United Church of Jaffrey
Matthew 4:1-11 | 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
This tiny word has been a matter of some concern to me.
Twice, already, I have wrestled with this word from this pulpit.
The word “if” is a theologically troublesome word.
The last time I took on this word was quite recently. Preaching about a famous passage from the book of Deuteronomy, I had a bit of a quarrel with God who seemed only willing to bless you and I with long life in the land “if” we obeyed the commandments of Lord our God…”
In that same passage, God used the word “if” again – this time as a threat…
if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish;
This “if” language leaves me feeling spiritually troubled.
Because the word “if” is a transactional word. The word “if” is like the proverbial “string that is attached.”
And we are Oh SO familiar with those strings aren’t we? We can hardly breath in 21st century America without being pulled by them…
IF you drink this brand of beer, you’ll have a good time.
IF you pay 30 bucks, you can fill your car with gasoline.
IF you watch these commercials, you can enjoy your favorite T.V. show
IF you study hard, you’ll get a good grade.
IF you use this deodorant, all the girls will find you irresistible.
IF you work hard, you might get a raise.
God’s love, and God’s blessing, it seems to me, should be the one thing we can count on that has no “strings attached.”
The first time I preached about the word “if” from this pulpit was a long time ago – it was on Sunday October 11th 2016 – almost 4 years ago.
I even used the word “IF” as the title of the sermon.
On that occasion, however, my sermon was a kind of celebration… a No-if-celebration.
I preached about what Jesus does not say when he gives his famous sermon on the mount.
Jesus does not say:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, and IF they do the dishes, then theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus does not say:
‘Blessed are the meek, and IF they do well in school, then they will inherit the earth.
One of the most important things about Jesus’ most important teachings is this: Jesus is not making a deal with us.
There are no strings attached.
It’s not a transaction!
We don’t have to prove ourselves worthy of Christ’s blessing.
And this blessing is what we call grace.
When God blesses freely (even though we may not deserve it), we receive God’s grace.
This freedom from ifs makes me feel more spiritually free.
Just when we celebrate being free of ifs, we discover that there are some “ifs” in today’s scripture passage.
Three big if’s, to be exact.
These “if’s” though, do not come from the mouth of God. Nor do they come from the mouth of Jesus.
They come from the mouth of that other guy.
Jesus, who has been wandering alone in the wilderness for forty day without food, has an encounter the devil.
The first word that comes out of the devil’s mouth is the word “if”
“If you are the Son of God, he says, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
This is the first of the three temptations that the devil poses to Jesus.
I never really appreciated the significance of this temptation, until recently, when I tried to do some longer fasts myself. The longest time that I’ve gone without eating is three days. The text says, quite matter factly, that Jesus fasted for forty days and that he was famished.
I’m sure he was!
If I’d been fasting for forty days, I would certainly be looking at those rocks, and wishing they were loaves of bread.
I’d probably be chewing on them, even if they were still rocks.
You may recall that the event that immediately preceded this period of wandering in the wilderness, was Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. When Jesus came out of the water, he’d heard a voice from heaven proclaiming that he, Jesus, was God’s son.
So presumably, Christ knew he was God’s son. If so, surely he knew that if he wanted to he could make those stones into loaves of bread.
He had the power.
With a few words, or maybe a wave of his hand, he could satisfy his own hunger.
But he didn’t do it.
But he didn’t use the power.
At least not for that.
Jesus had power. Magnificent power. The power of restraint!
the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
With this second “if” The devil tempts Jesus to use his power to protect himself.
Tired and hungry and alone, I wonder if Jesus was concerned about his own safety? I wonder if he imagined that God might have forgotten about him after all.
Wouldn’t it be easy enough to ask God for help – for protection against suffering?
We all want such re-assurance – that we are safe and we are protected.
But are we?
Is there one of us who does not suffer?
No. We all suffer. It’s part of human life. And Jesus did not want to excuse himself from human life. He wanted to live human life.
That was his intention.
So, as tempting as it might be to exempt himself from pain, Jesus chose not to use his power for that.
Jesus had power. Magnificent power. The power of intention!
The devil’s third and final “if” went like this:
the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Unlike the other temptations, this one comes with a prize. All Jesus has to do is accept the Devil as his master, and he will be given power over the whole world.
This is the devil’s trump card. This is the devil’s most powerful temptation.
Power is the temptation to act like God.
There is a saying, that power corrupts, and the absolute power corrupts absolutely.
History has proven this to be true.
Hitler decided that an entire race of people should die. He set up an industry to kill them.
Stalin imprisoned and killed millions more people even then Hitler.
His own people.
Of all the human temptations, power is by far the most morally dangerous.
With this final temptation, the devil offered unlimited power. If the divine, in Jesus, had become human – then this was the devil’s best chance.
Jesus had to choose between power and humility.
He chose humility.
If he had chosen power… where then would we be?
We would be worshiping power.
We would be bowing down before the devil.
If Cary had not mentioned something, I might not have known about it. I was absently playing an A minor scale on the piano when she said:
“Have you heard about what is going on in Syria?”
I stopped playing, and in the silence, Cary said…
“It looks like we are on the verge of another genocide.”
I got up and walked over to where she was sitting, at the dining room table, and for the next 15 to 20 minutes, she showed me news reports that show what is happening in Idlib province in the Northwestern corner of Syria – an area that ends, at its far western edge at the Turkish border.
It’s a confusing situation. Basically, there are millions of people on the move, fleeing through this area to the edge of Turkey, trying to escape the constant bombardment from Syrian regime which is backed by the Russians and the Iranians. Many of the refugees are women and children. With nowhere to flee, many are sleeping out in the open, and as a result, people are freezing to death in large numbers.
Those who have not fled are in constant danger.
One of the video’s that we watched, showed a man with a group of white helmets, searching the rubble of a bombed building. The man’s son was pulled out of the rubble, but the boy was already dead. News cameras whirred, witnessing the scene as the man gripped his child and wept. One by one, the rest of the man’s family was pulled out of the rubble. His wife. His mother. His other children. All dead.
As I watched, it occurred to me that someone, somewhere – a person, with blood coursing through his veins – some unknown person, dropped that bomb.
And another person – a person who has authority – ordered that bomb to be dropped.
Dropped on his own people.
This is what power does to people. This is what power looks like today.
If that is possible, I thought, what hope is there left?
In the depth of this despair, I think about Christ’s choices – I think of the real power – the power of restraint, intention, and humility.
Political power will fade. Military power will kill those who wield it. But Christ’s power is in truth. This is eternal.