Act like one.

And the devil said to him: If you are the son of God…   (Luke 4:1-14)

It is important to note when the story begins: Jesus is returning from the River Jordan, where he went to be baptized by John. But instead of returning home, he ventures into unfamiliar territory.

Something happened there at the river, something that drove him to the wilderness. As he was baptized, he heard a Voice. “You are my beloved Son,” the Voice said; “In you I am well pleased.” The story really begins with that Voice, the Voice that sends Jesus into the wilderness. He goes there to confront it. For what does it mean, to be the Son of God?

In the wilderness, Jesus hears other another voice. A voice offering answers to that question.  Luke’s gospel tells us it was the voice of devil.

In most English translations of this story, the devil’s temptation begins with the words “If” – “If you are the Son of God.” But in Luke’s original Greek, the devil’s words don’t necessarily imply any doubt about the matter. An equally accurate translation would begin with the word “Since” – “Since you are the Son of God, why not turn this stone to bread?”  The devil is not questioning Jesus’ divinity. He’s defining it. He’s not saying, “If you’re really a god, then prove it”. It’s more subtle than that. Essentially, the devil tells Jesus:  ‘You’re a god…. Act like one.’

For what else does it mean, to be the Son of God?

The devil tells Jesus, “Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” For surely a god should be always free from want?

Next, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and offers him dominion over them. For surely a god should command the respect of others?

Finally, the devil dares Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. For surely a god is exempt from the consequences of his own behavior?

So what does it mean, to be the Son of God? According to the devil, it means privilege. It means power. It means invulnerability.

This picture of divinity that the devil paints for Jesus was a familiar one in the ancient world. The official public gods of the Roman Empire weren’t exactly moral exemplars; they were worshipped more for their power, than for their goodness.  Morality in first century Rome was the realm of philosophers, not priests. The defining characteristics of the gods were privilege, power, and invulnerability.

No wonder that Caesar who was called the “Son of God.” For who on earth could be more god-like than the Emperor?  He was at the top of the social and economic pyramid.

He had everything the devil had to offer.

The devil’s theology is tempting indeed, and history is full of those who have succumbed to it. The Europeans who colonized the Americas succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified their invasion with the argument that they were more godly than the native peoples they conquered. The slaveholders in the antebellum South succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified slavery with the argument that they were more godly than the African peoples they enslaved. If you equate privilege with godliness, it becomes easy to confuse tyranny with divinity. After all, who seems more god-like, the master, or the slave?

(Ask yourself why, in many paintings, Jesus is white, but the devil is black.)

But Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation, saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”  Jesus has an entirely different picture of divinity in mind, so he turns down the devil’s gifts of privilege and power and invulnerability. Jesus will be everything that Caesar is not. He will identify with the poor and hungry. He will be arrested and convicted by the rulers of this world. He will be beaten, and publicly executed.

What could be less god-like than that? Yet  Jesus’ followers insisted that it was in his very lowliness, that the nature of God was revealed.

Nearly a half-century ago, an African-American Christian theologian named James H. Cone ignited controversy by boldly declaring that “God was Black.” The statement “God is Black” sounded pretty shocking to 20th-century  white American ears  – but perhaps no more shocking than the statement that “Jesus is Lord” must have sounded to 1st-century Roman ears.

In declaring “God is Black,” James Cone did not just mean that God loves all people, or that all people are made in the image of God. Nor was he referring to the fact that Jesus himself was in all likelihood a brown-skinned man. In America, “blackness” was a not just a shade of human pigmentation but a condition of oppression. And so, as radical as it may have seemed to talk about the “the blackness of God,” Cone was in fact expressing an ancient Christian belief – that in Christ, God chose to make the  oppressed condition his own.

It was the same belief that the apostle Paul expressed nineteen centuries before, when he wrote to the Philippians, saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus – who, although he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7).

When we are on top of the pyramid, it is always tempting to believe that we are somehow closer to God up there, that our view of the world is a God’s eye view. The gospels tell us that the devil takes Jesus to “a high place” and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. But if you survey your kingdom only from some high place, it is impossible to see or hear the people below.  To look down on others is not to look at them with God’s eyes.

Jesus chose to look at the world not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Jesus rejected power and privilege, and the invulnerability they can purchase. Jesus turned down the devil’s invitation to rule from the mountaintop. He chose instead, to walk that lonely valley down below.

This week marks the beginning of Lent, a period of time traditionally associated with Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. The season of Lent is an invitation to follow Jesus into that wilderness, and to confront, as Jesus did, the promise of our own blessing.

For what does it mean, to be a son — or daughter — of God?

During Lent, we can emulate Jesus by fasting, by giving up some favorite food or activity; or we can emulate Jesus by giving up our claims to privilege and power, and becoming vulnerable to one another. For the devil tempts us still, to set ourselves above and apart from others, whether by virtue of wealth or education, gender or orientation, age or ability, race or nationality.

But it turns out that power, privilege, and invulnerability are not marks of divinity, but of its very opposite. What would it be like, to empty ourselves of that privilege? What would it be like, to be truly God-like?

Remember that you, too, are a child of God.

Act like one.

 

 

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, February 18, 2018.

Photo: The Temptation of Christ, Ary Scheffer (1854). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

If…

When my sister and I were kids, my Dad would buy two lottery tickets each week. Every Sunday, my sister and I would each get to hold one while he read out the winning numbers from the paper. We never won, of course, but we liked the game of imagining what we’d do if we did.

When I was small, I would imagine buying a pony, and a farm to keep it on. As I approached adulthood, I started to dream of making other people’s wishes come true. Maybe I’d buy a grand piano for my Dad, or a house on the beach for my Mom. Nowadays, I have to admit, my first thoughts are more practical: I dream of paying off the mortgage. But once the bills were taken care of, I imagine the rest going to some worthy cause – Doctors without Borders, perhaps.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

There are other versions of this game; a couple of years ago I remember driving in the car, listening to the call-in program Vox Pop on NPR, and the question for the day was, “What would you do if you were President Obama?” Most of those who called in said they would end the war, fix the economy, and institute universal health coverage.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

What would you do, if you were President?

What would you do, if you were God?

The devil comes to Jesus, in the wilderness, playing this game. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, turn these stones to bread. The devil isn’t asking for proof of Jesus divinity. He’s really saying: If I were the Son of God, that’s what I’d do.

The scripture refers to this exchange as a temptation.

It is tempting to believe that we could change the world, if only we were wealthier, or more powerful. It is tempting to believe that we would somehow do better than those currently in power. It is tempting to believe that only the powerful can change the world.

But here is a true story: once upon time, a church youth group set up a table on a downtown street corner, with an empty soup pot on it. They were asking the people passing by for donations to help feed hungry kids. The first person to approach the table told us that he was homeless, and broke, but that he really wanted to help. He found thirteen cents in his pocket, and he dropped it into the soup pot. He gave whatever he had. And so did many other ordinary people. And by the end of the afternoon the soup pot contained enough money to buy a year’s worth of food.

The fantasy of changing the world by winning the lottery is perhaps at its heart a wish to do good without having to sacrifice anything. A wish to change the world at no cost to ourselves. But it turns out, even Jesus, couldn’t do that.

If you were the child of God, what would you do?

For so you are.

 

Photo: http://dominicanes.me/tag/satan/