Tempting the Church (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the First Sunday in Lent. The gospel text was Matthew 4:1-11.

So Jesus had a party for his baptism. But it wasn’t like the parties that my wife and I hosted for our kids’ baptisms. Shortly after our daughter Zoe was baptized, we carried her back home, and had family and close friends over to the house for a special lunch, cake, cards and gifts, and of course a whole lot of passing the baby around. Same thing for our son Ben. Baptism is the moment when God claims you as God’s own child, the moment when God gives you a new identity and a new mission. And so it’s appropriate to celebrate that with family and friends, to eat good food and share good memories.

But Jesus’ party was very different. Right after Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit led him to his party, out in the desert. But there were no balloons or streamers there. No cards or gifts. And certainly no food or cake. Just the desert. For forty days and forty nights. And then came the devil. And the devil tempted Jesus with three things, with Preservation, with Perfection, and with Power.

The first temptation was Preservation: Jesus was famished, and the devil said to him, “Jesus, why are you so hungry? You need energy to do your work. Why don’t you eat some of this food that’s all around you? There is food here, you now. For someone like you, there’s plenty of food. You’re rich! So take care of yourself with these riches. Turn these stones into bread.”

The second temptation was Perfection: The devil took Jesus to the top of the temple. “Jesus,” the devil said, “Are you sure that you are God’s chosen one? If you were, why would God send you in the desert like this? You’d better make perfectly sure. Throw yourself off the temple, because then God will catch you, and you’ll know perfectly.”

The third temptation was Power: The devil took Jesus to the top of a high mountain. “Jesus,” he said, “This plan you have to become King is rather slow and bloody. But I can make it happen in an instant, without a drop of blood shed. See all these nations? I can make them yours. You can be king right now. Just bow down and worship me.”

Jesus was tempted by Preservation, Perfection, and Power. But he said no.

But the devil didn’t give up that easy. The body of Christ, the church, has been tempted by these same three temptations ever since. How often has the church been tempted by Preservation, tempted to take care of ourselves? When budgets get tight, and offerings don’t keep up with inflation, churches are quite often tempted to focus inward, make cuts to ministry and vision, and focus just on our buildings, our well-being, our survival, to preserve what we have.

And how often has the church been tempted by Perfection, tempted to worry whether we’re really doing this right? When numbers go down in worship attendance, and Sunday School attendance, when things don’t seem as good as they used to be, when we see that things are not perfect, churches are so often tempted to think, we’ve failed, we’ve done something wrong, we’re not accomplishing what we were supposed to do. We are so tempted to think that success is measured by the number of people in the pews, or by the amount of money in the offering plates. We’re so tempted to crave perfection.

And how often has the church been tempted by Power, tempted to want power over the nations of the world, like the devil offered Jesus? The kind of power that we used to have, back when Wednesday evening was church night. Back when no sports occurred on Sundays. Back when prayer in school was mandatory. Back when it didn’t take any effort to be a Christian, when the world around us made our job easy. We’re so tempted to crave that power, and think that we can’t accomplish anything unless the world helps us this way.

The devil knew what he was doing with these temptations, and when they didn’t work on Jesus, he used the same ones with the church, over and over and over again. And many times, we have failed and given in.

But there is good news for the church. There is very, very good news. But we have to know where to look for the good news. We dare not look to our budget for the good news. And we dare not look to attendance numbers for the good news. And we dare not look to our power in the world us for good news. Those are the places the devil tempts us to look for good news. No, the good news isn’t found there, and it never was.

The good news is found in the place where we started. Baptism. The good news for the church is that we are the community of the baptized. We are the community of those whom God has claimed. The community of those to whom God has made promises. And those promises never had anything to do with numbers or budgets or power. Those promises had to do with mission. With purpose. With the difference we make. We have fed people in our neighborhood and around the world. We have brought hope to people who are grieving and scared, here and around the world. We have shared Christ’s light with people who live in all kinds of darkness. We have helped our neighbors when they needed it. We have raised our children with hope and love. We have lifted up in prayer people we love and people we’ve never heard of.

Just last week, we welcomed people here from Slate Belt Nursing Home on Ash Wednesday. We worshiped with them, we fed them, we gave them dignity. Just last week, we provided a space for several scout troops, and 4H, to meet. We gave them a safe place to gather, so they could make a real difference in the lives of our community’s children and youth. Just last week, we worked on the church library so that more people could more easily find wisdom and knowledge there. Just last week, we committed to seek out someone from our congregation to serve in an important pastoral care role. Just last week, you provided me with a salary and benefits, so that I could, on your behalf, visit four people who are homebound, and prepare two sermons to proclaim God’s kingdom, and meet with people to plan and dream for all kinds of events coming up in the future, and a bunch of other things as well. And that’s just last week.

The good news is we are making a huge difference in the world. And we are doing that because of the good news that we are baptized into Christ. Because Christ, who withstood all the temptation, is alive and breathing within us. And the good news is, we will continue to do that. We will continue to make a difference. We will continue to change the world. We will continue to be Christ’s body here in Johnsonville.

Don’t be tempted to give up, no matter what lies the devil tells. We are alive, and we are God’s people. The community of the baptized. And that is worth celebrating.

Featured image: Temptation of Christ (mosaic in basilica di San Marco)

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