Monday, 3 March 2014

“You just can’t tie Jesus down.”: a sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (Matthew 4: 1 – 11)

I have it on good authority that this is a true story.  It happened one December in a small town in the United States.  Every year, a service club put up a big nativity scene in a park.  One day, the president of the service club received a telephone call from the police:  “Is your nativity scene missing anything? ...  Is it missing something particularly important … something particularly important for a nativity scene ... something that makes a nativity scene a nativity scene?”

As it turned out, the owner of a nearby café rang the police to tell them that the figure of the infant Jesus was found in the café, propped up as if sitting at one of the tables.  Evidently, practical jokers had removed the figure from the nativity scene and left it there at a table in the café, the baby Jesus sitting in the café, having a hamburger and a cup of coffee.

As the president of the club arrived at the café to pick up the figure of baby Jesus, a reporter from the local paper also arrived at the scene.  (Someone – possibly the practical jokers themselves - had tipped off the paper.)

The rather embarrassed club president found himself explaining to the journalist the difficulties in maintaining the nativity scene.  “All the other pieces,” he said, “can all be securely fastened to the ground: shepherds, sheep, wise men, camels, Mary, Joseph, the lot.  They can all be secured, all except the Jesus figure....”  He explained, and then added (with an unexpectedly profound theological statement), “You just can’t tie Jesus down.”

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!”

But then, it’s not as if some people haven’t tried.  Over the centuries, and in the present day, many have tried to “tie Jesus down”, to make him fit into their image of what - and who - he should be.

The gospels confront us with Jesus who ate and socialised with his community’s “moral failures”, and who was scathing in his criticism of religious conservatism in his own cultural setting.  But some have tried to “tie Jesus down” to make him the improbable standard-bearer of a new legalism, a new moralism, and a new conservatism.

The gospels confront us with Jesus who honestly became angry at the abuses committed in the Temple by the money-changers.  But some have tried to “tie Jesus down” into a vague, sentimentalised person who didn’t even have a temper to lose.

And, you know, it is understandable that many have tried to “tie Jesus down”.  When he isn’t securely tied down, Jesus has this knack of encouraging people to do ... well ... uncomfortable things.  In the gospels, how many successful fishing businesses had he disrupted?  How many semi-privatised tax-collection enterprises had he ruined?  And ever since then, Jesus has still been disrupting people’s plans.
  • Francis of Assisi could have looked forward to inheriting his father’s successful business.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • Ignatius Loyola had a career as a professional military officer ahead of him.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • John Wesley, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King were all promising young academics.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • Mary MacKillop and Mother Theresa could each have expected comfortable lives teaching the children of the rich (or at least the middle classes) in highly respectable schools.  But Jesus had another idea.
All had comfortable, successful, eminently respectable lives mapped out ahead of them.  And then Jesus gave them another idea.  It is understandable that many have tried to “tie Jesus down, in his own day, in our day, and in the centuries in between.

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!” 

Our gospel lesson is an illustration of how Jesus always resisted being “tied down” by anyone’s preconceived expectation.  Jesus went to the wilderness - to the deepest desert.  There he fasted for forty days and forty nights.  There he was tempted.  Matthew tells us he was tempted by “the devil”.  Some see the figure of “the devil” here as a real being.  Others, including myself, see “the devil” as a symbol of that within ourselves that compels each of us to say “No” to God.  Whichever you believe, the temptations were equally real. 

Throughout his temptations, Jesus resisted being “tied down”.

The first temptation was obvious.  Jesus was tempted by his hunger.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, you’re hungry.  How long have you been fasting?  Forty days ... and forty nights ... That’s a long time to go without food.  Focus on your hunger.  If you’re the Son of God, create some bread ... nothing fancy, just a bit of bread.

The hunger was real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

The second temptation was a bit more “religious”.  Jesus was tempted to reject the hard path to the cross and opt for a few obvious “signs and wonders”.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, all this suffering servant business sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it?  Take a short cut.  Go for a flashy sign.  Go up to the top of the temple and then ... jump.  If you’re the Son of God, angels will surely break your fall.  Celestial trumpets will sound and everyone will know exactly who you are, with no ambiguity.  Besides, aren’t you afraid of the pain, even just a little bit.  Avoid the pain.

The fear was real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

The final temptation was an invitation to despair.  Jesus was tempted to see his opposition as overwhelming and to “throw in the towel”.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, think of the power you’re up against.  Don’t you have any doubts about your chances of success?  Why not hedge your bets?  Why not change sides?  Go with the strength.  If you can’t beat’em, join’em.

The doubts were real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

Throughout his temptations, Jesus resisted being “tied down”.

And, in our own day, just as we think we’ve finally “tied Jesus down”, there he is again:
  • in surprising places,
  • in the midst of surprising company,
  • sometimes in our midst,
  • sometimes far ahead of us,
popping up like Candid Camera ... “just where we least expect him”.

During this season of Lent, I invite you, as part of our Lenten pilgrimage, to resist that very understandable temptation to “tie Jesus down”.  Instead, may we seek to follow the untied Jesus in whatever new and startling directions he may lead us.

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!”

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