Years ago, people were running around with these bracelets on their wrists with the letters “WWJD.” It was all the rage, in many situations, for people to ask the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” On the face of it, this is not a wrong question to ask. Jesus left us an example to follow so it is only natural to ask what he would do in certain situations. Now, this is fine if it was a rhetorical situation, but we are not usually placed in rhetorical situations we are put in real life situations. In all situations we need to ask the right question to come to the correct conclusion and asking what Jesus would do is not the right questions because we are not Jesus.
I am not sure how many of you have watched Survivor, but the premise of the game is, a group of strangers is left on an island to create, what amounts to, a new society. There are challenges that they will face food, shelter, and the physical demands placed upon them. They do not know each other and are of different ages and genders. It does not take long for leader and followers to emerge and not long after, power plays. The game Survivor is somewhat primal but it is a good snapshot of humanity at its best and, at is worst.
Let’s imagine that all of us here today are part of the game, how will we react? We will all react differently in different situations, and I believe if Jesus were with us, he would act differently as well. So asking the question, what would Jesus do, is fine if this was some existential problem, but we are in the real world and need to find solutions to real-world situations. The question we should be asking is, what does Jesus want us to do at this moment and at this time in our lives.
In the scripture passage we heard from Luke, Jesus enters the desert to pray before the start of his ministry, and he comes into contact with temptation. To truly understand what is happening here we need a little background on the story itself.
This passage is one of the holiest in all of scripture for it comes directly from Jesus himself. Jesus is alone in the deserted place; there are no witnesses to the events that will happen. Luke is writing about these events well after the death of Jesus. Scholars believe that Luke was written sometime between 80 and 100 AD so using the typical time frame of Jesus ministry of being 3 years, and starting his ministry at 30, and roughly speaking around 32 AD that is about 48 years after the events would have happened. The only plausible answer is that Jesus told this story himself about his time in the wilderness.
The other background piece is what the wilderness was like. Judea stood on the central plateau which was the backbone of Southern Palestine. Between it and the Dead Sea stretched a terrible wilderness, thirty-five by fifteen miles. It was called Jeshimmon, which means “The Devastation.” The hills were likes dust heaps; the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; the ground sounded hollow to the horses’ hooves; it glowed with heat like a furnace. It was here that Jesus retired too to prepare for his ministry and to be tempted.
The other point I will make is that Jesus went into this place for 40 days, this was for Jesus, Lent and is where we get this idea of the 40 days preceding Easter.
Now let us turn our attention to temptation. In the Lord’s Prayer that we recite most every Sunday, we read this line, “lead us not into temptation.” Now, this has always been an odd line for me. This about it, God loves us as a father loves his children yet we are asking that he not lead us into temptation. Why would a father do this? About a year ago, Pope Francis, in an interview on the subject of temptation, reignited the debate over the proper translation of this phrase. Pope Francis and many others including yours truly believe this is an improper translation which has led to a whole host of theological problems. Francis believes that the better translation is, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” It is not God the father that leads us into temptation but rather, as we see in today’s reading, Satan is the one that leads us and what we should be praying for is that when the temptation comes, when Satan, the father of lies, leads us into temptation, God, please give me a hand. That feeling fits much better with the lines that follow, “but deliver us from evil.”
Jesus is about to begin his ministry, and the evil one knows this. The evil one knows what is about to happen and wants to stop the mission that Jesus is setting out on and so temptations come along for Jesus to deal with.
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. Remember this is not desert sand where Jesus is but rather a rocky, jagged area. The rocks look like little loaves of bread and the tempter said to Jesus, “If you want people to follow you, use your powers to give them material things.” The suggestion is that if Jesus promised material possessions to people, they would follow him, in other words, if Jesus bribed people they would follow. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy that people do not live only by their possessions and that material wealth is not the answer.
For the second temptation, the evil one takes Jesus to the top of a mountain from which the whole of the inhabited world can be seen. The evil one says to Jesus, “worship me, and all this will be yours.” This is the temptation to compromise the message of the Gospel so that it is easier for people to follow. Don’t set the standards too high. Make a deal with evil, and all will follow. Jesus responds by saying that God is God, right is right, and wrong is wrong. There can be no compromise with evil. We must speak the truth in love to all and not compromise on that truth no matter the circumstances or promises made by evil. We cannot sell out so we can legislate our image of the compromised truth.
In the third and final temptation, Jesus is brought to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, to the top of Solomon’s Porch. From here there is a sheer drop of 450 feet down to the floor of the Kedron Valley below where he is standing. This was the temptation to give the people sensations, and they will follow you. Jesus response was that we must not do senseless experiments with the power of God. Jesus saw quite clearly that if produced sensations like flashy preaching, smoke, rock bands if, he wore jeans when he preached from behind a Plexiglas pulpit, or if his miracles had no meaning other than magic, he would be a 9-day wonder and would soon fade from the eyes of the people. Worship should be inviting, but it does not have to be a performance and entertainment.
So what does all of this mean for us?
The evil one offers us the easy way. Sure if we tell people that following the gospel will make the rich they will come. If we provide for their material wealth, they will follow. If we water down the message of Jesus to such a point that we can do whatever we want whenever we want, people will follow people will come to church and fill the seats. If we compromise our morals and ethics, we can get done through legislation what we could not get done by preaching to the truth of the Gospel. If we put on a show each week with great music and smoke and casual costumes people will come and they will leave entertained, but they will not be changed. The way of the Gospel is hard and requires us to work on ourselves, there has to be a willingness to change and to admit that we need to change and that is not easy. We are called to make disciples not converts and not church members. Our calling to show people the way, by living the way ourselves and then helping them to live that way and it will not be easy.
Jesus went to the deserted place to prepare for ministry. He was called by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit, but he stilled needed to be tested, to be tried. When a sword maker takes raw material, he needs to apply heat to mold that metal into shape, but it does not stop there. For that molded metal to be useful and to hold a sharp edge, it has to be refined and hardened. Jesus had been molded, and he was now being set for ministry. We have been called, we have been anointed, now we need to be prepared, and Lent is the time for that to happen. Let us pray that we indeed take the time during this holy season of Lent, to let God prepare us for what lies ahead and that we can be faithful witnesses to the Gospel and not compromise.