The Power of High Places


Matthew 4:1-11
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

power of high places color

I learned something from our confirmation class a couple of weeks ago.  They are a group of 8 middle schoolers and 1 high school student.  Getting all of them paying attention and on the same figurative page for more than about 23 seconds at a time is really difficult.  But there is one thing I’ve found that brings them up short and drops them in their tracks: tell them you’re giving them a test.  I think this ploy becomes effective maybe around the time they get to the far side of 5th grade and I think carries pretty far into adulthood. Earlier grades, not so much. First they think you’re joking. (We ARE a United Methodist group, after all…how can there be a test?) Then the smiles fade and they start getting worried.  If you want to be really mean, tell them it goes on their permanent record.  But they’ll only buy that once.   Anyway, I gave them a test a couple of weeks ago.  Just some basic multiple choice questions about John and Charles Wesley, True-False questions about baptism and sacraments, the Bible, and finally some short answer opinion questions. All in all, just things we had talked about at one time or another over the past 5 weeks.

Nobody really did very well on the test – but that really wasn’t the point. It got them focused and we had some really good discussion time.

Tests have been around a long time. Even Jesus had tests.

Some translations say Jesus was tested, others say he was tempted.  I see it as being tested by temptations.

The temptation for us is to think that this text is actually ABOUT us.  That there is some kind of universality that can be drawn from the text and applied to our lives and churches today.

But you know what? It’s not about us.

This story is about Jesus being properly vetted as God’s Messiah at the start of his public ministry.  First there was John the Baptist announcing him, then the baptism, and then the 40-day calm before the storm of the beginning of Jesus’ ministerial career. This passage is like the prologue to a trilogy, maybe the pilot episode that provides the backstory to a powerful AMC series.  “Messianic Street Cred JDA or something.  Our perspective here in the 21st century is skewed by hindsight and the fact that we look BACK through so many cultural and historical filters. There’s no way to know the importance of Jesus’ credentials to his would-be followers. But they had to have mattered.

He has come to wrest power away from the world, from the powers and principalities that are in place instead of God.  WE know there will come a time when he turns his face like flint towards Jerusalem. But people then didn’t know.  He will provoke a confrontation with the powers and principalities.  AND he will call his followers to join him.  But all that is still in the future. At this point, it is important to know just what kind of man Jesus really is.

The devil represents sort of a compromise, really. The devil is that voice that whispers soothingly in your ear that you and he can be mutual partners of a sort. You can each have your own way, and nobody will be any the wiser for it. What are a few stones into bread, anyway? Nobody gets hurt. Nobody needs to know. And you’ll feel a whole lot better.

It’s just that, the way God has things set up, there can be no compromise with evil. No meeting half-way, no negotiation of terms.  So….that doesn’t make for a nice, neat, happy ending. It leads instead to a messy crucifixion.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we always trot this passage out for the first Sunday of Lent.  If we’re actively participating in an intentional Lenten observation, chances are we are abstaining from something, or adding some beneficial activity to our schedules, or doing something on a regular basis to help someone else.  We hold up this text as an example of how Jesus was able to resist the devil in the face of these temptations, and since Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and we’re at least fully human with maybe an occasional spark of divinity, then we therefore have the spirit and the power to resist temptation like Jesus did.

There’s nothing wrong with asking God to help us in facing whatever temptations we may be facing.  It’s probably a spiritually healthy thing to realize we lack much real power of our own / on our own, and that we have a need to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  God giving people strength is wrapped up in the core of our beliefs as Christians.

All that is good.  But let’s just be clear that this passage from the 4th chapter of Matthew is NOT about those things.  There is just nothing in there that says, “Alright now – go resist evil like Jesus did.”  What Jesus had at stake was on such a different theological plane and of such a greater magnitude that we just can’t compare his situation with ours.  We may be concerned with being able to avoid chocolate or red meat or coffee for a few weeks.  Jesus was concerned with power. Far-reaching power. Ultimate power. He had to convince people that his quest for power was not going to result in it being abused and misused for oppressive purposes. People were sizing him up and taking note of whether he would use his “power” among people, or above them, over them, against them…what was this so-called Messiah going to do?  Not unlike how we might watch a presidential candidate in the stretch before election day.

Another thing we think is at stake that isn’t is whether Jesus is going to slip up somehow and make a mistake with all the testing and temptation going on. I mean, what if he slips up?  That would mean he is less than perfect, and if he’s less than perfect, then he can’t be the “perfect” sacrifice for our sins. He can’t be the true Mesiah, and then, oh my, everything is ruined!

In order to be fully human, Jesus had to be vulnerable. What would it mean if he had been some superhero who never experienced doubt or humility or any uncertainty? Being vulnerable is definitely a part of the whole human experience.  We are all vulnerable, at some times more than others.

This whole experience was bigger than that, though.  I think the rendition we usually get is oversimplified.  But it makes it a riveting story, and a relevant story, even though we usually misunderstand it.

What does it actually mean to change the world or to become a spiritual power that is incorruptible? What does it mean to be a power that avoids the usual traps that result in oppression and the continuation of inequality and injustice at every turn?

I leave it to you to connect the dots. But I would like to offer a poem I was fortunate enough to stumble across. It’s by a Canadian blogger named Andrew King.  For me, it brings this passage to life.

DESERT LESSON (by Andy King, a Canadian blogger)

It is the empty time just before morning,
the light just beginning to touch
the tops of the hills,
just beginning to palm the skins
of the desert stones.

First one stone and then another
begins to change colour as
in slow grandeur
the sun lifts
into red-orange sky.
First one stone and then another
emerges from shadow,
small solitudes of darkness
in the solitude of wilderness
in the emptiness of early morning.

Jesus is awake, blankets clutched
to keep out the cold
while he sits and watches stars
fade in the spreading dawn.
Hunger gnaws at his belly
like a dog chewing a bone.
Looking at a stone, he thinks,
How like a loaf of bread
this rock appears.
How comforting such
food would be. . .

Lifting his head in the direction
of the Holy City, Jesus pictures
the sunrise on the rooftops
of the Temple,
gleaming in the light like
the spires of marble mountains.
He imagines his feet astride
that proud building’s pinnacle
and himself
not weak but mighty,
not being hungry but full,
not vulnerable,
not breakable should I fall. . .

The wind begins to rise, stirs
the dry and scrawny grasses.
Jesus ponders the passage
of time, the rise and fall
of kingdoms, the tides
of marching armies,
the endless quests for power
that sweep up people and nations
like sands in a desert wind.
He imagines himself
at the head of
a host of armoured thousands,
lands and nations to serve me
like the Pharoahs, like David,
like Caesar ruling from Rome. . .

Jesus sighs, and stands and stretches,
a solitary and hungry
yet somehow satisfied man,
and folds the dusty blankets.

He will not bid the stones
turn to bread today
to ease his pressing hunger:
for the hungry and poor
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

He will not evade
frail humanness today,
or deny his utter mortality,
for even the mighty
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

He will not seek
the throne of a kingdom today,
selfish wealth or glory:
for the outcasts and hurting
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

Day has come to the wilderness around him.
The sun is full and blazing.
“Get away
toward the towns and the cities
where his ministry of love
will begin.

His feet leave firm prints in the sand. ~~

THAT’s power. Thanks be to God.