Sermon: Change the Test

March 10, 2019
First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13

by Eric Anderson

There were a couple of things that came out of our Bible Study of this passage this week.

One was the insight that this was not the last time Jesus experienced temptation. As human as we are, Jesus no doubt felt the pull to do something else, something other, something not-quite-what-God-wanted-him-to-do, every day of his life. Only in this story of Jesus following his baptism, and in the account near the end of the Gospels where he prays for deliverance in the garden, that we hear much of anything about it.

Make no mistake. Jesus walked with temptation.

The second insight was that the devil isn’t such a good tempter. These offers don’t really sound all that good, do they? Bread from the rocks: when Jesus knew, and the devil knew, and we all know, that bread is available in a relatively short walk out of the wilderness. Rulership of the world: when Jesus knew, and the devil knew, and we all know, that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of God already rules the world. The protection of the angels, turning a deadly fall into a divine dive on blessed bungie cords: when Jesus knew, and the devil knew, and we all know, that he didn’t need any such thing.

For me, those wouldn’t have been much of a temptation. I can wait for bread. I’m in no hurry to display the guardianship of the angels over me, so I’ll pass on the bungie jump off the temple even with elastic cords trailing behind me.

I grant you that I think I could run the world better than the devil, but I also know that’s a pretty low bar.

These tests are not for me.

These are tests for a Messiah.

As G. B. Caird writes (in Saint Luke, the Pelican New Testament Commentaries, Harmondworth, 1963): “A man of fervent and dedicated spirit, feeling himself called to liberate the oppressed and to establish the reign of justice and peace, would be open to three types of temptation: to allow the good to usurp the place of the best, to seek God’s ends by means alien to God’s character, and to force God’s hand by taking short cuts to success. And these are the three temptations of Jesus.”

Or as Karoline Lewis writes: “…the identity test for Jesus is not so much a test of who he is, but how he will live out his identity as Son of God. The devil knows perfectly well who Jesus is. The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is — and Jesus does not fall for it.”

The devil did not challenge that Jesus is the Messiah. He offered a pathway to another kind of Messiahship. In the first test, he challenged Jesus to be another Moses, to re-enact the manna miracle of the exodus. The Messiah was supposed to be “a prophet like Moses.”

In the second test, he offered Jesus the expected road of Messiahship, through military and political power, through the ways of the world, through the ways of… the devil.

And in the third test, he gave Jesus the chance to be a grand spiritual figure. He even quoted Scripture – this is where that phrase comes from, that the devil can quote Scripture. Would not a true Messiah be one blessed by the angels? Would not a true Messiah be one who could twist Scripture to his purposes?

Jesus’ Messiahship, however, was one that led to the cross and to the grave. It led also to the triumph of the resurrection, but it led through those harsh places first. No shortcuts. No manna. No military. No miraculous leaps.

He passed the Messiah test then, and each day thereafter.

Those are not our tests, though. Those are not our temptations. We might be able to pass the Messiah test more easily than Jesus did. Those things mean less to us than they did to him. But passing our own tests: Ah!

That’s harder.

Though Jesus’ tests may tell us relatively little about our own, I think his response to those tests does help us with our own. Each time, faced with a challenge, presented with an offer, Jesus refused to accept the devil’s proposition. He didn’t take any of the questions at face value.

He sought the deeper meaning.

Jesus looked beyond the bread to the deeper sources of life. He looked beyond authority over the world to Who has ultimate authority. He looked beyond safety to recognize how he could abuse his relationship with God.

He changed the test.

How can you change your tests? How can you avoid being manipulated by the way your tests are framed?

I knew a fellow in Connecticut whose life was really hard. It included poverty and homelessness, racial prejudice, a criminal record, possibly substance abuse, and a psyche that had been warped and twisted by all of this. He would ask me for help from time to time, and I always knew that it would be awkward, inconvenient, and sometimes expensive.

I recognized that he would try, mostly unintentionally, to take advantage of me.

I decided to make sure that he couldn’t take advantage of me. I decided to help him of my own free will.

That’s the striking thing about choosing to be generous: when you make the choice to give, the other may believe they’re taking advantage of you, but you made the choice, not them. You turned the question. The decision was yours.

I confess it didn’t always prevent some resentment from coming along, and I always knew that my gifts did no more than keep him going for another week or so. But he couldn’t take advantage of me, because I knew I’d made the choice.

In the meantime, our government abuses applicants for asylum at the border. We learned this week that UCC minister the Rev. Kaji Dousa, senior pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, has been put on a list revoking her global entry and restricting her passport liberties because of her work advocating for immigrants. UCC officers the Rev. John Dorhauer, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, and the Rev. Jim Moos joined New York Conference Minister the Rev. David Gaewski in a letter calling for the restoration of her rights this week, in which they wrote, “We will not capitulate to the fear tactics and abuse of political power represented by these outrageous acts of harassment that target humanitarian efforts at our southern borders.”

That, my friends, is called government officials failing the test of the devil’s temptation.

Your tests are distinct to you. They’re not Jesus’ tests, my tests, they’re not my tests, they’re not Rev. Dousa’s tests, they’re not Homeland Security’s tests (except that we share those as citizens). They’re your tests.

As Howard Thurman wrote, “You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…”

As they come, change the tests. Don’t accept them on face value. Look deeper. Look to the decisions that are yours. Look not just for what is easy, but also for what appears to be good, and that obscures a deeper good.

Look deep. Understand the questions.

Then: Change the test. And pass.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Change the Test

In a sermon called “Change the Test,” do you think that Pastor Eric changed the text? Of course he did.

The image is The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Riviere – BBC Your Paintings (now available by Art UK), Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on March 10, 2019

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