Saturday, February 13, 2016

First Sunday of Lent

Luke 4
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’[b]”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[c]”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[d]”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[e]”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

If you ever find yourself in the midst of a really bad day, and you begin to wonder how your day could possibly get worse, just remember Kobayashi Maru.

But before I explain Kobayashi Maru (as if it needs explaining) I need to tell you that there is a little known clause in the preacher’s code that if you dedicate any sermon time to either the Star Wars or the Star Trek universe, you must dedicate an equal amount of time to the other. The preacher’s personal feelings on the topic are irrelevant—it’s in the code.

Kobayashi Maru, of course, is the no-win test that every Starfleet cadet must face. It’s also the name of a disabled ship, floating in the Klingon Neutral Zone—and the cadet must decide what to do. Generally these brave cadets attempt a rescue, a handful of Klingon warbirds appear, lots of fictional characters die a horrible hypothetical death, and the test is over.

In the 2009 reboot of the franchise, Spock says "The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.” And then he adds, “This is the quality expected in every Starfleet captain." Kirk famously cheats the test, arguing that a no-win test is itself a cheat, but that’s an argument best settled over coffee with Team February. Either way, having a bad day? Think Kobayashi Maru.

And it seems to open the question found in Luke 4: was Jesus having a bad day? Tempted in the wilderness for forty days, engaging the ultimate adversary, defeating the adversary with the careful application of scripture—all of these might add up to a series of really bad days.

Evidence to support the bad day theory can be found in Matthew and Mark’s versions of the story—he was having a hard enough time that the angels ministered to him—but somehow Luke omits this detail. It must have been an important aspect of this story though, since Mark compresses the story into a two-verse summary, but still includes the comforting angels.

The other evidence to support the bad day theory is hunger: this was a forty day fast. Most of us end up in a bad day if we miss a meal, but the discipline of fasting (in whatever form it takes) is a difficult trial for those who try. There is an interesting parallel here to the aboriginal vision quest, where fasting in a sacred place is meant to assist the young person learn their purpose in life. Perhaps we could call this Jesus’ vision quest.

However we understand it, Jesus hunger leads to the first test. I’m using test rather than temptation since the Greek word can mean either, and since most of us hear the word temptation and can only think chocolate. Or small electronic devices. Or books, so many books, why does she need so many books?

So the first test is a response to hunger: making bread from stone. And Jesus answers from Deuteronomy 8: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’ The second test is a loyalty test as the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of this world: all he must do is worship the adversary. This time the quote is from Deuteronomy 6: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve God alone.’”

The final test is the most dramatic, an invitation for Jesus to step off the highest point of the temple and test God’s willingness to save him. Even the devil quotes scripture at this point—Psalm 91—and reminds Jesus that the angels will catch him. The counter-point comes from Deuteronomy once more, as Jesus says ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

If we can go back to Spock for a moment, his summary seems particularly appropriate here: “This is the quality expected in every Starfleet captain." In the scene immediately before testing in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John, and a voice from the heavens spoke and was heard to say “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Surely if you are being tested for the role of Son of God, Lord and Saviour, the-way-the-truth-and-the-light, surely you can overcome three tests. And even if they amount to world domination, the ultimate ability to disregard personal safety and the capacity to dematerialize objects at will, Jesus must overcome them before his ministry can proceed. Time and again we will witness Jesus’ unique relationship to the natural world, and this must happen in a way that continues to please God. And Jesus is not alone in this. Scripture is filled with tests and more than a few resemble the no-win test we began with:

The garden was a test, and the outcome was such that all of humanity for all of time can say “Adam, Eve, you had one job.”

Much of Exodus was a test, with rotting manna and golden calfs and endless complaining amounting mostly to failure.

Going to Nineveh was a test, and nothing says failure like ending up in the belly of a whale.

The time after Jesus’ arrest was a test—a three-part test—and Peter failed each part as he denied his friend.

With scripture, so with life. I’m going to very tentatively suggest that we are being tested—that everything is a test—and we rarely do well. I am very reluctant to say that God is testing us, though many in adversity feel that this is true. I will say that having given us reason, and rules, and companions, and the example to Jesus, we are generally being tested against what we know to be good.

Is this a test in the same manner as Adam, Eve, Jonah, Peter and the rest? Not really. The main test we face is measuring ourselves against what we know is right, and deciding what to do when we fail. And while the question of God’s desire to test us remains a topic for theologians and other thinkers, God’s desire to forgive is certain. It is the one theme that Jesus embodies more than any other, the one theme that defined his ministry to us.

If we can go back to Spock for a moment, I want to recall his description of the purpose of the no-win test: "The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.”

Jesus’ wilderness testing fits this description rather well: experiencing fear, accepting fear, and maintaining self-control. Everything went to plan, except it wasn’t a true no-win situation. Jesus had all the resources he needed to best the devil, and after some tending was ready to begin his ministry. It was a test, to be sure, but it was never a no-win situation.

But listen to the quote again and think of the whole of Jesus’ ministry. Think of the journey up to Jerusalem, and the people who are already pondering his death. Think of the traps that will be set and the betrayal that will follow.

"The purpose is to experience fear, fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear, and maintain control of oneself and one's crew.”

This is precisely the way Jesus proceeded in the no-win situation called his life on earth. This story ends with fear, certain death and Jesus’ heroic attempts to maintain control of himself and his disciples. Like the Kobayashi Maru, Jesus’ three year walk was always going to end in death and seeming failure, but that was not the test.

The test was what we would do—or rather what will we do—as heirs to the disciples, and members of his crew. Will we match his self-sacrifice? Will we allow the story of his death and resurrection to transform us? Will we enter this final part of his journey and truly reflect on our lives with him? Will we take the test?

We will. And win or lose, we know that God is with us, that Jesus leads us, and the Spirit will tend us. Amen.


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