September 24, 2017

When Jesus was Sick

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Preached at Augustana Lutheran Church, Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois on February 25, 2007
When Jesus was Sick

For forty days he was tempted by the devil! This was quite a remarkable beginning of Jesus public ministry. He stood the test, resisted the tempter, who, with his alluring suggestions was quite a remarkable political advisor; he knew how to be effective and offered his expertise to Jesus who apparently needed it badly—a messiah alone in the middle of the wilderness. Jesus was after all a late bloomer for the standards of the time.
Luke tells us that he was about thirty years of age when he began his ministry. And the devil was there to help. Jesus was ready as he had to be, standing strong on his feet, but there were three areas of concern that definitely had to be addressed. And the devil, ever the gentleman, was there to help. First, Jesus did not look good; he needed to take care of himself for the strenuous task ahead. Second, he needed to be in charge of the chain of command and have authority. Third, he needed some packaging, some promotional
material, some P.R. out there telling really who he was. Three great advises – self-care, authority, and P.R. – that would make him look really good. So, these three advises were the three temptations: feeling good, doing good, and looking good.

First, Jesus needed to take care of himself, and focus. He was not feeling good, he was distracted presumably by hunger, but it could also be some concern about housing, or a reliable means of transportation, or he could use some days in a spa by the Jordan to reinvigorate the beaten body. Certainly Jesus could do that. He could transform stones into bread. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch; to do it he would have to give up trust, trust in God and in the people who so often out of their hearts attended to him
and fed him while they nourished themselves from his words. This is the difference between turning stones into bread and water into wine, which according to the Gospel of John was the first miracle Jesus performed. The turning of stones into bread would be a self-serving miracle while the turning of water into wine was the overflowing gift for others, in thankfulness for what he received from them. And to this effect he quotes the
biblical passage which says that the people who were without food in the desert were fed with manna, a food that they did not produce but a pure gift born out of trust alone.

Second, to carry out a daunting mission as Jesus had, he needed the means and the authority to do it. And all of this would be readily available to him if he would just follow an old utilitarian principle of ‘the end justifying the means.’ In political terms, we would call this cunningness, but Jesus saw it for what it was and is: deceit, corruption and betrayal. All the kingdoms of the world and their glory could have been placed under his feet just for a small gesture. A good thing for a small price to pay, to do it in reverence to the one who, set up the empires of the world. That means that Jesus would have dominion, but nothing in the nature of the empires, the use of power and domination could change; that was the condition imposed. The means become the end; the medium is the message. That is what Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom was not of this
world; it was not of the way power is ordered. His Kingdom is about change, transformation, not from power trickling down, but from the power that emerges from the powerless that raises those of low degree and puts down the powerful from their thrones.

The devil is the power of sameness; Jesus had it clear that God’s power was subversive, that is, it comes from below. And again Jesus quotes the scriptures to rebut the deal that was nicely being cut for him.
And finally the prince of cleverness tries to catch Jesus on his own game. In the words of Shakespeare,

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

Jesus’ strength was the subject matter of the third test of the devil. This third temptation of Jesus’ strength is about promoting an image that conveys success. After all he was the messiah, why would he not want people to know about it. He could definitely use an agent, a P.R. person to give him a marketing edge when so many false prophets were around deceiving the people. But that was the point, you do not know Jesus for what he does, you know what he does for who he is. And that is how you have to know him: the poor bastard child of a carpenter from the backlands of Galilee who wandered homeless, without a place to lay his head and ended up nailed to a cross as a convicted political criminal. Not his signs, not his wonders, not even his compliance with the scriptures are the source of his authority. Jesus himself refuses to be proven even by the text of the scriptures. If he would have come to make a display, God certainly would have chosen nobler means that this poor Jesus.

This was indeed a remarkable way for launching a ministry. It was done in defiance of the most seductive power, which we call the devil, who can even employ the scripture for his purpose. In the moment of his strength, Jesus resisted in trust and in faith teaching us that in our moment of strength, by faith and in trust, we can do it too. Yes we can resist too.

But what about our moments of weakness in which we don’t even feel like eating, much less kneading stones to make loaves of bread out of it? What about those moments in which we are so downtrodden that we don’t even see the empires of this world crushed under them as we often are, and times when we can barely hold on to our feet, let alone stand at the pinnacle of the temple to perform a stunt. How good is this example of heroic resistance for us in the hours of our wanting?

Yes, the eloquence of this passage regarding the three temptations, feeling good, doing good, and looking good, makes us skip over its first two verses. The ministry of Jesus did not start with these three temptations. It started forty days earlier in utter solitude and miserable wilderness. That was the beginning of his ministry.

So…

Consider this. You have plans; you have a project just about to launch, or a career move ready to be made, a major trip to undertake, or a retirement around the corner just to be enjoyed. … And then you get sick, terribly ill. For days that you unlearned to count you are just miserable. Any breath you take is as precious as painful. Often you don’t even see a light at the end of the tunnel, and if there is any light you are in such moods and spirits that you just know that it must be a train rushing to crush you, and you even find
some comfort in that thought because it might be an end to your misery. Or then, you are right out of college, or you earned a Ph.D. and you are ready to give your contribution to society and unfold your marvelous dreams and gifts, and what you get is shut doors and for solace maybe only the shadow of a tree in a public park when you don’t even have a roof to stand under. Worse still, you are a foreigner and lost your work permit along with the dreams of a great vocation, what do you do? This is the time that finitude, the frailty of the flesh, the corruptibility of the body bring us to a state when we revolt because it is not fair, and we also feel guilty because we think we did not do all we could to prevent it. And we become hopeless. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that this hopelessness, this despair is the real sickness unto death.
If you have felt hopeless, if you feel yourself in that state of mind, if you know someone going through this ordeal, or if you are lucky enough and only think that you might eventually find yourself in such a situation, of course it does not help much to tell you that you are not alone. But it might make a difference to know in whose company you are going to find yourself.

The very first day Jesus took office, the office of the Messiah—the one to deliver good news to the poor, recover sight to the blind, and announce the time of God’s favor—on that very first day, Jesus got sick, terribly ill! The text only says that Jesus was tempted, but those forty days of temptation in the wilderness have nothing in common with the three temptations we discussed earlier. Here temptation does not mean what we normally understand by it in the English language today, which is, something that entices and
charms us into our own inner luring desires. Temptation in Greek actually means something else as well. It means being under attack, exactly as in an illness when we actually do not know how much it has to do with the genes we have, with the habits we indulge ourselves in, or with the air we breathe, or the bodies we touch. We simply don’t know and therefore we are helpless. That is what temptation is about, and it easily leads to despair. And in our hopelessness, in despair we are sick unto death.

Let us be clear about this. Jesus did not give up chocolate for lent. Jesus was sick, terribly ill, in the first forty days before his mission began. For forty days he did not eat. His body and his spirit were being torn apart. The devil was after him. The word Devil, diabolos, means exactly this: the force that throws us apart, rips, splits, and breaks us up. For forty days he was falling apart into pieces while the devil was at work. Forty days meant all that his body could stand. The number forty stands for anything that counts the number
that just about does it. It can be four feverish days, or forty days, or four months, or four years, or forty years, or eighty years. It is just the number we give to the time taken for the passage of an ordeal that is threatening to crumble our resilience. Forty were the stripes given as punishment for a guilty party in a dispute, and the text says: “but not one more,” because that was understood to be the limit of one’s endurance. Forty were the years the Israelites spent in the desert without crop, relying on manna, the pure gift from heaven that they could not produce themselves in their destitute estate. Forty were the
days Nineveh had left to be destroyed. Forty is a symbol; it is the number that quantifies anyone’s maximum resistance; it is the number that tells the limit of one’s endurance.

Well, how about this for a beginning of one’s messianic ministry? No wonders, no deeds, no parables, no miracles, even the biblical text describing it is terse and lacks in eloquence. Jesus was alone in the wilderness with only beasts as his companions. He was miserably sick touching the edge of what was bearable. But his was not a sickness unto death. He resisted, and it was a resistance against despair.

This was Jesus’ first true temptation, his trial in the first forty days of his ministry. And here he is even in the flesh of our infirmities enduring our own frailty as one who knows. He knows because he has been there and is there with us, with the assurance that ours is not a sickness unto death as long as there is faith, as long as there is love, as long as there is hope. And faith and love and hope are there where Jesus is and he is with us in our walk through the wilderness of our trials. The one who lives is there in our own journey through the valley of lent, in the depth of our lament. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “The living one is not a High Priest that cannot be touched by our infirmities, but one who has been in every respect tempted and afflicted as we are.” Being with us, closer to our pain and suffering more than we ourselves are, was the first work of ministry that Jesus did and continues to do. Know that, feel that, and dispel despair for ours is also not
a sickness unto death, for the story does not end in lent, in a hospital room, in a cross, or in a tomb.

Comments

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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