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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Forty Days of What?
February 18, 2016

The forty days of Lent are tied to Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the wilderness. Even though it occurs at the outset of his ministry, Christians identify with him in this forty-day journey as they journey with him through the final days of his ministry.

Jesus’ wilderness temptation is more than a prelude to his ministry. It’s not a hazing to prove his mettle. Rather, it is a schooling on staying true to his calling. These forty days do not get temptations out of his way once and for all; rather, they help him navigate those temptations whenever they arise. And arise they surely will, as the story of the wilderness temptation guarantees that the devil will return at “an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)

Bread for stones. Stones are abundant in the desert. They burn your feet if you step on them, or trip you up if you stumble on them. They are nothing but trouble, and they are everywhere.

Wouldn’t it be great to kill two birds with one stone (so to speak) by getting rid of the pesky stones, and turning them into bread to boot? To add to the attraction of this temptation, Jesus has been fasting, so he is “famished” according to Luke. If Jesus can turn water into wine, surely he can turn stones into bread. He can, but he won’t. The story of Jesus’ ministry is always this – I am sent to serve, not to be served. Ministry is never about serving my own needs or interests. So how does Jesus meet the temptation? By quoting Scripture: “We do not live by bread alone, but by God’s Word.” Using his ministry gifts to obtain personal benefit would inevitably derail his ministry.

Maximum influence. “The world is your oyster!” So the devil says to Jesus – if only you will be loyal to me. Obey my voice, the voice of one who promises you unlimited acclaim. The devil has much to offer Jesus: His desires fulfilled. His power unhindered. His success assured.

Jesus reminds us often that the way power works in the world is not how it works in his kingdom. In his realm, leadership is always about serving, not about being served. It is about taking up a cross, not about seizing what is rightfully ours. None of us has a right to a pastoral call, or to any other form of ministry, no matter our education, experience, or references. It’s not “our” ministry at all.

If Jesus had bowed to the devil’s promise rather than staying true to his calling, he could well have obtained exactly what the devil offered. Those who seek wide influence through religious leadership often find that there is plenty of it to be had. One tangible demonstration of that power is financial gain, and there are more than a few celebrity preachers who have amassed great personal wealth through their ministry. The world is theirs – but at what cost to the Gospel, and to the souls of those who follow them?

Faced with the devil’s grand promises, Jesus again recalls the core of his calling by remembering Scripture: “I live and work only to honor God.” To give his loyalty to the pursuit of grand ministerial success is to surrender that supreme loyalty for another.

Public spectacle. Go ahead and make a big impression, Jesus. Do something so miraculous that it will prove to everyone that God is real and your message is true. You will be the talk of the city! Be noticed, get your name in lights. Surely it will help promote the kingdom of God – not to mention increase your ministry invitations. Why settle for mere ordinariness in ministry, anyway? And besides, doesn’t Scripture promise that the angels will preserve you from harm?

Ah, the devil knows Scripture too! Just pulling out isolated passages can work against God’s purpose for us as easily as it can support it. What we need is immersion in the whole story of God’s ways with us and our world, remembering more than isolated clips from it. Jesus replies with yet another reference to Scripture’s longer story – God’s promises are no warrant to provoke God to suit our agenda.

Jesus spends the ensuing years facing these temptations in the company of his disciples. Each of his re-directives to his disciples – from their rejection of Samaritans, to their dismissal of children, to their fighting for first place in his entourage, to their calling fire on their adversaries, to their trying to block his path to the cross – is rooted in his own continuing resistance to the temptations that beset God’s servants everywhere. Jesus requires of them nothing more than what God requires of him.

If Jesus needed to be anchored in sustained prayerful immersion in the whole of Scripture in order to keep on track, how much more do we?! Here is the heart of our Lenten journey: Sustained prayerful immersion in the whole of Scripture to keep us on track for the whole of our journey.

Staying the course with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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