Being God’s children is never in question. It’s what we do next that counts. (Listen.)
‘Since you’re the son of God,’ says the devilish examiner in Matthew’s story, ‘turn these stones to bread.’ Use your power for your own ends. Whip up a miracle, and feed yourself. ‘Since you’re the son of God,’ says the examiner, ‘jump off The Pinnacle.’ Create a spectacle, sell tickets, hold a circus. Let everyone see God’s angels save you: it’ll be great advertising for your little movement. And anyway, it’s all in scripture. According to Psalm 91, ‘The angels will catch you and raise you up — you won’t even stub your toe!’ (vv. 11-12).
Scripture is tricky like that. Even the devil can quote it, and the devil does, frequently. But notice that this devilish examiner doesn’t question Jesus’ sonship. ‘Since you’re the son of God,’ he says: do this. ‘Since you’re the son of God,’ do that. The testing isn’t to find out whether Jesus really is God’s son. That’s not in question. Instead, the testing is to find out what Jesus does with this reality.
Since you’re God’s chosen one, God’s beloved, what next? Will you use it for your own ends? Will you feed yourself? Will you seek wealth and privilege? Will you use your status to ensure you are cushioned when you fall? Will you worship God, or will you worship power and prestige? Will you worship yourself? What are you really made of?
These are the questions being asked of Jesus, but they are asked of others, too.
Long ago, the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. Since you are God’s chosen people, they were effectively asked, will you return to Egypt where you can feed yourselves on fresh cucumbers and pot roast? Or will you remain in the wilderness, trusting in God’s Word and heaven’s bread to feed you?
Since you are God’s chosen people, they were asked, will you act as you see fit, relying on God to save you? Will you travel when you want, go where you want, and invade the villages you have your beady eyes on; or will you wait for the pillar of cloud to show the way, and seek God’s Word before you act?
Since you are God’s chosen people, they were asked, will you seek to dominate the whole world? Will you try to become another Assyria, another Egypt? Or will you trust God to guide and regulate your community, and let God negotiate with and regulate other nations as God sees fit?
The extended story of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is the story of a community grappling with these and similar questions (and of God’s exasperated faithfulness through numerous broken treaties). Like the scene in Matthew’s story, it’s a time of testing as God asks: What will you do with your chosen status? What are you made of? Who or what do you really trust?
These days, the questions take a different shape.
To the wider church, it might be asked, do you seek political favour? Do you hold secret meetings with senior politicians? Do you lobby for power and influence? Do you try to shape policy for a diverse nation in ways which are bullying and suffocating for many, yet which shore up your own privileged position? Or do you regulate your own community according to your relationship with God, but trust God to negotiate with and regulate everyone else? What will you do with your chosen status?
Since you are the church, it might also be asked, do you use your status to cushion you when you fall? Do you hide and even perpetrate moral scandals and criminal abuse? Do you listen to victims and offer restitution and justice, or do you block, cover up and obfuscate? Do you hire expensive QC’s to argue every loophole and get perpetrators off on technicalities? What are you really made of? Do you put the Lord your God to the test?
And since you are the church, it might be asked, do you use your resources to feed yourselves? Or do you feed others, trusting God to provide what you yourselves need? Do you trust in corporate culture, mission statements, five-year-plans and numerical growth, or do you trust in foolish stories, microscopic yeasts, little birds, mustard seeds? Do you trust rejection, failure, even death? Do you give your money, bread and buildings, even your lives, away? What do you really trust?
We here at Sanctuary are a small faith community. We don’t own property or any real assets, nor do we have trust funds. We don’t have significant reach or power in the upper echelons of society, and questions like these might seem irrelevant. Yet in still different form, they also pertain to us, because we, too, are the body of Christ, named as Jesus’ siblings and, in the words of 1 John, given power to become God’s children (1:12).
So it must be asked, how, then, do we live? How much time, effort and energy do we put into feeding ourselves, protecting ourselves, and increasing our personal influence? Are we anxious about material comfort, investments and insurances, social media approval, or whether our lives have significance? Or do we trust in God’s Word, feed on heaven’s bread, and follow Jesus all the way to the cross? What are we really made of?
The devilish examiner wanted to know this of Jesus; he learned that Jesus refused to be a superhero or strongman. Jesus rejected material comfort, spectacular feats and worldwide domination. Instead, as his life and ministry show, he trusted only God. He emptied himself of power and gave his life away.
The angels might not have let Jesus stub his toe: but they allowed nails to be driven into his hands and feet. He could have turned stones to bread or made them sing his praise; he could have called up angel armies and avoided the cross altogether: but he chose differently. He chose to trust in God, not in his own efforts; he chose compassion, nonviolence, vulnerability and love; he chose children, bread and picnics; he chose ordinary folk like us; and through these small, weak, humble things, God’s power was revealed.
Lent is a season of deep reflection. It’s a time to consider the shape of discipleship and the competing loyalties and entanglements of our lives; it’s a time to reflect on our identity as Jesus’ siblings, God’s children. So as we go on this journey, let us each of keep on wondering: What am I really made of? Where do I put the bulk of my time and effort? And what do these priorities reveal about who or what I really trust? And let us keep wondering these things for Sanctuary, too.
My friends, this Lent I pray that all our wonderings and choices form us into people and a community where God’s power can continue to shine. In the name of Christ, I pray: Amen. Ω
Reflect: Our testing often comes in the form of invitations, opportunities, and possibilities which promise complete satisfaction, an absence of suffering, and an increase in power and status. What invitation, opportunity, or possibility lies before you now? Would pursuing it draw you closer to Jesus? Or is it a false promise, a mirage in the desert?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 4:1-11 given to Sanctuary on 26 February 2023 © Sanctuary 2023. Photo shows The Pinnacle at Gariwerd, about two hours to the north of us. It’s a nice photo of ‘stones’ (Matt. 4:3) and, you know, a ‘pinnacle’ (4:5), not to mention a ‘very high mountain’ (4:8). Gariwerd is Djab Wurrung and Jardwardjali country. Photo by Melody Ayres-Griffiths on Unsplash.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week has seen a heat wave, black crickets, and another wave of dragonflies, which lurch through the evening air like heavy military helicopters. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.
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