© 2017 Rev. Dr. Ben Trawick. If material herein is quoted under Fair Use, please give credit to the author.
Growing up, one of my favorite excursions was to go to the Winston-Salem, N.C., Public Library—I can still summon the smell of the place in my memory…probably just the smell of hundreds of old books, but to me, it was a rich smell of mystery and magic, story and possibility. I always left with a big stack of books and 2-3 LP record albums, which I played on my father’s old record player.
I had some favorites. One of the albums I would borrow from time to time was a children’s collection of Hans Christian Andersen Stories, read aloud by a voice actor…. a precursor to books on tape, I guess. Something in the actor’s voice made the stories come alive to me, I could see every image. I listened to Andersen’s stories like The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Match Girl (now there’s a cheery children’s tale if ever I heard one) and The Princess and the Pea.
Perhaps you recall the tale of the Princess and the Pea— The story tells of a prince who longs to marry a princess but is having difficulty finding a suitable partner to rule his future kingdom with him. Something is always wrong with the potential princesses he meets, and he cannot be certain they are real princesses because they have bad table manners or they are too rude, or too selfish, or too insensitive to make a proper queen. The prince begins to despair of finding a partner to rule alongside him.
One stormy night a young woman, worn and torn from travel and drenched with rain, seeks shelter in the castle. She claims to be a princess but looks not a thing like one, muddy and disheveled as she is, so the prince’s mother, the old queen, decides to test their unwitting guest by placing a tiny, hard green pea in the bed the so-called “princess” is offered for the night, covered by 20 soft mattresses and 20 feather comforters.
In the morning, when asked how she rested, the guest tells her hosts that she endured a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard deep in the bed that felt like a great big stone: she is certain it has bruised her. The prince rejoices. Only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a tiny pea through such a quantity of bedding, so the two are married (relationship stuff is a lot easier in fairy tales).
The story ends with the pea being placed in a museum, where according to the storyteller it can still be seen today, unless someone has removed it.
How strange that I should dredge this tale from my memory in relation to our scripture lesson for this morning…. except that, I guess, claims of royalty or authority must always be tested—she claims to be a princess, but can she pass the princess test? Just what sort of princess would she be?
Likewise, our scripture has to do with a similar sort of testing—at his baptism, it has just been revealed that Jesus is the messiah, the beloved one of God. Yet now that messianic claim must be tested—is his messianic character verifiable? Just what sort of messiah will he be?
The difference in the stories of course, is that the princess in our tale was placed in the most comfortable of places–imagine 20 down comforters on top of 20 soft mattresses! — to see if she could find a single tiny hard spot amid all the softness.
Jesus, by contrast, is placed in the hardest of places (the wilderness) while his tempter searches for a soft spot.
Now a word about the tempter in the passage, at least as I see it. I recall an illustrated Bible I once saw with a picture of the temptation of Jesus—it showed Satan, a bat-winged, goat-hoofed angel of darkness, standing alongside Jesus on a mountaintop. And to picture the devil as a physical adversary approaching Jesus from without makes the story seem fantastical and almost mythical.
I don’t picture the tempter in the passage as a physical presence at all—rather, I think it more likely that the temptation Jesus encounters emerges as a voice from within. The writer of Hebrews writes, “he was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin…and I’ve never once been tempted by a bat-winged adversary—but inward urgings to be a lesser version of myself…those I can well relate to.
In any event, the temptations come, as temptations do, when Jesus is at his lowest or weakest point, having spent forty days in the wilderness, without eating. He was famished, the text tells us. And then comes that inner voice in his weakened state— “If you’re the Son of God, then why not command these stones to become bread?”
Feed yourself, you’re hungry. Then you can feed the world too. What good is a half-starved messiah? Meet your own needs first, and then the whole world can share the leftovers.
Jesus responds by saying, “This isn’t about me. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. I will not be a self-serving messiah. I serve God.”
Flash forward, and Jesus has a vision—is it real, or is it a hunger hallucination? He is suddenly standing atop the Jerusalem temple, and the inner voice speaks: “If you’re the son of God, why not throw yourself down from here? It’s not like God would let you be harmed—God would miraculously save you.” Then there would be NO DOUBTING who you were. You’d never again have reason to doubt God’s faithfulness and support, and no one else could doubt it either. Think of all the witnesses—instead of having to convince the world one by one by one by one, you’d become the celebrity of celebrities, they’d follow you on twitter, they’d follow you everywhere!
Do you see that in many ways, this temptation is the same as the first? Make it about yourself—if you won’t be self-serving, try making a spectacle of yourself, and the followers will flock to you.
Again, Jesus responds, “This isn’t about me. It’s about God—and it is written, do not test the Lord your God.”
Next comes another vision and a third temptation. From a high mountain, Jesus looks out upon all the kingdoms of the world, their riches and their power. If you won’t be self-serving, if you won’t make a spectacle of yourself, why not be self-aggrandizing? “Worship me,” says the tempter, “make my highest values your highest values: wealth, power, empire…and the world can be your own. You can be the greatest of the great. Then you can bring about peace and justice through power and might.”
And again, Jesus says, “It isn’t about me. if I value what you value, I cannot value what God values. If I worship and serve you, I cannot worship and serve God.”
Three times and in three ways, the temptation is placed before Jesus—make it about you, make it about you, it’s all about you. Special privilege, special notoriety, special power.
To accept any of these temptations would be to accept an invitation to be a lesser messiah, or even no messiah at all. Instead of pursuing the values of God and God’s kingdom, Jesus would be pursuing the power to have his every need and desire met, the power to astonish and to captivate, the power to exercise authority over the world. He would be following the way of the world and not the way of the cross.
It is interesting as a side note that this temptation to a worldly or self-centered path follows Jesus to the very end…in our scripture today, we hear the voice of the tempter: If you are the son of God, feed yourself. If you are the Son of God test God’s love of you. If you are the Son of God, exercise your heavenly power and rule the earth. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the voice will come once more—if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.
Now—why is this tale of temptation worthy of our contemplation as we embark upon the season of Lent? As ancient a story as it is, why does the temptation narrative matter to us at all today, as the people of God?
Well, the test of what sort of messiah Jesus will be is also ultimately a test of what sort of church or what sort of Christians we will be, isn’t it? That is to say, to belong to or to follow Jesus is to live as he lives, to choose as he chooses, and to value what he values, is it not?
And I’d further suggest that the very temptations that Jesus faces as he is tested are the temptations that the church faces continually in every age. The bread temptation—the temptation to place your own needs first and then to tend the needs of the world? What church, what stewardship committee hasn’t wrestled with that one?
The temptation to spectacle, that is to say, the temptation to reveal your specialness to God through impressive displays and spectacular shows—how many churches are invested more deeply in their facility or the pomp and performance of their worship than in their welcome of the stranger or their ministry to the least?
The temptation to the trappings of worldly power and the values of empire—how often are we tempted to gauge the success of a church’s ministry by the size of its budget or by the numbers of its attendance or by the height of its steeple (we’re a little lacking on that count at the moment)?
It does no good if Jesus overcomes all of these temptations only to have his followers, the church, the Body of Christ, succumb to them. If we permit our focus to shift to our needs, our displays, our success—if we make our chief focus anything other than obedience to God and serving the needs of the world…then we fail the very test that Jesus passes.
The reason I think it’s important to come back to this story each year as Lent begins is that it’s a way of returning to our core calling—a way to remember who we are, whose we are, what path we are called to follow in the world, and what temptations we must spurn in order to do so.
In the end, it is about our sensitivities and sensibilities—the princess test was, is she sensitive enough to detect the presence of a pea in the midst of a mass of bedding? Amid all of the distractions of comfort, can she find the discomfort?
As I think about it, the messiah test is much the same: amid all the distracting voices calling us to tend our own comforts and needs, desires and wishes, can we hear, can we heed the voice of the world’s discomfort? Can we make that the heart of our attention and of our mission, as Jesus does?
Now we prepare to gather at our Lord’s table—a table of remembrance. Partake this meal in remembrance of me, Jesus charges his followers. And in remembering me, remember what it means to follow me—recall your calling, remember your baptism, renew your strength and rededicate your hearts. It is a table of self-giving, self-emptying love, in a world that ever tempts us to be self-serving, self-important, self-aggrandizing, or self-involved. Come and be fed. Go and serve.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
5 March 2017