Lent 1C Sermon (1998)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 4:1-13;
Rom 10:8b-13; Deut 26:5-10


A few years ago there was a movie which caused quite a stir, called The Last Temptation of Christ. Today’s gospel lesson tells us the story of three temptations of Christ. I would like you to wonder with me this morning: Is there a last temptation of Christ — not of Jesus himself — but of the Christ whose body is us, his followers, the Church. Have we gone on to face a last temptation?

Where might we face this last and most crucial temptation? In a dimly lit bar? In an intimate relationship with someone other than our spouse? Would it be connected with an addiction? Or with adding to our income through cheating or embezzling? I don’t think it would be in any of these obvious places. In fact, I think that the last and most crucial temptation for us to face would be one that tricks us into thinking it is not a temptation at all. And I think it is one that we are facing right now. It is a temptation that is lurking all around us in our modern world, in all the best, most brightly lit places — for example, in the most respected halls of learning and knowledge in this world.

What is this temptation that no longer looks at all like a temptation? I propose to you that it is this: It is the temptation to think that anyone’s experience of God is as true as the next person’s. It is the temptation to think that each person’s beliefs are a completely private affair, so that it no longer makes any sense to confess our own faith in God to anyone else.

Let’s briefly compare this last and most crucial temptation with the three that Jesus faced. Basically, the devil was tempting Jesus to act according to a different god than the one Jesus knew to be the true God. The devil was trying to get Jesus to worship a false god. But, in each case, Jesus quoted scripture back to the devil, in order to set things straight about who God is. Jesus came to show us and to tell us about the true God, and he wouldn’t accept any of the devil’s false gods.

Our last and most crucial temptation is similar to what Jesus faced but with a twist. We have been tempted to believe that there isn’t just one true God, and that everyone’s experience of God is as true as the next one. In other words, we seem to no longer believe that there are false gods. We believe that every god must have at least a bit of the truth. Let’s be honest. What is the prevailing view in most of our halls of learning and knowledge? Isn’t it that talk of gods is a purely private matter? Purely a personal decision? But this flies directly in the face of what Jesus came to do, which is to show us the true God as different than all our false gods. In our gospel lesson, Jesus is tempted by the devil to believe in a false god. Today, we are tempted to no longer believe in that kind of temptation, because there aren’t any false gods, right? Everyone’s version of God is as good as the next person’s?

Now, maybe you and I here today, haven’t quite fallen for this temptation yet. We do truly believe that Jesus came to reveal the true God to us. But hasn’t this temptation at least made us shy? Shy about confessing this God to others? We are aware of the prevailing sentiment — the prevailing temptation, if you will — that folks are offended by the notion that Jesus’ God might be more true than others. And so we are reluctant to share Christ’s faith with them. I definitely include myself in this reluctance. Even as a pastor, I get sucked up into the modern shyness of sharing my faith because it might offend someone. In fact, I was reluctant to bring up the issue to you in a sermon today, or any day. It’s not a popular stance in today’s climate. It would have been much easier to focus on some juicier, higher profile temptations — the more obvious ones that we are aware of facing from day-to-day.

But, folks, this could truly be the last temptation if we give in to it. For what will happen to the Christian faith if we are reluctant to pass it on? And, all those more obvious temptations, do we have the strength on our own to resist them without the faith of Christ being passed on to us? Will our children be able to recognize and repel all those other temptations in their lives if we give in to this last temptation of not passing on Christ’s faith which, as our gospel lesson shows us, did recognize and resist such temptations.

Then there’s the matter of shrinking numbers in the church-at-large, which we have been feeling at Emmaus. Don’t you think a key element is our being shy about confessing Christ’s faith to others?

St. Paul, in today’s second lesson, talks about the importance of confessing to others the word of faith from Jesus. It is a word both deep in our hearts and right on our lips, he says Or is it? How much has the prevailing temptation caused us to instead swallow those words of faith when we had the opportunity to speak them? If this continues to happen, the faith will die, because it depends on our confessing it to others. St. Paul drives home this point in the very next verses from Romans 10:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? … So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14, 17)

Let’s be real clear about this: If we all succumb to this temptation, it will truly be the last one, because salvation depends on that word of Jesus Christ being proclaimed.

We might ask: why is it that we have become shy about sharing our faith? Why has this last temptation come about at this time in history? I think that the answer brings us to a “next-to-the-last” temptation. We are shy about sharing the Christian faith with others, I think, because so many Christians before us have been too bold, even violent, in sharing their faith before us. They have hurt people and threatened people in sharing their faith. In short, we aware of other Christians who have persecuted non-believers in the past, and so we go in the opposite direction by not sharing our faith at all. It seems more prudent to us to give in to this last temptation of not talking about God at all and letting everyone make up their own minds, without the guidance of Christ’s faith.

Can we get back on the right track? Can we resist the last temptation? Yes, we can, with Christ’s help. And it’s that last part — namely, Christ’s help — that’s most important, of course. We get into trouble when we take credit for things that Christ and his Holy Spirit do. And that’s perhaps the oldest (as opposed to the “last” and “next-to-last”) temptation: namely, how it is that we take credit for what Christ Jesus our Lord does. It goes to the heart of this matter about faith and belief. We think that the world’s salvation depends on each person’s believing in Jesus. But that’s not quite it. My faith alone doesn’t save me. No one person’s faith can bring salvation … except Christ’s faith. You see, it’s his faith that saves us. If we imply that Christ’s faith is the same as our faith, then we are taking credit for what Jesus has done! That’s the oldest temptation of all! It goes back to Adam and Eve, when the serpent tricked them into thinking that they could somehow take credit for what God knows. Today’s most subtle version of that oldest temptation is to think that our own personal faith alone saves us.

Does that sound like heresy, especially to Lutherans? We Lutherans have lived and died by the motto “salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” So how could a Lutheran pastor stand up here and say that our faith alone doesn’t save us? Let me quickly show you one of my pet peeves. A verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is one we read every Reformation Sunday. It goes:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)

Through faith in Jesus Christ, right? Not exactly. Here’s the original Greek with the English for the four simple words “faith in Jesus Christ”:

pisteos hiesou Christou
faith (of/in) Jesus Christ

I don’t expect you all to be able to read this. But I hope that even you in the back can at least see that in the Greek there’s only three words, not four. The Greek grammar requires us to insert the four word, but we have a choice. We could insert either the word “of” or the word “in.” So it reads either “faith of Jesus Christ” or “faith in Jesus Christ.” Actually, the much more common way to translate this instance of Greek grammar would be to use the word “of.” But, for some reason, in all the modern English translations they use the word “in” instead. And there’s a big difference between the two! It is the difference between our personal faiths and Christ’s faith.

I think this misleading translation is a glaring example of how we have fallen to the oldest temptation of taking credit for God. I think that St. Paul was trying to tell us that we are saved first of all, not by our personal faith in Jesus Christ, but by the faith of Jesus Christ himself. It is Christ’s great faith in God that saves me. My faith in Jesus Christ can only be a pale imitation of Christ’s tremendous faith, which took him all the way to the cross. And it was Christ’s tremendous faith that was first rewarded by God with being raised from the dead. My faith in him can only follow as a weaker imitation. So the emphasis should always be on Christ’s faith itself, not on my faith in him. In fact, the emphasis should be on his faith living in me.

Even in our translation of such crucial passages, we have lost sight of this. We have emphasized our own faith instead, and so we have fallen to that “next-to-last” temptation of being too bold in pushing our own faith. We Christians have pushed our pale imitations of Christ’s faith on other people and hurt them over the years, such that now we have seemingly overreacted and fallen to the “last” temptation, which is to not share the Christian faith at all.

How do we get back on track? This is Lent, a season of repenting, of turning ourselves around. It is a season that we remember again Christ incredible faith which took him to the cross for our forgiveness, that we might come to know the true God of love, and that we might share that God with others. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to this Lenten journey that brings us to Good Friday and to the Easter celebration, the joy of our salvation that can move us to proclaim that joy to others. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, Feb. 28-March 1, 1998

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