The three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness have passed from being a biblical story into the realm of folklore. Movie producers have found them a fertile ground to create an image of Christ as a disturbed, almost madman who undergoes hallucinations. The temptations were recast in the movie, ‘Jesus of Montreal’ (1989) to feature a modern Jesus being tempted by a publicity agent, who seeing his charisma, tempted him with the offer that he could become a TV star, with cooking shows, books and on speaking circuits. The empty materialism offered was quickly unmasked by Jesus, refused and then overcome. And there are the vivid, sometimes lurid art works of the Middle Ages, of images of Jesus fighting off the Devil. All these miss the point.
He is tempted after his baptism to ‘battle harden’ him (a phrase the army uses), to prepare him for his ministry when he will be tempted to take the easy road and avoid the cross. Second, the response by Jesus to the temptations are instructive for us. He saw them for what they were and then justified his response by quoting Scripture three times. Note that each time he quoted from Deuteronomy – which recounts Israel’s experience of their wilderness temptations and the Lord’s instruction to them. Third, he draws upon the right Scripture for the right situation. Often when we face a problem, we use Scripture with the right motive, but with the wrong text resulting in theological confusion. Jesus had been trained in the use of God’s word and it protected him.
This Sunday we celebrate the transfiguration of Christ on
what is traditionally believed to be Mt Carmel (Lk 9:28-36). Everything
remained the same for the three disciples present. He was still human and their
friend, but now everything had changed. They had seen his glory. He was, as his
miracles had suggested, God in flesh. Furthermore, his teaching about his
coming suffering, death and resurrection just before his transfiguration, now
had to be taken seriously (Lk 9:21-26). His death would be for a purpose and
that purpose has been the central reason for the church’s existence from then
on. Even after we are glorified (Rom
8:18-25), we will still be singing
praises to God the Father and the Son, for his infinite gift of his Son that we
glimpse in the transfiguration of Christ.
The transfiguration exploded the disciples expectations of
just seeing things as they are, thinking nothing else is possible. We can do
the same. We can assume that our emphasis of Christianity or our understanding
of it, is the true one. The transfiguration blew that assumption up too for the
disciples. Now they knew without doubt, that Jesus’ teaching about his coming
suffering, death and resurrection was going to happen, and it would be for a
purpose (Luke 9:31). They are told by God’s voice, no less, to ‘listen to him’,
(Jesus) not the religious leaders of their day which offered a different
messiah (Luke 9:35). We too, are invited to see things differently and be
Does Jesus expect us to do the impossible in our dealings
with people? He tells his followers: love your enemies, pray for those who
mistreat you; if someone seizes your necessities like a coat, give them more –
like your inner clothing as well (Luke 6:27-31).
Just as we have frowned in disbelief, caught our breath and
then worked out how we can minimise or even evade the literal meaning of what
he has just said, he then unloads even more demands which seem unlikely to be
He puts his finger on three of our common expectations that
we have in our dealings with others. It is no credit to us if we love those who
love us. Nor is it a demonstration of our ‘love of neighbour’, when we do good
to those who do good to us, or we lend to those we expect repayment. Jesus
points out even your average, happy, secular person will do the same (Lk 6:34).
If I love those who love me, what’s so good about that? Everyone does that.
Jesus wants us to move beyond doing things for others out of
selfinterest or our expectation that we will be repaid in some way. (It’s only
fair that they should we think.) We are to lend
(even to our enemies), without expecting them to give anything back
(6:35). Why? Why are we expected to ‘go the extra mile’? (Matt 5:41)
Because we are to express by our treatment of others, what
our heavenly Father’s treatment is of all people. He is merciful and kind to
the ungrateful and the wicked (6:35) Our sense of fairness is not the same as
God’s. Our values are to mirror those of our Lord, who gave himself to sinners
and loved his enemies (1 Peter 2:12, 21).
This morning’s Gospel reading is traditionally called, ‘the
Sermon on the Plain’, because Luke reports that Jesus came down to deliver his
sermon on ‘a plain’ (Lk 6:17). Much of the material in the sermon is identical
to ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ which is in Matthew’s gospel (Matt ch’s 5-7).
However, subtle, but significant differences of emphasis exist between Luke and
Matthew’s accounts. Each reflects the interest by the Gospel writer to present
Jesus as either a rabbi who is superior to Moses (Matthew’s account), or the
prophet teaching his disciples how they are to live as one of his followers in
a society which is rich, powerful and persecuting them (Lk 6:22, 24, 26). For
example, Luke contrasts those who are poor (6:20), with the rich who Jesus
denounces. In contrast, Matthew’s account has ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matt 5:3).
What is significant in Luke’s presentation is that Jesus’ teaching is addressed to the broader group of disciples who are contrasted with the crowd (6:20). His teaching is therefore for those on the inside, who have heard the call to follow and not the general public. He makes a shocking contrast between the rich and poor and pronounces judgement on the rich in four ‘woes’ (6:24-26). The ‘blessings’ are upon, and also it should be noted, for the poor, the hungry, those who weep in despair and those who are marginalised (6:20-22). This is Jesus being the prophet. He has announced that a division is already being made between these two groups and he has shown his hand. Judgement is coming on the rich who do not respect God’s poor yet claim to be God’s people (see also James 5:1-6).
Simply put, being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about behaviour modification. Christianity is not a self-help program to happiness or perfection. If that were the case, we are going to be failures, because I don’t know anyone who is sinless. Yet often our church culture pushes behaviour modification as the primary goal of our faith. We expect people and our society to accept our values as norms when they are not.
Reading the gospels I am struck by how often Jesus invited people to belong to him first. He entered into relationships with others, regardless of where they were spiritually or morally. He did not discriminate against what part of society they belonged to. He ate with people who were the outsiders of their society and befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, the despised rich (like Zacchaeus), or foreigners like the woman from Syria. Once they felt a sense that they could “belong”, Jesus then invited them to follow him, to “believe”. After they chose to believe, he would ask them to “become transformed” by the values he taught and demonstrated. These values are ones like sacrifice, sharing, compassion for the outsider and foreigner; patience, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. (Gal 5:22). This behaviour is an expression of living out the reality of God’s kingdom in daily life. It is also an expression of the abundant and fruitful life from the Holy Spirit living out in us.
Today’s story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke 5:1-11, demonstrates this process to belong, believe and be transformed by Jesus.
“. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the
wilderness.” (Luke 3:2) Luke begins the story about the ministry of John the
Baptist – and that of Jesus of Nazareth – by telling us that it is in the 15th
year of a Roman Caesar, Tiberius, who is no doubt busy governing his expanding
empire. Then Luke cites the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as another person
of note. Pilate is probably too busy trying to quell the frequent outbreaks of
insurrection and riots of the unruly Jewish people he governed. Herod – the son
of Herod the Great, along with his brother Philip, are then mentioned and
finally the high priest Annas and his son in-law Caiphas in Jerusalem are also
identified. These last two men are probably busy working out how to maximise
their profits from the pilgrims who came each year to the temple in Jerusalem.
Yet it was during this specific period of Roman and Jewish history that the
word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. Luke shows us that both Roman
and Jewish history are intertwined with God’s inbreaking revelation. John’s
announcement that it was time to prepare for God’s new work of salvation has
occurred in a real time and in a real place. Why is it important for Luke to
locate the events he narrates in real history? Very simply, Christianity is
unlike the Roman and Greek gods who have no historical basis; they are myths.
Myths are very appealing, especially when they are sugar coated to make it easy
for children to swallow. They sprout up in every generation as an easy solution
to an inability to trust God’s truth. One modern myth often recycled around an
election period, is that a strong economy will save us, or make us happy. It
won’t. Only Christ provides the salvation we seek.
Jesus does not look like a king to Pilate (John 18: 33-37). He lacks the customary signs of kingship: purple clothing, insignia; a ring, standard bearers and an army at his disposal. Pilate concludes that nothing Jesus has said warrants crucifixion. Instead, Pilate attempts to provide a way out for the Jewish leaders to reverse their decision so that they will not lose face. Pilate makes the offer to release one of his captives as was the custom preceding the Passover festival. The crowd however, demand the release of Barabbas, a terrorist. As a further concession to the Jews, and in a final attempt to prevent Jesus being crucified, Pilate has Jesus flogged and mocked as a pretend king (Jn 19:1-3). Following this punishment, Jesus is paraded before the crowd and Pilate declares that Jesus is innocent. But the crowd will not accept this. They demand his crucifixion on the basis that Jesus had claimed to the be the Son of God. This claim which Jesus did not deny (Lk 22:70), challenged Caesar’s counterclaim to be the son of God and therefore justified Jesus’ execution. So Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.
The background for Jesus’ claim to be the king of God’s kingdom rests on two theological ‘traditions’ or teachings. The first is better known: Jesus is a descendent of king David and the fulfilment of the promises made to David that an heir of his would sit on his throne for ever. The second tradition is less known and less understood. Jesus is the heavenly being which Daniel saw in his vision-dream (Daniel 7:9-14). This person is given authority, power and receives the worship of the heavenly court and its people. This indicates this ‘being’ is divine and equal to God. Daniel notes also that this person looks like a ‘son of man’, a Hebrew expression which means he is like a man.
It is this expression ‘the son of Man’, that Jesus uses the most throughout the Gospels to indicate how he understood himself and his mission. He is not just any old king, but a king not of this world or realm. He is the creator King who rules over all people and the creation. And he will be born at Christmas, in obscurity, fully human and fully devine.
Periodically the Church gets caught up in a frenzy of excitement about the return of Christ. For example, wide-eyed friars of about 1000 AD spread the hysteria across Europe that the end of the world was near and God’s judgment was coming. The reason? Because many believed the ‘one thousand year reign of Christ’ mentioned in Rev 20:1-6 was ending.
Biblical passages like our reading this morning from Mark 13:1-11 can be turned into a chart marking successive stages of what is about to occur. Biblical imagery, especially the obscure or symbolic imagery of Revelation and Daniel is often linked to Mark 13, to demonstrate that current political and economic events are the fulfilment of these predictive elements of the Bible. The disciples were also curious about the future. Several times they asked Jesus when he would return (Matt 24:3; Mk 13:4; Acts 1:6). The early Christians also wondered (1 Thess 5:1; 2 Thess 2:1ff).
A fixation on certain events which suggest the immediacy of Christ’s return can lead to the promotion that ‘The End’ is now near. It can also promote negative opinions about those whose fate is unclear. Easy dichotomies are built: insiders/outsiders, True/False, God/Satan.
As our faith recognises the signs as they occur (and they will), we are again and again reminded of why the disciples and early church were given this teaching. It was (i) to warn that false teachers will try to deceive them (13:5-6); (ii) to expect opposition, persecution and hate (13:9, 13). (iii) to assure them they will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to testify for their faith (13:11); (iv) to remember their commission: the gospel was to be preached to all the nations (Mk 13:10; Acts 1:7-8); (v) that only those who endure to the end are saved (13:13). In short, it is a teaching for today.
An unnamed widow shuffles along, pushed along by the crowd behind her, swarming into the temple of Jerusalem. Crouched on the sidelines is Jesus, watching silently as the people mill around, throwing in their offering into the temple treasury. His disciples stand around, disinterested, bored and ready to find a tavern to eat and drink in. The woman, back bent with age, stoops and places two little copper coins in the timber opening of the large boxes. She slinks away, inconspicuously. Almost immediately following her, a well-dressed man comes. He is one of many that Jesus has noticed every few minutes who come along. The well-dressed man slows his walk in order to slow the pace of the crowd down. He flamboyantly spreads his arms out to gain their attention and slows the line of people behind him further. Then he dramatically undoes the cord of his purse and pulls out his coins. Using his left hand, he pulls back the right sleeve of his cloak and throws the money in while looking around for the crowd’s recognition. Jesus feels sick in his stomach.
Jesus stands, briskly looks about, catches the eye of his disciples and summons them. They haven’t seen that look in his eyes for several days now – in fact, not since they came to Jerusalem when Jesus cleaned out the temple with a whip. And he’s got it now (Mk 11:15). They quickly assemble around him – something might happen. He might explode like he had done earlier.
“Did you see that widow just now?” he asks. Some of his disciples look perplexed, others are hollow eyed; some look even bored. He continues: “She has put into the treasury all the money she had. But see these rich people,” indicating with his hand, “they give out of the abundance of their wealth. It cost them nothing to do this.” With that, the sermon had ended. Their hearts had been lacerated; their world expanded to see things from God’s perspective.
It is the inconspicuous, small amount of money given in the economy of God, which makes the most sense (cents?). It is the sacrificial and inconspicuous act of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, that makes sense (Mk 14:1-11). It is the inconspicuous act of care and hospitality by a Samaritan that makes sense (Mk 10:25-37).
It seems Halloween has become a new ‘festival’ of ‘innocent’ fun. Halloween is loosely based on the Medieval Christian festival of ‘All Hallows Eve’ which falls on 31st October. The festival itself is an adaption of the pagan Celtic belief that on one night of the year, the dead came out of the ground to dance with the living. However, in most Protestant churches, October 31st, is remembered as the day when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed a document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin. Known as his “95 Theses” (which means propositions), Luther proposed two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may receive salvation as a gift of God, only by their faith in God’s work, and not by their own deeds.
Luther’s views sparked a series of ‘reformations’ in the European Church which led to the formation of Protestant denominations and also the reform of the Roman Catholic Church. Although these ideas had been advanced before, particularly by John Wycliffe (English), and Jan Hus (Czech). Luther’s writings changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West. He had said what everyone else was thinking but dared not say.
Key among Luther’s views is an individual can experience God’s grace freely, through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Salvation did not rest on what we did for God or our ability to keep the Law of God, but on what Christ had done for us by his own death. It was Christ’s righteousness, not ours, that is credited to us and it is this that we put our faith in and sets us free from the guilt of our sin.
The Reformations were not the result of political issues, or even Henry VIII’s need of a divorce, although they play their part in the background. The issue was then and remains still, a spiritual crisis: how can we find God’s forgiveness and experience his love unconditionally? The answer is in the cross of Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) When we trust in what God did in Christ, we are justified, saved and regenerated by his Spirit a ‘new creation’.