By REV. LUNA L. DINGAYAN
The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!'” – Matthew 4:10
UCCP at 71
United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), the church denomination to which I belong, is celebrating her 71 years of life and service as a “united and uniting church”. And as we look back it is quite inspiring to remember the life and works of our fathers and mothers of the faith: the American missionaries who laboured so hard to plant the seed of the Protestant Faith in this part of the world, the ministers of the Gospel who nurtured and transmitted this faith to us through their preaching and teaching, and through the living witness of the life they lived.
I do believe that the best tribute we could offer to those who have gone ahead of us is no other than to keep this faith as pure and unblemished as it can be. In so doing, we are not only honouring our fathers and mothers of the faith, but we are also planting and cultivating this faith in the hearts and minds of generations to come.
Now, what is this faith heritage that we ought to cherish? This is the Protestant Faith. This is the faith that has been tested and proven to be true by the blood of countless martyrs. Let UCCP continue to be the champion of this faith in this part of the world. At the core of this faith is the declaration that there is no other God whom we must put our ultimate trust and obedience than the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
This is the spirit of Protestantism. This is the protestant principle the German Theologian, Paul Tillich, was saying. It is the radical insistence that no partial object of loyalty, nothing human-made or less than divine may be treated as though it were divine. The Protestant Principle is the prophetic judgment against any form of religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance, and secular self-sufficiency with all their destructive consequences. In other words, the spirit of Protestantism is the guardian against every form of idolatry.
The sin of our time is not a sin of atheism or lack of belief in God. Almost everyone including those who plundered our government treasury and cheated in the midterm elections claim to believe in God. Rather, the sin of our time is idolatry, the worship of false gods! The church is never exempted from the temptation to worship false gods. This was the temptation that came to Jesus Christ our Lord at the beginning of his ministry. This was also the same temptation that came to the first Protestants, to our fathers and mothers of the faith! But thanks to God! They never yielded to the temptation. They affirmed and kept the faith.
We, too, are not exempted from this temptation. To be able to affirm our faith heritage, we must overcome this temptation. To affirm the One, True God is to reject the claims of the false gods.
Temptations of Jesus
Our Scripture lesson may help us deal with this reality. It is about the so-called Temptation of Jesus (cf. Mt. 4:1-11). The story says that after being baptized by John and received God’s Spirit to start his ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
It must be clarified at this point that the English word, tempt or temptation, used in our text does not mean to seduce a person to do evil as commonly understood. For it is unthinkable that God’s Spirit should make person a sinner or a wrongdoer. The word, temptation, in our text would mean the test or trial which would come to a person whom God calls for the ministry. Such test or trial is not meant to seduce us to commit sin, but rather it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to weaken us, but rather it is meant to make us stronger and finer and purer.
Moreover, we must not think of this experience of Jesus as an outward experience. Rather, we must think of it as a struggle that went on in his heart and mind and soul. This is supported by the fact that there is no possible mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. This is an inner struggle. It would clearly show to us that it is through our inmost thoughts and desires that the tempter comes to us.
Another thing that stands out from this story is the fact that the temptations which came to Jesus are temptations which could only come to a person who knows that there are amazing things he or she could do. Again and again, we are tempted through the gifts we possess. For instance, a person who is gifted with the power of words would be tempted to use his or her command of words to produce excuses to justify his or her own conduct. Or, a person with great gifts of mind or intellect would be tempted to manipulate people and make himself the master and not the servant of the people. Indeed, it is the grim reality of temptation that it is just where we are strongest that we are most tempted.
Turning Stones into Bread
Our text says that Jesus Christ our Lord, as he began his ministry, was tempted in three different ways. Firstly, there was the temptation to turn the stones into bread. Jesus Christ our Lord had received God’s Spirit to fulfil the saving act of God in the world. And he knew for sure that he had this power with him. At that moment in the wilderness, Jesus Christ our Lord was making a choice on what strategy to use to fulfil his mission of winning people to God’s Kingdom. How would he turn the vision of God’s Kingdom into a reality?
One sure way to persuade people to follow him was to give them bread, to give the people material things. Did not history justify that? Had not God given manna in the wilderness? If Jesus had decided to give people bread, he could have produced enough justifications for it. As a matter of fact, some of the early American Protestant missionaries as well as some modern-day Korean missionaries followed this approach and distributed relief goods to prospective converts.
But to give people bread would have been a serious mistake. It would have been to persuade people to follow Jesus for the sake of what they could get out of it. Jesus Christ our Lord called people to a life of giving, and not a life of getting. To bribe people with material things would have been the denial of all that Jesus came to proclaim. It would have been ultimately to defeat Jesus’ own purpose. Besides, it would have been to remove the symptoms without dealing with the disease itself.
True, people are hungry, especially nowadays despite government reports of a growing economy. But the question is why people are hungry? Is it because of their indolence as our former colonizers and their followers had been saying? Or, is it because there are some who selfishly possess too much, and greedily desire to have even more while many possess too little or even nothing at all?
The real way to cure poverty and hunger is to remove the causes, which are deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of people and are expressed concretely in the systems and structures of relationships in society. Besides, there is the hunger of the human heart, like the hunger for justice and righteousness, the hunger for love and peace, which material things can never satisfy. The late Senator Jovito Salonga is right when he said, “It is good to have money and all the things that money buy, but it is better to pause once in a while and find out whether we still have the things that money cannot buy. Money can buy pleasure, but it cannot buy happiness. Money can buy a palace, but it cannot buy a home. Money can buy entertainment, but it cannot buy inner peace and fulfilment in life.”
And so, Jesus Christ our Lord answered the tempter, “Man cannot live on bread alone, but needs every word that God speaks” (cf. Dt. 8:3). God’s word is a word of justice, of love and compassion without which there would be no genuine fulfilment in life.
Using Miraculous Sensations
Jesus Christ our Lord was again tempted from another angle. In a vision, the tempter took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple. The temple was built on top of Mt. Zion. And there was one corner of the temple building at which the Solomon’s Porch and the Royal Porch met. At that corner, there was a sheer drop of four hundred and fifty feet into the Kedron Valley down below.
Now, why should not Jesus stand on that pinnacle and leap down below, like Superman, and perhaps land unharmed in the valley beneath? Surely, that would startle people into following him! As a matter of fact, this was the strategy that the false messiahs promised. For instance, the famous Egyptian Pretender recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (21:38) had promised that with a word he would lay flat the walls of Jerusalem. Simon Magus had promised to fly through the air, and, of course, he had died in his attempt.
All these things are no different from today’s El Shaddai phenomenon, the Agoo phenomenon, the Charismatic phenomenon, etc. Thousands of people are attracted to these new religious movements that promise instant healing, instant riches, instant salvation from this world of pain and suffering. Why should Jesus not follow this strategy? He could have attracted the rich and the mighty in Jerusalem, not merely the blind, the lame, and the poor and insignificant people of Galilee. Unlike the messianic pretenders, Jesus had the power to fulfil his promise. But why, why should Jesus not follow the way of sensationalism?
Jesus Christ our Lord knew that a person who seeks to attract people to him by providing them with miraculous sensations has adopted a strategy in which there is no future. The reason is simple. To retain his power to attract people, he must produce ever greater and greater sensations. For this year’s miraculous sensation may be next’s commonplace. A gospel founded on sensationalism is foredoomed to failure.
Besides, that is not the way to use the power of God. “You must not put the Lord your God to the test” (cf. Dt. 6:16), said Jesus. For sure, our God expects us to take risks in life in order to be faithful to Him, but God does not expect us to take risks in order to enhance our own prestige! The faith which is dependent on miraculous sensations, on signs and wonders, is not really faith. Rather, it is actually doubt looking for proof in the wrong place. God’s rescuing and redeeming power is not something to be played with or to be experimented with. But rather it is something to be quietly trusted in our everyday life.
Jesus Christ our Lord refused to follow the way of miraculous sensationalism in fulfilling his mission because he knew for sure that it was the way to failure. And to long for miraculous sensations, for signs and wonders, is not really to trust, but rather to distrust the Almighty God.
Following the Ways of the World
Then, finally, Jesus Christ our Lord was again tempted in another way. It was the world that Jesus Christ our Lord came to serve and to save, and in his mind there came the picture of the world. The voice of the tempter said, “Fall down and worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of this world”. The tempter was in effect saying, “Follow the ways of the world! Do what the rulers of this world have been doing! They conquer nations by force or manipulation, and lord it over them!”
This is the temptation of coming into terms with the world, instead of presenting uncompromisingly God’s demands to the world. It is the temptation to change the world by becoming like the world. This has been a persistent temptation in the history of the Christian church. The church in the Medieval Period had scandalously yielded to this temptation.
But Jesus Christ our Lord answered, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him alone you will serve”(cf. Dt. 6:13). This is the same faith affirmed by the Protestant reformers, by our fathers and mothers of the faith, in their attempts to reform the church in the Middle Ages. Jesus Christ our Lord knew for sure that we can never defeat evil by compromising with evil. Our world needs a new way of life, a new kind of relationship based on God’s justice and righteousness.
And so, Jesus Christ our Lord made up his minds. He decided that in fulfilling his mission, he must never bribe people into following the way of God’s Kingdom. He decided that the strategy of miraculous sensationalism is not for him. He decided that there is no compromise in the message he proclaims and in the faith he demands.
Inevitably, such decision would mean sufferings on the cross. But then, following the way of the cross would also mean the final victory of his mission.
Surely, as we continue to do our mission and make our presence felt in the community around us, we may be tempted in the ways Jesus Christ our Lord had been tempted. But it is our hope and prayer that all of us have already made up our mind, so that when such temptations come, we can also affirm that faith and honestly say like Jesus Christ our Lord: “Worship the Lord your God, and Him alone you shall serve!” Amen. # nordis.net