The Temptation of God

Saint James’ Fordham • Palm Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!
Saint Luke the Evangelist tells us that as Christ hung on the cross on that Good Friday so many long years ago, challenging voices cried out for him to save himself, not once but three times. The religious leaders who had schemed with Judas to entrap him, the soldiers who actually carried out the gruesome work of crucifixion, and even one of the two criminals hung up there beside him to suffer and die in shame and agony — all of these, their voices succeeding each other in a fugue of temptation, called out upon him to save himself.

Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “Last Temptation of Christ” but I will be a bit bolder and call it the temptation of God. I don’t do so lightly, for Jesus Christ was God made flesh — even this wounded battered flesh. Those people were tempting God — tempting “God in Man made manifest” — Emmanuel — to turn aside from the path marked out for him, and upon which he had set his willing feet from before the foundation of the world. This last temptation was to refuse to drink the cup that — however much the Son had besought the Father in Gethsemane that it would pass him by — here on Calvary the Son of God would drink to the last bitter drop. Here on the bleak hill outside Jerusalem, the hill so barren and depressing, so bare of vegetation or any sign of life or comfort that people called it Skull Hill, on this bare mound Christ suffered a temptation multiplied by three, as three different sorts and conditions of people called on him to save himself.

These three temptations on Calvary echo the triple temptations with which we began our Lenten journey, the devil’s three temptations in the wilderness. And just as the first temptations told us a great deal about the devil and how he lays his snares for us to this day, and how his chief goal is to use us and abuse us, these last temptations tell us something about those who tempted Jesus, and about ourselves, and our own temptations to use and abuse what God has given us. It was no idle matter that, in the account of the Passion we just read together, we joined our voices with those in the crowd: for as the great old Lutheran chorale puts it, “I crucified thee.”

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First come the religious leaders — and if any of us were inclined to believe that religious leaders can’t be the witting or unwitting agents of the devil, the account of Christ’s Passion is there toshow us otherwise. Sadly, religion often becomes its own shadow, when intolerance and self-satisfaction combine in judgment: and some of the worst crimes in human history have been carried out in religion’s name. In this particular case, as they gathered to one side near the Place of the Skull, the religious leaders said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

A theological question was chiefly their concern, as it was the devil’s first issue. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Use the power that dwells in you, Jesus — if it dwells in you, if you are the Messiah of God — use the power to save yourself, whether from hunger or the cross. Prove that you are God’s son, God’s chosen one, the Messiah. Use it or lose it!

That is a powerful temptation, isn’t it? Use what you’ve got for your own needs: save yourself, if need be, by the skin of your teeth, by the sweat of your brow; don’t pay too much heed to anybody else — let them look out for themselves as best they can, and devil take the hindmost. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and you can’t be too careful, or too generous. Save yourself!

Yet Jesus did not give into that temptation, whether it came directly from the devil’s lips or second-hand in the religious leader’s scornful taunt. For he had not come to save himself, but to save the world. He had not come to use the powers at his command but to lose all for our sakes, for the sake of the whole world. He was not full of himself, full of his own power, but rather he emptied himself and took the form of a servant, a powerless one, one who had given it all away, dying that we might live. If he used himself at all, it was not to save himself. Like a heroic rescuer he pulled us aside to shield us as he placed himself in the bullet’s path. And he left us a warning: that it will profit us nothing to gain the whole world if we lose our true selves in the process, and that only by losing ourselves can we take hold of what is truly valuable — eternal life.

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Next came the soldiers who said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The political question was their chief concern. So it was as well for the devil, who showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” The temptation here is to use others to climb the greasy pole of worldly success: please the right people, grease the right palms, step all over your inferiors using them as stepping stones if need be as you scratch and climb your way to the top; but don’t forget at the same time to grovel to your superiors — it’s o.k. to have bloody hands and feet and a brown nose, if that’s what it takes to get ahead.

But Jesus would not use others to his own advantage; he would instead do to others as he would be done by, would turn the other cheek and save the weakest sinner — not because it was to his advantage, but because he truly loved his brothers and sisters, even when they turned from him and scattered, even when they betrayed him and denied him; even when they nailed him to the cross. The kingship of Christ was not the tyranny of an earthly monarch, but the charity of a heavenly servant, one who came not to be served, but to serve.

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The criminal said, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Personal safety was this man’s concern, and the devil had played that card against Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” and God will protect you. This is the temptation to get off the hook at all costs, to force God’s hand and make God act, not as God chooses, but as we might want. The thief’s reaction is understandable: there he was on a cross, and the one hanging next to him was supposed to be a wonder-working miracle man, a man who could raise the dead, give sight to the blind. How natural to call on him to help them both, to use God by getting God to step in and save them both from this terrible predicament.

How often are we tempted to use God like a sort of emergency repair kit, instead of walking with him all the days of our life? How often do we save our prayers for the spiritual flat-tires, the physical blown fuses of our lives. We sure enough remember God when trouble rears its head, but how often do we thank God for the glory even of a rainy day, the blessing of being able to awaken in the morning at all, and have a place to sleep at night? How often do we give thanks even for a simple meal, for a piece of bread when we are hungry? The temptation to use God — when God is so generous — is difficult to resist — we so often forget God’s daily blessings that we are liable to call on him only when we feel ourselves in danger or in need.

Jesus resisted this temptation to call upon God, because he knew that God was there with him even in the midst of this suffering, even in the midst of this agony, the hands of God were there, ready and open for him to commend his spirit to them. This kind of trust is difficult for us.It is easy to fall into that trap of only remembering God when we’re in trouble. But God remembers us all the time.

And this is where we turn from the temptation, the turning aside or turning away, to the faithfulness that stays on the path, the faithfulness and commitment Christ shows us on the cross. God is faithful and true and he will remember us.

And this reminder to remember comes from a surprising place. “Remember me.” Someone else speaks up, someone we hardly noticed before — the other thief. Saint Luke alone of the evangelists records this for us, this reminder to remember, this call not of temptation but to fidelity, not of abdication but of commitment. The other thief does not say, “save yourself” or “save me” but “remember me.” He does not tempt the Son of God, but prays to him to do the very thing he does — to remember and hold the world in his hands. Familiar words in Saint Luke’s Gospel, for he also records Jesus had said the same thing to his disciples on the night he was handed over to suffering and death. We will hear that account later this week when we gather to do as he said, to break the bread and pray the prayers. As he sat with them in the upper room, he broke bread with them and shared the cup of wine, and he spoke those words repeated now how many times since, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And so it is that as we remember him, and all he did for us, it is a way to remind us that he remembers us. He is no longer distracted by the temptations that assailed him then and assail us now. He has triumphed over the devil and his works, he has beat down Satan under his feet, he has overcome the temptation to use and abuse others and God, and he remembers us in our pain as he rejoices with us in our joy.

Our yearly company with Jesus in his Passion has begun, as we set our feet upon the path of Holy Week once more. Let us then with courage set our faces towards Jerusalem and resist the temptations we face in our lives in the knowledge of his faith, his remembrance of us, who did not save himself, but gave himself that we might be saved. +