The days were dark. Not the sun in the sky, but the whole atmosphere... dark indeed. The prisoners were escorted from their large Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, away in chains to where the prefect Culcianus was staying. They'd been ratted out by their neighbors for being Christians. And so there, on the twenty-seventh of August, 303, there stood Bishop Miletius, with his three priests Ammonius, Chiron, Serapion; the tribune Marcellus, with his wife and sons; the soldier Peter; and eight other members of their fellowship. Along the way, the four pastors whispered words of encouragement to the thirteen others, reciting stories from the scriptures and the heavenly promises of the God they worship.
But now they stood before Culcianus, these Christians. They did not quake as the prefect called them enemies of culture itself, traitors to Caesar's law, rebels against his authority and his gods. The incense was brought out. He ordered them to offer up just a little tiny sacrifice to the gods of Rome – just one quick pinch, that's all it takes – and they'd be free to go their merry way. Not only free, but handsomely rewarded. “Approach the altar,” he cried, “and make a sacrifice to the immortal gods, so that you would be filled with the highest honors and are able to appease the king and to be united in the bond of our friendship!” He urged them to come to their senses. Isn't it worth it, he pressed them, to go through these little formalities in exchange for such a reward?
Marcellus steps forward. He gives voice to what the rest are thinking. “We are Christians,” he tells the prefect. “We have God as our Master, who made heaven and earth and sea and all things which are in them. He is able to liberate us from your madness and from the malice of your father the devil. For it is not lawful that we accept your impious counsels and sacrifice to demons at the detriment of the Creator, our Lord!”
Culcianus orders them thrown in prison overnight – traitors to Roman authority, despisers of her gods. The next day, they're retrieved, all seventeen of them, and brought out to the stadium. Again Culcianus cajoles them, threatens them with death. He tells them to repent of their foolish intransigence, tells them they ought to be ashamed for worshipping a crucified criminal as God – and why should they trust a God who couldn't protect himself? Again, he tells them, just offer the sacrifice and be done with it! But the bishop, full of the Spirit of the Lord, shouts back, “Far be it from us! We will not deny the name of the Lord and God Jesus Christ, who is the Word of the living God before the foundation of the world, … who bore our weakness and ruin that befell us on account of your father the devil. … We are not terrified by your words.” And after praying to God for the sake of the prefect and the mocking crowds, the seventeen were martyred.
But it wasn't the first time. A hundred years earlier, miles away in the city of Carthage in north Africa, there lived – for a while – a 22-year-old woman named Vibia Perpetua. She and one of their brothers had decided that they wished to become Christians. They were undergoing the season of teaching customary before being admitted to baptism, along with four slaves in their class, including a pregnant slave-girl named Felicitas. The six of them were captured – it wasn't legal to be a Christian – and they were put in prison.
Perpetua was torn from her husband and from the little baby she'd so recently brought into the world. Her father visited her in jail, trying to talk her into her senses. “Just give up this ridiculous little fad – can't you see what it'll cost you, Perpetua?” But, she answered, she couldn't call herself anything else than what she is – and what she is, is a Christian. Over the next few days, she managed to get baptized; the deacons arranged for her to see her mother, her other brother, and her little son.
The trial date grew closer. Her father visited again, begging her to reconsider, begging her to go through the motions and give the authorities the little gestures they wanted, a tiny pinch of incense and a few meaningless words. He was old, he said, and couldn't bear the loss! He needed her! And she was putting the whole family to embarrassment – her mother, her brothers, her aunt, her baby. And how would this little baby survive if his mother went through with this? But, she said, “On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen. We aren't placed in our own power, but in God's.”
The hearing came. Her father was there, cradling the little baby in his arms, crying out, “Have pity on this baby, Perpetua!” So, too, the judge Hilarianus urged her with the same arguments: “Spare the gray hairs of your father, spare the infancy of your boy, offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” Isn't it worth this one quick moment of worshipping the gods to spare your family from suffering? But, she said, she couldn't do it. She persisted in saying, “I am a Christian.” In front of her eyes, her father was thrown to the ground and beaten with rods – all this could be stopped, they said, if she changed her mind and sacrificed! But still she couldn't. And so the verdict was delivered: “Guilty as charged!” And after more attempts by her grieving, weeping dad to get her to give in, she and her fellow Christians were led off to the arena to die.
But it's an almost timeless trial, taking place in every age and every place. There was a movie in the theaters the other month, based on this book – it's called Silence. Show of hands, did anybody see it? For those who didn't and might want to, I'll try not to spoil it – the DVD's coming out Tuesday, I think. But it's about how, in seventeenth-century Japan, the authorities decided that Christianity had no place in the country. And so they hounded the believers to near extermination; many were forced to become what they called Kakure Kirishitan, “Hidden Christians,” disguising their icons and prayers to escape suspicion. Those captured were told that they could go free, perhaps, if only they'd trample on an image of Jesus as a sign of renouncing Christ.
And there's a scene where a pastor has been captured, and he's given a novel twist on the offer. Outside, there are Christians, members of the flock he came to serve, being tortured. And they will continue to be tortured – unless he tramples on the image, unless he renounces Christ and the Church. Not to save his own skin, but to save theirs, as an act of mercy and love. The argument is put to him: Wouldn't Jesus himself do it – reject, for a moment, his God for the sake of others? Wouldn't he lay down, not just his life, but his sinlessness, for his friends? Couldn't apostasy, couldn't false worship, be an act of mercy to save others?
I won't tell you how the story ends; I won't tell you what choice that pastor makes. But as for that argument, as for that question, we don't have to speculate. A century and a half before Vibia Perpetua was even born, and long before the sufferings of the seventeen martyrs from Oxyrhynchus or of the Kakure Kirishitan in Japan, the Lord Jesus Christ spent forty days fasting in the desert. And there, at the close of his time, the devil approached him to tempt him – to try to persuade Jesus to listen to his ideas of what it means to be a child of God.
If you were here the last couple of weeks, maybe you remember. The devil tells Jesus that being a child of God means having it your way, it means getting what you want, when you want it, it means having bread on demand (Matthew 4:3). But Jesus looks back to the time when Israel wandered the desert, to be tested to see what kind of child of God they wanted to be; and Jesus sees there that being a child of God means trusting the Father's word to sustain you in his time (Matthew 4:4).
And then, in a second temptation, the devil took Jesus to the top of the temple and urged him to show off, use God's protection and love to impress the crowds – surely a child of God has that privilege (Matthew 4:5-6). But Jesus again looks back to the story of Israel, and how they tried to manipulate and test God into serving their agenda at Massah – and he sees that being a child of God means living by humble faith, and not using God as an excuse to do dumb or sinful things (Matthew 4:7).
And so now for the third and final temptation in the desert. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him” – probably in a vision – “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). The riches of soaring Roman temples, and legions marching in ranks. The exotic splendors of the Parthian Empire in Persia, the divided and embattled Han Dynasty in China under Emperor Guangwu, the miscellaneous tribes of so-called barbarians in northern Europe, the far-flung settlements of native peoples across the sea where we live now – all of it, the devil showed to Jesus as an enticement, as if to say, “Do you want it? I'll step out of the way, you can have it all, you can be king of the world... I just need one little thing from you first.”
The devil said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if... you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). “Just submit one time – you don't even have to mean it – but take a three-second break from serving that God you call a Father, bow to the real boss, and we can go our separate ways, conflict-free.”
That's what the devil is selling here, a trade: the riches and beauty and allegiance of all the kingdoms of the whole entire world for one quick moment of worship. The devil will give up his involvement, his meddling rule, his clutches whereby he clings to all these things, to Jesus. Jesus can rule all the kingdoms, he can guide it, he can reshape it. He can write every law, he can decide every court case. He can have “dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72:8) – all his, for the low, low price of one measly bow with a few muttered words of praise and gratitude to the benevolent tempter who sponsored this utopia.
And think of all the possibilities! Can you hear the devil plead his case? If you're silent for a moment, can you catch a snippet of the sermon pouring off the lips of this angel of light?
Don't you see, Jesus? Don't you get it? I'll give it up, I'll give it all up! You can take every crown; your name can be shouted in every temple; you can roam the streets bedecked in jewels and gold; you can trade your rugged linens for the finest silks. And you can do it however you please. Do you want to rule with an iron fist? Be my guest! Or do you want to be a kindly shepherd, making everyone happy and – oh, what's that word... – 'virtuous'? Go for it, Jesus! Just think of all the good you could do!
Worship me this once, Jesus, and you can be free from pain and poverty.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and thorns never have to pierce your brow.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and Roman soldiers will adore your face, not spit in it.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your buddy Simon, the one you'll find back in Galilee and nickname Peter – he'll never be led off to hang on an upside-down cross.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your little pet John will never be dipped in boiling oil.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your future devotee Perpetua can live to a ripe old age. She'll watch her baby grow. She'll see grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and her family will be happy, never knowing the torments and heartache that will otherwise be.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and Marcellus and the rest of your Oxyrhynchite crew can live freely and unashamedly and sit at Culcianus' table all the days of their lives.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and there need never be any invading Huns, marauding Mongols, pillaging Vikings.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and no one need ever be kidnapped, whipped, treated like property, merely for the color of their skin.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and Japanese troops will never rape their way through Nanking, and no one will ever remember Pearl Harbor as anything but a lovely beach.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the precious citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki need never learn the deadly secrets at the heart of the atom.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your people will never scream their dying words in a gas chamber.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the Tutsis and Hutus will never brutalize each other in Burundi and Rwanda.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and those towers in New York can stand tall and proud forever; for never need there be an al-Qaeda, nor a Taliban, a Boko Haram, an ISIS.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and no one will ever have a reason to invent the word 'genocide.' Phrases like 'ethnic cleansing' or 'crimes against humanity' will never be uttered.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and you can stop every pogrom, every lynching, that would ever be.
Think of it, Jesus. No Soviet gulags. No Cambodian killing fields. No dissidents imprisoned in Cuba. No Agent Orange. No sarin gas. No children starving in the streets. No battered wives. No veterans with PTSD. No such thing as human trafficking.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and I'll forever stand aside while you “crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).
As much as I love the chaos and the carnage, I'll trade all the kingdoms of the earth, with all their glory, if you'll give me this one measly moment of your time – one act of submission to me, one word to wipe away all the blood and sweat and tears of history yet to unfold, all the heartbreak and sorrow of generations yet unborn.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and I'll never entice them to mistrust you. I'll never trick them, never hurt them, never hinder them. You can write the laws. You can preside over the courts. You can execute the edicts. You can pump your little Sermon on the Mount into every home over the airwaves for a thousand years, Son of Man. Teach them your ways, govern them with whatever you call justice – all I ask is this one little thing.
Worship me just this once, Jesus, and you can give them paradise.
You call yourself kind; you call yourself merciful.
Isn't it most merciful to say yes to all that, at the cost of one moment, one word, one bow?
Oh yes, all this and more I will give you, if only, just this once, you'll fall down and worship me.
Hearing that, who among us doesn't feel the strength of the temptation? Who among us doesn't see the appeal? Who among us doesn't have days where we might wish he'd said yes? But there's the question again – the very question posed in Silence, the question given to St. Perpetua by her father, the question given by Culcianus to the martyrs of Oxyrhynchus: Is that sort of trade worth it, or isn't it?
For his part, Jesus turns back to the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, the most important lesson of all. It's a piece of scripture that answers the question of where real life comes from, where we get real joy and real abundance. Jesus, like Joseph and Mary and all their neighbors, would have grown up reciting these words daily: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). These are the words they're meant to carry in their hearts, teach to their children, write on their doors and gates, bind to their hands and foreheads as a sign and a seal – the mark of their God (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). These are the words they mustn't forget when they get the blessings they haven't deserved – when they live in “great and good cities that you didn't build, and houses full of good things that you didn't fill, and wells you didn't dig, and vineyards and olive trees you didn't plant” – then they can't forget that they once were slaves, but the LORD saved them from Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:10-11).
In that day, when they enjoy the beauty and bounty of grace, grace, marvelous grace, they need to remember that they have only one God, whose glory outweighs the heavens and the earth. Other so-called 'gods' will try to entice them with all sorts of offered blessings. But they aren't to follow those gods. They aren't to serve or worship those gods. Those gods make pretty-sounding promises, but they poison everything they touch, and their lips are full of lies and invite the wrath of the only God who matters (Deuteronomy 6:14-15). No, no, no: none of the glories, none of the riches, none of the mercies or kindnesses those poison-gods preach can compare to the richness and mercy of worshipping the one and only LORD God – “It is the LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
That's the key message, right there. He says to worship him, and him alone. It's phrased as an absolute, and it just is an absolute. He says to never, ever take what's his, like rightful worship, and render it to someone else – that's very much a 'thou shalt not.' He says to never, ever withhold our worship from him – it's very much a 'thou shalt,' with no ifs, ands, or buts. Because as much as the poison-gods may dress up their proffered benefits as pleasant and helpful, they're poisoned, and they lead only to death. But the blessings of the LORD are life, and life abundantly, even if they rest on the other side of an old rugged cross.
So Jesus remembers this passage, and he sees that, no matter how persuasive the devil's argument, and no matter how enticing the devil's offer, “it is written: You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). It can never be an act of love to repudiate the God who is Love (1 John 4:1). It can never be merciful to abandon the God who whom “belongs mercy and forgiveness” (Daniel 9:9) – the God who lets human history take the course it does with the aim that he might “have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32).
The world the devil depicts is an appealing world, that's true. The fabric of its counterfactual history is missing an immense deal of pain, heartache, sorrow, and ugliness. But it's also missing the cross. And because it's missing the cross, it's missing redemption. It's missing salvation. It's missing the beauty that is brighter than death's shadow is dark. It's a world where our evil is managed, not abolished; where, in the end of a delightful and utopian life, we die in our sins and reap the everlasting fruits thereof.
And so, just as Perpetua and the rest of the martyrs and confessors and faithful believers refused the trades offered by their earthly judges, Jesus refuses the immensely bold trade offered by the devil. Because, in the end, what the devil might couch in terms of 'mercy' turns out not to be so merciful after all. What the devil talks up as a great profit turns out to be, in the end, a net loss. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). That, in the final analysis, is the trade the devil offered – to no avail. How much less the more pitiful offerings the devil makes us for the same price?
In each of the temptations, of course, Jesus eventually receives something like what the devil offers – but he gets it on his Father's terms, receiving it through patient, humble, loving faith. Jesus was fed – but not by transmuting stones to loaves. Jesus received the ministrations of angels and is honored as the Messiah – but not by recklessly hurling himself from the pinnacle of the temple to test his Father. And Jesus has received authority over all the kingdoms of the earth – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he said after the cross and after the empty tomb (Matthew 28:18).
What's more, his active rule is being implemented even now, as he bears and redeems all the sufferings of history whereby the devil may well have sought to taunt him. And one day, his rule will be made complete, and there will be a world with both redemption and paradise – where, once purified from our sinful pride, we humbly receive from the tree of life, “and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). And Jesus' Father “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
So everything the devil tried to induce Jesus to barter away his sinless soul for, he's trusting the Father to give him. He's trusting the Father to answer the age-old prayer of the psalmist: “Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the Royal Son! … May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him … May the kings of Tarshish and the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him!” (Psalm 72:1, 8-11).
The devil offers to answer that prayer in a cheap way, a quick fix, a Band-Aid on the real problem. But Jesus is a faithful child of God. And a faithful child of God doesn't go for the quick fix. A faithful child of God trusts the Father to ultimately provide a real solution, a deep healing – because Jesus' Father is “the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things” (Psalm 72:18) – none of the devil's poisoned counterfeits come close.
But have we learned the lesson Jesus is teaching us? Because the devil so often comes to us, and though he doesn't promise all the kingdoms of the earth with all their glory, still, for so much less, he tempts us to barter away the health of our souls. He'll trade us respectability in today's culture if we'll just tone down our devotion and not be vocal in public about our God. To keep our demeanor 'mercifully' inoffensive, we'll ignore or disdain the life-giving words of scripture. To keep our bodies safe, we'll reject Christ behind the faces of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). To keep our bank accounts afloat or our houses tidy, we'll burn the midnight oil and stay away from the house of God and the fellowship of his family on earth.
In all these things, the devil offers us plenty of trinkets and tokens if we'll just withhold our worship from our Father, one way or another. We seldom think that's what we're doing, but these verses this morning lay bare the crafty stratagem whereby the devil's snare is laid (cf. 2 Timothy 2:26).
So what do we want? Do we want the devil's quick fix, or the Father's deep solution? Which will we choose when the choice is offered us, under whatever trickery the devil sees fit to veil it? May we follow the example of Christ our Lord, and learn how better to say with him, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 4:10). Amen.