Christ our Crisis

Luke 4:1-12 (Sermon)

I remember my first existential crisis. I was five and staring out of a window at a massive cornfield on the other side of the road from our house in Minnesota. My eyes focused on the window screen. As the cornfield blurred, I examined the screen. Then my eyes refocused again, but this time their focus was my nose. This broke my five-year-old brain. For the first time I was aware of what I considered to be a distinction between mind and body, and I felt my disembodiment. Lauren was in this particular body…but maybe I could’ve been in another body? Born to a different family? Living in a different house?

Cue the crisis.

I’m not alone here in existential crises. I’m happy assuming that many of you have had one or two or one once a week. An existential crisis occurs because something external has radically altered the way we see our existence, which challenges us and causes us to doubt the permanence of our existence. The crisis is the bright light that shines into the dark recesses of our existence and exposes the truth of who and what we are: dead person walking with no way to escape the things that plague sleep, that cause fear, that wake regret. No matter how much make-up we wear or what suite we put on, we are that person and that person we are.

Lent is a that which points us to our crisis. Lent is not a feel-good-about-yourself-because-you-gave-up-sugar-for-40-days event. To borrow and expand the apt imagery Rev. Montgomery employed on Ash Wednesday: Lent is cleaning house. It’s not merely straightening up the rooms that will be seen by your guest, but going under the bed, to the back of your closet, even into the attic and basement and dragging out those boxes where you keep the stuff you’d never want exposed by the light of day. Lent is to be a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself, to quote the 4th step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without the crisis of the self in death, we have not the self in life; without Good Friday, there’s no Easter.

Cue the crisis.

Then Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was lead by the Spirit into the desert, in order to be tempted forty days by the Slanderer (devil). 4:1-2a

Our gospel reading from Luke forms a bridge between Jesus being baptized in the Jordan and the beginning of his ministry.[1] Thus, I’m picking up where I left you: in the Jordan with Jesus, with the one who stands in solidarity with God and with Humanity and who answers the divine question posed to humanity: whom will you follow and with whom will you stand?

Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus exits the Jordan and is ushered into the desert (the wilderness[2]), thus, steps into the solitude of a desolate wasteland. The focus is solely on him; this then becomes the locus of our eyes and the orientation of our ears. We are to look and listen, being quiet visitors because it’s not (primarily) about us, it’s (primarily) about Jesus, the assumed son of Joseph who is (and has been equipped to be) Jesus the Christ.[3] We watch as the battle wages in a realm that is cosmic in proportions[4] as the Slanderer takes on the Christ.[5] And this battle will establish in concrete terms what Jesus proclaimed in his baptism in the Jordan: I am for God; I stand with God.[6]

As in the Jordan and in this battle with the Slanderer in the wilderness, Jesus is not only Christ standing in solidarity with God but Jesus the Christ standing in solidarity with humanity—the overlap with Israel is no accident.[7] Where Israel failed, Jesus triumphs. Where Israel grieved the spirit after their baptismal event (crossing the ground of the Red Sea between two walls of water); Jesus follows the leading of the Spirit after his baptism event in the Jordan. Where Israel clamored and complained about hunger, Jesus resists the temptation to feed himself; where Israel spent 40 years, Jesus spends 40 nights; where Israel was God’s son disobedient, Jesus is God’s son obedient.[8]

The first generation of Israel, liberated from the captivity and bondage of Egypt’s oppression and enslavement, was sentenced to death for their disobedience, never to enter into the Promised Land. Jesus will enter the Promised Land, the presence of God, and establishes that he is the Promised Land: he is the Son with whom God is well pleased. And where this Son goes so too does the presence of God, for where he stands there established is holy ground. And as the presence of God does, so too will Jesus: illuminate and expose the people for who and what they are.

Cue the crisis.

And he ate nothing during those days and when they had completed he was hungry. The slanderer said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone so that it may become bread. And Jesus answered him, “It is written that humanity will not live by bread alone. 4:2b-4

The first temptation is rather basic: the Slanderer plays off of Jesus’s hunger. Jesus, you need food, so, being the Son of God, just turn this stone into bread.[9] The Devil here is addressing a very basic human need: hunger. In his hunger, Jesus stands in solidarity with humanity in his flesh. He is hungry. Jesus’s answer doesn’t create a dichotomy between flesh and spirit; it’s not as if Jesus has suddenly become an airatarian or that he thinks that the flesh is bad and only needs spiritual food. He doesn’t. The picture is larger than that. Jesus’s hunger is a real and present need; however, it’s not only by bread that humanity is nourished, but primarily by the word of God. For forty days and forty nights Jesus existed in the wilderness with nothing but the word of God. [10] There was no manna this time; there was just the word of God.

Also, it’s the word of God that sustains the entire cosmos,[11] from the wheat that grows and is turned into the bread we eat to the heartbeat of the one whose hands made that bread. Everything is sustained by the all-powerful, creatio ex nihilo, word of God. This is Jesus’s claim. Drawing some sort of hierarchy between spirit and flesh would do disservice to the incarnation as a whole and negate the depth of the temptation.

Being hungry reminds us of our humanity and our utter and total dependence on something outside of ourselves to live. We don’t actually “earn” our own food; for without the one who prepares the food, we are up a creek without a paddle. We think we are “self-made,” and when God withdraws his sustaining word, we drop to the ground like flies mid flight. If the earth stops turning, you can neither run fast enough to budge it nor will you have the air to fill your lungs to do so. We believe the illusion that we’re autonomously functioning particles. And the dastardly thing is we perpetuate the illusion by repeatedly demanding others (less fortunate than ourselves) to function as such. We do not and cannot go it alone; how dare we ask others to do so.

Cue the crisis.

And the Slanderer lead Jesus and in a moment of time pointed out to him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth, and he said to Jesus, “I will give to you the authority of all of this and the glory of these, for it has been handed over to me and to whom I wish I give it; therefore if you might worship in my presence, it will all be yours. And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and you will serve only him.” 4:5-8

In his letter to Theophilus, Luke already mentioned, in 2:1 and 3:1, that the “emperor” is the authority of the kingdoms of earth. Now, it’s the Slanderer who actually has authority.[12] Luke pulls back the veil: the kingdoms of humanity are under the authority of the Devil. On top of that, the Devil can offer these kingdoms to Jesus all he wants, but they’re only the Devil’s as a higher authority (God) delegates them to him.[13] Comically tragical.

Jesus’s answer is short and sweet: I worship God alone, and him only do I serve. And considering Jesus’s divine standing as the Son of God, these kingdoms are already his. But God does not work within Devil run systems and structures that work against God’s plan.[14] Just because these kingdoms will be and already are Jesus’s kingdoms does not mean that they are as they should be or that they’ll stay standing. In Christ, a new reign is being ushered in and it will look vastly different. What has been considered blessed (wealth, power, strength, popularity) will be flipped on its head.

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 6:20-26

Cue the crisis.

Then he brought Jesus into Jerusalem and placed him upon the edge of the temple and he, the Slanderer, said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written that he will command his angels concerning you in order to protect you and that by their hands they will carry you, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is said and written that you will not put the Lord your God to the test.” 4:9-12

Jesus is brought to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and then is told, by the Slanderer, to test God. The Slanderer uses the “It is written” formula for himself. He uses Psalm 91 to try to recruit Jesus to his plan to test God. Here’s the portion of Psalm 91 in play,

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 91:9-12

Psalm 91 is not about testing God to see if God is faithful to God’s word. Rather, it’s about those who find their allegiance to God and are in God’s presence. It’s about obedience to God.[15] While Israel was courted by infidelity and succumbed to the temptation, Jesus won’t.[16]

But there’s more to the Psalm. Here are the next two verses:

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name. 91:13-14

There’s divine rescue through suffering mentioned here and not merely from it.[17] Jesus calls the Slanderer out because it’s not about protecting his foot from striking a rock, but that that very foot will crush the head of the serpent prophesied long ago in Genesis 3:15. The Psalm the Devil uses is the Psalm of his demise. Jesus’s “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test” may as well be, “Check mate.” The Offspring of the Woman has been born and that Offspring is Jesus the Christ. Devil best run. And he does.

And when all the temptations finished, the Slanderer kept away from him until a point in time. 4:13

As the Slanderer flees until his next appointed time of engagement with the Christ, keep this in mind: Jesus will now go forth and begin his ministry by calling those who shouldn’t be called according to our standards, and engaging with those who are relegated to the fringes and margins of society. The world is about to be turned upside down.[18] Christ’s foot will step and strike the cornerstone of the kingdom of humanity, rendering it to dust because of dust it was made, and he will establish himself as the new cornerstone of the Reign of God—through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.[19] Those in charge, those wielding power and authority for their own gain, those turning a blind eye to the poor and hungry, naked and homeless…they best run.

Cue the crisis.

In your encounter with God in the event of faith you become aware you are grafted into the story of Israel: the story of failure upon failure upon failure. This narrative moment in the gospel of Luke is hardwired to transcend time and space, confronting all whose eyes are turned and ears perked by the scene before them: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, being tempted by the Slanderer and winning.

Witnessing this event, we are brought to the reality that we would not have won, that we would have succumbed to each and every one of those temptations, and would have given far more for far less. We are exposed for wanting. We would have conjured the bread from stone, we would’ve sought our own power and fame no matter the cost, we would’ve tested the Lord our God. And we do these things. Everyday.

Cue the crisis but don’t fear the crisis. According to this story: Christ is the crisis. And if Christ is the crisis, then he’s in the crisis—he’s with you in the thick of it. It’s the crisis that brings you to the fullness of your humanity—body, mind, and soul—because it’s in this crisis where you realize you need an other. Christ is the incarnate Word of God who sustains your very life, who is very God of very God worthy of your worship and obedience, who surpasses all testing because he’s the fulfillment of all promises. God dwells in your crisis as God dwells in the gallows, with the dry bones, with those who are dead in their trespasses because God’s righteousness is that which calls to life what is dead.

“A miracle happens, the miracle of miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this impure being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God become for him a life-giving encounter…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[20]

Cue the crisis because crisis is the heart of Lent, the heart of the Great Litany. Cue the crisis and throw yourself at the feet of God whose property is to always have mercy, and find life.

 

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 191. “Luke 4:1-13 presents a number of key elements linking it, some almost subliminally, to surrounding material, helping to ensure its interpretation as a bridge scene moving Jesus from his endowment with the Spirit to his public ministry.”

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.1.59.260, “On the old view the wilderness was a place which, like the sea, had a close affinity with the underworld, a place which belonged in a particular sense to demons. It was to encounter there that He was led there and kept His fast there. For Him as the Son, the One in whom God was well pleased, this had to be the case. …His way will never be at a safe distance from the kingdom of darkness but will always be along its frontier and finally within that kingdom. But already at the outset it brings Him into confrontation and encounter with it.”

[3] Green 191, “He was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him he was the assumed son of Joseph-these all portray him in a passive mode. Now he becomes the deixic center, the one around whom the narrative and its actants are oriented, the one preparing to take the initiative (4:14-15) for which he has been equipped.”

[4] Green 192, Pericope is a clash of “cosmic proportions” the devil takes on Jesus, God’s son, who is full of the Holy Spirit, “This account thus exhibits the basic antithesis between the divine and the diabolic that will continue throughout Luke-Acts.”

[5] Green 191, Luke’s narrative emphasis lies on the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus, thus, “Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus is full of the Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit. His central, active role is therefore fundamentally as God’s agent, and it is this special relationship and its implications that lie at the root of Jesus’ identity in Luke-Acts. Not surprisingly then it is this that will be tested in the encounter between Jesus and the devil.”

[6] Green 191-2, “Luke 3:21-38 was in its own way integral to the demonstration of his competence indicating his possession of the requisite credentials, power, and authority to set forth on his mission. But these are not enough. They must be matched with Jesus’ positive response to God’s purpose. Hence here Jesus will signal his alignment with God’s will in a way that surpasses the evidence already provided by his display of submission to God at his baptism. In the OT and in subsequent Jewish tradition fidelity to God was proven in the midst of testing whether direct activity of the devil. In the present scene, the testing conducted by the devil seeks specifically to controvert Jesus’ role as Son of God either by disallowing the constraints of that relationship or by rejecting it outright.”

[7] Green 193, “The similarities are sufficient in scope and quantity to show that the narrator has drawn attention deliberately to Jesus in his representative role as Israel, God’s son.”

[8] Green 192, “Correlation to Israel’s testing in the wilderness:

  1. divine leading in the wilderness (Deut 8:2- cf. Luke 4:1);
  2. “forty” (Exod 16:35; Num 14:34; Deut 8:2, 4; cf. Luke 4:2);
  3. Israel as God’s son (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; cf. Luke 4:3, 9);
  4. the testing of Jesus is analogous to that experienced by Israel and the scriptural texts he cites derive from those events in which Israel was tested by God (Deuteronomy 6-8); and
  5. though Jesus was full of the Spirit and followed the Spirit’s guidance, Israel ‘rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit’ (Isa. 63:10)”

[9] Green 193, “These ingredients of ‘setting’ are in fact integral to the first test. Jesus’ fasting has resulted in his near starvation and this foregrounds an immediate need, the provision of food.”

[10] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “It is only apparently the case that the Matthean text says less and is more reserved, as though in the phrase ‘not by bread alone’ Jesus had recognised that man does indeed live by bread too, but that he also needs the words proceeding from the mouth of God. For in this case the trite application that man has not only bodily but also spiritual needs is so obvious that the explication is a priori brought under suspicion. The fact is that during the forty days in the wilderness Jesus did not live by bread at all, but according to Mt. 42 He was an hungred, and yet in spite of His hunger He was still alive. Again, His answer to the tempter is a quotation from Deut. 83. But in this passage ‘living by bread’ is not one necessity to which ‘living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ is added as a second. On the contrary, the reference is to the miracle effected by the World of the Lord, which consisted in the fact that for forty years God led Israel through the desert, and that where there was no bread, and the people seemed likely to die of hunger, He nevertheless sustained them, namely, by the manna which neither they nor their fathers knew. It was in exactly the same way (except that now there was no question even of manna) that God sustained the hungering Jesus in the desert.”

[11] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “This divine communication brings it about that He lives and is sustained, nourishing and quickening Him. Even the bread which, if He were not in the wilderness, He might sow, reap, grind and bake, or even purchase or steal, could not give him life as [humanity]. This is given Him by the almighty Word of God, whether he has bread or hungers in the wilderness.”; see also CD III.4.55.347

[12] Green 194, “At the outset it is worth noting two sources of irony present in Luke’s description of this setting. First we have been led to believe that ‘all the world’ was under the charge of the Roman emperor (2:1; 3-1)- Now however, in a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity actually ruled by the devil.”

[13] Green 195, “Whatever rule the devil exercises is that allowed him by God; he can only delegate to Jesus what has already been delegated to him. What Jesus is offered, then, is a shabby substitute for the divine sonship that is his by birth.”

[14] Green 194, “The perspective he thus outlines is fully at home with the language of reversal and portrayal of hostility characteristic of Luke 1-3, even if it goes beyond them in identifying the activity of those human and systemic agents that oppose God’s plan and God’s people as manifestations of diabolic rule.”

[15] Green 195, “Fundamentally the issue here is akin to that in the first test. Jesus is radically committed to one aim, God’s eschatological agenda; the devil has an alternative aim a competing agenda. He wants to recruit Jesus to participate in a test of the divine promises of Psalm 91. In doing so, the devil overlooks the critical reality that the psalm is addressed to those who through their fidelity to God reside in God’s presence; even in the psalm faithful obedience to God is the controlling need.

[16] Green 196, “Jesus does not the deny the promises of God the devil quotes at him but he “…does deny the suitability of their appropriation in this context. He recognizes the devil’s strategy as an attempt to deflect him from his single-minded commitment to loyalty and obedience in God’s service, and interprets the devil’s invitation as an encouragement to question God’s faithfulness. Israel had manifested its doubts by testing God. But Jesus refuses to do so (cf. Deut 6:16).”

[17] Green 196, “Moreover the devil fails to recognize an even deeper mystery known already to the believing community of which Luke is a part, that divine rescue may come through suffering and not only before (and from) them.”

[18] Of note, from W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “Appendix 1: Must a Christian Be A Socialist (Helmut Gollwitzer 1972)” trans WTM. “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a cull unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by a privileged minority so that only the modes t remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

[19] Karl Barth IV.1.59.264, “We cannot ignore the negative form in which the righteousness of God appears in the event handed down in these passages. This is unavoidable, because we have to do with it in the wilderness, in the kingdom of demons, in the world unreconciled with God, and in conflict with that world. It is unavoidable because what we have here is a prefiguring of the passion. But in the passion, and in this prefiguring of it, the No of God is only the hard shell of the divine Yes, which in both cases is spoken in the righteous act of this one man. That this is the case is revealed at the conclusion of the accounts in Mark and Matthew by the mention of the angels who, when Satan had left Him, came and ministered unto Him. The great and glorious complement to this at the conclusion of the passion is the story of the resurrection.”

[20] Helmut Gollwitzer “Forgiveness are One” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 43.

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