Sunday, March 31, 2019

Temptation Three: The Quick Fix (Matthew 4:8-10)

The days were dark. Not the sun in the sky, but the whole atmosphere... dark indeed. A 22-year-old young lady – Vibia Perpetua was her name – was one of the latest targets of a local sweep of persecution in North Africa, in what's today Tunisia. She and a few others, including her pregnant maidservant Felicitas, were arrested in the town of Thuburbo Minus and taken to Carthage; for, you see, Perpetua and company had decided they wanted to be Christians, and so they'd enrolled in the introductory training they were supposed to receive before they could be baptized. And so they were thrown into 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; Tertius and Pomponius, the deacons of the local church, 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. Just a token act of service to the old gods – such a little thing. He was old, he said, and couldn't bear to lose Perpetua! 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: “Have pity on the gray hairs of your father, have pity on 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. I recently read through a collection of the stories of how plenty of the early martyrs died. And the thing is, their judges usually tried to talk them into just giving in – making the gesture of pagan worship and getting on with life. The judges could sound very persuasive, dangling all sorts of benefits as rewards for doing it, or heaping up the threats for not doing it. And throughout history, some of the persecutors have been awfully clever. In seventeenth-century Japan, authorities decided Christianity had no place in the country, and the movie Silence envisions a scene where a missionary, pastor to some of the native Christian converts, has been captured and given a choice. Outside, those who heard the gospel from him are being tortured, and will continue to be tortured – unless he tramples on an image of Jesus and renounces his faith. And the persecutor says to him, it'd be an act of mercy and love to do it. 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?

The truth is, we don't have to guess what Jesus would do. He already faced that choice. We have, over the past few Sundays, been considering the forty days when Jesus fasted in the desert. He'd been led there by the Spirit of God after his baptism, so that, as God's child in the desert, he could face temptation and make a choice. And the devil's got one last trick up his sleeve. We've heard the first offer: feed your hunger how you want. We've heard the second offer: massage your ego how you want. But now there's a third offer the devil will make.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). What a gorgeous vision. 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, to Jesus. The devil offers his conditional surrender. 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. The proverbial pinch of incense – and, the devil insinuates, the world hangs in the balance.

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 all those tortured martyrs to come – they can live unashamedly, freely, at the tables of the great 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 all the atrocities of history to come can be stopped in their tracks.
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 Pearl Harbor will only be known as 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 kinsmen 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.'
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 you can be crowned with every crown. All executive power in every government, at your fingertips.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the legislatures are yours. Write the laws how you like 'em. Ban what you want banned, permit what you want permitted.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every court of law will be in your hands. Every decision – yours, and yours alone. No injustice will ever have the final word. No liberty will ever go trampled.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every media outlet will be in your hands. You can pump your little Sermon on the Mount over the airwaves into every home for a thousand years, Son of Man.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every laboratory ever to be built will be at your disposal. Train those scientists yourself, and they'll unravel the secrets of DNA before the century's up, and Perpetua will scarcely have been born before a cure for every cancer is on the horizon.
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. 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, where we know we'd have said yes had the offer been ours to take? But there's the question again: 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, 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 those poison-gods preach 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 rotten on the inside, 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. That's the world the devil offers.

And so, just as Perpetua and the rest of the martyrs and confessors 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 calls 'mercy' isn't so merciful. 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 the end, Jesus holds firm to the faith that his Father will give him something better than the devil offers. The first temptation offered bread from stones, but after refusing it, Jesus still got fed. The second temptation held forth the service of angels and public recognition as the Messiah, all by recklessly hurling himself from the roof of the temple to lay claim to God's action. Jesus refused the means, but in the end, he had the ministrations of angels, he's known by billions to be the Messiah, and he's gaining the Psalm 91 victory. And in the end, Jesus receives authority over all the kingdoms of the earth, on the other side of the cross and the tomb: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

And slowly, step by step, his active rule goes into effect, as he bears and redeems all the sufferings of history whereby the devil may well have sought to taunt him. 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).

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. See, the devil is desperate to interfere with Christ's claims on us, and so he scales down this same temptation and offers it to us:

Go ahead, burn the midnight oil and sleep in. Go ahead, sign up to work Sunday mornings. Skip the fellowship that God commanded you, stay away from his house, withdraw from where your Christ is worshipped, Christian, and I'll keep your bank account afloat, I'll keep your house tidy, just so long as you skip church.
Go ahead, ignore the poor. Go ahead, ignore the hurting. Go ahead, reject the one who speaks different and talks different and looks different and thinks different. Behind that face, don't see the eyes of Christ. Keep away from them, and I'll keep your bodies safe from those threatening strangers.
Go ahead, tone down your devotion. Let that fervor cool. Don't speak up, don't speak out, don't become known as a dissident. Be the 'cool' Christian, the not-so-pushy Christian, the not-so-rigid Christian, the go-along-to-get-along Christian, and I'll trade you respectability.
Go ahead, ignore what scripture says. Live how you want, let others live how they want. More loving that way, isn't it? Let your heart be your guide, sand down the offense of the word you've been given, and I'll make you irresistible.

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, “Be gone, Satan” (Matthew 4:10). Amen.

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