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5th March 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 March 2017

Readings

Genesis 2: 15-17 3:1-7

The first two verses from chapter two deal with humanity’s relationship with the environment and introduces the tree of life, then from chapter three we have the description of the fall.  This has traditionally been used as the reason for evil in the world but it really speaks about the difficulty people have in making choices, our desire for more than our share and our in-built quest for power.

In 2:15 the Adam-or humanity clearly has a role to till and keep the Garden of Eden and Maurice Andrew says that the function of humanity was never conceived to be in paradise without work. [1]   This is an important distinction that is often overlooked as people focus on reshaping creation to satisfy human greed but the understanding in this verse is that humanity’s role in creation has always been to care for creation.

Matthew 4:1-11

Mark, the first Gospel, begins with the baptism of Jesus.  Matthew adds in genealogy and the birth stories and then follows Mark’s baptism sequence.  In both Gospels the narrative leads to today’s reading. The context is important because at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry it recognises the temptations of ministry and, unlike Mark, Matthew itemises those temptations.  They are temptations that are relevant to all ministries and the gospels give a clear order of call, induction then retreat to consider such temptation.  Ministry is a privilege but also carries some degree of authority, which like any authority, can and has been abused.

Warren Carter points out that the wilderness echoes the Exodus story where the people pass through water in their liberation from slavery (baptism) and are then tested in the wilderness. 

Sermon

Perhaps one of the greatest temptations in leadership is for a leader to believe their own publicity.  We probably can all think of people in various leadership positions who we could accuse of that but we are least likely to see ourselves that way and our Gospel reading has something to say about that. 

Karl Marx on the other hand was a classic example of humanities arrogance that fails to recognise the divine hand in creation and the responsibility humanity has within that creation.  Karl Marx believed that it was humanity’s destiny to reshape the world to best fill the needs of humanity.  It is not a surprising conclusion and fits the modernist world in which he lived.  Humanity saw itself as the ruler of the animal kingdom with the power of life and death over all living things.  Furthermore even if they didn’t have faith that could move mountains they were developing the machinery that could.  Humanity might not be able to turn stones into bread but they could bulldoze the stones out of the way and grow wheat in the soil that was left. 

When the soil that has taken thousands of years to form becomes depleted humanity had the power to dig up thousands of years of bird droppings from the dead coral of Nauru and spread it over the pastures of New Zealand.  I have seen some of my colleagues complaining on social media about the goose droppings on the pontoons by the rowing clubs but that is nothing compared to what we have spread on our pastures and is now turning up in our rivers and lakes. 

Part of the modernist agenda was to tell everybody that humanity ruled the world and we believed our own publicity.  However, right at the beginning of the Bible we have the ancient wisdom, ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.’ (Genesis 2:15) 

I will never forget an address by an Environment Waikato councillor where she stated that, even if farming was stopped in the Taupo catchment immediately, it would be thirty years before Lake Taupo stopped getting more cloudy.  Not surprisingly one of the criticisms of her as a candidate for the Hamilton mayoralty in the last local body elections was that she was too green.  From memory she was defeated by nine votes.  But she and many others now recognise our role in tilling and keeping our garden planet so it not only gives us life but life to future generations.  In a postmodern world many of us recognise that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon jungle can change the weather in New Zealand.  Even if that is not completely true burning the Amazon rainforest for pasture and cropping will make it harder for future generations to breathe.  Furthermore, pumping ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere creates global warming that brings Australia’s wild fires to the Port Hills, Hawkes Bay and Hanmer. 

Verse five of our Gospel reading tells us that Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the highest point of the temple so that when he survived everyone would know that he was the messiah and worship him. 

AJ Hackett launched his bungy jumping enterprise by jumping off the Eiffel Tower.  That was a mixture of his own thrill seeking bravado and publicity that was directly related to the enterprise he wished to promote.  Interestingly this temptation in the Gospel is attached to a verbal bungy where the temptation is offered with a proof text that suggests Jesus will be pulled up before he hits the ground.  However Jesus offers an alternative proof text which sends the tempter crashing down. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’(Matthew 4:7)   

Not only does this illustrate some of the agonising internal dialogue in reflecting on future possibilities and a sense of call, but it demonstrates the futility of proof texts.  For every sentence gleaned from the Bible, or any other source for that matter, there will be another verse or sentence that counteracts it.  Truth is discerned by reflection on stored and acquired knowledge.  Furthermore, we need to have a mind open to new revelation from the experimentation and research of others.  New concepts and possibilities are arrived at by bouncing alternative ideas in a bungy jump of conflicting possibilities.

However, reflecting on Hackett’s leap of faith from the Eiffel Tower, we need to remember that although he was promoting an idea and business venture others embark on self-promotion exercises to gain political office.  Without going into the detail of those who might be accused of such self aggrandisement we need to note that voters seem to expect celebrities to be good leaders.  That may be even more scary although some celebrities have managed to make the transition from ‘Terminator’ to governor of California and back to actor.  Being the lead singer for Midnight Oil with its justice and environmental concerns obviously helped Peter Garrett’s political career but it was a career where ideology and political necessity struggled to get along.  Midnight Oil will be playing at Horncastle Arena in September and the website states there are only a few tickets left. 

That might indicate that rock musicians are paid more than Australian MP’s but it also demonstrates that fame and ability in one of field of endeavour does not necessarily guarantee a long term political career.  Although to be to be fair Garrett did study politics and law at university and served as a government minister in several portfolios.  Furthermore Midnight Oil always had a strong political message in its music and spreading their message through music may well be more effective than being an opposition MP. 

Jesus in fact changed the world from outside the political system but some of the temptations involved political leadership. 

He and his community were subjects of the Roman Empire and the role of emperor was changed by family succession, assassination and violent conflict among the ruling class.  The end of David’s rule and the succession of Solomon in First Kings shows how brutal changing an absolute monarch can be.  The murder of Kim Jong-un’s older brother demonstrates the extent absolute rulers will go to protect their unchallenged position.

It is perhaps that sort of evil that Jesus rejects when he contemplates ruling the whole world.  However the brutality of the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition illustrate the corruption of the church when it succumbed to the temptation of ruling the world in Christ’s name.

There were in fact revolutionary movements at the time who expected the messiah to lead them to victory with divine help.  After all they were God’s chosen people.  That messianic expectation was not simply about being free from the yoke of Rome but to replace them as the rulers of the known world.  A number of the prophetic writings promise such world domination and at least some of the disciples appear to have expected that.  As we know there was a revolt against Rome and the hard-pressed rebels and others sought sanctuary in Jerusalem on the assumption that God would prevent the infidel from entering their holy city.  The Romans set siege to Jerusalem, hundreds were slaughtered, and the temple was destroyed. 

Jesus rejects that temptation and we are told, ‘Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.’ (Matthew 4:11)  Luke’s version is: When the devil finished every test, he departed from him until and opportune time. (Luke 4:13)

That is an interesting comment on the temptations we might face and the conditions that might make us vulnerable to temptation.  It also says something about the church as the body of Christ falling into the temptation of conversion by imperial power we mentioned earlier. 

Beyond the individual temptations mentioned however is the principle that beginning a ministry requires reflection.  In many ways I prefer Mark’s version of this episode because Mark does not specify the temptations.  Mark’s shorter version of our Matthew reading simply makes the point that Jesus faced the temptations of his ministry and emerged from the wilderness with his mission plan. Mark invites us to insert our own temptations into the text because everything we do in Christ’s name has temptations. 

My ministry education involved studying for a theology degree plus two years in what was called ministry formation.  Both those years of ministry formation involved a week’s retreat at Holy Cross in Dunedin.  All of us had our heads filled with theological education and hopes and dreams of what we hoped for our ministry but the church in its wisdom insisted that we take time to reflect on the journey in front of us. 

Furthermore that reflection also taught us to take time regularly to reflect and pray along the way because ministry of any kind is filled with the temptations that Jesus faced.

Certainly being the upfront worship leader carries the temptation to believe our own publicity.  But in everything that anybody does in the church is the temptation to take power for ourselves from the role that we fill.  Do we expect gratitude for the good that we do or is the fact that a need is filled or a hurt healed enough in itself.

The final point worth making is that even though we have this episode of Jesus facing the temptations of his ministry the gospels also give us examples of Jesus taking other opportunities for prayer and spend time in lonely reflection.  Throughout his ministry Jesus grew in faith and understanding and took time to face those changes in prayer and reflection.

As followers of Christ and gardeners in God’s farm we should also reflect on our growth in the faith and in our lives. 

As Jesus faced temptations of the life he felt called to live, we as the body of Christ, must also face the temptations of our world and the temptations of the mission Christ has called us to.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.30-36.

 

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