Tag: lent

Psalm 22: A Surprising Lenten Study

Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study — 

Psalm 22: A Lenten Study

During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).

But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.

David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

   so far from my cries of anguish?

2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

   by night, but I find no rest.

Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.

However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

   you are the one Israel praises.

4 In you our ancestors put their trust;

   they trusted and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried out and were saved;

   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.

In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:

6 But I am a worm and not a man,

   scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

   they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

   “let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

   since he delights in him.”

Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.

We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.

In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;

   you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast on you;

   from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.

Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.

In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.

Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:

11 Do not be far from me,

   for trouble is near

   and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;

   strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions that tear their prey

   open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,

   and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

   it has melted within me.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

   and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;

   you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,

   a pack of villains encircles me;

   they pierce my hands and my feet.

17 All my bones are on display;

   people stare and gloat over me.

18 They divide my clothes among them

   and cast lots for my garment.

 

Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.

Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.

Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.

In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.

   You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver me from the sword,

   my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

   save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.

Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.

22 I will declare your name to my people;

   in the assembly I will praise you.

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

   All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

   Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24 For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.

 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

   before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;

   those who seek the Lord will praise him—

   may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth

   will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

   will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the Lord

   and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;

   all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—

   those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;

   future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness,

   declaring to a people yet unborn:

   He has done it!

David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.

Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!

But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,

“For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.”

No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”

Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.

But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied

…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord

…all the families of nations will bow down to him

…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)

…all the dead will kneel before him

…posterity will serve him

…future generations will be told about him

And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!

In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!

Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.

But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.

But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”

Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.

Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.

Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.

Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”

Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.

 

Podcast: A Difficult Call to Discipleship

Here’s a passage packed with dramatic moments like “get behind me, Satan” and “take up your cross and follow me.”

For the second Sunday in Lent, I preached from Mark 8:31-9:1.  The lectionary reading did not include Mark 9:1, but I felt it was important to add that verse to get the full effect of Jesus’s words to his disciples.

Here’s the message title, “A Difficult Call To Discipleship.” I hope it’s helpful.

Podcast: Opening Graves, Restoring Hope

Raising_of_Lazarus

For the fifth Sunday in Lent, I preached on Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave, from John 11:1-45. After encounters with Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and the man born blind (John 9:1-41), Jesus raises his friend, Lazarus from the dead. This is a rich story with many perspectives, but one very important idea: opening graves raises hope among God’s people. Here’s the podcast:

Podcast: The One Thing We Can Know

images

Last week for the third Sunday of Lent, I preached on the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel the 9th chapter. It’s an interesting story of bad theology, judgmental assumptions and an inexplicable miracle. And, it has an important lesson for us today. Here’s the podcast from that message:

The Lenten Journey: Into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ (detail) 6

Our services have been cancelled tomorrow — Sunday, February 22, 2015 — because of snow and ice. But, this week’s lectionary readings are so full of wonderful opportunities for reflection as we begin the Lenten season, that I wanted to share some of my sermon notes with you.

The Texts

The Gospel text for the Year B, the first Sunday of Lent, is Mark 1:9-15. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s “thrusting” him into the wilderness where he was for “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Mark’s version is the shortest of the synoptic Gospels. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer and contain much more detail, including the three temptations from the devil.

The Markan text covers three significant steps in Jesus early ministry: his baptism (v. 9-11), his 40 days in the desert (v. 12-13), and his initial proclamation of the kingdom of God (v. 14-15). A preacher could take off in any one, or all three, directions and not go wrong.

However, because Lent is often imagined as a journey, the desert experience is very appropriate for this first Sunday in Lent. Mark’s dynamic description of the movement from baptism by the Jordan to the desert describes the Spirit as “thrusting” Jesus into the wilderness.

Journey as a Universal Metaphor

The wilderness experience is not just a good opportunity for Jesus, and for us, to step back and reflect on our spiritual journeys, it is an archetypal experience known across cultures.

In his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the universal metaphor of the “hero” and his or her mythic journey.  The hero’s journey typically involves three phases — the departure, the initiation, and his victorious return. For this text, we’re concerned with only the first phase, the departure.

Campbell believes that the hero’s movement from the relative safety of the status quo into a wild and scary land sets the stage for the journey. In his rather awkward prose, Campbell writes:

The folk mythologies populate with deceitful and dangerous presences every desert place outside the normal traffic of the village. (pg. 64)

In other words, when you leave home on an adventure into the unknown, it can be pretty scary! And on this journey into the desert, these “deceitful and dangerous presences” are often demons, devils, or human-like creatures that beguile, entice, and tempt. Campbell describes that one of the human-like creatures from Central Africa is said to try to entice the hero to fight. When the hero has the advantage of the ogre, the ogre bargains by saying, “Do not kill me, I will show you lots of medicines,” which means a kind of shamanic power. Sounds very much like what the devil offers to Jesus!

Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is a myth. However, because the hero’s journey is a metaphor known across time and cultures, there must be something to the idea of a spiritual journey or quest.

And that thought brings us back to Lent. Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was necessary for the beginning of his ministry. Likewise, we as his followers also must face head-on the reality of our own demons, and all those spiritual powers that would distract, deceive, and derail our journey.

For years I did not like Lent because I thought it was generally dreary and depressing. But without the experience of victoriously battling our demons and resisting the siren-song of temptation, we cannot take the next steps in our journey. Jesus settled his allegiance to God in the wilderness, and so must we. Anyone can serve God in the bright light of day, but obedience to God when surrounded by darkness is a learned obedience.

I also like the scene in at the end of verse 13 — “He was with the wild animals and the angels attended him.” Not only do we see Jesus resisting the devil, but after he has done so, Mark gives us a hint of paradise restored. For the first time since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a human being dwells with the animals in peace, and God’s messengers shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth attending to him.

During these next weeks leading up to Easter, we must remember that the Lenten journey from baptism to resurrection runs right through the desert.

Lenten Sermon: An Incurable Blindness

On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:

Sermon: Three Tests in Forty Days

I’m preaching from Luke 4:1-13 on this first Sunday of Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness packs lots of significance and symbol for us to reflect upon during these next weeks leading to Easter. I trust that you will have a wonderful Sunday worship experience today as we begin our journey toward the cross and the empty tomb. 

Three Tests In Forty Days
Luke 4:1-13 NIV

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you

   to guard you carefully;

11 they will lift you up in their hands,

   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

The Beginning of Lent

Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As you know, the Lenten season comes in the forty days preceding Easter, not counting Sundays, so Lent actually lasts about 46 or so days. Usually, when we think of Lent we think of a time for reflection, a time to consider the life and ministry of Jesus that led him to the cross and to the victory of the empty tomb.

Typically, when we think of Lent, the event in the life of Christ that is representative of this season is the passage we read today — Jesus in the wilderness. In this passage we have all the classic signs and symbols of focusing on God.

Forty Days: A New Way of Reckoning Time

First, there is the period of time — forty days. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.

For example, Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out. The prophet Elijah retreats for 40 days after his encounter with the prophets of Baal and threats by queen Jezebel.

In the past few years, a spate of books have been published which emphasize a 40-day period of study. But, 40 days or years isn’t a magic number, or even a number that is somehow more adequate for study and reflection. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfill his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.

Luke sets the stage quickly for the significance of Jesus’ time in the desert this way —

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

We know God is at work here in Jesus’ life because Luke places the Spirit of God front and center in this particular event. Jesus is full of the Spirit, and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. God is at work here, and the time for God’s work is measured in a different kind of time, a time that Luke says takes 40 days.

The Wilderness: A New Place To Encounter God

The second sign and symbol is that this work of God takes place, not in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolizes a new place to encounter God for Jews in the 1st century.

We have a hard time truly understanding the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This massive structure that dominated the skyline and physical boundaries of the city of Jerusalem was thought to be the place where heaven met earth, where God dwelled among humankind. God was resident in the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was assumed and revered by righteous worshippers. Only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, did anyone enter the Holy of Holies to encounter the presence of God.

But the wilderness has a long and marvelous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the backside of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world.

The wilderness is where the Law of God is given, where prophets retreat to find God again, where God sends the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist to preach and baptize. When John the Baptist establishes his preaching and ministry of baptism in the wilderness near the Jordan River, John is speaking a rebuke to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the sacrificial system, and to the corruption of the religious leaders and sects who control access to God, and who set the acceptable ways in which God can be obeyed. John the Baptist wasn’t in the wilderness because he wore animal skin and ate a strange diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist was in the wilderness as sign and symbol that God was doing something new, stripping away the old systems of religious habit, and calling his people to a new life of obedience.

So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father.

N. T. Wright believes that Luke is offering a parallel between the life of David, the most revered king in Israel’s history, and the life of Jesus. After David is anointed by Samuel, while Saul is still king, David goes to fight the giant Goliath. After Jesus is baptized by John, and receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit descends upon him and God’s voice declares “this is my Son in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus goes immediately into the wilderness to face the adversary, satan or the devil. Wright sees other parallels as well, but if that is the case, Jesus’ wilderness experience places him in the legacy of King David, not only biologically, but also spiritually.

The Temptations Reveal The Conflict Between This World and The Kingdom of God

Often when we read this passage, or the account in Matthew’s Gospel, we tend to zoom in on the temptations of Jesus, and then seek to apply them to ourselves. But, I’m going to suggest today that we zoom out, and look at the temptations of Jesus in a new light. While it is true that these temptations are given for our benefit, or else they would not be in Scripture, if we stand too close to them, and reduce them to moral do’s and don’ts, we miss the greater message.

There are three temptations or tests that we are told Jesus encounters toward the end of his 40 days in the wilderness. We can only assume that the bulk of the 40 days is spent in prayer and fasting, but we also know that Satan is working on Jesus all during that time.

I think its interesting that the only way we know this story is because Jesus must have told it to the disciples himself. And while 40 days is a long time, and fasting for that long is a spiritual feat in itself, the part that Jesus chooses to tell the disciples focuses on the end of the experience, and the choice Jesus makes.

In my estimation, the temptations of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in.

The first temptation is the same type of temptation that Adam and Eve faced. The choice to eat or not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is posed as a choice that can make Adam and Eve like God. But in Jesus case, Satan knows Jesus is God, and so couches his temptation in challenging language by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”

Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and of course he does possess the power to turn stones into bread — after all he turns water into wine, and multiplies bread and fish. But the contrast between this world system and the Kingdom of God is this — who do you trust for your daily provision?

When Jesus quotes Scripture back to Satan, he recalls the Exodus experience, and the fear of the Israelites that they would starve in the desert. They want to go back to Egypt because at least they had food to eat. Israel would have traded freedom for food, affirming that the power of Pharaoh was greater than the power of God.

But Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses is reminding the people of their history, their mistakes, and how they are to live in the future when they get to the Promised Land.

“He (God) humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deut 8:3 NIV

And, what was the point of that? The point wasn’t that you don’t need food, or that reading the Bible is a good substitute for a meal. The point is who do you trust? Do you trust the lying, deceptive words of Pharaoh, or do you trust God to feed you? Do you trust what you know — food that you age in Egypt — or do you trust God to do something new if he needs to — provide manna — to feed you? This world, or God’s kingdom? That’s the point of the first temptation.

Jesus echoes this in the Sermon on the Mount when he describes what life is like in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6 NIV).

But, Jesus reiterates this point of trusting God’s ways for material provision later in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” And, he then encourages us not to worry about having enough to eat or wear, not because its not important, but because in God’s Kingdom, God provides for everything, even the flowers and the birds.

The second temptation raises the level of conflict, and gets right to the point.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

So, no more subtleties from Satan. In this temptation, Satan cuts right to the heart of the matter. If you have ever traveled in the southeastern United States, you have no doubt seen signs painted on barns and billboards that say, “See Rock City.” Rock City, located near Lookout Mountain close to Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a roadside tourist stop that capitalized on the natural rock formations typical of that part of the state.

In addition to the rock formations, and the additions of not-so-natural-features like miniature golf, Rock City touted its magnificent views. “See Seven States From Rock City” was the message plastered all over the southeastern US. And, on a clear day, you can.

Well, I always think of seeing seven states from Rock City when I read this passage in Luke. Satan takes Jesus up on a high place — we don’t know where — and Luke says, “shows him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” Pretty good view, but I think something else is at work here, too.

Then Satan offers all he sees to Jesus, if Jesus will worship him. And, that brings us back to our conflict between this world and the kingdom of God.

Now a lot has been written about whether or not Satan really could have delivered the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. Of course, Satan is a liar and a deceiver, so there is the real possibility here that he’s blowing smoke. And considering where he came from, he may literally have been blowing smoke.

But the point isn’t the power of Satan. The point is the contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. I think it’s interesting that Satan promises Jesus “all their authority and splendor.”

But the authority of the kingdoms of this world is a fleeting, temporary, and false authority. Mao Zedong is quoted as saying, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That was Mao’s authority. Jesus authority came from a different ethic when he said, “Love your enemies.” And, I think it’s interesting that at the end of his earthly ministry, right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and in earth, Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…”

The promise Satan makes, whether he could deliver or not, is an empty promise based on temporal authority. Of course, read any newspaper or watch any network news program and you will see daily the scramble for power and authority. From politicians to bloggers, everyone wants to be noticed, to be powerful within their own sphere of influence, and to be able to exert that influence for personal benefit. But the Kingdom of God talks about things like the “last shall be first” and the “peacemakers will be called the children of God.” Jesus knows there is no shortcut to glory, no easy way to claim his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords. The only way is the way of the cross, and Jesus chooses that instead of the power and glory of this world.

Finally, the last temptation is one last futile attempt to call into question the character of God. Satan dares Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, because God will send his angels to save him.

Jesus’ reply is “Don’t put God to the test.” You either trust God or you don’t, you either believe what God says or you don’t, you either give you life and all you are to God or you don’t. And if you don’t cheap displays of pointless power will not sway one individual. After all, Jesus, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, said that even if someone comes back from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him. Which is of course, what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead.

Our Time in the Wilderness

During these next 40 days, our time in the wilderness is a time to reflect on our own choices. Are we choosing the kingdom of God, or the kingdoms of this world. Do we trust the provision of God, or the frantic consumer culture in which we live? Do we live by Kingdom values, which are not the values of power and might projected by governments and politicians?

Jesus was tempted for two reasons, I think. First, so that he could become the representation of righteous Israel. In every temptation Jesus faced, Israel had already faced them and failed. In the manna in the desert, the quest for kingdom power, and the failure to trust God, Israel had failed almost every test she had been given. When Jesus resists Satan and affirms his faithfulness to the Kingdom of God, Jesus becomes the representative of all of God’s people. This will give him the right to die for the sins of all God’s people on the cross.

But, Jesus was also tempted to demonstrate that we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. In order to proclaim God’s Kingdom, Jesus had to choose it. If we are to proclaim God’s kingdom, we too must choose it. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system.

That’s what our time in the wilderness is about. The only question is, what choice will we make?

Dr. Sun* of Yunnan province in China made his choice. The son of a doctor and hospital administrator, Dr. Sun survived the Cultural Revolution in China, and in 1977 was admitted to Beijing Medical University. He obtained his MD degree in 1982, and joined the staff of a hospital in Suzhou. Dr. Sun’s skill as a surgeon, and is concern for helping patients quickly elevated him to the role of hospital administrator.

The Communist Party bosses in Suzhou saw Dr. Sun as a promising young physician. They awarded him a car for his own use, and all the perks that went with his position. However, Dr. Sun was more interested in helping patients than in enriching himself. He told the local political leaders to sell the Volkswagen Santana he had been given, and to give the money to help the hospital. Dr. Sun rode his bike to work each day afterward.

Dr. Sun also disrupted the cozy relationship between Chinese hospitals and Chinese pharmaceutical firms. Cheap medicines are available in China, but even in the 1980s, doctors and hospitals would prescribe the more expensive medicines, and charge exorbitant fees for their services. Dr. Sun drew the unwanted attention of local political leaders who also benefited from the arrangement.

In 1990, disenchanted with the China’s communist government and its failures to actually help medical patients, and seeking direction for his own life, Dr. Sun attended a prayer service with several of his medical school students. A year later, at a Christmas service in a Chinese Christian’s home, Dr. Sun said he “felt his heart touche in a way it had never been touched before.” He was soon baptized.

In 1997, Dr. Sun’s boss presented him with an application to join the Communist Party. A membership in the Chinese Communist Party was the first step in becoming one of China’s elite leaders in his field. However, Dr. Sun told his boss he could not fill out the application.

“I believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “I have already made my choice, and this is my only choice.”

His boss was visibly upset. “You are a communist official. You enjoy the salary and the benefits of a Communist official, yet you believe in Jesus Christ? Can he provide you with food and clothing?”

Dr. Sun looked into the man’s face and said, “I am quitting now. I need to save my soul.”

Banned from working in government hospitals, Dr. Sun worked in Thailand for a while. But on a return trip to China in 1999, Dr. Sun met a former student of his. The student told him of a very sick woman in a remote village from the student’s own province. The next day he showed up to take Dr. Sun there.

For the next 10 years, until 2009, Dr. Sun served quietly and without pay, providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Yunnan province. Often, villagers would not be able to pay anything for their treatment, but fed Dr. Sun, and gave him a place to stay in their homes. Donated clothes, and the financial support of other doctors and Christians allowed Dr. Sun to continue his work until 2009. Finally, Chinese authorities accused Dr. Sun of having subversive motives, and banned his medical practice from Yunnan province. Dr. Sun was invited to the United States by a Chinese Church to tell about his medical ministry, but the government of China refused him re-entry. Dr. Sun lives in California today, where he is planning to replicate his medical ministry in Africa. Dr. Sun made his choice. What choices do we make?

*Dr. Sun’s story from God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Published by HarperOne, 2011.