First Mennonite Church
August 31, 2014
Making Hard Choices
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
We live in an extremely divided society. And people are forced to choose sides. You have to either be Republican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life, tree hugger environmentalist or hardheaded denier, pro-Israel or pro-Muslim and so on. Besides these major social dividers there are the religious. Church people have to choose between social gospel or gospel of prosperity, between X or Y denomination, or between traditional worship or contemporary worship, between congregationalist polities or hierarchical church governments, etc..
Just the other day Lilian, my wife, was having a casual conversation with someone and the conversation switched to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Lilian suggested that not all Israelis are theists—people who believe in a God and that even fewer are Christians, her interlocutor suddenly turned to her and asked at point-blank: “Now are you on the side of Israel or on the side of the Muslims?” What was so interesting, Lilian said, was that the topic of Muslims had not been mentioned in the conversation so far. And Lilian did not even mention it. Yet again, it only proves how much pressure there is that choose sides on most matters, if not all.
So we ask ourselves, what should we do? How are we to choose? And, can there be a different way?
Let me tell you that the alternative to any of the options we are presented today is not the easiest choice. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, was confronted with a world that also offered choices. And as we will see, from the very beginning of his ministry he was given easy alternatives to reaching his goal and purpose to its fullest extent should his interest had been only to reach his goal.
As Jesus came out the Jordan River after his baptism, the Bible tells us he was led to the desert by the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted. The Father had just declared He is pleased with his Son and now the Devil would test Jesus’ loyalty and obedience to the Father. As we will see, for Jesus to remain loyal, faithful, and always pleasing to the Father, he would have to make the hard choices.
Making Bread Out of Rocks
In the gospel of Luke, the temptation of Jesus appears just before where he declared that he had been sent “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Around Jesus there was extreme poverty and nothing would have been the easiest way to attract the heart and attention of poor people than offering them bread. In John 5, after Jesus fed the five thousand he had to withdraw because the crowd wanted to make him king (v.15). The devil knew that giving bread to the poor would be the easiest way for Jesus to achieve his mission. He did not have to die. The poor were seeking not only bread but also something to give them hope.
And one group during Jesus’ time that was attractive to the masses and especially the poor were the Pharisees. This group of strict religious practitioners derived their name from the Hebrew word “perusim”, which means “separatists” or “consecrated”. Their strict observation of the Law and of the “tradition of the fathers” made them highly admirable to the masses. Their belief in the afterlife also appealed to the disenfranchised giving them hope of a better life in the hereafter. The Pharisees were very productive citizens. They planted and harvested their crops, they liked to do business and make money, and they also proselytize. They were obsessed with matters of purity. They would not touch a royal coin or any polluted objects like human remains or animal carcasses. They would not use dirty cups or plates. They would not come close to the leprosy or those they considered sinners. They would not come close to those they viewed as morally polluted or traitors. They traveled land and sea converting people yet, according to Jesus, only to make their followers double candidates of hell. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and proclaimed this glorious hope to the poor and disenfranchised but their legalistic view of the Law not only closed their heart to poor but also their wallets. They not only did not share their money or food, but in fact, as Jesus accuses them, they made long prayers to cover up their robbery the poor and dispossession of the widow (Luke 20:47). They cared more for themselves than doing mercy.
Jesus proclaimed the good news and he also feed the hungry. And it is no wonder why the Pharisees admitted that the whole world was going after him (John 12:19). Jesus cared for the masses for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he invited the masses to follow him. He offered them hope. He offered them his love. He gave them the word, food and healed their sick.
Verses 5 & 6
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Had Jesus thrown himself down from the temple pinnacle the entire body of religious authorities would have believed he is indeed the Son of God. By throwing himself down Jesus would have proven his credential to the world that he is entitled to take over the center of religious authority.
During Jesus’ time the Sadducees were the religious authority. The Sadducees or the priestly dynasty of Saddok, the revered priest in Jewish tradition governed from the Temple in Jerusalem. And regardless of how unorthodox and callous they are portrayed in the gospels, this group played a vital role in the life of Jewish people. Their authority was not limited to matters of religion. This was the body responsible for public safety. This was the body of legislators who executed justice. We will see some more about his group, but we should not forget that it was the Sadducees authorized Jesus’ arrest, who judged him, and who condemned him to death.
Had only Jesus thrown himself down from the temple tower, the Sadducees would have been forced to relinquish their prestigious positions as guardians of the institution and center of power from where God was supposed to speak. But Jesus chose the hard way. He chose the way of the cross.
Verse 8: Gaining the world
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
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.”
Jesus was always aware that the Father had given him authority over all people (John 17:2). Yet the way he was to display that authority was through his glorification on the cross. Yet in Jesus’ time there were those who tried to gain control of the world, and of its power and glory. Again the Sadducees skillfully negotiated power and authority with the Romans who occupied Palestine. They negotiated certain rights for the Jews. In fact Judea was the only territory under Roman dominance that had freedom to worship God and not the Roman Caesar. It was the Sadducees who negotiated that Roman soldier did not enter Jerusalem with their pagan roman banners. It was the Sadducees who negotiated the use of special coins designed for Temple use only. The Sadducees gained authority and glory as they negotiated with the romans. And through political maneuver and compromise they controlled their world and exercised authority.
On the other hand were the Zealots. They also wanted to retake the power and authority from the hands of the Roman occupiers. They believed God had called them to wage holy war against the Roman dominators. They believed God will use them to retake Israel from Roman dominance. But Jesus joined neither the Sadducees nor the Zealots to gain the world. He offered himself sacrificially.
Had only Jesus bowed to worship the devil, the cross would have been unnecessary for Jesus to claim the whole world to himself. But because of his absolute obedience, even to death on a cross, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord above all.
My dear friends, making bread according to the world is the easiest way to secure for our lives. The Pharisees had bread but forgot the word of God that calls for mercy.
My dear friends, gaining the power by flexing political muscles is easier than through servanthood in the way of Jesus. Jesus created a community, which through its love and care for each other within the group and for those around them, turned the world upside down.
Today, we are followers of that same Jesus who was also confronted with many choices. We are the followers of that same Jesus who showed us that the way of God is having to make hard choices. We are followers of that same Jesus who created a community, through which servanthood is its hallmark.
We are part of that new people Jesus planted that has a different approach to life. We share our bread with the needy. We deal with the offender with forgiveness. We open our heart to the outsider. We view money as a means to do good. We serve as leaders. We make the hard choices as Jesus showed us.
We are part of that new people of God who do not bow to the devil to gain power and authority over the fallen world.
We are God’s holy people. Amen!