Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sharper Than a Two-Edged Sword

Occasionally, I hear people complain that Episcopalians don’t really know their bible as well as other Christians. Usually, when that happens, it’s Episcopalians who are talking to me. That might be true. I, for one, have a hard time citing chapter and verse. I’m getting better at it, but I still hesitate before telling someone where a specific quotation is in the bible. Sure, all of us—even Billy Graham—need to spend more time reading the bible and learning from it, but today’s gospel passage (Luke 4:1-13)—the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness—reminds me that there’s more to our faith than parroting back chapter and verse.

According to Luke, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led in to the wilderness for forty days. During that time he fasted—ate or drank nothing—and was tempted by the devil. And that’s the part of the story that is recorded for us—the tempting. To be honest, I’d rather hear about the long walks and the camping out and the stars, but I guess the tempting makes for a better story.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” the devil whispered to the hungry Jesus. It wasn’t a bad strategy. Surely, Jesus was starving. Maybe the delusional hunger itself is what brought the devil into the situation. And Jesus was the Son of God. He had just been anointed by the Holy Spirit in his baptism, and, although Luke doesn’t make it clear, we presume that the voice from heaven confirming Jesus as God’s beloved son was heard by others. So what’s the danger here? Well, Jesus knew better. His ministry wouldn’t be about seizing center stage. Quoting scripture, Jesus replies to the tempter, “One does not live by bread alone.”

The scene repeats itself—this time with authority and power as the temptation. After showing Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world, the devil offers to hand them over to Jesus if he will simply fall down and worship him. This seems like an easier temptation to brush aside. Power and authority may be attractive, but at what cost? Worshiping the devil? Surely not! Jesus replies with another quotation of scripture, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Finally, things get really interesting. It’s the third temptation that shows the devil at his most clever. After taking him to the pinnacle of the temple, the devil asks Jesus to thrown himself down, but then he does something remarkable. The devil, having learned from the first two instances that Jesus appeals to scripture for the strength needed to resist temptation, quotes scripture: “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.” Wonderful!

The devil is right. He cites Psalm 91:10-12. He knows his bible. He knows that in the sacred scriptures of God’s people it is written that God’s angels will bear up God’s servant so that he is not injured. Of course, the Psalmist didn’t have this particular moment in mind, but it still applies. It’s written right there in the Hebrew bible. Green light, Jesus. Go ahead and jump. But Jesus, turning to another passage of scripture, replies to the devil, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And, finally, the devil left him…until an opportune time.

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword,” the author of Hebrews writes (4:12). Two-edged indeed. One must be careful that scripture, when wielded as a weapon, doesn’t bounce back and cut the one holding it. How do we use the bible? How do we approach the bible? Almost everyone can find a passage or two to support his cause—Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, Hawks, Doves, Pro-This, Pro-That. When two bible-quoting sides of a social debate are screaming passages of scripture at each other, which one is right? Exactly.

How do we hold the bible? How do its words shape us? Are we using it as a weapon to support our cause? In other words, are we approaching the bible as if we already know what it says? Or do we let the words of scripture wash over us, day by day, year by year, until we are worn down, shaped into the smooth stone God has called us to be? The greatest temptation of all is to be right. And, when we have the bible on our side, how could we ever be wrong? But, if we approach life from that perspective—assuming that we could never be wrong—we’re already wrong from the start. We’re no different from the devil. The question, therefore, isn’t how well we know the bible. It’s how fully scripture has shaped us.

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