Join the Adventure
Luke 4:1–30; 5:1–11
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has
anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
2 Timothy 2:1–9
Never to be given a chance to succeed – that’s a tragedy. But in some ways it’s even worse to have your chance and not be ready for it. That’s why in almost every story of a great hero, there is an ordeal or a test that must be passed before the hero’s adventure can begin.
That was the case with Jesus. Before he could begin his public adventure, Jesus felt the Holy Spirit leading him away from the crowds, away from the cities and away from the fertile Jordan Valley, out into the solitude of the harsh, dry, barren Judean desert.
By saying Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, Luke’s Gospel is inviting us to remember Moses who, before becoming the liberator of the Hebrew slaves, spent forty years in the wilderness, where he eventually encountered God in the burning bush. Luke’s Gospel is also inviting us to remember the story of the newly liberated Hebrew slaves who, after leaving Egypt, were tested for forty years in the wilderness before they were prepared to enter the promised land. Once again the Gospel writers present Jesus as mirroring the experience of his ancestral people.
Luke describes Jesus’ testing in the vivid language of an encounter with the devil. Some take this language literally. Others see the devil as a literary figure who developed over time among ancient storytellers to personify all that is dark, evil and violent in human nature and human culture.
‘Turn these stones into bread,’ the devil says in his first temptation. In other words, Who needs the character formation and self-control that come from spiritual disciplines like fasting? That’s a long, hard process. You can have it all, right now – public influence and private self-indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire! In the second temptation, Jesus is offered the chance to get on the fast track to power by acknowledging that self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme: ‘You can rule over all the kingdoms of the world – if you’ll simply worship me!’ In the third temptation, the devil tells him, ‘Prove yourself as God’s beloved child by throwing yourself off the temple!’ This seemingly suicidal move, with angelic intervention at the last moment before impact, would provide just the kind of public-relations spectacle that showmen love. But Jesus is not a showman, and he isn’t interested in shortcuts. Besides, he doesn’t need to prove he is God’s beloved child. He knows that already.
So he will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance. And so Jesus sets the course for the great work before him – not driven by a human lust for pleasure, power or prestige, but empowered by the Spirit. And of course, if we want to join Jesus in his great work, we must face our own inner demons and discover the same Spirit-empowerment.
He soon comes to his home town, Nazareth. Like any good Jewish man, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.
By quoting these words, Jesus stirs the hopes of his people – hopes for the time Isaiah and other prophets had urged the people to wait for, pray for and prepare for. Then he sits – a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers this amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
If he had said, ‘One day this Scripture will be fulfilled,’ everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon. If he had said, ‘This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways, not yet in others,’ that would also have been interesting and acceptable. But either commentary would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearers’ lives. For Jesus to say the promised time was here already, fulfilled, today . . . that was astonishing. That required deep rethinking and radical adjustment.
The same is true for us today.
Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. In an interview on the BBC or Al Jazeera he says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous pay rises to all their lowest-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swings and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “one day” or “tomorrow”. The time is today!’ Imagine how the talking heads would spin!
The Nazareth crowd is impressed that their home-town boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from the Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.
Clearly, the good news proclaimed by the home-town prophet is for them as well as us, for all humankind and not just for our kind. Somehow, that seems disloyal to the Nazarenes. That seems like a betrayal of their unique and hard-won identity. In just a few minutes, the crowd quickly flips from proud to concerned to disturbed to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they push Jesus out of the door and over to the edge of a cliff. They’re ready to execute this heretical traitor.
Again, imagine if a pope, a patriarch or a famous TV preacher today were to declare that God is just as devoted to Muslims, Hindus and atheists as to Christians. They might not be thrown off a cliff, but one can easily imagine tense brows and grave voices advocating for them to be thrown out of office or taken off the air!
No wonder Jesus needed that time of preparation in the wilderness. He needed to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare to follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.
Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition. Soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers. As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous programme of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would then be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One did not say ‘yes’ to discipleship lightly.
The word Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus off a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contrast to the word Christian, which occurs only three times. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.
To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to hear that challenging good news of today, and to receive that thrilling invitation to follow him . . . and to take the first intrepid step on the road as a disciple.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity, or a time when you missed an opportunity because you were unprepared.
3. How do you respond to the idea that you can be captivated by the expectations of your loyal fans and intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics? Which is a greater danger for you?
4. For children: What’s something you can’t do right now that you hope you will be able to do one day? What will you have to learn in order to do that thing?
5. Activate: This week, write the word disciple in prominent places to remind yourself of Jesus’ invitation to you.
6. Meditate: In silence, imagine Jesus calling your name and saying two words: Follow me. Allow that invitation to stir a response in you at the deepest part of your being.