A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.
Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.
1. Miracle of Bread
As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.
Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.
The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.
And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.
And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.
Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.
Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.
Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.
The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.
To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).
The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.
2. Miracle of the Superman
After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.
But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.
Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.
If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).
3. Complete World Domination
This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.
When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.
In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.
There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??
It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.
And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.
So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.
There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.
There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.
When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.
When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.
The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.
And he does it on account of love.
1 + 1 + 1 = Empire
It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.
If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).
Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.
In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.