A call to be “God-centered”
a sermon on Luke 4:1-13
by Karen McBride
As I begin, I want to acknowledge and thank those of you who shared your own reflections on this Gospel passage in our bible study sessions this past week.
Indeed, I am always amazed at the richness and the timeless relevance of Scripture (I suppose I shouldn’t be; it is the Word of God, after all). And today’s Gospel passage, one that sets the stage, or the spiritual tone, for our season of Lent, is no different: it has a great deal to teach us about the nature of temptation and how we’re called to respond in the face of it.
Let’s first focus our minds on the context of this story. We’re told that Jesus has been in the wilderness without food for forty days. Think about that for a moment. How many of us would have as much physical fortitude? Moreover, in Scripture, the “wilderness” is often equated with chaos, a place devoid of the order God brought out of chaos in creation and, as such, as place ripe for evil. And in this passage, it is striking how many times the devil is mentioned; there are few places in Scripture when the devil is such as active agent in the story. Make no mistake, Jesus has entered hostile terrain. And he is tempted not only in these three interactions with the devil that we read about but had been for forty days already before this action. As a human being, Jesus can only have been weakened both physically and psychologically. He is vulnerable just as we would have been in his shoes. And clearly the devil knows that.
So, what is Satan up to, exactly? What’s his angle? What is he trying to get Jesus to do? I want to suggest that the devil is trying to persuade Jesus to be self-centered rather than God-centered, and in so doing, to betray his mission of humanity’s salvation by renouncing his human condition. Tempting him, if you will, to not be human. And perhaps he doesn’t really expect to fully succeed but is trying to make Jesus become accustomed to the idea of leveraging his divine power for his own benefit rather than continuing to empty himself in obedience to God will. And, there is an element of “reasonableness” in the devil’s tests, however twisted. Indeed, temptation is rarely black and white, is it? Sometimes what we’re tempted to think, to say or to do has a similar veneer of reasonableness, especially if it’s something that, deep down, serves our own interests.
So, the devil tells him, “Go on, Jesus, you have the power to turn these stones into bread. You’re starving. Take care of yourself just this once.” Or “Look, Jesus, if you had all authority over worldly kingdoms right now, think of what you could achieve. Wouldn’t that be a much easier way to ensure human flourishing than the path ahead of you.” Or “Come on, Jesus, you know who you are, claim your status and make God act to protect you, to give you a little help.”
But this was not the way God intended to bring about salvation. Salvation needed to be achieved from the bottom up, if you will, and it began with the Incarnation. Jesus’ mission was to be the new Adam of human history. It’s no accident that the imagery of this Gospel reading reflects the broader narrative of the people of Israel, their forty years in the wilderness, and allusions to the manna from heaven provided by God, for example. And as the new Adam, Jesus redeems our fallen, or distorted, human condition step by step by teaching and modelling God’s will for a restored humanity, one in which we are not self-centered – not thinking first and foremost of our own needs, ambitions, and desires – but God-centered and Other-centered. Think about our affirmation of faith: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Two things: Love God and Love Neighbour. There’s no “self” in our affirmation of faith.
And consider what St. Paul said about Jesus’ unwavering focus on God’s will: In his letter to the Philippians, he writes: Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Indeed, I think this period of testing in the wilderness was essential for forging Jesus’ clarity of focus. Despite his physical and psychological vulnerability after forty days in the wilderness, if Jesus was not able to fully embrace his humanity now, and if was not able to remain God-centered now, then how could he possibly fully pour himself out when faced with betrayal, abandonment, torture, humiliation, and painful death on a cross?
I want to turn to another aspect of this Gospel passage that I think is important for us to reflect on at the outset of this Lenten season, when we’re called to return to God.
Let’s consider what the devil means when he says, “to you I will give all this worldly honour and authority; for it has been given over to me.” Who exactly gives the devil honour and authority? Did God give it to him? No, the world gave it to him. How? By not being focused on God’s loving will for humanity, for human flourishing. By worshipping false idols, and there are a lot of them, aren’t there? Money, power, status. In short, we give the devil honour and authority over us by not being God-centered and Other-centered.
This, our flawed human nature, our inability to fully love God and love neighbour, plays out at all levels, doesn’t it? We see it when we focus on our own desire to accumulate more and more material “things,” turning away from the needs of others. We see it at the community level, don’t we, when we aren’t inclusive of or don’t respect the equal dignity of people who are different from us the way that Jesus was radically inclusive. We see it at the level of institutions of all kinds, including the churches, when they protect our own self-interest rather than walk the long road of reconciliation and addressing systemic racism. And we see it at the international level, when countries or groups within countries seek to dominate or control others’ land, natural resources, cultures, and freedom of thought itself.
There is a list on Wikipedia of ongoing armed conflicts (not even counting insurrections, refugee crises or internally displaced people). When you look only at what are considered “wars” and “major wars,” there are currently 18 wars in which between 1,000 and 10,000 people have been killed. There are 5 major wars in which there have been more than 10,000 people killed: in the Tigray region, Myanmar, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.
I would like to say a few words about Ukraine. I have spent quite a lot of time in the country since the NGO I headed up for a decade had an office in Kyiv whose ten team members implemented education and good governance capacity-building projects throughout the country. I travelled there probably a dozen times. One of the things that struck me most about the country is that it wears its Christian faith on its sleeve. It was commonplace to see Orthodox Christian priests in cassocks on the street. The beautiful churches, whether in cities or villages, had a constant flow of people in and out, older and young people alike. There is a graciousness, an openness, and a generosity of spirit in the Ukrainian people that is strong, despite the suffering that society has experienced (indeed, leading scholars have coined the term “bloodlands” to encapsulate the county’s history in the past century). We can all see evidence of that spirit in the news reports. And given this ambiance of spirituality, in retrospect it’s not a surprise to me that I first received the Word of God in my heart in Ukraine, in Lviv, to be precise, in May 2012 as a result of a conversation with Borys Gudziak, then President of the Ukrainian Catholic University and now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Metropolitan Archbishop in the United States. I am grateful to say that Borys and I have become good friends over the past decade, and I remember talking with him when he and countless other priests stood alongside the people in Independence Square, the Maidan, in Kyiv, during the 2014 revolution which ousted the Russian-backed Ukrainian government and ushered in a genuine democracy with all the freedoms that embraces. They called this “The Revolution of Dignity” and in reclaiming their God-given dignity, the Ukrainian people shone a light in the darkness, set their lamp on the lampstand; it is this light of human dignity that is an existential threat to evil, to the chaos that is the wilderness.
In closing, there is one last thing that I want us to notice in today’s Gospel passage. When Jesus confronted the devil and was tempted to renounce his humanity and his focus on God’s plan for salvation, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” in the wilderness in which he wandered. When we feel like we’re in our own barren and disorienting places, whether the wilderness of our hearts or the wilderness of the world around us, let’s remember that we’re not alone. The love of God and the wisdom of God envelopes us and guides us. And let’s remember that Jesus is one of us and faced temptation too. Let’s listen to his advice when we find ourselves feeling lost and uncertain of what path to follow and choices to make: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. Be God-centered.