Tuesday, February 19, 2008

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

Sermon Preached at St. Michael and All Angels, Dallas
10 February 2008
Lent 1 – Matthew 4:1-11

Something there is in human nature which loves a hill or rather, I should say, a mountain. I know Texans may beg to differ on this point, preferring broad expanses of bush country (no pun intended). But then Texas has always been exceptional. In Uganda, where I live in East Africa, the capital city is built on seven hills like ancient Rome, and indeed on almost every is perched a cathedral or mosque. It is said that the Christians built on hilltops because the pagan people left them vacant, thinking they were the haunt of evil spirits. If so, this makes them different from the ancient Hebrews, who had to compete for the “high places” where the Canaanites worshipped their gods. Recall the popular psalm 27 – “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where shall my help come?” In this psalm David is probably contrasting the many hills (plural) of false worship from the one holy hill of Zion.

When we think of our Lord Jesus Christ, we find His life also punctuated with hills. Over this past Christmas, my wife and I were privileged to spend time in the Holy Land, where we walked from Mt. Zion in Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, and stood on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee and wound our way up Mount Tabor, the mount of transfiguration, which featured in last weeks’ Gospel lesson (by the way, Peter got his wish: there now is a shrine there commemorating the event).

In this week’s lesson, Jesus is tempted three times by Satan. Each of the temptations may be visionary, and each vision requires a lookout point. The first temptation occurs in the wilderness, not in a flat desert but in a wilderness of mountains, arroyos and caves. (Forty years ago, Bishop James Pike fell off a precipice and died in the wilderness of Judea, where he was searching vainly for the true Jesus.) The second temptation also involves a height – the pinnacle of the Temple - which itself stood on a hilltop, Mount Zion. According to the prophet Isaiah, in the latter days, this mountain would become the highest in the world and all nations would stream to it for instruction. Jesus refused the offer to sky-dive into the arms of waiting angels (note that his last help from the angels came after he renounced Satan and his ways, where it says that angels came and ministered to him).

The mountain of the third temptation, which I want to focus on today, is not named: Our gospel text simply says: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor (verse 8). Could this very high mountain be the Mount Zion of the messianic age? Could Jesus, as Son of God, announce the coming of His Kingdom from this exalted spot? No doubt that is why the thought is a real temptation, since it does seem worthy of the recently anointed Son of God.

However, there is a hint in the text that this is a false mountain. The Greek word for “very high” (hypsilos) in describing this mountain is also used for an attitude of arrogance. Rather than being the summit of salvation, it is the mount of perdition with a direct chute to hell. Hear what Isaiah says of the arrogance of those who trust in their own power:

"How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, `I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.' But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. (Isaiah 14:12-15)

Now the end result of arrogance is not obvious or immediate. The kingdoms that Satan shows Jesus are real historical regimes that have existed and do exist and will exist in this age. In Jesus’ day it was the Roman Empire that imposed its version of “peace” (pax Romana) on the Mediterranean world, a peace which was bought with great oppression and harshness. There are kinder, gentler versions of empire, such as the mercantile empire of Britain and the wired empire of modern global capitalism or harsher ones like the rigid legalism of Islamic fundamentalism.

In this final temptation, Satan’s last and best offer, he reveals his true identity – a usurper who would demand the worship due to God alone: “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.'" (verse 9-10). Jesus rejects the offer and rebukes the Tempter. Beyond that, he turns away from the appeal to instant fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in favor of its achievement by the way of the Cross and the spread of the Gospel through His apostles. He reveals something fundamental about His Sonship and something fundamental about His followers. He came as the Servant of all, and he calls on us to be servants of all in His steps. Listen to this famous passage from St. Paul:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus Christ begins at the pinnacle of all existence, of all eternity. He is I AM before the world was. He is before the angels and powers of darkness ever were. He is, as we say in the Creed, very God of very God. So when Satan takes Him to the highest earthly mountain, Jesus could have laughed and said: “What is this anthill?” He did not, however, reject the mountain because it was too petty, but rather because He had much, much farther to descend, even to the pit of death and destruction – for our sake.

As we enter the season of Lent, let me make a few comments on what Jesus’ refusal of worldly power means for us who follow him. First of all, we are awed at extent of God’s love that he has stooped to conquer, that He has borne the ultimate penalty for our sin. This should be a time of great gratitude to God for His amazing mercy and grace.

Secondly, we are called on to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.” This means that we are challenged to turn away from the mountains of worldly power and pride – with regard to our personal ambitions and our corporate political policies. And we are promised that we already have the ability to do so, as His mind is ours in Christ Jesus. We may have the strength of arm to have our way, but we are called to withhold that strength for the sake of Christ. To mention one such situation from the contemporary Anglican scene, the leaders of the national Episcopal Church seems bent on dispossessing parish property and deposing clergy and even bishops – my bishop for one - from the sheer fact that they have the power to do so. This, my friends, does not display the mind of Christ.

As I am sure you are aware, Lent is to be a season of denial, of renunciation. There is in this simple discipline a great spiritual lesson. It is easier to acquire something than to give up something once acquired. It is easier to scale up one’s lifestyle and than to scale down. Many people who live overseas with people who are much poorer find it difficult to understand how wealthy people in the West manage to save so little and give so little. But it is a simple law of the world that appetite will never be satisfied and what may at one moment seem an aspiration becomes an expectation.

This law of acquisitiveness is all the more ironic in the light of the fact that we all know deep down that we shall have to give it all up some day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We engage in Faustian bargains with death, hoping that technology or Medicare will keep us going into the foreseeable future. We Americans in particular do not like to be reminded of unpleasant endings, but that is the message of the Bible, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

There is a liberating side to the realization that we are dust and our days are numbered. The Preacher suggests that a person should “seize the moment” and “eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” This is good worldly advice as far as it goes, but for Christians, for followers of Jesus, there is a more powerful satisfaction, that in taking up our cross (daily) and denying the way of the world, we may find a satisfaction that goes far beyond the ordinary satisfactions and will culminate with reward with God.

The Christian church has always held up for emulation a group of people we may call missionaries and martyrs. These are people who voluntarily give up their prospects of success and power in order to follow Jesus’ mission in the world. Let me give you a couple examples from my adopted country, Uganda.

Uganda, you may know, has about 9 million Anglicans, the largest single concentration anywhere (compare 2 million Episcopalians at most). Yet in 1875 there were no Christians and no Anglicans in Uganda. How did this turnabout happen? It happened through the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of the first missionaries and the first Ugandan converts.

For example, Alfred Robert Tucker arrived in Uganda in 1890 as its first bishop – really not the first, as his two predecessors had died en route. Tucker left his wife and son in England for the next twenty years as he trekked thousands of miles across the country. Tucker had an understanding far beyond his time. He believed that the Anglican Church of Uganda should raise up its own national leaders rather than relying on missionary clergy from the West. The most famous of all these pioneers was Apolo Kivebulaya. Kivebulaya was converted and baptized by a CMS missionary at age 30 and immediately offered himself as an evangelist to the eastern kingdoms of Uganda. After many years of work, at age 57, he had a vision of Jesus, who directed him to seek out the pygmy peoples deep in the Congo forest. He learned their language, translated Mark’s Gospel for them, and won them to Christ.

Bishop Tucker’s vision included the education of lay and clergy leaders. He founded a famous secondary school and proposed the building of a theological seminary, which was named after him shortly after his death. Today all the bishops of Uganda are black and have been trained at Bishop Tucker Theological College.

But God has a new vision for the church in the developing world, what I call higher education as mission. In 1997, the church decided to expand the work of Bishop Tucker Theological College so that it might include men and women doing courses in other fields, like education, social work, communications, law, nursing, and computer science. This is where my story comes in. In 1999, my wife and I visited Uganda and sensed a call to go there and help build up this new University. Since that time, it has grown from 850 to almost 8,000 students. Beyond this “worldly” success, the University has been overtly Christian, teaching all students Scripture, Christian worldview and ethics, and its graduates are sought after in the wider society has people of integrity.

My wife and I are not unusual saints, any different from you sitting here today. We gave up our normal way of life. We left our home the same week as our youngest daughter went to college. But you know, I can honestly say we have never regretted the decision and we have been blessed in ways we could not have anticipated, e.g., one daughter and her husband and two grandchildren are now working with us. This is in accordance with what Jesus promised: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

I was talking to a friend last week who is coming to a career change, and I said to him, “Jim, have you considered coming to Uganda to help us. You know, ten years ago, if you had asked me that question, I too would have been astounded. But God knew better.” Certainly not everyone is called to leave their home or business as we did. But all are called on to be ready to respond to the call of Christ and the needs of his people. Our Uganda Partners organization, headed by Mrs. Diane Stanton, has served over the past eight years to mobilize large numbers of people who have helped our mission with scholarships, building projects, consultation, and prayer. We are deeply grateful for this, including many supporters in Dallas.

Let me ask a simple question: what would you not do, or have done already, to put your sons and daughters through the best university available? Parents in the developing world have the same hope for their children. That is why they pay fees disproportionate to their income to our university. This is all good, but it is also the way of the world, looking out for one’s own. Jesus would take us to a higher mountaintop, to the height from which Christians see their brothers and sisters around the world as their own kin and their own responsibility, from which they see the unclean Samaritan as a sinner like themselves, from which they are willing to risk everything, hearth and home, to follow him.

I myself became a Christian in college, which may explain in part why God has landed me where I am today, working with college students. At that time, forty years ago, I read a book by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called The Cost of Discipleship. “When Jesus calls a man,” Bonhoeffer writes, “he calls him to come forth and die.” That is the message of Lent, that is the wicket gate through which we must pass, that is the valley which we must descend, before we can see the true city set on a hill – the heavenly Jerusalem. But we do not walk alone, for He has gone before us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

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