Friday, March 27, 2009

Stations of the Cross - 4

Message preached on Sunday, March 22, 2009

The River Gomti runs through Lucknow. When summer starts, a swimming camp is set up on one bank for school kids and others to learn swimming. I cannot understand how people would want to learn swimming in this river that gets sewage, factory effluents, and dead bodies dumped in it. That was the kind of feeling the Syrian army general Naaman expressed when he was asked by Elisha to dip seven times in the River Jordan. He felt that if it was a dip in water that he needed, he would prefer the rivers of his own country instead of muddy Jordan (2 Ki. 5:1–27). On the other hand, Almighty God Incarnate had no airs and showed no squeamishness about getting baptized in the Jordan. There was absolutely no hesitation on Jesus’ part when He had to take a dip in the river.

Giving Importance to Another
John the Baptist was Christ’s herald. He said he was not worthy to even untie the Lord’s sandals (Mk.1: 7). So when Jesus presented Himself for baptism, John’s reaction was that it should be the other way (Matt.3:14). Precisely. Have you ever heard of somebody higher going to someone lower and asking for a favour? No one does that. But Jesus did.

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that people ought to
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves (2: 3, NRSV).

Paul affirmed that was the only appropriate response to the kenosis, the emptying of self that Christ did:
Though He was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied Himself… (2:6, NRSV).

In our world, no one gives importance to another, especially if it means that our own importance is diminished. Instead people put their importance on show—like all the people in government, who need flashing lights, sirens and security men to let people know that they are important. It has always been that way in human society. It was no different in the time when our Lord walked this earth. But He didn’t think He needed to safeguard His divine importance by clinging to it, and when He came down to the earth, Jesus didn’t feel the need to show His self-importance as He stood before John. He knew who He was. He didn’t feel that He had to assert it to be important.

Doing the Right Thing
Baptism administered by John signified repentance on the part of the person undergoing the baptism. Jesus had no need to be baptized, because He had nothing to repent of. But Jesus said to John, that it needed to be done, “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt.3:15). Jesus was saying that He wanted to keep whatever was required of people. He would be no different than ordinary folks. That is so unlike people in power isn’t it? Judges refuse to disclose their assets, as if the security of the nation would be compromised. Governors and ministers are kept outside the purview of the Law. Even petty politicians demand that they be accorded special treatment. No one likes to be treated just like a citizen. When Jesus came to John the Baptist, He said that He wanted to be treated just like one of the people. He wanted to identify with humans completely. If something was required of them, He would not refuse to meet that requirement.

Matthew records the story of how Peter committed the Lord to paying the temple tax without asking Him first (17: 24-27). When Peter came in afterwards, Jesus asked him whether citizens are taxed the way kings and rulers tax aliens and those whom they conquer and subdue. Peter said that they didn’t. Jesus expressed His opinion that the temple tax was an imposition on all God’s children. However, Jesus paid the tax for Himself and Peter. He said that He would do it so as to “not give offence”. He was saying, “Let’s meet the requirement, even though I don’t agree with it. That’s the right thing to do—even though what they are doing is not right.”

Our country would be so much better if all our citizens believed that there is no such thing as a right to do wrong, because someone else does wrong. All over our land people do wrong, and excuse wrongdoing claiming that someone above them did wrong. Even when others do wrong, we still have to do what’s right, because we’re followers of Christ, who made it a point to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Letting God Be Seen
When Jesus gave importance to another, and did the right thing, He opened the way for God to be revealed. I am not reading meaning into the order of how things transpired that day. That was simply the order of events. God revealed Himself as the Trinity when Jesus gave a lesser human importance, and chose righteousness.

The Kenosis prompted the ultimate revelation of God. Never before was God seen in this multifaceted way all at once. God was quick to affirm that this Most Humble One was on earth as His representative Son filled with the Holy Spirit (3:16-17).

The revelation of God to humans has been largely in phases: first, God revealed Himself as Creator and Sustainer and Preserver. In the Incarnation, God revealed Himself as Saviour and Lord. After that God revealed Himself as the Holy Spirit who has come to take possession of lives that opened to the Saviour.

At the moment of baptism as the Son humbled Himself to fulfill all righteousness, the Father and the Holy Spirit stood with Him to affirm that Father, Son and Holy Spirit act together in revelation and redemption. The Son was not alone in mission and purpose.

Ultimate Proof of Humanity
Baptism was an initiation rite in the time of Jesus Christ. For our Lord it was His initiation into His mission and ministry. The Holy Spirit came to empower Him. But there was still a fight that He had to fight in order to be fully prepared for the work. He had to be tested and tried. He had to prove Himself.

The temptations of our Lord are in a sense the ultimate proof of His humanity. Many Christians, even those who have all their doctrines right, subconsciously think of Jesus as somehow aloof and removed from our humanity, untouched by our frailties and problems. They think it was easy for Him. They keep forgetting that there was a kenosis—an emptying of Himself that Jesus did when He came to earth.

Let’s get this absolutely clear in our minds: the incarnation was not a disguise. According to mythologies when gods came to earth, they donned a disguise so that they would not be recognized. They were on surprise inspections of the world. In the end they would break out in anger against those who offended them. For them it was just an excursion that they were taking to survey their kingdom. For Jesus, the incarnation was down-to-earth reality. He became human and remained human from start to finish. God came with a view to get a “taste” of what it means to be human. He felt hunger, thirst, and weariness. He experienced pain, sorrow and despair. But it is in His temptations that we get the most vivid picture of His humanity, because He is shown as a human who experiences struggles—just like us:
He had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when He came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, He would have already experienced it all Himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed (Heb.2:17-18, TM).

Jesus was tempted. Options contrary to God’s ways were presented to Him, and Jesus was tempted. If we say, He wasn’t tempted by anything so earthy as what the Devil dangled before Him, we make Jesus a supernatural being incapable of being touched by our kind of problems.

The Self
The biggest hindrance to any ministry is selfishness. And that is what Jesus had to face. He had to face the human selfishness that was aroused by Satan’s temptations. Jesus was tempted first to use His powers as God-Incarnate to escape the pangs of hunger that He felt as a human (Matt.4: 3). The Devil drew attention to the hunger He was feeling. It was an acute feeling. Physical needs have a way of preoccupying us humans and Jesus felt that way.

The Devil aroused the thought that if Jesus didn’t use His power, how would it be known that He was the Son of God. Put that way, using His power would serve His mission. That is one thing we need to learn about temptations. They are always justifiable. There is always solid reason for doing what we are tempted to do. We make the mistake of thinking that only what is gross constitutes temptation. Most of us have been schooled in politeness and so are not tempted by what is gross. For us, as for Christ Jesus, temptations come in matters that we can justify as serving a purpose—a higher one.

The Devil told Jesus that He had to take care of Himself. That is why He was endued with power. Why should He starve when He had the power to fix the problem? Many of us have developed a theology to support such a view. We have the maxim, “God helps those who help themselves.” Using our own resourcefulness is always a big mistake, because in the end we think that all we need to fix our problems is more power and better connections.

Our resources of power and connections are never enough. We live by divine command (v. 4). It is only because God has commanded that our lives continue, that we continue to live. Bread won’t keep us alive. One can have all the bread and not be able to eat it to live. The outcome can be very different for two persons in the same circumstances. Why does one die, and the other live, when both have the same health issue, and are given the same treatment? There has to be a cause beyond—God’s command. It is God’s Word that gives us a sense of there being a higher purpose to life than to live to eat bread.

The Devil changed his tactic. Instead of using His power corruptly, Jesus was challenged to check up on God. How do you know He is watching over you? How do you know that God is alert to your present situation? For Jesus that would have been a very real question. For thirty years of His life, He had lived without any evidence that He was God’s Son. He had led an ordinary life. He had heard no voice from heaven. He had no angel visitors. There had been nothing to indicate that He was God-Incarnate. Was He suffering from hallucinations? Jesus was tempted to think that God had forgotten about Him—a temptation common to humans when they are sore-pressed in trouble.

Satan quoted Scripture to suggest his experiment in faith. God has promised to take care of you, so go ahead and do something risky (v.6). That is an illegitimate use of Scripture. God’s promise is that if something should transpire, He’ll be there for us:
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you (Isa.43:2, TLB).

We cannot take such a promise and say to God, “I’m planning on taking a risk, and you have to take care of me.” That would be similar to those who handle snakes in their worship services because the Lord said that when His witnesses pick up serpents they will not be hurt (Mk.16:18).

When I was in college I remember hearing a preacher who said that the Scripture says that we are to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (Jas.1:2), but it did not mean that we are to jump into them. If it happens, it happens, and the promise is God will be there for us. But we are not to run toward trouble and gleefully embrace it.

We don’t check up on His alertness or test His performance. We cannot command God. He is not at our beck and call. He doesn’t perform for us. It is we who are to serve Him, and answer His call.

In the final phase, the Devil suggested that there was an easy way to win the world. Hey, who doesn’t like shortcuts? If we can do it the easy way, why do it the hard way? When Jesus considered what lay ahead of Him—the torture, the shame, associating with sin, bearing the burden of guilt, the despair of separation from God—He was tempted to choose another way. The temptation came again in the Garden of Gethsemane when He cried in agony, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me. [Please Father, can’t You intervene and spare me from further degradation than I have already suffered?].”

Satan invited Jesus to strike a deal with Him. One brief moment of compromise, hidden from all eyes, and the world that He had come to save could be His (Matt.4:8-9). If we focus attention on the target of our mission, and lose sight of the fact that in the end it is about drawing near to God and serving Him, meeting the target consumes us. It is the Devil who makes us think about targets instead of thinking about God. If meeting targets is the be-all and end-all of our lives and work, it is really all about looking good ourselves. It is a manifestation of our selfishness. It is not about serving God. But when Jesus took the plunge in the Jordan, He knew that it was all about serving God. He knew God was there and He alone gives meaning to life because He cares. He cared enough to send Jesus to be like us and struggle like us, and to share His triumphs with us.

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