Matthew 4:1-11 – Facing Temptation

Jesus Tempted by Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a remarkably high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV)

In our most vulnerable moments, the devil attempts to swoop in and offer his demonic delights for us to consider. We call it “temptation.” Indeed, it can be quite alluring to entertain ways of getting what we need and want through avenues other than God.

In the desert, the place of preparation for ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed forty days. If ever there was a time when Jesus would be vulnerable to alternative religion, the devil mused, wringing his demonic hands together with wicked delight, it would be out in the desert by himself. So, Satan tempted Jesus with three whoppers he thought would get to Jesus, for sure. Having tempted Jesus with food and a way to fame, and having failed both times, Satan gave his final temptation.

To us this temptation to bow down and worship Satan seems like a no-brainer. Well, of course, no one would do such a thing as this, especially Jesus. And he did not. But it was still tempting. It really was. Jesus knew very well what was ahead of him. He had just spent forty days in an intense orientation for an upcoming three years of hard ministry with an end of tortuous death to look forward to. 

Satan presented to Jesus an alternative way, a different path to achieve his purpose for being on this earth. Jesus could have it all without the three years, without the hard slugging to communicate the kingdom of God has come. Most of all, Jesus could circumvent the cross and establish his rule over all the earth – all pain free! The temptation, yes, was very tempting. Become King Jesus now with no suffering.

This has always been one of our great temptations, as well: Take the easy path. Get what you want, what you deserve, now, with no hardship. 

The values of God’s kingdom include trust, patience, and perseverance. Temptation insists we need none of those hard things to be successful. Satan is the original slickster, marketing his quick and easy wares for people to buy into the notion that life can lived without pain and hardship, and with wild success, right now. The scary thing about it is that Satan can deliver… but it will cost us our very lives. Slavery to sin is the price we pay for hitching our hopes to the quick and easy.

The Christian season of Lent is a time for the slow, patient, deliberate development of the soul in attachment with the Lord Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines is hard. It is difficult to fast and pray. Growing in Christ is slow and takes a great deal of learned perseverance. Far too many of us are tempted to circumvent the hard work of discipleship and simply have a spiritual professional distill everything we need into one hour on Sunday morning. Or we fabricate our own religious practice and beliefs, picking and choosing what fits our lifestyle, as if convenience and comfort are the summum bonum of life, instead of worship.

Christ was able to face down temptation because the desert strengthened him. Yes, he was vulnerable. But he was not weak. If we want to handle temptation, it will take Lent to help us. It will take the desert to spiritually form us and prepare us for godly ministry that puts the devil in his place.

Lord Jesus, you are the king of all creation. Just as you chose the hard path of God’s kingdom, so help me to persevere with faith and patience. May my life reflect your words and ways, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Philippians 3:7-11 – The Ultimate Value

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow, I also may be raised to life. (CEV)

As I looked at today’s date, I realized that it was on this day thirty-six years ago that my now dear wife told me, “I love you.” Two months previous, I had told her, “I love you.” She did not reciprocate. Instead, this lovely girl whom I had come to love (it was not love at first sight for either of us, which is a much longer story for another time) flat out retorted back to me, “Well, I don’t love you. Listen, Mr., I’ve heard every line in the book. What’s your angle? What do you want from me?”

For me, I knew I what I had was genuine love and not infatuation because I found myself responding matter-of-factly, “There’s no angle. I love you. If you choose not to love me back, I’ll just keep loving you.” This threw her into a two-month long sort of existential angst in which she explored the depths of her own spirit to see if her best friend was her love, as well.

So, when the love of my life said to me on that day, “I love you,” I knew it came from a place of soul-searching, prayer, trepidation, deliberate resolve, and genuine sincerity. For my wife, to say those words meant she was committed to me. They were not said lightly. It took a lot for those words to be formed.

On that day thirty-six years ago, the both of us had amazing clarity about the direction of our lives. We were going to be together, and no other person would ever have the primary place we each now enjoyed with one another. To me, every other girl seemed like nothing compared to my beloved. And, I will still admit, my feelings have not changed one iota.

I picture the Apostle Paul going through a similar struggle and process of coming to Christ. And once he did commit, no one was ever going to usurp the place of Jesus in his life.

I honestly believe that the primary reason my dear wife and I have been together all this time and still love each other as if it were December 10, 1984 is because of our shared commitment and ultimate value of knowing Christ. For each of us, Jesus is everything. Our lives center around him. The grace of God in Christ shapes all our worldview and animates every action we take.

Together with the Apostle Paul, we want to know Christ and we will take whatever situation is necessary to realize a continual growth in grace with Jesus at our side. Just as the adversity, hardship, and difficulties we have faced together over the decades has caused to bring us even closer together, so facing all of it with Christ in the middle of it has brought us closer to God.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, power and suffering go together. For example, weightlifting causes fibers of the muscles to sustain injury. So, the body repairs those damaged fibers by fusing them, which then increases the mass and size of the muscles. It is through suffering, even trauma, that muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Spiritual power results from undergoing suffering. Through hard circumstances, our spirits experience hurt. Yet, through the process of healing we become stronger, more resilient, and our faith grows. A deeper experience of Christ and a greater intimacy with Jesus results from identifying with him in his suffering. Show me a person with vigorous faith and I will show you a person who has been strengthened through suffering.

When Jesus Christ is our surpassing value, everything else is viewed differently – the past, present, and future take on new meaning. We tell ourselves an alternate story, based in the person and work of Christ. In this Christian season of Advent, we look back to the first advent of Christ’s incarnation; look forward to the second advent of Christ coming again; and, this shapes how we live in the present between the two advents accepting suffering as a gift and embracing fresh power as a means to serve others.

Yes, this is a special day for me. Yet, everyday is a special day when I can enjoy fellowship with my Lord together with my wife.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw my heart to Christ, so guide my mind, so fill my imagination, so control my will, that I may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use me, I pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through the sufferings of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in the his great resurrection power I pray. Amen.

Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

We prepare for things we really care about; we anticipate things that are important to us. This was the point of Christ’s parable about ten bridesmaids. (Matthew 25:1-13)

People who really care about hunting make careful preparations for the season and anticipate opening day. Those who care about Green Bay Packers football look forward to game-day, plan for special food to eat, and set aside normal activities to watch them play. And, of course, weddings are events which take lots of preparation because families care about the upcoming marriage. Since I have raised three girls, I can testify first-hand that wedding plans begin in third grade for many females.

Some folks show up to things late and unprepared because they simply do not value the event enough to be ready for it. Casual hunters and fair-weather football fans go home when it gets too cold because they are not adequately prepared for the conditions. Quickie weddings happen in Las Vegas when two people are not prepared to have a marriage for a lifetime. People drop out of impromptu events when there is no fun or gets too hard. However, if they really care about it, they prepare for it, have patience through it, and persevere in it when things get tough.

The true test of authentic commitment comes when things are not easy and it takes blood, sweat, and tears to see something through. A Christian is one who professes Christ as Lord and Savior, and backs the words up with a resolve to live into their baptism; to avail themselves of Holy Communion; to plan and prepare for both personal and public worship; and to make it their aim to love God, one another, and neighbor.

There are few human events more freighted with emotion and preparation than weddings. Parents invest a lot of time, energy, resources, and love to have a meaningful wedding for their kids. There is also the potential for disaster at a wedding. Since I have done my share of weddings, I can tell you that a lot of things go sideways in the preparation process and even at the wedding itself. I have seen bridesmaids pass out, grooms forget the ring, and families fight like cats and dogs in the narthex just as the bride is ready to come down the aisle. All kinds of crazy stuff can happen with a wedding. 

At my own wedding, the bridesmaids were literally sown into their dresses by the seamstress just hours before the wedding; one of my groomsman did not show up because, I later found out, he was in jail; and, we were married on the hottest and most humid day of the year – 100 degrees – which did not go so well for a bunch of women trying to have their best ever hair day.

Yet, we got married anyway. The wedding happened because it was important to us. I think it is interesting that Jesus chose to tell a parable using a wedding to tell us what the kingdom of God is like. Weddings in Christ’s day were just as prone to mishap, maybe even more so, than weddings today.

In ancient Israel, a couple would become engaged but not set a wedding date. The groom took the time to busily prepare a home for himself and his bride to live. It might take days, or weeks, or months, even years. It is this imagery that Jesus picked up to communicate his point of being prepared for things we care about. 

No one knew when the groom would be finished with preparations. (Note: Jesus the bridegroom is busy making preparations for a great wedding feast at the end of the age when he will come back and take us to be with him forever, John 14:1-4). When the groom was ready, he left the home he had prepared and went to the bride’s house. Then, the two of them, along with their wedding party, would have a grand procession through the streets of the town, almost always after dark, and then back to the home of the groom. So, oil lamps were important to have ready and on standby.

Ten Bridesmaids by Dinah Rau, 20

Here is the parable of the bridesmaid’s setting: The groom has left his house and begun his trek through town. He might come right away, and he might not, depending on what route he takes. The bridesmaids (or virgins) have their oil lamps ready. Five of them have plenty of oil, and five of them do not. The groom took a circuitous route, so the virgins fell asleep waiting. At midnight, the groom finally showed up at the bride’s house. Five virgins were ready and five were not ready. 

The five bridesmaids without enough oil went to find or buy some more, while the five virgins with plenty of oil joined the celebration. The procession returned to the groom’s house, posthaste, before the five bridesmaids who were not part of the procession finally caught up to them at the house. They knocked on the door and expected to get in. But the door was shut and was not going to be opened. The marriage happened without them.

Bottom line of the story: The five foolish bridesmaids were not ready because they did not care enough to be prepared. This, at face value, might seem harsh. Yet, in Christ’s time, not having the oil needed for the lamps would be akin, in our day, to half the bridesmaids showing up at the wedding at the last minute in jeans and t-shirts without having done their hair and expecting to stand up with the bride. No bride or groom and their family in our culture is going to roll with that kind of behavior because it is deeply offensive.

As in all of Christ’s parables, the characters represent the people listening. The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids point to the various characters who were following Jesus. Those folks consisted of both faithful disciples of Jesus, as well as wedding crashers who were not there because they valued and respected Jesus.

Jesus told us to keep watch, because we do not know the day or the hour when he will return. So, the big question for every professing believer in Jesus is: Are you prepared?  We are to maintain constant vigilance, being always alert for Jesus to show up. It is one thing to profess Christ; it is quite another thing to live each day doing God’s will and being prepared for Jesus to return. In short, Jesus wants more than fair-weather Christians. 

We cannot assume someone else will give us oil, or simply rely on another person to have everything we need to live the Christian life. Each one of us must listen and learn from God’s Word for ourselves; cultivate a life of prayer; serve the church and the world in ways God has called us to, without relying on someone else to do the work I should be doing. 

For those whom Jesus is the most important person in their lives, you will see preparations to serve him every day. It is my personal practice to rise each morning by 5:00am. I light a candle and spend some quiet unhindered time reading Scripture, reflecting on it, and praying. Throughout the day I pause to intentionally connect with God in prayer and worship (Yes, even a Pastor must do this!). 

I get up early in the morning regardless of how I feel. I engage in spiritual disciplines even when it does not strike my fancy. I go to work and do what it takes to get myself in a position to be a blessing to others, despite the times when I am less than 100%. I do it because God has called me, and I care about that.

Let us come back to Christ’s message of the parable: We prepare for things we really care about, and we anticipate things that are important to us. For the first three hundred years of the church, believers in Jesus met in cramped places with few resources other than the Holy Spirit of God. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, everything literally changed overnight.  Emperor Constantine built St. Peter’s Basilica and instituted state-funded support for bishops. Suddenly, Christianity was cool. At this point, the church began a moral and spiritual slide into worldliness and decadence. 

It seems throughout the history of Christianity that the church flourishes most when it is under some sort of persecution or adversity. And when it is not, it flounders and lapses into worldliness. Sometimes, the primary values and goals of Christians are ensuring that we get our way through politicians, as if our hope is ultimately tied to political elections. Instead, our goal must be to live for Jesus, no matter the circumstances. In fact, the church’s faith grows more genuine when it is proven through great trials.

The return of Jesus is a future reality which needs to be constantly on our spiritual radars. Jesus wants us to watch and pray, to be prepared, because it could be today that the bridegroom shows up at our house!

Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.