Rev. Chris Udy


Often a minister’s first sermon
with a new congregation
can sound a bit like a manifesto –
‘this is what I believe
and where I stand’ –
and I guess there’ll be some of that
in what we might reflect on
together this morning -
but I hope we might also begin
by setting the focus,
not so much on who we are,
as on what we can hear
from the Bible and from the world
about who God is
and how we can be part
of God’s hope for the world
and God’s purpose for us within it.
 
Today we read Luke’s account of the temptations,
where Jesus is trying to work out who he is
and what it means to be the son of God.
He’s just been baptised;
he’s just heard that voice from heaven say
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased” –
and that declaration of love
has become the bedrock of who he is,
the heart of his identity and purpose.
But what does it mean
to be loved by God?
What kind of life
does a child of God live?
What kind of freedom or power
does the son of God enjoy?
 
Luke says Jesus was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ –
he was on a spiritual high –
and it was then,
in that time of exhilaration and confidence
that he faced his time of temptation.
Popular wisdom says
that it’s when we’re weak,
when we’re living in desperation
and shadows and confusion
that our temptations appear –
but that’s not the way it works.
We’re not tempted by impossibilities;
true temptations are real options –
things within our power.
ICAC hearings and royal commissions
aren’t about dreams and envious longing –
they’re about those who have abused
the real trust and power they’ve received.
Temptation isn’t about weakness;
it’s about strength and opportunity
improperly and destructively applied.
 
God doesn’t call us
to something we cannot be;
we’re asked to become who we really are –
much-loved daughters and sons of God
in honest and trusting community.
 
Jesus had been in wilderness –
in that time and place
where there are no marked trails
or clear indications
of which way he needed to go;
he’d been fasting for 40 days, Luke says,
“and when they were over, he was famished”.
Jesus was also in community –
he had a companion –
Luke calls him the devil –
and the devil’s role in the story
is not so much to be
the voice and face of evil
as to do what companions
and communities often do,
to reveal to us
the world from differing perspectives,
and to confront us
with potential we may not see.
Fullness of life doesn’t come
from denying that we have the capacity
to do and be any number of things –
both positive and negative.
Fulfilment comes from choosing:
choosing to become who we really are,
choosing the true and the good
from all our many other options.
 
So the devil confronted Jesus with some choices.
“If you are the son of God”, he said -
if you really are,
and that isn’t some delusion –
“command this stone
to become a loaf of bread”.
Hunger is real – it’s true –
and most of our hungers are also good.
We are embodied creatures,
and our bodies need to be nourished,
and protected, and replicated.
But when our hungers are masked,
or dishonestly presented,
or indulged in an attempt
to satisfy something
they were never meant to feed –
that’s when they become destructive,
not only for us
but for those who are denied
whatever we waste in gluttony
or hoard through greed.
Bread is good, and Jesus was famished,
but Jesus wasn’t being offered
genuine sustenance,
he was being asked if being a child of God
meant providing more
of what the world already had,
and still enjoys –
food and shelter and things enough
for everyone on earth to be satisfied.
The world doesn’t need God to provide
more bread, or clothing,
or bricks, or computers,
it needs the children of God –
whatever their politics, race or religion –
it needs all the children of God
to see that fear and greed
cannot secure their future,
and that life on earth depends
on God’s generosity being shared.
“One does not live by bread alone”
was the answer Jesus gave
to the devil’s first challenge,
because the world’s hunger and poverty
are more a problem of vision and will and spirit
than they are about deficiencies in creation.
Everyone will have enough bread
when those who own and control things –
all of us included –
justly share and distribute what God provides
to all our sisters and brothers.
 
Now, that sounds like politics –
so the devil’s next confrontation –
in Luke’s gospel -
is about authority and power
over and between other human beings.
“The devil led (Jesus) up
and showed him in an instant
all the kingdoms of the world.
And the devil said to him,
"To you I will give their glory
and all this authority;
for it has been given over to me,
and I give it to anyone I please.
If you, then, will worship me,
it will all be yours."
 
If the power and freedom faith can give
is not about material goods
and private possessions,
maybe it’s about authority and glory –
about doing what the devil said he could do:
doling out gifts and favours
to anyone we please;
choosing policies and programs
that reward our friends and supporters;
building a political base
that will continue to sustain our aspirations;
flying a banner that attracts people like us.
 
There’s no question that all God’s children
need to be informed about
and involved in politics.
Jesus was intensely political.
He was critical of rulers and kings
who mis-used the levers of power,
and he understood the misery
that unjust laws and corrupt officials
inflict on those who have no political muscle.
But politics is a game of winners and losers;
it involves an exploitation of divisions
and pragmatic alliances
that leave communities confused
and afraid for the future.
Those who rise to authority and glory
have many, many masters –
they have factions and favours
and patrons they need to repay.
Luke’s devil even gives a hint
that what he says he has to give
really doesn’t belong to him at all –
“it has been given over to me” he says –
so what he has
has come to him
from the source of all life and true power –
and so “Jesus answered him,
"It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Why give your ultimate loyalty
to a lieutenant?
Why not save our allegiance
for the one from whom everything comes?
God’s purpose isn’t invested
in any party or system of rule;
God tends to involve both wings
to make things fly,
and even God’s messiah
refused to be made a king –
instead he always insisted:
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'
 
But now in Luke’s account
Jesus has moved
from the physical, to the political,
to the religious,
and the devil picks up the cue.
 
“The devil took (Jesus) to Jerusalem,
and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
saying 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 protect you,' and
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot
against a stone.'"
 
Having power in and over physical resources
is one thing;
having power in and over political processes
is possibly greater,
but having power with and possibly over
the source of all substance and life,
surely that has to be
the greatest power of all.
Jesus heard a voice from God
say “You are my child, my beloved,
the one in whom I take pleasure” –
surely that’s a button
to be pushed when you’re in need.
“If you are God’s Son” the tempter says,
“if you really are loved by God,
throw yourself down!”
Surely God couldn’t stand
to see his beloved come to harm!
If God really loves you,
why not see how far you can go!
 
Most of us make deals with God
of one sort or another.
‘Give me this opportunity Lord’;
‘Heal the one I love’;
‘Save me from this shame’, or
‘Give me a sign that you really exist’.
Most of us also feel abandoned, if not betrayed,
when we find that life is not unfolding
as we believed and hoped it should.
We may not have consciously expressed
the terms of our one-sided contract with God,
but when we find it falling apart
we feel distressed, or even outraged,
that someone God supposedly loves
could be exposed to sadness, or pain, or harm.
 
We may not have even imagined
that we had put God to the test,
but when things go wrong
we do have a sense
that God has somehow failed –
and at the point, perhaps,
when we most need
to feel connected and at peace,
we distance ourselves
from a precious resource.
So maybe it’s not for God’s sake,
but for his, and then for ours,
that Jesus responds to this last temptation:
"It is said, 'Do not put
the Lord your God to the test.'"
 
The temptations don’t really tell Jesus
who he is or what he should do –
he was given that gift and insight
when he was claimed as one loved by God
in his baptism.
What his temptations give him
is a process – a discipline –
he will use to find his way into the future.
He works out who he is and where he’s going
in and through community –
he was in dialogue,
first with the devil –
and, as Luke notes,
that conversation continued
throughout his active life -
and then with his disciples,
his companions –
the people with whom he shared
his bread and himself.
But in response to each temptation
he also drew on wisdom
from the community of faith
assembled over generations
of wilderness discernment and reflection –
from the Bible –
and it was in the Bible
that he discovered compass points
that helped him read his way through
each point of decision.
 
We now begin a new wilderness journey together.
Perhaps as never before
in the story of the Church
it’s very hard to discern a clear way forward –
but we have companions,
a community to challenge and sustain us,
we have the Bible,
in which we’ll find
resources to nourish and guide us,
and we have the constant affirmation
that we also, like Jesus,
are all daughters and sons of God,
we are secure in the love of God,
and we bring God joy and delight.

Rev Chris Udy
17 Feb 2013