An Opportune Time
A Sermon on Genesis 3 and Luke 4:1-13
I used to think that my struggles would be over once I grew up. Or at least things would be easier. I thought grownups had all the answers, or at least knew where to find the answers. They knew where they were going. They knew what to do. They could proceed into the future with confidence.
Well, I grew up, and I found out that grownups don’t have it so simple, and very few answers do come easily. Grownups often have to struggle to find the way. Sometimes they stumble towards the future. It is tempting to seek out somebody who does seem to have their act together and then try to do what they do.
If that’s the way it is for human beings, why are we so surprised to see Jesus searching for the way? If Jesus came to be one of us, if he truly was human, then how could he be exempt from the human struggle? Yes, Jesus had known from childhood that he was put here to be about God’s business. That’s what he told Mary and Joseph when he was twelve years old, when he stayed behind in the Temple in Jerusalem, discussing the scriptures with the elders. Remember? He knew it, yet he still struggled.
In our lesson today, Jesus was now around thirty, well into middle age measured by the average lifespan of that day. He was middle-aged and he still hadn’t launched his public ministry. What was going on? Why all this waiting? After Jesus was baptized, instead of handing Jesus a detailed agenda and itinerary and sending him off to work, God sent him off by himself. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a marathon of fasting and prayer. He was still facing the questions of when, where and who and how. Jesus knew what God was aiming at: salvation for all humanity. Healing. Release. New life. But how? How to go about it?
The devil saw a golden opportunity. This was an opportune time if there ever was one. Why? Jesus was needy. Jesus was hungry, and tired, and asking hard questions. Jesus was also eager to accomplish something good. Open to suggestion? Quite possibly.
Three times the devil’s voice broke in on Jesus. First it said, “Since you are the Son of God, use your power and turn this stone into a loaf of bread. Eat.” Notice how sensible, how practical the devil’s suggestion was. He’s not telling Jesus to go do something immoral. Jesus needed to eat. There were rocks all around, lots of them. He had the power. Here was a simple way to solve this problem. And think of all the other hungry people he could feed! The supply of rocks was unlimited!
Then the devil said, “Look at all the kingdoms of the earth. Here, look! I can give them to you. I know how they work. I control them. Make a deal with me, worship me, and they’re yours.” Again, practical. Power gets things done in this world. Money talks. This is the tried and true. Think of all you can accomplish with these resources at your command. You can make things happen, Jesus! The good end justifies the means.
And then the devil quoted scripture, saying, “Put Psalm 91 into action, where it says that the angels will catch you, so you won’t even stub your toe. Jump off the Temple and prove it.” True, it is in the scripture. “Here is a way to force the people to admit that you really are who you say you are, Jesus. They’ll have to listen to you. You’ll have the Temple authorities right where you want them.”
The devil gave Jesus a whole list of ways to take the bull by the horns and seize success. Jesus, this works! Take my advice and great things will happen!
But if Jesus says “yes” here’s what else will happen: His trust in God will be broken. If he takes those suggestions, Jesus will be saying: “I don’t trust God to provide for me. I don’t trust God to take care of me or protect me. I don’t trust God’s way of doing things. I don’t trust God to accomplish God’s will in me. I will do what works.”
Trust is the very thing God wants. It was what he asked of Adam and Eve, that they might walk all together in the cool of the day. It is what God asked of Jesus. It is what God asks of us. God wants us to walk with him in trust, letting him set the agenda, letting him lead each step of the way, even if it is a way that is foolish in the world’s eyes, even if it is the way of the cross, even if it leads to death.
The devil knows that if he can derail people’s trust, if he can ratchet up our insecurity, if he can get us operating out of self-service and self-protection, he can derail our relationship with God. That’s exactly what happened in way back in the garden. There that calm, sensible, snaky voice said to Adam and Eve, “You won’t die if you eat that fruit. You will become wise. You’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be like God. There is more to know, and you can know it! You can have it all!”
There. The seeds of mistrust were sown. Adam and Eve got to thinking that maybe God didn’t have their best interests at heart after all. Maybe they had better take the bull by the horns. “This fruit will put us in a stronger position,” they reasoned. “We want this advantage. We need it. This will empower us to handle whatever comes. We can have it all.”
Why did that snake’s voice sound so much more convincing than God’s voice? It must have, for Adam and Eve didn’t even think of taking this matter back to God.
They took and ate, and trust was utterly derailed. Their trust in God was derailed, God’s trust in them was derailed, and their trust in one another was derailed. Now they went into hiding when God came to walk with them in the cool of the day.
The test came, the alien voice came, and Adam and Eve weren’t ready. They completely left God out of their picture. Jesus was ready. He had a vast store of scripture ready in his heart. He was constantly turning back to God in prayer.
No! No matter how hungry Jesus got, putting self first wasn’t the way! No! Power plays and politicking were not the way of God! No! It’s wrong to try to force the hand of God. It is wrong to try to manipulate people.
“Scripture says,” Jesus answered, “Humanity does not live by bread alone.
“Scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God.’
“Scripture says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
For the moment the testing was done. But only for the moment. The devil stayed alert, looking for another opportune time.
And so it is now. The enemy is still on the lookout for an opportune time, looking for a moment of vulnerability when he can slip in and undermine trust, turn up the volume on insecurity. Times of crisis. Times of decision. Times when we so very much is at stake.
It’s an opportune time in the church, and I’m not just talking about our particular church. Congregations—big ones as well as little ones—worry about their future, fearing for the survival of this institution they love so much. It is tempting to identify congregations that are successful, look successful, anyway, in terms of numbers and growth and budget and growth, and try to copy them. Find what works and do it. And certainly it is important to learn from other congregations. But isn’t the prior question what God wants? What is the will of God for this particular congregation?
What if God wants something different for the congregation?
A few weeks ago, pastors and elders of the Rocky Mount area Presbyterian Churches were meeting together to talk about how we might work together in reaching people for Christ around here. One of our presbytery staff members was there, and somewhere in the conversation he described two models for starting new churches. Model one, and by far the most common, is to find an area where there is a growing population of affluent people that will be able to move quickly to build a building and develop programs. Success is measured in growing numbers and growing budgets. This is usually how presbyteries decide where to plant new congregations.
Model two is to start a congregation where there is a need, regardless of whether the population is growing and regardless of the income level. He described this kind of church as a mission church.
Now isn’t every church supposed to be a mission church? Success in worldly terms isn’t the goal. Walking with God, trusting God, and living out God’s call is. Reaching people who need Jesus is. The question is not how to be successful. The question is how to be faithful.
We are in a vulnerable time as a congregation, a time of decision as we move towards our future ministry and try to get this building in shape to support that ministry. This is an opportune time. God is calling us to trust him ever more deeply. But there’s another voice, a sneaky voice that wants to ratchet up our fear and undermine our trust. That voice wants to upset us and dishearten us and drain away our courage. It wants us to get thoroughly focused on our problems and our weakness and what we can’t do. It wants us to settle for less.
Are we ready to deal with that voice? The way to get ready and stay ready is to get in touch with God every way we can, reaching out to God: Bible study and more Bible study. Prayer and more prayer. Turn up the volume on God’s voice. What is your will, God? We trust your way.
The devil backed off from Jesus—for a while. How good it was to get on with ministry. At last Jesus began to reach out, teaching and healing.
But the devil didn’t simply disappear, oh no. He bided his time and waited for another opportunity. He is still around somewhere. Beware!