Sometimes it is when we are exhausted and depleted that we are most open to God’s presence and the Spirit’s movement in our soul–our control needs and defenses are down, and we are not trying to manage without God.
I had this experience this past week while reading this passage from Luke, which I have read more times than I can count in my life, and certainly over the last three and half decades since I entered seminary and started preaching. Since coming to a church called St. Luke’s, I have paid careful attention to what it means to preach from the Gospel of St. Luke.
But late Monday night, I was so weary from getting my dad into the hospital the night before, going on little sleep, and having had a full day. I thought, I just have to read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday before I go to bed so at least I have it in my head. I could barely keep my eyes open, I read slowly and methodically, like a 5th grader, to absorb it in my tiredness. As I read, it was like the Holy Spirit lit up my mind, and showed me something I had never seen before–nor even read about from scholars–I’m sure some scholar has written about this–I just have not read it or seen it.
In the midst of agony and pain, three times, Jesus is mocked and tempted to save himself:
- First, “the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God,”
- Second, the soldiers mocked him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
- Third, one of the criminals tempts him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Where have we heart this before? This is an exact echo of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Luke 4 that came on the heels of his Baptism: Jesus fasts for 40 days; he is suffering and famished and that is when he was tempted by the devil three times, to do what? To use his power to save himself, even using the word “if”:
- “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
- If you, then, will worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.”
- “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from from the Temple for the angels will bear you up.”
The temptations conclude with this verse: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” The opportune time is on the cross–the opportune time is this text for today when he receives three more temptations for Jesus to save himself, and to use his power to retaliate and to escape, rather than to absorb evil, and conquer death.
“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Father forgive them for they do not know that they are unwittingly being instruments of the evil one. At the end of these three temptations on the cross, the other criminal sees the truth and asks Jesus, “remember me when you come into your kingdom, and Jesus says to him, “truly today, you will be with me in paradise.”
For you literary fans, Luke has set up a kind of chiastic or mirrored structure at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly and at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry: At the beginning, Jesus has a moment of paradise– he experiences union with God in Baptism when he receives the Holy Spirit–then he goes to the wilderness and experiences the 3 temptations to save himself. Then, at the end of his life on the cross–he is scourged, experiences 3 more temptations to save himself, then it is followed by a moment of paradise– union with God in the resurrection.
Why does this matter, except to Bible nerds like me who cannot believe they never saw this before Monday night? This literary structure matters because we have to absorb how Luke is working in every way possible to make sure that we get the point: Jesus’ kingdom reigns from the bottom up, and never the top down.
We have the hardest time comprehending this, so he puts it in the structure as well as the content of his Gospel. We only understand power over, domination, selfish use of power, especially when one is suffering. The human pattern is always to lash out and to exercise imperial power, violence, domination, aggression, whatever is self-serving. That is the way of the world, the way of empire, imperialism, colonialism, war and politics and yes, religion.
Jesus’ own followers, the religious leaders, those in need, those in government ask him or expect him to use his power in this way–to overthrow Rome like a real Messiah, to gain political power, to reinforce traditional enemies, and social structures, to uphold religious authorities and their dominance, to keep women and the Samaritans in their place.
But Jesus is the king of a bottom-up kingdom–a kingdom whose very essence is love, whose deepest value is justice, whose economy is the level playing field of access and inclusion for all–and no king of God’s reign can rule this kingdom if he gives in to save himself rather than the whole human race and all of creation with him.
So from the moment Jesus’ ministry begins, Luke shows us a Jesus who had all the power of heaven and earth available to him–and always uses it to expand this kingdom that reversed everything they ever thought about power.
So, Luke brackets Jesus’ ministry with two devilish temptations where Jesus refuses to misuse power to save himself and instead uses power to benefit everyone from the bottom up. For Jesus comes from a God whose true power is to transform through love, enacting justice and peace and human flourishing for all. And this is the heart of Luke’s Gospel as he tells the story of Jesus’ ministry:
- Jesus commended their enemies and welcomed them in the story of the Good Samaritan
- Jesus loved tax collectors and prostitutes into transformed lives–and all of the sick, the widows, and everyone at the bottom
- Jesus included and empowered women as followers and disciples, especially in Gospel of Luke; this in a culture where women couldn’t even speak to a man who was not her husband,
- Jesus offered good news healing, love and new life to foreigners –this was an inclusive Gospel where Jesus did not reinforce the primacy of religious dominance
The whole human enterprise can be reimagined from a different viewpoint–from love at the bottom, from the margins, with the least, in the suffering. When we all can gather here with Jesus at this basic place of human connection, perhaps then, we can begin to see God’s great purpose is power through, and power together, and power with and never power over.
But we will never grasp this truth if Jesus saves himself in the wilderness, or saves himself on the cross. The devil pulled out all the stops and tempted our “King ” at his most vulnerable, and in the most terrible agony; but even in the worst suffering, Jesus reigns from the bottom up, with complete love, with absolute justice, for the fulfillment of human flourishing together, a new human community.
Jesus rules, with a love that will never save itself unless this love brings along you, and you and you, and the suffering of Ukraine, and those that died of Covid, and the increasing number of teens with mental health crises, and the refugees at the border, and the mom & children who came to our free breakfast yesterday who had no shoes or coats due to an apartment fire. And one of our members went out and bought shoes while this family stayed warm in the church and the kids played in the nursery. Because we had a coat drive, we also gave them coats, and also coats to another family.
This is how Jesus asks us to follow him. To participate in loving together, in community together–together for joy– (our stewardship theme) in efforts in whatever circles we work or live or go to school in, that focus on human flourishing and transformation through love, leaving behind those thoughts, and behaviors that replicate patterns of domination, exploitation, divisive pride, and “us vs. them.”
Because Jesus did not use his power to save himself, but used it instead to save all of us, his power is always available to us enabling us to embody his kingdom and his love for others in our daily life.
Colossians promises that we “are made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, that you may be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
Through his glorious power, we participate with Jesus in making the kingdom manifest from the bottom up, with the suffering and hurting and the marginalized on up–until all human flourishing is made complete–that’s why discipleship–that’s why transformed hearts, transforming others through the selfless, empowering love of Christ which flows from the wilderness and from the cross.
My suggestion for your prayer this week is, “Lord, who can I help you love today?” Yesterday at the free breakfast, it was very clear. Two families with no coats. A mom with kids who had no shoes.
Remember this is not a love you generate from yourself, that you have to muster; this is the eternal power of God, the glorious strength of Jesus of Christ, raised from the dead and ruling the kingdom of love and justice that will reign in all earth—it is this power working through you that can bring hope and a transformed heart in new life from the bottom up.
Lord, who can I help You love today? This is why we are the church, together for joy!