilderness.

Jesus ... led by the Spirit in the wilderness; Jesus, by his Spirit accompanies us in the wilderness.  We often fret being in the wilderness; the disintegration of long cherished values, agonizing over what is becoming of our world.  There are other kinds of wilderness; sorrow, reversals in health and prosperity, loneliness, emotional confusions.  The Spirit still leads us in the wilderness.  But another actuality of the wilderness is evident here in Jesus’ human experience.  It is in the wilderness that the great enemy of our life and being often attacks us; it is here Jesus was tempted by the devil.  As if being in the wilderness was not trouble enough, this enemy seeks moments of such vulnerability to strike.

1. The story of Jesus led by the Spirit in the wilderness comes on the heels of the story of his baptism that marks the inauguration of his ministry.  The driving passion of his life is obedience to the One he calls the Father.  Many think that Jesus’ life is characterized by love; this can be said to be true if we recall that Jesus stated, “31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”  (John 14:31)  Remember his word to us his disciples, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Obedience is the mark of our Saviour’s life; it is the mark of the believer’s life.

Jesus never seems to worry much about the cultural winds for determining behaviour; whether in the Nazareth carpenter shop, on the job site, at the river Jordan to be baptized, or now in the wilderness the overarching reality of his life is—there is someone to be obeyed.  At the baptism of Jesus the Father’s voice from heaven says “with you I am well pleased”.  Clearly such a statement has in view Jesus’ obedience throughout all the years of his life.

For the Christian, this is the way to understand our life in the current moral wilderness—we belong to One (Jesus) whom we are to obey.  It isn’t a life of trying to figure out where the waters are infested with sharks, so to speak.  Often we make the mistake of thinking pragmatically about right and wrong; that doing what is right is good for us so the reason we do right is out of self-interest—I will end up in the best place (emphasis on me).  But look at Jesus in the wilderness—clearly it would have been personally advantageous to turn stones into bread at the end of a forty day fast but to do so was disobedience to will of the Father.

We do not understand the corruption of our own hearts and its capacity for self-deception.  We do not comprehend how easy it is to rationalize all manner of sinful behaviour.  We don’t fully know what sin means to God.  We like to think that it is our vices that make us interesting. What God knows as shark infested waters appear quite harmless to us.  Not long ago a police officer stopped me and said that I had failed to stop at a stop sign; I disagreed for I was certain I had stopped.  As I reflect on my behaviour in the midst of that disagreement—well, let me put it this way; it would not have encouraged this young officer to come to worship at Central United.  (I was not ticketed, by the way, but that hardly matters).  I can rationalize my behaviour—I was certain I had stopped, I have a good driving record, I was tired and stressed.  No friends, I have a Saviour to obey, not behaviours to defend.

2. It was the headline that caught my eye; How Self-Control Leads to Anger.  The article reported on a behavioural sciences study in which researchers set out to examine whether exerting self-control can indeed lead to a wide range of angry behaviors and preferences.  The authors explained that their “research has shown that exerting self-control makes people more likely to behave aggressively toward others and people on diets are known to be irritable and quick to anger.”  In one study, people who choose an apple instead of a chocolate bar were more likely to choose movies with anger and revenge themes than milder movies.  The authors concluded with this advice: "Public policy makers need to be more aware of the potential negative emotions resulting from encouraging the public to exert more self control in daily choices.  Instead behavioral interventions might rely on a broader range of methods to foster positive behaviors toward long-term goals."

I note sure that it is self-control that makes me angry as much as it is public policy makers who think they know the things over which I ought to exert self-control.  But there is a truth that we find frustration in our attempts at self-control or self-discipline.  We can go along fine for a while but are easily deflected and then angry over how easily we were deflected.  I find that a more helpful understanding as a believer is not so much a vision of the benefits of self-control as much as the surrender of myself in obedience to the One I am confident knows best.

Further it is in relationship with the person Jesus Christ that help is found.  It isn’t simply to understand his teachings and now go and execute—tell me what to be self-controlled about Lord, and watch me go!  Rather it is the experience of walking in company with him that aids.  It is the experience of walking in company with his people through whom Christ works.  The strength comes in relationship not so much in trying to be more self-controlled.

Want a more ethical office? This was the question a Harvard professor asked and then answered by saying that “people behave better in front of children. My research collaborator and I have performed experiments that suggest that the presence of children ... brings out good behaviour in people.”  The motivation of modelling right behaviour when children are present illustrates this relationship point.  With Jesus present in my life a different motivation emerges than simply the positive benefits of self-control.

C.S. Lewis said, only the person who never yielded to temptation knows the full strength of temptation.  If a hurricane roars ashore somewhere, which person will be in the best position to talk about the strength of the wind: the one who was blown over immediately, the one who managed to stay on his feet until the wind hit 75 MPH, or the one who never was blown over, not even when the wind topped out at 130 MPH?  Obviously the one who was able to resist the storm's fullest fury is the one who knows better than anyone what all it took to stay on his feet. So also with temptation: Jesus never wavered.  The devil threw everything he had at Jesus, took all his best shots, but Jesus never fell. Jesus is the only realist, Lewis said, because he alone knows the full fury of temptation.  Because of that Jesus knows better than anybody how much strength we need.  And so, by his Holy Spirit, he gives it.

In relationship with Jesus not only am I differently motivated but I am profoundly supported and strengthen by him; I cling to the one who knows the full fury of the storm.

3.  The story of Jesus’ temptation reveals that the objective of this great enemy is to deflect or derail Jesus from his life of obedience to the Father; for us it is to deflect or derail us from our obedience to Christ.  The temptations of Jesus were not only personal but had far reaching implications for his future ministry

From a ministry perspective this first temptation Jesus faced was the temptation to be relevant. What, after all, could be more relevant than turning stones into bread?    This temptation takes place in the Judean wilderness.  Judea is so rocky that there is a saying that when God put rocks on the earth he had two handfuls—one handful was scattered around the world other on Judea.   Jesus looked at hungry people every day. Surely a little more bread would have gone a long way Stones abound; bread is scarce.

At the same time, there were many ways that bread could be made in Palestine and should be made. But it wasn’t going to be made as it should until some men and women were moved to make it and share it; and they weren’t going to be moved until they had undergone heart-transplants at the hand of the master himself. When our Lord was tempted to collapse his entire vocation and ministry into meeting instantly immediate physical need he fought down the temptation and shouted at the tempter, “One doesn’t live by bread alone but by the truth and reality of a living engagement with the living God!”

This does not mean we ignore the sorts of suffering people endure in our era.  But we must insist that underneath what’s going on in our era, for good and for ill, there remain in every era the deepest human need, the profoundest human heartache, the most frustrating self-contradiction. Regardless of the era the deepest human need is for God. The profoundest heartache is for intimacy (genuine intimacy with our Lord and also with fellow-creatures). All of this is precisely what the world calls irrelevant. And all of this is what Jesus knows to be supremely relevant.

Let me repeat. Our Lord never belittled material need. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and assisted the storm-tossed. But he resisted the temptation to do this in any way that would inhibit even those he helped from coming to see their deeper need and their profounder predicament. He resisted the temptation to be immediately relevant in any way that would render them even less sensitive to the provision God has made for what ails them most. He resisted the temptation to conform to the world’s opinion of relevance in order to acquaint them with the ultimate relevance.  We don’t live by bread alone; we live by an encounter with the Holy One himself in which the human heart is transfigured eternally.