Monday, February 15, 2016

Not By Bread

Not By Bread
Luke 4:1-13[1]
In 1990, I was studying at a university in Western Germany, and I had the opportunity to take a mission trip to Romania. It was the year that the Wall came down, and most of the countries in Eastern Europe followed suit by opening their borders. The people of Romania overthrew their dictator, Nicholai Ceaușescu. It became apparent very quickly that the people of Romania had very little food, and so our church joined the many who took supplies to help out. During my trip, I met with a missionary in Vienna who was overseeing mission work in Eastern Europe, and he remarked that the church in the East under the deprivations of communism had flourished, while the church in Western Europe living in prosperity had declined drastically.
I’m afraid that same observation could be made about our society. In times when our people have been hard-pressed, they have tended to turn to the church for comfort and encouragement to endure. But as a society we have “enjoyed” several decades of prosperity. And the result of that prosperity is that the place of the church, the place of faith, and the place of God in our lives has eroded. Many think it has to do with certain political or social changes. I would say it’s much more fundamental. We have become convinced that we can find fulfillment in life by bread alone, so to speak. We have been converted to the dogma of the commercials we watch on TV: the more you have, the happier you’ll be. Ironically, I think we’d have to say that the opposite has actually been true.
Our Gospel lesson for today tells a story about how Jesus faced a similar, but much deeper temptation. It talks about an encounter that Jesus had with “the devil” after being tested for forty days.[2] Since Jesus had gone without food during that time, the initial opening for the test was fairly obvious—he was hungry! And in a subtle and seemingly innocent way, “the devil” suggests that if Jesus is really the Son of God, he could turn a stone into bread. In this way he could readily solve the problem of his hunger. It would seem harmless enough. If I had gone without food for an extended period of time and someone told me that I could turn a rock into a meal, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. After all, what’s wrong with eating when you’re hungry?
But Jesus knew that there was much more at stake than the rumblings in his stomach. As the other tests Jesus faced make clear, “the devil” wasn’t just offering a suggestion about the best way to find a meal in the desert. The point of the tests that Jesus faced in the wilderness was about how he would use his power as the Son of God.[3] Would he use it to gratify his own desires?[4] Would he use it to take a shortcut to ruling over the kingdoms of this world that would bypass his death on the cross?[5] Would he win the people’s loyalty by showing them a spectacular sign?[6]
Jesus knew what was going on behind these tests. He knew that the point of all of the tests, even the one about feeding himself, was to determine whether he would follow God’s ways and God’s purpose for his life, or whether he would see to his own needs, thank you very much. I think that’s why he responds to the test by quoting the scripture: “One does not live by bread alone.” He is quoting from Moses’ teachings about the lessons of Israel’s own experience in the wilderness. And one of those lessons is that God had fed them with manna so they would understand that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). In other words, during their forty years in the wilderness, they were supposed to learn to trust in and depend on God.
Like the people of Israel, Jesus found himself in the wilderness, at the mercy of the elements, unable even to provide for his most basic needs. This was not an accident. Moses says that the purpose for Israel’s wilderness wandering was “in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut. 8:2). I think something similar was going on with Jesus.[7] He had already been filled with the Spirit at his baptism. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes repeatedly the fact that Jesus was able to carry out his ministry through the power of the Spirit. But the more important issue was how he would use that power.[8] The fundamental test Jesus faced throughout his ministry was whether he would use his power in a way that remained faithful to God’s ways and God’s purpose, which would lead him to a cross. Whereas Israel failed in the wilderness again and again, Jesus demonstrated decisively that he would indeed remain true to God and to God’s ways and God’s purpose.[9]
In our day, I’m afraid it’s very easy to believe those who tell us that God’s purpose is to give us health, wealth, happiness, prosperity—in short, everything our hearts could possibly desire. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we’ve all known the disappointment that comes from investing our hopes in gaining happiness from anything tangible. The reality is that when we try to find our ultimate satisfaction in life in the right relationship, or the right job, or the right paycheck, we learn again that “one does not live by bread alone.” It’s an incredibly simple lesson, but we have to keep learning it.[10] The things of this world, the trappings of our lives, the “stuff” we try to use to make ourselves happy ultimately fail to do so. While some of those things may be good and necessary, we cannot find true and lasting happiness “by bread alone.” Only God’s life and God’s ways can truly satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/14/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Regarding “the devil” in this narrative and the question of whether or not one should see this as evidence for believing in a being responsible for evil in the world, I find the statement in Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 55 to be a succinct summary of what I would consider a “biblical view.” He says, “Scriptures variously characterize the power of evil in the world: tendencies within ourselves; a personal being outside ourselves, apparently a powerful angel gone astray; a cosmic power; and organized forces arrayed against the will of God for the world. In whatever images or concepts, Scripture agrees with experience that there is in us and among us strong opposition to love, health, wholeness, and peace.” If there is a personal being or an “apparently powerful angel gone astray,” it is essential to emphasize that one should not “believe in” that being. “Believing” is something that Christianity has always reserved in the Apostles’ Creed for God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence I speak of “the devil” in quotation marks and without capitalizing the reference!
[3] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 191-92: “the testing conducted by the devil seeks specifically to controvert Jesus’ role as Son of God either by disallowing the constraints of that relationship or by rejecting it outright.”
[4] On the first temptation, cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 99. He says, “Jesus is challenged to repeat the sign of God’s provision for the people, but if he makes bread for himself, he abuses his sonship by serving his own needs rather than depending on God’s provision for his needs.”
[5] On the second temptation, see Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX: 99: “The second temptation is the gain of power by compromise.”  On the question of whether the devil actually possessed the “authority” he offered Jesus, cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, “Jesus rejects the challenge to worship anything other than Yahweh, his Father, and makes it clear that his mission is solely to see that God’s kingship is established over all. Yahweh is the sole king of the world; he alone is to be served.” Cf. also F. Bovon, & H. Koester, Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 144, where he says that this could either reflect the “pessimistic view” that “that the princes receive power and glory neither directly from God nor from the people, but from the devil, and that they therefore honor him, not God, or, in nonmythological language, that they exercise their power in their own interests, not in the service of others” or that we are meant to understand that “the devil is also a liar, and Luke may well accept in a different context the Hebrew Bible belief in God as the source of political authority.”
[6] On the third temptation, see Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX: 100: “This time the temptation is to put God’s promises to the test. Specifically, Jesus was tempted to call upon God to deliver him from death in Jerusalem. Ironically, as every Christian reader knows, Jesus would eventually face death in Jerusalem, and when he did he would choose not his own deliverance but faithfulness to his Father’s will (see 22:42). … Jesus would fulfill his divine sonship not by escaping death but by accepting death and defeating it. Unlike Israel of old, Jesus refused to put God to the test (Deut 6:16).”
[7] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 192, where he says that there is a “far-reaching similarity” between Israel’s testing and Jesus’: “According to Deuteronomy, (1) Israel was allowed to hunger in order to learn that one does not live by bread alone (8:3); (2) Israel was instructed to worship the one and only God, and not to follow after any other god (6:4-15); and (3) Israel was commanded not to put the Lord God to the test (6:16). In each case, however, Israel failed in their obedience to God … .” Cf. similarly, Craddock, Luke, 54.
[8] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 191.  He says that in the narrative of Jesus’ baptism, he had already demonstrated “his competence, indicating his possession of the requisite credentials, power, and authority to set forth on his mission. But these are not enough. They must be matched with Jesus’ positive response to God’s purpose. Hence, here Jesus will signal his alignment with God’s will in a way that surpasses the evidence already provided by his display of submission to God at his baptism.” Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX: 97, who adds the dimension of correcting any “messianic expectations” Jesus may have met: “Having established the sonship of Jesus, Luke turns immediately, before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, to the story of the temptations. On one level the story describes Jesus’ response to calls for misuse of his power and sonship. On another level, the story educates, disabusing the reader of any expectation that Jesus would manifest his sonship by a series of theatrical demonstrations. The work of the Spirit requires faithfulness; neither compromise with Satan nor concessions to popular demands could be allowed.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 92-93, where he says that “the messianic kingdom of Jesus, which is put to the test through temptations, and which is more precisely defined in these temptations; for the possibilities which the tempter offers Jesus are ways of seizing messianic power over Israel and the nations.” He continues by saying that in the temptation “his passion in helplessness is prefigured: his victory comes through suffering and death. At his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he offers the people no bread, at his entry into the temple he does not perform the messianic sign, and before the Roman Pilate he does not call on the heavenly legions in order to win a military victory. From the story of the temptations the way to the cross follows. But the way to the cross is the way which God’s Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus.” Cf. similarly, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:264.
[9] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 196: “By facing these tests and proving his fidelity, Jesus has demonstrated unequivocally his faithful obedience to God and thus his competence to engage in ministry publicly as God’s Son.” Cf. also Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 510: “The three scenes then depict Jesus as the Son of God obedient to his Father’s will and refusing to be seduced into using his power or authority as Son for any reason other than that for which he has been sent.”
[10] On our experience of temptation, see Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX: 101, where he says, “The temptations we experience are often not so clearly recognizable. The choice is not between good and bad but between bad and worse or good and better. … Christian ethics does not come prepackaged. The call is not to adherence to a list of rules and regulations but to faithfulness to the call and purposes of God.

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