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27 February 2012

Invocavit: What is the Source of Your Power?

One fine January a couple of years ago I received a note from Gisela, one of my many aunts in Germany. I had not heard from her for Christmas, so I opened the envelope with some expectation. In true Northern German aloofness, she crisply began, “I would have liked to thank you for your Christmas card,” and went on, “but I am unable to do so because your card contains no Christmas joy whatsoever. It has no manger, no wise men and not even one shepherd!” What had I done to poor Aunt Gisela? How had my card upset her so?

My card was my translation of a text by German poet Jochen Klepper, a Lutheran pastor of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. The joy Pastor Klepper talks of is not as bright and as loud as people are used to from traditional Christmas Cards; it points away from the manger, away from the wise men and the shepherds; it points to the center of the Jesus story. It points to cross and resurrection.

Oh child, we cannot help but see these holy days your agony, which in this night so late we wrought, by our own guilt upon you brought. Lord, have mercy.
This day the world sounds rapture's cry yet in a lowly barn you lie. Your sentence has long been prepared, the cross is ready, for you reared. Lord, have mercy.

Did her irritated note make me doubt Aunt Gisela’s credentials as a good Lutheran? No, I just think she is a good example of how all of us like to hang on to the comforts of what we know. Aunt Gisela is an example of nostalgia. Instead of allowing her to sit back, I stirred her into thinking, and it seems as though she didn’t like it too much.  Thinking about cross and resurrection is not as easy as thinking about Christmas.  The lightness and joy of Christmas and Epiphany is behind us, and sorrow is looming on the horizon. 

Jesus is hungry, and he is tired.  Just before his forty day retreat he has been baptized by John the Baptist.  Both, the ritual and the retreat have exhausted his energies.   At this point, Jesus has a peculiar experience.  “The tempter came”, says Matthew. It seems as if he gets into an argument with some kind of a voice — and that voice is identified as the devil.

The Negev Wilderness
Jesus is in the wilderness, and whenever wilderness shows up in Scripture, danger is ahead; the wilderness is considered to be the domain of demons. The 40 days and nights of Jesus' ordeal correspond to the period that the Israelites wandered into the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. Matthew mentions the 40 nights to draw a closer comparison to Moses' fast during the period he received the Ten Commandments. The role of Satan has changed from the time of Job from being God's tester to being the slanderer, a malignant force opposed to the Almighty. The three temptations which Satan presents to Jesus portray the nature of his spiritual struggle throughout his ministry.

You see, Jesus is at a point where he has to decide what to do with his life.  After his rather dramatic and promising birth he has been a normal young man for the last thirty years, reared and loved by his parents, Joseph and Mary. Now, at age thirty, just after his baptism in the river Jordan, he has to decide what to do with his life. Of course, he could become a carpenter like his father, but then again ... people have told him that he is someone special. John the Baptist has been the last person who told him so. 

It feels good to be told you are special.  Everybody wants that, to have power and influence; and everybody wants enough money so they can do more than just getting by. Jesus is dreaming, and projecting, and longing like every young man thirty years of age.  But first of all, he is hungry. His eyes fall on the rocks around him, and there is Satan's voice, coming out of nowhere.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.
Satan is saying, “So, young man, don't they all tell you that you have special powers?  Why can’t you make some bread out of these ugly rocks?  Could that be so hard?” To Jesus, it doesn't seem right to do that.  He realizes that (even should he be able to) he doesn't want to make a living out of performing miracles.  Jesus dreams about the future have told him that there is more to life than filling one's belly, and that sometimes an empty belly is better than being dependent on the source of food.   “Man does not live from bread alone, but from God's Word" are the words that Matthew reports as Jesus’ answer.

Having come this far, having fought the voice that has suggested a little private miracle, having preserved his vision of life, Jesus finds himself in greater trouble.

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.' "

“What if,” says that Satanic voice, “what if, Jesus?” “What if you could delegate your care for yourself to that magnificent power people say you command? Why don't you test it!  Pick a spectacular site, jump down and enjoy the protection you surely will receive. Come on, there’s nothing to lose, Jesus! Do as I say, you’ll thank me for it later on!”

Jesus senses that it isn't right to give up his responsibility for himself, and, more importantly, he doesn't want to use his God-given power to play. Thus he says,  “You shall not tempt your God.”  But now Jesus has to face the most formidable challenge.

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."

Satan shows him the whole world in a flash (like a satellite picture of our majestic blue planet) and says,  “Come on, Jesus, take all the power you can get, it's yours, take it, you will love it, and you will want more and more and more, and all your longings and dreams and ambitions will be satisfied.”

This is the most crucial attack, the most terrible danger, for the devil goes where Jesus is most vulnerable, to his ambitions and dreams.  It’s what we call a person’s “Achilles Heel”. If I recall correctly, in Greek mythology Achilles was dipped head first into the River Styx, which made him immortal and invulnerable, except for the heel by which he was held, which was not immersed. He later suffered a mortal wound to that very spot, his vulnerable spot. Satan is quick to notice Jesus’ Achilles heel where he stoops for attack. Satan adds with a smile, “There is just that one little matter to deal with, Junior — acknowledge that I am the one to be adored and honored — fall down and worship me.”

"Get out, Satan," says Jesus, and quotes from his Bible, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only".   This summarizes all the other answers Jesus has given the devil; it summarizes what makes him stand out.  What makes Jesus stand out is his ability to resist temptation.

Jesus knows himself, and so he knows how tempting it is to think of oneself as financially secure, well-protected and powerful. But Jesus also has looked around and he has seen what the greed for more and more power can do to people.  All he has to do is go out to the gate of the next town, and look at the greedy little man in the tax booth.  At one time the tax collectors have had dreams, too. But those dreams and visions have been crushed by the power of greed.   As Jesus looks at these well-off, well-protected and powerful men, who have no dreams or visions for their lives, he realizes power for power’s sake is not for him.

Jesus recognizes that all our dreams and visions come with a built-in trap.   That trap is that for power people will do almost anything. 

Dignity, integrity, dreams, visions, all is eaten up when people give in to the temptation of power.   Jesus has watched what power does to people.  Absolute power, as we all learned in school, corrupts absolutely.  It took the Jerusalem authorities two years to silence this dangerous man, this rebel-rouser who told people not to trust the powers that be.  When they finally killed him, he had given many people a lot to think about.

It seems to be part of human nature that we search for power.  It was that way with Jesus.  He was thrilled (believe you me) by the prospect of being all-powerful.   But being someone who had eaten the Word of God like other folks eat bread, he had something to measure himself against.  He knew that he would lose big time if he focused on his own power and his influence.  He knew that he would lose his independence and become the devil's creature as soon as he lost sight of what really matters. "What is the Source of Your Power?” 

When I had my first full time congregation in Queens, members kept coming to me … not, as you might think, for spiritual advice but to use me to get more power in the church. The men came and said, “Don’t you think the women’s’ group has too much influence around here?”; the women came and said, “You must help us to keep the men of the church in check.” The custodian had some beef with the president, and the organist didn’t see eye to eye with the church secretary. Day-in and day-out, Sunday after Sunday I was being pulled into some power game or another, sometimes right before service, in those couple of minutes I need to meditate and get ready.

Finally, I got sick of it all and told the congregation I was convinced they would be better off as a club.  I suggested that they change the sign on their fine lawn, eliminating the word “church” and replacing it with the word “country club”. I told them, “The question is whether or not you want this to be a church; from the way you are fighting for power, I think it ought to be called a country club”. They were so angry that if looks could kill, I’d have been dead a few hundred times the morning of that sermon.

Satan is rejoicing every time we lose sight of what matters for our souls.  It is time we stop worrying about who is strong and who is weak in the church, and how we can add to our power. It is time that we worry in whose name we work together.  It is time that we cry out with Jesus and say, "Away with you, Satan.  For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

Churches will see conflict; that’s normal. People will disagree with each other; that’s normal. But conflicts in church get dangerous when in all the disagreements people lose track of what the church is all about. 

Do you know what happens in churches where people have forgotten what they are all about?  They think it’s about the members.  And then pews and hymnals and mailings and a thousand other things are the only thing church councils concern themselves with. They fight and they fight and they fight, and little by little they start living by what is “pretty” and “appropriate” and “nice”. Common sense and majority decision rule; slowly the ten commandments become rules to measure your neighbor by, and the catechism is for kids, and sermons are for those who need them.

The temptation of Jesus is ours as well: getting lost in the games and losing sight of the only power that matters.  The only power that matters is expressed very simply in the oldest creed known to the Church.  It’s not the Apostles’ Creed or the Athanasian Creed. It’s straight from the New Testament, and it’s just four words.  JESUS CHRIST IS LORD.

As we venture into the wilderness of Lent, let us remember what is the source of our power.  It's our gracious God, whose power is love and joy and forgiveness.  Choose God and you shall live!

Matthew 4: 1-11

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