South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

Living in the Spirit

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

(3:11) ‘I baptize you with [or in] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with [or in] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Chapter 4

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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.” ’
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

 Miracles are risky business. Not only are they a thing of interpretation— one person's miracle is another person's coincidence— but even Scripture is ambivalent about them. At Masseh, according to one tradition, (in both Deuteronomy 6 and 17) Israel has tested God.  But in another rendition, (Numbers 20) it is Moses who is the problem because— unlike the Deuteronomic stories— it is understood that he was the one not trusting in God's provision! 

What's a prophet meant to do? "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," is the central statement of the reading for Lent Week 1, yet Jesus will go on to perform many miracles. And the miraculous is often a touchstone for authenticity in the church. We long for the extraordinary and the spectacular as a proof of the reality of God's intrusion into our everyday lives, whether they be drudgery or trauma. In many places, those who do not witness to some in-breaking work of power are seen as lacking in faith and blessing.

The same Spirit which endorses Jesus, and blesses him, drives him out into the wilderness. Everything about this story recalls the Exodus. Israel meets God in the wilderness. Israel is tested in the wilderness, and now, Jesus is tested to see if he is worthy of his baptism and calling.  Baptised at the entry point into the Promised Land, he is sent out into the long time (40) wilderness of everyday life, where we are constantly offered a choice between the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of Empire.

Empire gets things done.  It puts human beings on the moon, its GPS technology can locate us within a few feet anywhere on the planet, and the whole system is built on power from the top down; power which enables and preserves the rich, and sacrifices those who are poor.  The edifice of Empire is built upon the backs of the slaves who perish in factory fires, and in the famines bred out of war.

Kingdom power is weak in the eyes of Empire. It leaves no one behind, and waits for the last and the least, and the unlovable. It builds a level community instead of babel towers.  It is slow, because it waits and persuades and heals. It is outpaced and overrun by the agility and disruptiveness of a growing Empire or a carnivorous corporation. Kingdom power is the power of Jesus.  Kingdom power is the power to die instead of winning, the power to die instead of getting our own way, and the power to die so others can live.

Kingdom power lives life at God's pace, and in God's time.  It gives, rather than achieves. Everything that tempts Jesus in this reading is about the agile and coercive power of Empire. Do not wait for food. Do not wait for God's validation which seems so slow through the lens of Empire: Launch forth in faith that God will provide and bear you up! Get things moving! Heal what you think needs healing.

And the danger, of course, is not that we will choose to bow down to the devil, to the mores and conventions and evils of Empire— the danger is that in deciding to lead and establish and inaugurate and manage and be an entrepreneur and succeed for God and grow the congregation, we might one day realise that we have simply become one more iteration of empire building, and that all our struggle for God was an unrealised bowing down to something else, to a devil.

Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. (See below)

This is the radical power which will reshape the world and bring it to fruition. And it is the power which everything devilish wants us to ignore, because it is the power which shames the world of Empire. (1 Cor 1:18-25) Where will we seek our fulfillment and salvation?

Andrew Prior (Lent 1 2020)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

The quotation above is referenced in my post Christ-mas or Violence from 2015.  It is a quotation from Richard Beck's On Warfare and Weakness: Part 5, The Weakness of God.

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 4:1-11 - The Emptying Desert (2014)
Matthew 4:1-11 - Don't forget Egypt (2014)
Matthew 4:1-11, 17 - The costly choice of freedom (2017)


Freedom's road is a slow climb


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