March 20, 2016

If

In our gospel reading from the first Sunday of Lent—five weeks ago—Jesus faced three temptations from the devil. They all contained the word “if”. Paraphrasing a little, the temptations went like this:

·         One: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

·         Two: “If you . . . will worship me,” all the glory and all the authority of all the kingdoms in the world will be yours.

·         And three: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” for surely the angels will catch you.

Three temptations. All beginning with “if.”

In today’s gospel, on the last Sunday of Lent, that “if” is back again. Jesus faces three temptations that are really more like taunts as Jesus hangs on the cross. Again, paraphrasing a little, the three taunts go like this:

·         One: Some elders scoff and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

·         Two: Some soldiers mock him and say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

·         And three: A thief, executed alongside Jesus, says, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself . . . and us too!” (The “if” here is more implied—As if to say, “If you were really the Messiah, you’d bust yourself off of this cross.”)

I imagine these phrases ringing in Jesus’s ears, echoing in Jesus’s head from the days of temptation immediately after his baptism, to the last day of his life:

·         If you are the Son of God

·         If you are the Messiah, God’s chosen one

·         If you are the King of the Jews

That “if” could have been a constant irritant, an insistent nagging voice throughout the life of Jesus. At times, that “if” could have filled Jesus with doubts about who he was, and about the God he trusted with his life. On the lips of others, that “if” wasn’t just a trigger for doubt in Jesus, but a dare to prove himself:

·         To prove that he was the Son of God by miraculously turning stone to bread and throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple for angels to catch him.

·         To prove that he was the Messiah by winning the approval of his religious leaders.

·         To prove that he was the King of the Jews by overthrowing the Roman Empire . . . or at least going down with some fight.

That sneering “if”, spoken or unspoken, was a persistent dare for Jesus to prove who he was and what his God could do.

But in the last moments of his life, when the temptation may have been strongest, the resolve of Jesus was greatest. Instead of proving who he was to himself, to his followers, or to his enemies, he chose to express his trust in God, saying “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Instead of calling on angels to intercept him, he simply fell headlong into God’s embrace.

*  *  *

If we forget about the “if” that targets Jesus throughout Luke’s gospel, we might miss something about what unfolds next. That “if” tempted Jesus to prove his identity as God’s beloved and chosen one, sent to proclaim the kingdom of God. That “if” tempted Jesus to prove how worthy and powerful was the God he trusted and adored. But every time Jesus faced an “if”—“If you are the Son of God,” “If you are the Messiah,” “If you are the King of the Jews”—he declined to prove himself to anyone. In today’s gospel, Jesus responds to this “if” not with shows of decisive proof, but with demonstrations of ultimate trust.

It can be very tempting for us to read Jesus’s resurrection on Easter morning as proof of Jesus’s identity and of God’s power. But would the Jesus who so persistently declined to prove himself, suddenly decide to put on the show people always demanded of him?

The resurrection of Jesus, and the power of Jesus to save, might not be offered to people as proofs. Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus and his power to save aren’t proofs of his identity, but demonstrations of what can happen if we put our trust in God and fall completely for God’s kingdom. If day by day, to the end of our lives, we can say, “into your hands I commend my spirit.” If we trust God’s love so much and so deeply that we don’t need to prove anything to anyone. If we trust God that completely . . . then . . . what? We’ll find out, soon enough.

Amen.